Op-Ed: How Favoritism Is Driving Minority Unemployment

May 6, 2013
Originally published on May 6, 2013 3:01 pm
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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

And now the Opinion Page. If you've been searching for a job, you probably reached out to everyone you know; neighbors, friends, family members. Everyone tells you to network. In a piece for The New York Time's Great Divide series, Nancy DiTomaso argues that the success of that strategy explains high black unemployment. Through such seemingly innocuous networking, she writes, white Americans tend to help other whites. So how did you find out about the job you have now? Was it through your network of friends and family? Give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Nancy DiTomaso is a professor and vice dean of faculty at Rutgers Business School and joins us now from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you on the program today.

NANCY DITOMASO: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And I think it's important to point out, you say this is not done maliciously or maybe not even consciously.

DITOMASO: Well, it's certainly is not done in a way that people are aware of the impact of it. Although when I talked to the hundreds of people that I included within my study, almost all of them - albeit two of the people I talked - found 70 percent of the jobs that they held over a lifetime from having some kind of additional help from family, from friends, through someone either telling them about a job that otherwise was not public, using influence to help them stand out from the crowd or in some cases, actually, offering them an opportunity.

And yet, when I asked my interviewees what most contributed to their having the kind of life that they had, almost no one talked about the help they received. Instead, they talked about how hard they had worked, how motivated they were, the education they'd received. So there was a big gap between the amount of help that they'd received and how they thought about what had happened in their lives.

CONAN: And since we live in still a largely segregated society, you write, it is the white who'll be helping other whites. They're the friends and family they know, and it is minorities who will be left out.

Yes. I was surprised in the interviews that I did. Even in a diverse place like New Jersey - and it was only one of the locations where I did these interviews - that there were so few whites that I talked to who had much contact with minorities, with blacks, with immigrants, except perhaps during a brief time in college. Most of the time, they move in rather homogenous neighborhoods, attended relatively homogenous schools and even many workplaces are still quite homogenous. So, yes, when they find opportunities and they think of who might want to know about them, it's usually primarily people like them.

And this is not discrimination as such. It's favoritism.

DITOMASO: Yes. Specifically in this book - my book is called "The American Non-Dilemma, which is published by Russell Sage Foundation - I specifically want to make the point that this is not just the other side of discrimination. Because discrimination is actively excluding certain people from opportunities, and that's illegal. This is actively helping to include people that are like you so that they can gain opportunities, and that is not illegal. And I think that that's a very important distinction.

CONAN: It also suggests that this problem is not going to go away anytime soon.

DITOMASO: No, it's certainly not. But I try to remind the readers of my book or in discussions about this that the civil rights movement was about access to jobs and freedom, right? And so there is a public interest in understanding the extent to which people find jobs primarily through this kind of networking pattern.

CONAN: Yet the civil rights movement was also about allowing people to make choices and not excluding them by any legal basis. And it turns out that given the choice, people tend to group in communities and in churches and, to some degree, in jobs where there is limited contact with people of other races.

DITOMASO: Well, yes, that's true. The extent to which that is a choice or through other mechanisms is, of course, a debatable issue. But the critical thing is if 70 percent of the jobs are found through these kinds of inside connections, then how can we actually talk about a job market? It would mean that those people who are not part of those networks, in fact, would have much harder time finding opportunities and finding jobs, particularly jobs that allow them to lead decent lives.

CONAN: And as you look at this dilemma, this non-dilemma as you described in the title of your book, it is a situation that is self-perpetuating.

DITOMASO: Yes, because it is something that goes on across generations and because my parents or my friends or colleagues helped me, that position is made to have good job skills and sufficient income to then help my children and the next generation. So in that sense, it is self-reproducing.

CONAN: There are other surveys that show that, for example, college graduates did much better than non-college graduates in the recent economic turndown, which has so terribly disproportionately affected African-Americans in particular. Is there not another explanation as to the education gap that causes this problem?

DITOMASO: Well, the people that I talked to were both college graduates and non-college graduates and men and women in several different parts of the country. And surprisingly, I did not find a difference on basis of class, college-educated or not college education - college-educated, in terms of the proportion of jobs that people found over their lifetimes through these kinds of mechanisms. Everyone uses these kinds of mechanisms when it's available to them and particularly to find jobs that are valuable in terms of, again, providing either a decent wage, benefits, pensions. And, therefore, you know, these kinds of jobs are important opportunities and therefore they are hoarded for family and friends or acquaintances or people like me.

CONAN: Particularly in hard times.

DITOMASO: Particularly in hard times.

CONAN: We want to get callers in on the conversation. How did you find out about the job you now have? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And let's go to Carrie(ph) in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

CARRIE: Hi there.

CONAN: Hi, Carrie. How did you find out about the job you've got now?

CARRIE: I am currently a taxi cab driver, and I found out about the job through a volunteer that I do at a college radio station here in Ann Arbor.

CONAN: And so it was through an acquaintance then.

CARRIE: Well, someone actually who listened to my radio program called and got to chatting with him, and he suggested that because I was looking for a new line of work. So he said it would be interesting for me if I enjoyed driving. And I told him I did so - I mean, I've been doing it just a little over two years. I worked at three different companies in the area, and the company that I end up now also networking came into play because it was someone that I used to work with who suggested another person I should meet who could get me a job at the company that I'm at now.

CONAN: So friend of a friend, former colleague, that sort of thing.

CARRIE: Exactly. But I don't usually take those unless I know that I can perform to my truest ability. If I don't think I'm going to end up liking the thing, I won't use that network because I don't want it to reflect badly on the person that helped me out.

CONAN: And what about the radio gig? You still doing that?

CARRIE: Oh, of course, yes, every Sunday night, from 9:00 to midnight.

