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Perpetuating Inequality in the Workplace

02/12/2014 12:05 pm 12:05:43 | Updated Apr 14, 2014

The job market has been tough for most people, and even more so for African-Americans, who have consistently had higher unemployment rates than their counterparts. The cause is a combination of a strained economy and systemic differences among certain populations. Nancy DiTomaso, a professor at Rutgers Business School, wrote a book last year on inequality in the workplace. Her work examines how people get jobs and found that for many, jobs came through networking, something that is highly encouraged in today's labor market. However, her analysis shows that networking in and of itself is skewed.

DiTomaso wrote in a New York Times op-ed that it's not discrimination that's responsible for the high numbers of unemployed African-Americans but favoritism.

Such favoritism has a strong racial component...Through such seemingly innocuous networking, white Americans tend to help other whites, because social resources are concentrated among whites. If African-Americans are not part of the same networks, they will have a harder time finding decent jobs.

In a separate interview, DiTomoso explained:

When I raised this issue about whites helping other whites, and working primarily through networks, there was a failure to recognize and understand in this context the extent to which whites are much better positioned than blacks for providing any kind of favors, advantages or opportunities.

The combination of like-helping-like and the systemic advantage that one group has over another advances the inequality we see. She wrote:

Because we still live largely segregated lives, such networking fosters categorical inequality: Whites help other whites, especially when unemployment is high. Although people from every background may try to help their own, whites are more likely to hold the sorts of jobs that are protected from market competition, that pay a living wage and that have the potential to teach skills and allow for job training and advancement. So, just as opportunities are unequally distributed, they are also unequally redistributed.

However, DiTomaso did note that the situation as a whole has many moving parts. "It's not something that stays steady-state," she said in a phone interview. "Even though whites as a racial group have disproportionately benefitted from the inequality that exists, it's not like all whites are in good jobs." In those cases, segregation, not only across racial lines but along other factors, such as socioeconomic levels, also plays a role.

Segregation is not something we've overcome. Michael Cassidy, a blogger at The Century Foundation, a progressive think thank, notes in an article the stark differences that exist in schools, neighborhoods and employment along racial lines. In all cases, African-Americans have gotten the short end of the stick. And that doesn't include incarceration rates, which are six times as high for African-American men than for whites, as Cassidy notes.

Census numbers show a similar trend. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, only 18.7 percent of African-Americans had a Bachelor's degree or higher in 2012, compared to 32.2 percent of the total population. Annual median income for African-American households was almost $20,000 less than the annual median income for the rest of the nation. The poverty rate in 2012 for African-Americans was 27.2 percent, compared to 15 percent for the nation. There were two categories that were relatively comparable: Very similar percentages of African-Americans, and the total population, had health insurance coverage in 2012 (81 percent and 84.6 percent, respectively) and a high school diploma or higher (83.2 percent and 86.4 percent, respectively).

The issue at hand with employment is not explicit racism and discrimination, but the evolution of our systems in such a way that inequality perpetuates itself subversively. "Favoritism and discrimination are not just different sides of the same coin, because discrimination is illegal, but favoritism is not," DiTomaso noted in an email. That acceptable behavior covertly perpetuates the inequalities that we are witnessing. DiTomaso further elaborated in an interview, saying, "Because the focus has been on discrimination, we do reproduce the inequality that already exists, because we're not paying attention to the other side -- the advantages, the privileges and the inside edge -- that some people get."

Cassidy agrees, noting in his article, "Such is the state of racism in the United States. Implicit, institutional, invidious. Its socioeconomic dimension makes it more dangerous; its self-perpetuating cycles make it more permanent."

Cassidy believes that segregation is the cause for continued inequality. "Once you have a lot of concentrated advantages or disadvantages, it feeds off of itself," he said in a phone interview. He noted that segregation can often correspond to poverty levels and said, "We live in an Internet age right now, but the fact of the matter is that geography is really important." He added that factors such as where someone grows up and who they know because of where they grow up can either be advantageous or disadvantageous.

DiTomaso and Cassidy both believe that solutions to inequality lie on a macro policy level. DiTomaso additionally believes that solutions can also work at an individual and organizational level. In tackling favoritism, she notes that many companies have employee referral programs for hiring new talent. Those programs inherently put their current employees' networks at an advantage and continue the cycle of favoritism that perpetuates inequality. Her recommendation is for companies to take a look at their hiring policies and hold themselves accountable for not only eliminating discrimination, but also not perpetuating inequality through favoritism.

Cassidy suggests creating public policy that will break up patterns of segregation. He noted that the high impact solutions for inequality are long-term in nature, and our political system isn't designed for long-term action. "Government is really bad at doing things that have short-term costs and long-term benefits," he said, "because people want to be elected tomorrow." The political costs of enacting such policies almost always outweigh the long-term benefit. However, Cassidy is optimistic that despite a wrangled Washington, we are capable of big change. He notes the Federal Reserve as an example, and suggests that perhaps separate advisory boards or task forces that handle specific issues, such as childhood education, may be a way around the political fallout. Just as the Fed operates independently and has the freedom to make long-term decisions that may not be politically favorable, creating independent boards that can make similarly long-term focused decisions for other issues we're struggling with would take politics out of the calculation.

In the meantime, politics is still very much a part of the equation. New York's newest mayor, Bill DeBlasio, focused squarely on inequality in his State of the City address earlier this week. President Obama's State of the Union last month also highlighted income inequality with a vow to take action. How that action will come about remains to be seen.