Updated November 17, 2020:

Racial Inequality in the Workplace

Racial inequality in the workplace is more than inequity in decisions. Workplace inequality is a barrier that discriminates and confines an employee based on their age, class, gender, race, religious orientation, or sexual identity. Prejudice or institutional racism, discrimination is at its essence the delimitation of economic freedom. Professional rights are rarely discussed, yet the proverbial “glass ceiling” has been at the center of the civil rights agenda since the 1970s. Who gets promoted, and who gets left behind is the fundamental question; site of political contention, and legal right.

If we seek a vehicle to defunct the status quo, points of leverage are critical to challenging customary inequities in promotional opportunity. If leverage is a debenture in financial theory, the selective discernment of the “owe” or more precisely who is “owed” a promotion is key. Who makes the decision(s) about who is owed professionally is a substantial issue, and not one entirely ignored in civil rights and labor rights ethics debates. If we assume that white men are at the top, making decisions about who is owed a promotion, we acknowledge that this is a historical effect, and one situated in what Karl Marx coined, the “means of production” (i.e., investment).   

Minorities in the workplace are the focus of the U.S. Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) policy and oversight; providing EEO guidelines to workplace best practices toward the protection of civil rights. The culmination of more than a century of contribution by workers vested in equal opportunity in the workplace, the legislative rules enacted to protect the rights of workers, specifically target the issue of equal treatment for minorities, in the interest of upholding the constitutional right to equality as citizens. A counter argument to this legal perspective is that ownership or employee-ownership (i.e., shareholder) entitles one to equity; the foundation of common law, the Social Contract (i.e., property ownership).

Racial inequality in the workplace, then, is tied to what can effectively be called “perceptions” of property entitlement, not at all founded in financial investment, as worker contribution is generally appropriated as a benefit of the employer, a share, a retirement fund, a life insurance policy. Are positions of power an effect of race matters, or are race matters the result of property matters sourced in apportioned entitlements? A tautological inquiry at best, discrimination is part of the very fiber of U.S. workplace culture. Here we see the double-bind of ethnic association and the economic outcomes of preferential treatment. Notions of leverage “they owe,” a seemingly infallible mechanism for maintaining the status quo.  

If discrimination looks fair in practice on the surface, it is because certain employees are considered “owed” at hire, while others are taken on as a favor. For white men, the dynamic may be both. Favoritism obviates this point. How people are recruited and hired for jobs is a tale that is being unfurled now. Changes in workplace hiring practices have been altered with LinkedIn and other social media channels. Networking has taken on a whole new form, yet favoritism is still the name of the game, as the new “winners” body forth as the same champions of yore. 

Witness hiring bonuses attributed to workers in male-dominated fields such as computing, engineering, and science. Attracting the “right” candidate may require sweetening the deal, some executives say, but the grounds to hire, indeed, remain the same. The team requires “yes men” it seems, and all others may not bother to apply. If African-American women continue to be unemployed in consistently higher numbers, have we entered an era of greater equality in hiring? Or is race the catalyst for nothing more than the same old thing? The combination of favoritism, and the systemic benefit that “leveraging” practices promote, means that one group continues to hold workplace dominion over the other. 

Add race to the discussion, and we find that the “first impression” attribution of social media is the basis for recruitment practice. We also find out that social media and digital recruitment platforms are data-driven. Who has control of the data is a legal question, that offers insight into millions of “received” yet not “reviewed” applicant files. Favoritism is a strong cultural element. Within such apparently harmless networking, white Americans tend to aid other whites, because “social resources” are concentrated among whites. If African-Americans are not part of similar networks, they will have a harder time finding decent jobs.

Living separated lives makes network nurturing virtually impossible, as the deep, cultural dissemination of ethnic affiliation permeates all social understanding. Categorical inequality is partly the result of “race” as a precept of culture. The difference stands as the reason for cultural distance. Whites help other whites, especially when unemployment is high. People from every background may try to help their own. Opportunities are unfairly distributed also unjustly redistributed.

Blacks are not fickle on this topic, suggests Pew Research Center, in a study, “On Views of Race and Equality,” with 43 percent it is unlikely that the nation will be able to make the necessary reforms required for all to achieve equitable rights. The study shows that the same opinion is held by only 11 percent of Caucasians and 17 percent of Hispanics, doubting that the changes required for blacks to achieve equal rights with whites will take place. Blacks and whites hold different viewpoints about the imposition of race that black people face in the U.S. Whites are reportedly more likely to identify prejudice rather than institutional racism as the larger issue of discrimination against African-Americans, with 70 percent citing prejudice versus 19 percent citing institutional racism.

Blacks are more evenly divided. 48 percent say prejudice is the more pervasive problem, with 40 percent indicating that discrimination in U.S. institutions and laws is more of an issue. Lower caliber schools and job opportunities are the major reasons cited by blacks. More generally, responses indicate that in the U.S. Black people have a more difficult time attaining success than whites, despite that racial discrimination in the workplace is illegal.

Though U.S. federal law provides for the prevention of racial discrimination in higher education institutions and in employment, it is difficult for those who experiencing racialized practices to do anything about it. Still, the dearth of EEOC cases filed as lawsuits against employers cited for discrimination reflects a growing consensus that litigation provides compensation where employment left off.