CONAN: Congratulations. Stay with it.

CARRIE: Thank you. Thank you. Have a great day.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. And, Nancy DiTomaso, it's interesting. You said there was a distinction in your piece. There was a distinction between relatively lower level jobs where it - you may not need a contact to get it and higher paying jobs where you probably do.

DITOMASO: Yes, although I would say that the line between those two is relatively low, so we're not necessarily talking about good jobs or best jobs. We're talking about almost all jobs unless, as one of my interviewees said, it's - one job is as bad as another. For those kinds of jobs where you can go door to door and just find first jobs available, then you may not want to use your networks for that. You might want to save them for more valuable opportunities. But even for working class jobs and even for about half of the jobs that perhaps don't require much education, people still drew on networks to find those kinds of jobs. So it's still pretty pervasive if 70 percent of the jobs over people's lifetimes are found with this kind of additional inside edge.

CONAN: Fewer and fewer of us are in union jobs, but did you find any distinction there?

DITOMASO: Well, I certainly talked to some union members, and union jobs, in particular, are ones that, in the past, those who held those jobs thought that they should be able to make them available to their children, to their relatives and so on. And to the extent that the civil rights movement or affirmative action policies or public policies in general made those jobs more broadly available, that induced a great deal of resistance to those kinds of policies. So that is a concern and one of the things that I did find in talking with people in my study.

But let me mention with regard to the caller that a number of the people that I talk to when they realize that they had just told me about this sort of insight edge when we talked about the jobs that they held would say something like, that just got me in the door and then I had to prove myself. But they didn't seem to recognize that many people might have been able to prove themselves if they had gotten in the door. And therefore, it was a significant advantage, in fact, to get into the door, get the job and have the opportunity for both training and for proving themselves in these situations.

CONAN: We're talking on the Opinion Page this week with Nancy DiTomaso of Rutgers Business School. Her piece, "How Social Networks Drive Black Unemployment," was published yesterday in The New York Times' Great Divide series. She is also the author of "The American Non-Dilemma: Racial Inequality Without Racism." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And Erica's(ph) on the line with us from Manchester in New Hampshire.


CONAN: Erica, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

ERICA: Well, I'm white. But the reason I was calling is I've now lived in New Hampshire for 11 years and I came to New Hampshire because someone suggested I worked for a paper in New Hampshire. From that paper, someone suggested I work somewhere else when I needed a change. And then when that paper downsized, I started working for the AP because I had a couple of friends that worked there and got me a part-time job and found another job that way. So I've now been here 11 years and never handed anyone a resume.

CONAN: And all of those jobs through connections?

DITOMASO: All of them, yes.

CONAN: And that first one, somebody you knew, how did you know that person?

ERICA: I was in a graduate school program at the time and I was working on Capitol Hill reporting for a paper out in Montana and he was the editor. He was the editor based in D.C. and he liked my writing and said he thought I would - I'd benefit from working for this paper where his friend was the publisher.

CONAN: So one colleague recommended you to another and so then the wheel starts. Is it your experience form your colleagues that just about everybody gets their jobs that way?

ERICA: I would say it's about half. And half a number of people at the company I worked for did apply. But in terms of the people I know in the journalism world, more of them than not actually found their jobs through connections, not through applications. There aren't a lot of jobs listed out there, at least in New Hampshire, for the things I was looking for.

CONAN: I would agree with you. I don't think there's a lot of jobs listed in trade journalism these days. Erica, thanks very much. Good luck to you. And as we listen to that, Nancy DiTomaso, 11 years, three different jobs, never gave anyone a resume. Yet, there are an awful lot of jobs, and you think about for universities or certainly, public jobs, you know, government jobs, where there's seemingly excruciating search process.

DITOMASO: Well, this caller's experience, in fact, was not unusual, given the people that I talked to. In fact, a very typical situation that people would go from one job to the other usually because they knew someone or because someone could tell them about an opportunity that others didn't know about. And although there are lots and lots of processes put in place to try and make it a fair system, I heard over and over again from the people that I talked to in my study you just don't get a job there unless you know someone. This was true in public agencies and large firms, in small firms and entrepreneurial firms. It just is the typical way that people get jobs.

So even if there is a process of an open search and applications come in, still the ones that get selected out, the people that are interviewed, it's usually - have some kind of commonality or contact that allows them to stand out. For example, I talked to one person who every job he had was through some kind of friends. People liked him and they helped him, and he told, for example, of going to one job interview where he happened to look down the hallway and there was someone he went to high school with who recognized him who came up and put her arm around him, saying this is my friend. Take care of him. That's a very typical kind of story that people tell.

Now, it's important to understand that people know on the one hand that networks are important and that they matter. But on the other hand again, when I ask people, you know, what most contributed to your having the kind of life you have? They didn't say because I had good networks. They said because I worked hard, because I'm smart, because I'm motivated. So there's this huge gap in terms of how we think about what has happened in our lives and how we actually live our lives.

And I talk about this in the book and I think that it's important to understand in terms of a policy issue is that while all the people that I talked to said that they believed in equal opportunity as a standard of fairness, they spent their entire lives seeking unequal opportunity. That really is the process by which people are trying to make their way in the world. Nobody really wants to compete on equal basis where they don't know the outcome. They want an advantage and they want to get ahead. That's the kind of language we use and we, in fact, mean we want to stand out from the crowd and get the opportunity before someone else does.

CONAN: Nancy DiTomaso, thanks very much for your time today.

DITOMASO: Thank you.

CONAN: Nancy DiTomaso, a professor and vice dean for faculty and research at Rutgers Business School. Again, her piece, "How Social Networks Drive Black Unemployment," was published yesterday in The New York Times' Great Divide series. You can find a link to it on our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.