Not long ago, a small business owner wrote to explain that he will never hire an African American because he worries about a lawsuit if he fires one.
Another racist excuse is maintaining corporate culture. That black woman just would not fit in where one manager works, so he had to hire someone else. Then there is the hair; why do white people always talk about a black person’s hair?
In February, before the new coronavirus infected the economy, African American employment was reaching a new high. Not because hiring managers had lost their implicit biases, but because unemployment was so low, they had no choice but to hire black people.
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Last month, when white Americans went nuts over the better-than-expected employment numbers, they didn’t spot the damning evidence of prejudice in this country. While unemployment went down dramatically for white Americans, it continued to rise for blacks.
Every African American adult knows the routine: last hired, first fired.
Abreeta Bonner does her best to prepare students for this harsh reality as a career counselor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where she is also researching bias in hiring for her doctorate. The Houston native has discovered that African Americans, particularly women, suffer from bias the most.
Bonner’s research reveals that large employers in Texas offer female African American graduates of UTSA fewer and lower-level jobs than whites and Hispanics with the same qualifications and experience. Black women end up drastically underemployed compared to their peers.
“Sometimes they’re not even making 50 percent of the salary,” Bonner told me. “A lot of it has to do with the racial bias and implicit bias in a lot of hiring practices at a lot of the large employers that recruit our students.”
Her research shows the problem exists across all industries and affects all majors. In interviews, African American graduates share very similar stories about what happens to them when they as they meet hiring managers and more through the process.
“They’re being discriminated against because of how they style their hair, the types of clothing they wear,” Bonner said. “Employers are being very upfront about how they don’t fit the company’s culture due to their cultural or religious beliefs that they may have been able to decipher from their resume or something that they may have shared during the interview process.”
Much of this is illegal, of course, but enforcement of civil rights laws is spotty at best. Only the most blatant and documented cases ever result in punishment for a racist hiring manager. Bonner is shocked at how students of different ethnicities describe very different experiences while interviewing at the same company.
“I’ve been interviewing those who identify as black women and those who identify as white women, and it literally sounds like two different worlds,” Bonner said. Some employers explicitly tell the African American women they do not have the right look for a customer-facing role.
Many people are uncomfortable spending time with people who are not like themselves, but bias is bad for business, destructive to the economy and harmful for society. Raphael Bostic, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, explained in an essay last week the necessity of ending bigotry.
“This country has both a moral and economic imperative to end these unjust and destructive practices,” Bostic wrote. “All of us, especially our white allies, must learn the history of systemic racism and the ways it continues to manifest in our lives today. Furthermore, we all must reflect on what we can do to effect change at every turn.”
Countless studies show diversity makes businesses stronger. Diversity in upper management sparks more innovation, generates higher profits and tolerates less malfeasance. Diversity in customer-facing roles attracts more diverse consumers.
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After centuries of marginalization, the only way to minimize income inequality is to offer greater quality of opportunity. Hiring people from disadvantaged communities not only helps that person but gives them a chance to improve their community.
Broader distribution of wealth fuels a stronger economy and prevents crime and illness. Bigotry tears us apart, ending systemic racism unites us.
The next time you are making a hiring decision and cannot decide between two equal candidates, do yourself a favor and hire the person least like you. Hire the candidate who does not look like you, speak like you or have the same background, no matter your demographic.
Most business owners end up delighted to have someone with new ideas, attracting new customers, and generating more revenues. The big challenge is overcoming that little voice in your head that fears people who are different. That’s what perpetuates our biased system.
Tomlinson writes commentary about business, economics and policy.