Racism By Any Other Name

Posted: Jan 18, 2003 12:00 AM
The Martin Luther King Day holiday weekend is a perfect time to reflect on the cruel reality of persistent racism and what we should—and should not—do to help resolve this profound problem. Racism is less overt these days, but no less real to its victims. But as evidenced by the University of Michigan’s race-conscious admissions, the same tired “solutions” keep getting dragged out—even though they do nothing other than exacerbate the problem. For those who actually needed a reminder that racism is alive and well, researchers at the University of Chicago and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology released a study this week highlighting the hurdles blacks still face in getting a job—or at least those with “black” names. The professors sent out 5,000 resumes to companies with classified ads listed in the Chicago Tribune and Boston Globe, and the only variable in the controlled experiment was the first names used. Relying on birth certificate records, researchers selected “black” first names such as Tamika, Ebony, Rasheed, and Tyrone, and “white” names such as Neil, Greg, Emily, and Jill. The results? It paid to have a “white” name. Resumes with “white” first names got one response for every ten sent out, whereas ones with “black” names received one reply for every fifteen handed in—meaning that “white” resumes were 50 percent more likely to elicit a response from a potential employer. But before anyone screams that this demonstrates the need for affirmative action, it is worth noting that so-called “equal opportunity employers” (code for those that give bonus points to minority applicants) had no better response rate to “black” resumes than did other companies. Which gets to the heart of the problem: affirmative action is no more than a feel-good tool that in fact does nothing to address the underlying bigotry at the root of race-related woes. Looking at the University of Michigan’s balkanized admissions scheme, it is easy to see why programs of its ilk do little to advance us toward a color-blind society. Applicants got more points toward acceptance for having the right skin complexion than for getting perfect SATs. Unless one happened to be of Arab or Asian descent, of course—those would-be U of M students got no credit for their melanin content. One thing is for sure: U of M’s system, and other similar programs, have contributed to an ugly—and patently false—perception: that people of certain skin colors or backgrounds are objects in need of special favors. Black intellectuals such as Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell have discussed the stigma effect for members of a group treated as inferior by the government and other institutions. For the disbelieving, consider an example. Why do advertisers pay a premium to reach the same number of people who happen to be watching “cool” shows or sports broadcasts? Because they want to be affiliated with the particular brand or image. Wheaties, for instance, chooses the Olympics—and people instinctively associate the wheat cereal with “champions.” Now think about racial preferences. People with certain skin colors are members of groups constantly singled out for special help—not a particularly helpful association. Some scoff at the analogy between marketing and perceptions of blacks by potential employers, but what is marketing other than perception? Doubling as racial bean counters at many places, human resource managers are enticed to think in racial terms when evaluating applicants. And possibly because of the subconscious associations triggered by racial preferences, those doing the hiring might not be thinking of “black” applicants to fill positions where the “best” people are needed. That said, racism is still not a complete bar to success—how else to explain the fact that blacks from Africa and from many Caribbean Islands fare better in the workplace than American-born blacks? As President Bush noted this week, the goal of diversity can be achieved college campuses without explicit race-consciousness. And the upside is that expanded recruitment and outreach efforts don’t create the same racial residue as affirmative action. Besides, it wouldn’t hurt if the University of Michigan and employers everywhere decide to not judge people by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.