Unemployment And African-American Men

Guests

Terelle Hairston, 25-year-old Yale Graduate
Michael Luo, reporter for the New York Times
Algernon Austin, director of the Race, Ethnicity and Economy Program at the Economic Policy Institute

While times are tough for many Americans, the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows increasing disparities between black and white unemployment. More than a third of young black men are unemployed, and a college education doesn't necessarily make candidates less vulnerable.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Unemployment dipped a bit in October, but that's small comfort to millions still looking for work. As you might suspect, the unemployment rate is considerably lower for college graduates, but African-American men with college degrees are almost twice as likely to be out of work as their white counterparts.

Among them, Terelle Hairston, a 25-year-old graduate of Yale who's worked several years as a market analyst and produce development manager. He's been out of work since this summer, and he joins us now from the studios of member station WHRB in Norfolk, Virginia. Nice of you to be with us today.

Mr. TERELLE HAIRSTON: Thank you, good afternoon.

CONAN: And I know you've only been on the job market for several months. It must seem like forever, but it's a relatively short period of time. But has there come a moment where you began to suspect that race is playing a part in your inability to find work?

Mr. HAIRSTON: Well, you know, it's an interesting question because even though I've only been searching for work since the summer, throughout my, sort of, time looking for jobs and interviewing for internships as an undergrad, and interviewing for jobs after college - over the last three years or so - there's sort of a common thread of you hope that race is not an issue, but there's never a way to be sure about what role race plays in your ability to get an interview or to not get an interview or to get a position or to get a promotion, etcetera, etcetera.

CONAN: And I assume no one is so overt that you could tell in any one instance that race did play a factor.

Mr. HAIRSTON: Exactly. You know, I - when I was talking to Michael Luo about this with the New York Times, I pointed out to what I call neo-racism, and to put it delicately, it's a new form of racism where it's much more subtle, and it's much more a part of the way things are presented to you and the way it's much more ingrained into the sort of way people approach you, and you can't see it. It's not as obvious as, you know, the previous generations of African-Americans have experienced, and indeed other minorities.

CONAN: You can't see it. Does it manifest itself in any way in these interviews?

Mr. HAIRSTON: Absolutely. I would say that in most interviews, they go pretty well, and you don't feel that race is an issue, and for me personally, I try to ignore that entire factor and just present my best qualities.

But there have been a few occasions where I felt like you walk in the room, and especially - not usually from the HR or the human resources department, but usually from the hiring managers - where you'll run into an issue. Not always, and like I said, not most of the time, but sometimes you'll walk into an interview, and there will be this sort of change in their appearance or, you know, as one of the people interviewed said, you know, they sort of look up at the ceiling, realizing that you are African-American if they hadn't realized it before.

CONAN: There are - Michael Lou, we're going to be talking with in just a moment. There are people who have - in a story that he did in the News & Review Section of the Times yesterday, said that some people are whitening their resumes to change their names to sound less African-American; if they graduated from an African-American college for a BA, they're skipping that, going right on to the MA. Well, you went to Yale; that's not an issue for you.

Mr. HAIRSTON: Exactly. I actually spent my first year at Morehouse college, and then I transferred to Yale University. As far as the resume - whitening of the resume, which is, you know, an interesting topic - I chose, personally, not to do so because - for two reasons.

First, I think that certain things are, you know, a part of my core and a part of my actual appeal; and two because I fear that if you go along the lines of whitening, quote-unquote, your resume, you might end up in a situation where you're around people who do not appreciate your culture or your background or your race and partly because of your own need to separate yourself from that too early on in the discussion.

CONAN: Is there any way that you can productively introduce this idea during an interview, like pointing out that it's - the unemployment rate for black men with college degrees is twice that of whites?

Mr. HAIRSTON: You mean bringing that subject up in the course of an interview?

CONAN: Yeah. Gee, it's been particularly tough for us here.

Mr. HAIRSTON: I avoid - I would avoid that unless it was something that was particularly pertinent to the interview.

CONAN: (Unintelligible).

Mr. HAIRSTON: Right. My style is I go into an interview, I want to present me as an individual and my background as it is pertinent to the position that I'm applying for and also, you know, the interviewer's interest, because sometimes interviewers are more interested in the fact that I went to Yale, or they're more interested in the fact that I'm from Virginia, etcetera, etcetera.

