P O S T E D B Y A L B E R T
We’ve had seven generations pass since the Emancipation Proclamation, but only two since the end of Jim Crow and one since the last protest over the court-mandated desegregation of Boston’s public schools. It’s been a little more than a year since the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York published its report on the discrimination and occupational segregation that pervade the industry. Given the importance of the restaurant industry to so many of our local economies, the study’s findings should give us pause.
Researchers sent equally-credentialed pairs of testers—one member of each pair white, the other a person of color—to apply for server positions in 138 fine-dining Manhattan restaurants. The study showed that:
Testers of color were only 54.5% as likely as white testers to get a job offer, and were less likely than white testers to receive a job interview in the first place. …
The work experience of white testers was twice as likely to be accepted without probing.
White testers with slight European accents were 23.1% more likely to be hired than white testers with no accent. However, testers of color with accents were treated no differently than testers of color without accents.
Researchers also used 2000 US Census data to compare the earnings of white workers and workers of color employed in front-of-the-house positions. Even after controlling for job experience, education, and command of English, the study found that workers of color “pay a ‘race tax’ in the form of 11.6 % lower earnings than they would have if they had the same qualifications but were white.”
And this is not an isolated result. Decades of matched pair and other studies have provided evidence of racial bias in the workplace and other domains.*
The Opportunity Agenda recently released a publication titled Ten Lessons for Talking About Racial Equity in the Age of Obama. In it the author writes:
Experience from around the country shows that discussing racial inequity and promoting racial justice are particularly challenging today. Some Americans have long been skeptical about the continued existence of racial discrimination and unequal opportunity. But with the historic election of an African American president, that skepticism is more widespread and more vocal than ever.
Ironically, at a time when many expected the national conversation to shift, race has become the issue that dare not speak its name. I’ve noticed the change: a palpable reluctance of late to engage the topic in polite company, as if ignoring the elephant in the dining room will keep him from upsetting the table we’ve laid for ourselves and for our visions of a “post-racial” America; as if talking ever did that much anyway. In my adopted city of New Orleans, brilliant young leaders of color are engaging the issue in new ways, more by doing than by talking. We have a new mayor who understands how race has affected and continues to affect our region. New generations are being born who are playing together, gaming together, singing the latest Hip Hop anthem together.
Is this the way out? For one generation after another to rise up until it’s completely unremarkable that a black man should be president of the United States? Will these demographic shifts translate finally into equitable outcomes, or will we need to press the issue until the sun goes cold?
Part of our reluctance might come from exhaustion, from decades of living with the effects of segregation and racial antipathy. We feel powerless to eliminate a disease that has so far resisted cure. Overt racism, implicit racial bias, white privilege, structural racism: the pathogen long ago developed new strains and underwent a kind of social metastasis. We can change unfair policies, for example, but how do we shift attitudes and habits of mind? The problem with the stuff inside our heads, of course, is that its ill effects don’t stay confined to that space. The problem more generally is that both misery and good fortune are selective about whom they visit and in what neighborhoods they choose to reside.
I remember when my partner and I visited Manhattan shortly after the 9-11 attacks. Late at night, en route to Ground Zero, we stopped to spend a quiet hour in a Midtown coffee shop. I was surprised at how readily we opened our hearts to one another and to others we met. We were buoyed at the time by an oceanic feeling of oneness with our neighbors. Religion, race, age, gender—these seemed to melt away in the face of an overwhelming tragedy. Outside the coffee shop and still a long way from Ground Zero, there was a smell in the air of something burning. We turned south and soon saw the devastated buildings that lined the site of the Twin Towers. A strange light surrounded the crews who worked in the pits. We saw the bobbing of cranes. From a distance, there was something very human about their movements, stooped as they were, feeling for life in the ground.
The saber rattling began several weeks after that. Our divisions reasserted themselves and deepened. It was then we realized we were in danger of losing something important: the conviction that men and women of good will needed to reach across their differences to find one another in the rubble.
* See, for example, J. Bussey and J. Trasvina, “Racial Preferences: The Treatment of White and African American Job Applicants by Temporary Employment Agencies in California” (Berkeley, Calif.: Discrimination Research Center, December 2003); D. Pager, “The Mark of a Criminal Record,” American Journal of Sociology, 108, No. 5 (2003), 937-75.