Racial bias 'widespread' in study of job applicants

May 15, 1991|By Arch Parsons | Arch Parsons,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Despite federal laws outlawing racial discrimination and promoting equal opportunity in employment, "the unequal treatment of black job seekers is entrenched and widespread," a nationally recognized urban research organization concluded in a study released yesterday.

The Washington-based Urban Institute, analyzing the experiences of 476 two-man, black-and-white teams specially trained to seek employment in Washington and Chicago last summer, found that in one of every five times blacks applied for entry-level positions -- 20 percent of their applications -- they were denied treatment equal to whites.

The researchers examined whether the applicants were offered an application, were granted an interview or received a job offer.

Whites received "unfavorable treatment" -- so-called "reverse discrimination" -- in 7 percent of their job searches, the study found.

"The research contradicts claims that hiring practices today either favor blacks systematically or are effectively colorblind," the institute report said.

At the same time, the institute reported that Hispanics "appear even more likely than blacks to be denied fair treatment in the hiring process."

That conclusion was based upon a similar Urban Institute study of the treatment of Hispanic and white job applicants, conducted earlier last year in Chicago and San Diego, Calif. In that study, published last year, Hispanics were denied treatment equal to whites 31 percent of the time -- almost one in every three times they applied for a job -- considerably worse than blacks' experience in the Chicago-Washington survey.

The "hiring audit" teams for both studies consisted of male college students carefully chosen to be matched pairs for job application in everything but color, in the black-white study, and ethnic appearance, in the Hispanic-white study.

Pairs were not only matched in age, size, education and experience, but in such characteristics as build (both tall, both bearded, or "broad-shouldered, like wrestlers," for example) and speaking patterns (both "hesitant," for example).

Members of each pair were sent to apply -- independently, of course -- for the same job, which had been selected at random from newspaper classified ads. All jobs were entry-level positions.

The incidence of unfavorable treatment of black job applicants was "substantially higher" in Washington than it was in Chicago, the institute researchers said. Whites advanced farther than blacks in the Washington job-seeking process 23 percent of the time, they said, while in Chicago whites were ahead 17 percent of the time.

The difference in the two cities between the treatment of blacks and whites was "especially distinct," the study found, during one part of the application process: the interview.

Black applicants for private-sector jobs -- federal government employment was not included -- were treated less favorably than white applicants 60 percent of the time in interviews in Washington, the study found, while there was "no discernible difference" between the interviews of whites and blacks in Chicago. The study did not suggest why there was a difference in treatment of blacks between the two cities.

The researchers, concluding that the "experimental phase" in the development of the hiring-audit method of surveying "can now be considered complete," proposed that the "next logical step" should be a "nationwide employment audit" for both blacks and Hispanics that would provide "statistically reliable estimates of the incidence of [job] discrimination for the nation as a whole."

The Urban Institute is a private, non-profit research organization. The pilot studies were financed by a Rockefeller Foundation grant.

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