So for race to come up, it would have to be the interviewer to bring that up. It wouldn't be me casually mentioning that, because like we talked about in the article, for African-Americans and for other minorities, and also for women of any race, it is a stipulation that you don't want to play one of those sort of, quote-unquote, minority cards. And you find yourself trying to avoid that topic to make sure, even when you - after you get the job, and you're working somewhere - you want to avoid that sort of minority status at all times because you want to make sure that they understand that you are there to be recognized for your merit and for your hard work and not for something else.

CONAN: Filling a minority slot.

Mr. HAIRSTON: Yeah, exactly.

CONAN: Exactly. Well, have you got any live wires out there, any fish on the line?

Mr. HAIRSTON: I have a fish on the line or two. My main fish on the line is actually my own Web site, which I started earlier this year, when I first left my most recent position.

CONAN: Well, if you can't get hired in a self-employed position, I'd take it up with the boss.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAIRSTON: I do, and we argue daily.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Good luck, Terelle.

Mr. HAIRSTON: Thank you.

CONAN: Terelle Hairston has been looking for work since this summer. He now hopes to launch a marketing consulting startup, and he joined us today from member station WHRB in Norfolk, Virginia.

As he mentioned, his story was part of a longer piece by the New York Times reporter Michael Lou, and he joins us in just a moment. But it's worth repeating his focus in these hard times: Black male college graduates are almost twice as likely to be unemployed as their white counterparts. The numbers come from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and raise a number of provocative questions.

If you're looking for work, if you're hiring, does this conform with your experience or not? Tell us your story. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And New York Times reporter Michael Luo joins us from our bureau in New York, and nice to have you with us today.

Mr. MICHAEL LUO (Reporter, New York Times): It's good to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And as mentioned, on any individual story, in any individual case, it's easy to find a reason why one guy gets a job and somebody else doesn't, but these overall statistics, you can't argue with that.

Mr. LUO: Yeah, I mean, the statistics really were striking to me. I just felt like - I've been writing stories about the recession over the last year, and I just felt like we should be doing more, writing about the African-American unemployment rate because it's so high. It's always - across educational categories, it's always been higher than whites - significantly higher. But I was just really struck when I was looking at the numbers, this discovery, and I don't think anyone else has written about it, that in 2009, the same year that we inaugurated an African-American president, the - actually it was worst among those with college degrees. And that just really struck me.

CONAN: Is it the same for African-American women? Is there a gap there, as well?

Mr. LUO: There is a gap, it's just not as big, and I did interview women in the course of reporting on my story. I guess the consensus that I got from a lot of people, though, was maybe the stereotypes for African-American men are just a little bit more pernicious, I guess, which is not to say that women, black women, are not dealing with some of the same issues, but the gap is not as pronounced.

CONAN: And as you come away after talking to various people who've experienced this, that phrase that Terelle Hairston used - neo-racism - do you think that applies?

Mr. LUO: Well, I mean, I think - there are academic studies that have confirmed that race is a factor in the job market. There is this study that I mentioned in my story, where they mailed out resumes with black-sounding names like Lakisha(ph) and Jamal(ph) and white-sounding names, and the people with the white-sounding names, even with the same credentials, got 50 percent more callbacks.

So I think it's undeniable that something is going on. It's just - it's difficult, though, to get into what exactly is it that's going on. And it is, for the most part, I think - you know, we're not in the 1960s, you know. It's different.

CONAN: There's no African-Americans-need-not-apply signs, yeah.

Mr. LUO: Exactly, exactly. I mean, one thing I talked about in my Week in Review people, was this notion of covering. And it's not just now, it's not just African-Americans cannot apply, but there is this aspect of, like, of African-Americans and other minorities feeling a pressure to conform to sort of the mainstream sort of norm. And so as this professor at NYU put it, it's now not whites and non-whites, it's whites and non-whites who maybe act white.

CONAN: And they're the ones who are in, and everybody else is on the outside. At the same time, and you also pointed this out in your Week in Review piece, this comes at a time when there is still persistent perception among whites that African-Americans get a leg up because of Affirmative Action.

