Racism and Networks: Missing Tens of Thousands of Able Workers of Color

The Ricci case we have discussed touches numerous employment discrimination issues, some of which Ginsburg brought up in her dissent. I have been reading research by Marc Bendick, Jr., and Mary Lou Egan on racial discrimination and inequality in advertising agencies, many part of large global firms. They found that African Americans make up just 5.3 percent of advertising managers and professionals, but the relevant Census Bureau and EEOC data suggest this percentage should be roughly 9-10 percent. Their study found black employees tended to be hired for segregated advertising positions—such as those dealing with customers of color–with less influence and pay than white employees with comparable credentials. Black college graduates with advertising positions were found to be paid about a fifth less on average than their comparable white colleagues.

Many employers, in the private and public sectors, complain they cannot find enough “qualified” employees of color. So, if they do happen to take any remedial action, they tend to emphasize educational strategies (scholarships for students, etc) to improve job situations of people of color. Yet, as Bendick and Egan point out, this is not the main reason for low percentages of black employees. The more important reason is the

persistent unwillingness by mainstream advertising agencies to hire, assign, advance, and retain already-available Black talent.

This unwillingness is rooted in a racist framing of black Americans as employees, and positive preferences for white employees like themselves. One lawyer described this employment arena as one where “favoritism rules and merit is cast aside.”

White networks run the country’s major historically white institutions, including most large companies. Job networks are part roysterof the structure of systemic racism. Deirdre Royster examined black and white students at a technical college and found that, even though they worked harder and did better in their training, black graduates had much more difficulty finding jobs than white students. White networks gave white students much better opportunities. Lack of access to important networks usually has a very negative impact. Compared to comparable white workers, black workers must spend much more time and effort looking for work over their careers. This, of course, makes it harder for them to compete with white workers who have otherwise comparable abilities. Such factors are not even considered in decisions like that involving New Haven–although the dissenting Ginsburg does just touch on the general idea.

Not just in the advertising industry, but in many other employment sectors the central problem is the highly discriminatory practice of white managers operating out of the traditional white racial frame and using predominantly white networks to hire and advance white managers and professionals like themselves.

In this process, as Bendick and Egan underscore in another paper, they typically

ignore the availability of tens of thousands of African Americans with educational and experience backgrounds comparable to whites routinely hired in their industry.

That’s right, tens of thousands. Consider that US reality for a minute. The presence of such very able workers pretty well blows lots of racialized arguments some whites make about not being able to find “qualified” employees of color right right out of the proverbial water. They just do not care to look for them. White power and privilege, again.


  1. Joe

    Good question. One thing they would need to do is to study/research just how networks actually operated in New Haven, or the area under consideration, to privilege whites. Once you had clear data on that, you could require the city to set up some parallel network/mentoring system for those who are not in the dominant white networks. And, of course, you can also recruit all the talented folks of color who never get into the white-controlled job networks to be hired, in the first place. (Consider too: Mediocre whites usually trump better-qualified folks of color, in most job markets. And the white racial frame lies openly on that point, about “qualified” whites and “unqualified” people of color. Indeed, Just notice the huge number of mediocre and poorly qualified whites (Like Bush) who run much of this country:)) How do they do that?

