Black men in orange jumpsuits playing chess.
Prison inmates play chess at a conservation fire camp in Yucaipa, California. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

A new study looks at how race, a criminal record, and an employer’s proximity to recent violent events affect a person’s job prospects—with surprising results.

Work: In the United States, it is all too commonly accepted that it is the deciding factor in whether you deserve such basic needs as decent health care or housing, quality food or old-age security. But work is harder to get for some than it is for others.

Specifically, if your name is Jermaine, Tremayne, Jamal, or Tyrone, you’ll have a much harder time than if your name is Alejandro, Julio, Eduardo, or Armando, or perhaps Brett, Alan, John, or Richard. At least in Oakland, California.

A new study in the American Journal of Sociology by Sanaz Mobasseri, an assistant professor of management and organizations at Boston University, looks at the likelihood of getting a callback from an employer if the name on a resume is commonly associated with a Latino, black, or white person, using “hypothetical but realistic” applicants. Mobasseri limited the study to men and tried to make the invented applicants seem as similar as possible. All resumes listed attendance at the largest high school in Oakland (one with a diverse population), and all showed comparable work experience. The jobs being applied for did not require specialized skills or a college degree. All were back-of-the house food-service jobs.

As per the study: Hispanic job applicants received a callback or job offer 39.1 percent of the time; white applicants received a callback or job offer 38.2 percent of the time; and black applicants were called back 18.2 percent of the time. Thus, positive response was basically equal for Hispanic and white applicants, but significantly lower for black applicants.

The situation worsened for black men if a violent incident had been recorded in the near vicinity in the days prior, an effect that lessened as more time passed since the incident.

For applicants of any race or ethnicity with a criminal record, the general call-back penalty was 11.9 percent. While the resumes did not explicitly state that the applicant had a criminal record, Mobasseri used indicators such as listing work experience in a prison. She also tried to find ways to indicate that the crime was not a violent one, usually through length of incarceration, as violent crimes tend to generate longer sentences.

However, if the employer was in a low-crime area that did not have an immediate history of a publicized violent incident, this was one area in which black men did not have the same disadvantage: The chart below shows that in this case, blacks with a criminal record appear more likely to be called by a potential employer than whites with a criminal record and blacks without a criminal record.

Callback Rates, by Race and Exposure to Violent Crime Events

(Sanaz Mobasseri © 2019 The University of Chicago)

Mobasseri notes that her sample size was not large, but still, she was surprised by the relatively positive response for black men with a criminal record, which she speculated might be a sympathy effect. “There’s something more nuanced about being black with a criminal record,” Mobasseri said. “I wouldn’t expect this pattern to hold for different kinds of jobs, for example, for front-of-the-house jobs, but it’s an important thing to think about for policy organizations working with the formerly incarcerated.”

Mobasseri said that her strongest evidence is the effect of a recent violent incident to decrease the likelihood of employer response to black male applicants.

But in times when violence is distant and responses are more likely to be intellectual rather than emotional or visceral, employers seem somewhat kindly disposed toward black job-seekers with a criminal record. It may be that the increase in reporting about the disproportionate prosecution and conviction rates for blacks compared to most others in society (and whites in particular) has been absorbed, and employers are more likely to consider that a black man with a record is a victim, rather than a perpetrator, in this country’s criminal-justice system.

Oakland is a particularly diverse city in which to perform such an experiment. Its population has changed over the past 50 years, most dramatically in the period between 1970 and 1980 and also in the years between 1990 and 2010. Between 1970 and 1980, the white population dropped significantly—from approximately 59 percent to 39 percent, and by 1980 it had been surpassed by the black population, according to the Bay Area Census. (However, the Hispanic population was not properly delineated until the 1980 U.S. Census, which likely affected the other counts). The Asian population was not more than 10 percent.

In the second period of great change, 1990–2010, the black population steadily declined from its high of nearly 50 percent to approximately 26 percent. Now, blacks, Hispanics, and whites are all about a quarter of the population, with the black population continuing to decline. The Asian population very slowly increased over 50 years to about 16 percent. The Native American population has remained very small, about 1 percent.

While whites are the most educated group, with a much higher percentage of both high-school diplomas and bachelor’s degrees, blacks and Native Americans in Oakland are more likely to have graduated from high school than Asians, but less likely to have graduated from college, according to the World Population Review. Latinos are less likely than all of these ethnicities to have graduated from either.

But Native Americans and then blacks have the highest poverty rates in Oakland. And both groups are more likely to be unemployed, with all of the commensurate disenfranchisement from a decent life. This study gives a clue as to why.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to reflect that all, rather than most of the resumes were sent to back-of-the-house jobs, and that parole officers were not listed as references on any of the resumes.

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