Mr. LUO: Yeah, and that was something I was really interested in. There actually have been studies of people who study, you know - basically Affirmative Action - as the sort of the legal sort of term for it - really receded in the early 1980s with the Reagan administration. That is the notion of federal contractors being required to take affirmative action to remedy these gaps in - with racism with regard to employment. And federal contractors still have to do that, but in terms of the pervasiveness in the private sector, it really has receded, replaced by these sort of, quote-unquote, diversity programs, which have been proven to be much less effective. And they are kind of ubiquitous, these diversity programs, but actually the studies show that, for the most part, most of these programs are not effective in raising the representation of minorities. There are some that are, but those tend to be the exception.

CONAN: And briefly - we just have to go to a break in just a few seconds - but is there any reason to believe that this gap gets worse in hard times?

Mr. LUO: Actually, the - well, I mean, clearly something's happening in 2009, and I think in general, the gap does get worse in recessions. But for - this thing that's happening with the college-educated group actually is a shift from the past. In the data I had, I went back to 1992, and it had - in the past, actually it was better - the ratio of black to white unemployment was actually better for those with college degrees.

CONAN: Again, we're talking about a discrepancy in statistics. African-American men with college degrees are almost twice as likely to be out of work as their white counterparts. Why? If this is your story, give us a call - whether you're looking for work or whether you're a hiring official: 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The numbers are astonishing. More than a third of young, black men are out of work. There's no question this recession has hit everybody very hard, but college degrees were supposed to be an answer for that. Nevertheless, in 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, African-American men with college degrees are almost twice as likely to be out of work as their white counterparts. Why?

If you're looking for work, if you're hiring, does this conform with your experience? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is Michael Luo. He covers the effects of the recession for the New York Times. Let's see if we can get a caller on the line. This is Mark(ph), Mark with us from Jacksonville, Florida.

MARK (Caller): Hello, Neal, how are you?

CONAN: I'm very well.

MARK: I just thought it was very interesting, the observation that your previous caller talked about - talking about a whitening of the resume. Well, I know that when I mentioned some accomplishments that I had done that were black-oriented accomplishments, that my responses to potential interviewers was not very positive.

So I did indeed clean up my resume a bit. So - I shouldn't use that term, but I did change my resume but - whitened it, if you will - so that it didn't - those types of things were not mentioned. And then an experience I had, I interviewed - I was being interviewed by phone with a company, and - I had two interviews over the phone - and on the third interview, when I arrived at the site, there was an obvious change in the demeanor of my interviewer, and it was very - quite obvious. And then after some discussion, he says to me: Mark, I didn't know that you were a black - a colored man, he says.

And we laughed about that a bit. I said well, I'm glad that you were fooled, but I want to let you know that I feel I'm the best-qualified person for the job, and I would appreciate the opportunity. And I just thought that was very interesting, his change in demeanor, and that wasn't the first time that had occurred.

CONAN: When you say black kinds of achievements, what are you talking about?

MARK: Well, I'm talking about I have been active in certain social activities that were community-based type of activities, black associations that I was a member of, (unintelligible)�

CONAN: Okay, so that would have given it away, so to speak.

MARK: That's right.

CONAN: And did you get that job, as a matter of fact?

MARK: Yes, I did, actually.

CONAN: Well, that's interesting, and how are you doing?

MARK: I'm doing - I've done quite well. I was very successful in the position, and afterwards, after about nine years with that company, I actually started my own business in that same industry and went on to a fair amount of success with it.

CONAN: Well, Mark, thanks very much for the call, and continued good luck.

MARK: My pleasure, Neal.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's introduce our next guest, Algernon Austin. He's a sociologist and director of the Race, Ethnicity and Economy Program at the Economic Policy Institute, and he joins us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for coming in.

Mr. ALGERNON AUSTIN (Director, Race, Ethnicity and Economy Program, Economic Policy Institute): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And there have long been disparities between blacks and whites in employment. What do you think makes this current situation so acute?

Mr. AUSTIN: It is somewhat of a mystery, because Mike Luo says, typically blacks with college degrees do much better. I mean, generally, the more educated you are, the lower your unemployment rate.

CONAN: Well, let's say the unemployment rate overall is about 10 percent. If you have a college degree, overall it's about 4.5 percent, and if you are an African-American with a college degree, it's over eight percent.

