Public Release: 

Illegal job discrimination persists in the U.S. workplace as affirmative action weakens

American Sociological Association

WASHINGTON, DC--In recent years, political and legal debates have focused on whether reverse discrimination favoring African Americans is justified. What the debates neglect to address is the fact that employment discrimination against African Americans, though illegal, is "alive and well" in America, according to University of Illinois-Chicago researcher Cedric Herring, Ph.D.

Current patterns of discrimination in the workplace--as well as what can be done to amend such practices--are explored by Herring, a sociology professor, in the summer 2002 edition of Contexts magazine, the newest journal of the American Sociological Association (ASA). "Racial discrimination in employment is still widespread; it has just gone underground and become more sophisticated," says Herring, in his article, titled "Is Job Discrimination Dead?"

The Washington, DC, Fair Employment Practices Commission found blacks face discrimination in one out of every five job interviews. Today employers use different phases of the hiring process to discriminate against minorities (e.g., recruiting from primarily white schools instead of through job training programs) and offer higher status jobs and pay to white employees. Reports of job discrimination against African Americans are correlated with darker complexion, higher education, immigrant status, and young age.

Most sociologists point to prejudice and group conflict over scarce resources as key reasons for why job discrimination occurs. An alternative explanation is "structural discrimination." That is, seemingly race-neutral policies (e.g., seniority rules, company location decisions, and public transit and school funding) made by companies and governments, for example, result in denied access to employment opportunities. People making decisions regarding personnel issues themselves may not be racially prejudiced, yet by virtue of structural aspects of organizational rules, their decisions may have disproportionately negative effects on individual members of different races.

"The list of companies engaged in discrimination ..." writes Herring, "is long and includes many pillars of American industry, not just marginal or maverick firms. Yet ... many of us are still mystified and hard-pressed for explanations ... in part because discrimination has become so illegitimate that companies expend millions of dollars to conceal it." These companies, maintains Herring, manage to discriminate without using blatant racist practices characteristic of earlier days. Instead, he says, job discrimination "has become more elusive and less apparent." Some practices (e.g., job-training) have had an unanticipated negative impact on the earnings and employability of black inner-city residents, because some employers avoid recruiting from job training, welfare, and state employment service programs.

Discrimination exacts a financial cost in the form of lower salary, and it strongly hinders upward mobility of employees who are victims of discrimination. Recent multivariate research on U.S. Census Bureau data, controlling for education and other wage-related factors, shows that the white-black wage gap (i.e., "the cost of being black") has continued to be more than 10 percent, about the same as in the 1970s. In addition, the effect of discrimination over the life course suggests a cumulative impact on wages such that the earning gap between young blacks and whites becomes greater as this age cohort gets older. Market economy explanations about job discrimination do not adequately account for the prevalence of the phenomenon, says Herring.

"Policies designed to reduce discrimination should be strengthened and expanded rather than reduced or eliminated," says Herring. Herring suggests that in order to reduce the subtle yet endemic discrimination practices, there must be more concerted efforts by relevant parties. For example:

  • Fair employment and other relevant agencies must conduct more "social audits" of employers in various industries of varying sizes and locations in order to quantitatively assess discrimination. These audits entail using counterfeit "job seekers" of different races but equivalent credentials to apply for jobs.
  • Governments (local, state, and federal) must restrict governmental funding going to private firms that have records of repeated discrimination.
  • To "level the playing field" organizations must redouble affirmative action efforts in order to identify, recruit, promote, or retain qualified members of disadvantaged minority groups to overcome the results of past discrimination and to deter discriminatory practices in the present. Simply removing existing discrimination is not sufficient to change discrepancies that affect life opportunities.
  • White and black Americans must continue to speak out when episodes of discrimination occur, especially now that such practices are illegal and in spite of the fact that these practices have been driven "underground."


Further information on ASA's Contexts magazine, published by the University of California Press in Berkeley, can be found at

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