The propensity of litigation as an employment solution in the U.S. is exhibited in the results of an EEOC survey of more than 5,200 recently employed workers, where black job candidates were offered substantially less compensation in comparison to whites. U.S. employers are evidenced to reject applicants upfront if they appear to have names common to African-American people. Those with Caucasian-sounding names, however, are responded to at a ratio of 1 in 10 applications, while candidates with African-American sounding are contacted a ratio of 1 out of 15 resumes.

There is also a significant gap in the compensation of white men in comparison to all other workers of any minority demographic. No matter how many advances are made, the adage that the success of a person is not fundamentally tied to education or skill set, but “the color of their skin,” still applies today.

What is Glass Ceiling?

The theory of the "glass ceiling" coined first by the "Wall Street Journal" in 1986, refers to the hidden barrier that women (and others) experience as the reason they have been kept from positions of power. A study in the American Sociological Review discovered that approximately all racial and gender groups have similar chances of low-level promotion, while white men have a higher probability of high-level promotion than minorities.

What is In-Group Favoritism?

The American Sociological Review's analysis also discovered that people in positions of power are more likely to fill other power positions with subordinates of the same race and sex. White men occupy the majority of managerial positions in the U.S., and executive positions are inevitably more likely granted to white men as result. Networking is vital to climbing the professional ladder, and who makes the decision about who is “owed” power positions are those who are already invested as owners or employee-owners (i.e., shareholders). Minorities rely heavily on networking to gain higher-level positions, yet their chances of network favoritism are still lower than for white men who enjoy the full benefit of this customary practice.

What is Direct Discrimination?

Direct discrimination is based on categorical assumptions. Taste discrimination is one form of direct discrimination. Taste discrimination is racism based on group prejudices. Statistical discrimination by way of “system,” favors candidates of a specific background by creating a hiring or promotion process using group characteristics to evaluate individual characteristics.

What is Indirect Discrimination?

Indirect discrimination arises when the rules of the workplace seem fair and neutral but have an unequal effect on a group. Indirect discrimination occurs when networks offering priceless information and resources to excel in a career are geared toward one group by making the barrier for entry harder for a minority group to attain.

How Prevalent is Racial Discrimination?

Racial discrimination may account for more than 30 percent of the factors that contribute to black workers receiving lower wages than whites. Labor reporting by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BOJS) from 1979 to 2012 shows that median wages increased for white women by 31 percent, but only 20 percent for black women. The BOJS has also concluded that incarceration is far higher for black men per capita, with those born in 2001 having a 32 percent chance of arrest during their lifetime. In another poll of U.S. workers conducted in 2012, 51 percent of non-black respondents reported anti-black sentiments, up 3 percent from a 2008 survey.

Why Do We Need Racial Discrimination to End?

Most Americans say more changes are needed to achieve racial equality. If blacks and whites are in contention about the main factors holding black people back, different views are also shared about equality among blacks across demographic regions. When asked why black people in the U.S. may have a more difficult time attaining success than whites, 58 percent of Americans point to family instability is the reason that black people in the U.S. may have a more difficult attaining success than whites. Some cite lack of jobs is the reason that blacks in the U.S. may have a more difficult time attaining success than whites. Racial discrimination is common though the reason that blacks in the U.S. may have a more difficult attaining success than whites, while some think little motivation to work, or at work is the major factor.

Most Americans say prejudice, rather than institutional, racism is the greatest problem for blacks. When asked about discrimination in the U.S. today, the prejudice of individuals is mentioned as a greater problem. Blacks are purportedly more divided; yet indicate that the prejudice of individuals is far more prevalent than discrimination innate to institutions and laws. How blacks experience discrimination is shown here in statistical reporting, with results showing exceptional bias at the institutional level: 

  • 84 percent of African-Americans are treated less fairly by the police.
  • 75 percent say African-Americans are treated less fairly by the courts.
  • 66 percent say African-Americans are treated less fairly on loan or mortgage applications.
  • 64 percent say African-Americans are treated less fairly in the work environment.
  • 49 percent say African-Americans are treated less fairly in stores or restaurants.
  • 43 percent say African-Americans are treated less fairly when voting in elections.

What is Federal Anti-Discrimination Laws?

Federal legislation addressing racial discrimination in the workplace, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from denying hire an employee on basis of race. Title VII also makes firing or discipline of an employee on basis of race, illegal. Pay discrimination such as unequal compensation attributed to an employee on basis of race is unlawful.

Anti-discrimination laws also strictly prohibit employers from offering unequal benefits, promotion, or opportunity to one employee and not another on basis of race. Finally, employers may not classify or segregate applicants and employees by race. Employment agencies are also restricted from the mentioned race-based decisions. Similarly, labor unions and union representatives may not deny membership or terminate a contract with an individual on basis of race.

What is State Anti-Discrimination Laws?

States are obliged to adhere to Title VII. While not all states have incorporated the stipulations into state law, federal law preempts state law unless stated otherwise. While most states have legislation to prohibit workplace discrimination and other abuses such as retaliation, where not stated, those jurisdictions are bound by federal EEOC mandate. Some states like North Carolina are expressly “at-will” work states, giving employers exceptional freedoms where employment rights are concerned. Workers may still contact the EEOC or other agencies where the procedures of filing a claim of discrimination are established.

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