Networking tied to high black jobless rate

Published Dec. 15, 2012

WASHINGTON — In the quarter-century that Armentha Cruise has run her Silver Spring, Md., staffing firm, the nation has made strides toward racial equality. Voters have twice elected a black president, African-Americans shine among Hollywood's brightest stars, and the number of blacks who graduate from college has tripled.

But this stubborn fact remains: The African-American jobless rate is about twice that of whites, a disparity that has barely budged since the government began tracking the data in 1972. In last week's jobs report, the black unemployment rate was 13.2 percent, while the white rate stood at 6.8 percent.

Discrimination has long been seen as the primary reason for this disparity, which is evident among workers from engineers to laborers. But fresh research has led scholars to conclude that African-Americans also suffer in the labor market from having weaker social networks than other groups.

Having friends and relatives who can introduce you to bosses or tell you about ripe opportunities has proved to be one of the most critical factors in getting work. Such connections can also help people hold on to their jobs, researchers say.

"It is surprising to many people how important job networks are to finding work," said Deirdre Royster, a New York University sociologist. "The information they provide help people make a good first impression, get through screening and get hired."

Cruise, who is black, said that in her early years in business she struggled to place her mostly minority clientele. Part of the problem, she suspected, was that whites were more often in a position to hire and "tend to hire people who look like them."

"African-Americans are constantly fighting to overcome a perception of being less-than," she said. "You have the president of the United States, you have Oprah, you have all the people who have done phenomenal things. But they are seen as the exception."

In her research, Royster followed the experiences of a group of similarly situated black and white men, all graduates of the same vocational school and who sought jobs in the same areas. She screened the men for things that might normally affect their employability: values, work ethic and performance. It turned out that the white men did much better at getting jobs, which she said grew in part from their access to a more robust network of contacts.

"It just happens to be the case that if you are a white guy you are more likely to know people who have access to a certain set of jobs," she said. "It has to do with becoming part of a network of reciprocity."

Recent research also shows that immigrants have active networks that help new arrivals navigate the country, and trading information about jobs is an important part of that.

That is one reason that Hispanics — more than a third of whom are foreign-born — have lower jobless rates than African-Americans despite, on average, having fewer educational credentials.

"Immigrants have to use their networks for a larger variety of activities than other people," Royster said.

Researchers are quick to add that bias — both conscious and unconscious — continues to be the most significant obstacle confronting black job-seekers.

Although the disparity is long-standing, many Americans do not view it as a problem. Polls have found that the vast majority of whites think blacks have equal opportunity in the job market. Similarly, huge majorities of whites say in surveys that they do not make negative assumptions when they encounter someone of another race.

Meanwhile, analysts note, efforts aimed at fostering equality are waning. "There are really few public-policy resources to address the problem head-on," said Algernon Austin, a researcher at the Economic Policy Institute. "Support for affirmative action has gone from tepid to very weak."