  2. Nquest

    Thanks for this excellent piece!
    I never ceases to amaze me how slanted/narrow discussions about race in the MSM always seem to be. And I always wonder why White folks insist on acting like Blacks/non-Whites are blind and have never been in the workplace seeing all of the nepotism, cronyism and mediocre Whites in all kinds of positions (usually resulting in the kind of huffing and puffing that ends in attitudes resigned to accept it all as the way things work).
    For a while, I thought it was a weird game of Make-Believe but after seeing/hearing Whites dismiss all kinds of White affirmative-action (i.e. from the kind Ira Katznelson talked about, to White women being the biggest beneficiaries of what’s always framed as “race-based” affirmative action), I’m convinced that a lot of White Americans consciously and knowingly adhere to a kind of racial partisanship that outright excuses and ignores White mediocre, White advantage/privilege via discrimination and other social/institutional realities that grant Whites preferences. Recently, this kind of conscious White blindness and ignorance (as in intentionally ignoring) was on display during a talk radio show when a White caller phone into Mark Thompson’s Sirius-Left, “Make It Plain” show. The White caller invoked the curious, though common, “self-esteem” meme claiming that affirmative action harms high-achieving Black/minority employees because their accomplishments are seen as suspect due to AA (i.e. AA supposedly means they did obtain their status via merit).
    The caller told a story about two African-Americans he worked with who became supervisors at his company and had done so by merit and were excellent organizers, etc. Even though that was the case, the caller talked about the way Whites at the company resented the two due to the company’s “strong” affirmative action program. The caller also said the African-American supervisors themselves resented the stigma AA supposedly cast on them.
    Funny how 350+ years of White First/White Over-Predominantly/White Only policies and customs via race slavery and racial apartheid/segregation have NEVER been said to cast a psychological shadow of undeserving shame and stigma on White beneficiaries. It was clear the caller NEVER said/thought anything like that either.
    That point was made clear when the caller finally got around to highlighting how bad AA was, in his opinion, because of one Black person who was hired/promoted who, while he was a “good guy”, just didn’t have the skills, etc. (that the other two African-Americans had). The natural, though often unasked question, followed: have you ever worked with someone White who was mediocre/unqualified? The caller readily stated he had but, somehow, there was something inherently wrong with AA while mediocre Whites in management/supervisory positions were unremarkable.
    Not for one second did the caller consider the hiring/promotion of mediocre Whites a political or social problem and he didn’t let that get in his way from trying to play manufacture a reason why Blacks/POC themselves should see affirmative action as bad. Everyone knows White bigotry and resentment are to be avoided with all costs and POC would be wise to be ever so mindful allowing White bigotry and resentment to dictate what they/we think about affirmative action, etc.

  3. Nquest

    On another note, Slate has an interesting 5-part write up on the Ricci case including this piece that talks about all the members in the White firefighters families (fathers, grandfathers, uncles, etc.) which in and of itself, IMO, gave White firefighters like Ricci an inside advantage — a kind of institutional knowledge/memory by way of family/friendship networks — that just so happen to reach back into the racist/discriminatory past.

  4. Bambi

    People of color are not simply “missing”, they are intentionally left out! Qualifications are not as important as skin color and connections in the job market. I have often been passed up for a position because “Bethany” was White and her father played golf with the man interviewing me. It didn’t matter that I had more education or experience. How is this news? This trend has become a social norm. And of course there are those who will argue that those Whites who receive jobs over Blacks are more qualified; therefore, they received the job “fair and square”. However, I still have to question how they became “more qualified”? Was it through inequalities in education? These trends are products of social laws constructed by the dominant ideology.

  5. siss

    Bambi: [“However, I still have to question how they became “more qualified”? Was it through inequalities in education?”] I think this is a probable reason. With the education gap widening it easy to see how this is a factor.

    It is frustrating regarding our current mentality – that it’s more about who you know, than what you know. Not only does this promote unqualified people but also discredits the hard work (through obtaining higher education, additional training and certifications, etc) that is bore by the workers who really are ambitious about their field.

  6. Bambi

    Siss- I completely agree with you. But I think that this truth affects much more than the worker who is truly qualified (no matter ethnicity). I believe that the fact that social connections rank higher than education has begun to affect the aspirations of children from lower socioeconomic statuses. For a child from a lower socioecon status, education and hard work (they are told) are often the key to success. So they are encouraged to do their best in school in hopes of upward social mobility. However, their reality completely smashes the myth that education opens doors. So what do these children have to hope for? Aspirations are traded in for more tangible dreams.

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