Economic snapshot | Inequality and Poverty

Racial discrimination continues to play a part in hiring decisions

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Snapshot for September 17, 2003

by EPI Research Director Lee Price

A new study on the effects of race on hiring decisions has relevance for current policy debates. Just this past summer, the Supreme Court found that race could be taken into account in the admissions process for higher education, but only within strict limits. Next month, California voters will decide whether to ban almost all collection of data on race. Contrary to the contention of those seeking to end racial consideration in public policy, this new study indicates that racial discrimination is alive and well.

Devah Pager, a sociologist at Northwestern University, studied employers’ treatment of job applicants in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, by dividing job applicants into four groups. White applicants and black applicants were further grouped into those who presented themselves as having a prior criminal conviction and those who did not present themselves as having a criminal record. (None of the applicants actually had a criminal record of any sort). Except for the differences in race and in criminal record, applicants were given comparable resumes, sent to the same set of employers, and trained to behave similarly in the application process.

The study focused on the likelihood that an applicant would be called back for a job interview. Not surprisingly, whites without a criminal record were most likely to be invited back (34%) and blacks with a criminal record were the least likely (5%). Perhaps most striking, the study found that only 14% of blacks without a criminal record were called back for an interview—less than the 17% of whites that did have a criminal record.

Percentage of black and white applicants called back for job interviews

Some might object that, because this study was done in just one city, it cannot represent the nation as a whole. There is no reason to believe, however, that employers in Milwaukee are more likely to discriminate than employers in the rest of the country.

Proponents of ending affirmative action and data collection on race argue that we are fast approaching a time when race is no longer a factor in decision making and public policy should become colorblind. This study shows that employers do, in fact, consider race when hiring. It remains premature for public policy to stop taking race into account.

Source: Pager, Devah. 2002. “The mark of a criminal record.” Department of Sociology, University of Wisconsin, Madison.

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