Mr. AUSTIN: Right. So, you know, it's possible - I did a little bit of analysis, a little bit of looking into it, and it seems like blacks working in the finance, insurance and real estate were particularly hard hit during this recession, and those workers tend to be college-educated. So the financial crisis and the housing crisis with real estate seems to have hit blacks pretty hardly, and we know that foreclosures are disproportionate among blacks, also.

CONAN: Well, yeah, but foreclosures are, in part, a function of people who've lost their jobs.

Mr. AUSTIN: Yes, yes, but foreclosures in terms of realtors, in terms of the people doing the lending, selling the homes, etcetera. So blacks in those industries who may have been serving a predominately black clientele also may - there is some evidence suggesting that they've been hit particularly hard, also.

CONAN: So that might be a peculiar niche of a particular industry, and that's been an industry disproportionately hit in this situation. Nevertheless, you look at these numbers, and you say: Is there any plausible reason, other than to say this is racist?

Mr. AUSTIN: Well, that is certainly the case. I mean, these disparities that we're talking about are, you know, decades long. So it's clear that race is one of the factors producing the disparities.

CONAN: Decades long, but as Michael Luo says, he goes back to 1992. There was a recession then, too, and it wasn't so bad then.

Mr. AUSTIN: Right, right. So again, that may be, too, some of the peculiarities of this particular recession. As I mentioned, it seems like blacks in the finance, insurance and real estate have been particularly hit hard.

CONAN: Okay, let's get another caller on the line. Let's go to Jay(ph). Jay's with us from San Antonio.

JAY (Caller): Hi. You know, I can't directly comment on the black-white disparity in hiring situation, but I do want to say that I've been looking for a job for a year. I have a master's degree. I am Caucasian. What I'm finding is that employers are hiring the person that just barely meets the qualifications and maybe is kind of semi-fresh out of college, and they're not hiring the person with many years of experience. And I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that they don't want to have to pay as much for somebody doing the job. That's my experience, and I've�

CONAN: So perversely, the more experience you've got, no matter what your race, the less desirable you are?

JAY: Yes. Yes. Now, I am looking for jobs in, you know, in education, counseling, that sort of position. I don't have a banking or finance, insurance background, but what I can say is that they're just looking for the barely qualified employee who won't put a lot of demands on them and that will not take as many sick days, etcetera, etcetera. That's my opinion.

CONAN: Okay, but that doesn't explain why blacks are more - worse affected than whites, does it?

JAY: No, it does not, and that is a real mystery to me, too. I really have no idea why that's the situation.

CONAN: All right, Jay, thanks very much for the call.

JAY: Okay.

CONAN: And Michael Luo, as you do the reporting, does what Algernon Austin is talking about - this niche in terms of the banking and finance and real estate industries - does that help explain the disparity, in your view?

Mr. LUO: That's actually some really interesting data that - I did talk to Algernon a little bit for the story, and I wasn't aware of the industry focus. I mean, one thing that we have not addressed, and we should, and in some ways was a failing of my story, that it didn't address - but it was a reflection of space - but we do have to look at an achievement gap between blacks and whites, and even - so even among those with college degrees, there - I haven't�

CONAN: So if an employer looks more closely, not just at the degree but where you graduated in your class and what kind of grades you got, that sort of thing.

Mr. LUO: Yeah, and you know, there has been some issues with historically black colleges in terms of - just as one example of how the quality of the education and things like that, and it is an issue. I'm not completely familiar with the data on it, but I think it's got to be an issue that has to be looked at and addressed.

CONAN: All right. Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go to Mary(ph), Mary with us from Charlotte.

MARY (Caller): Yes, hi. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

MARY: I noticed in the story, which was very interesting, and I'm starting off - I'm a minority person. I was laid off, and now I actually am a freelancer in my own business and have found that that is the way to work. But I noticed in the article, many of the comments in the comments section - and these were New York Times readers - basically said even if a black person has a degree from Yale or the University of Chicago, you can't count that because they got in, they graduated and passed because totally of Affirmative Action. So basically, it's not worth as much.

There was sort of a sense that no individual black person, no matter the achievement, could at all be as accomplished as any white person, and it never mentions - and I found this was kind of interesting because they never see if a white person has a degree, well, this person might be a legacy, and they got into Yale as former President Bush has, you know, bragged about being a C student.

And so almost, you have - and I felt it interesting because it was fully maybe about 25 percent of the comments that said this, and you realize that even if you have these accomplishments that you have to prove yourself in a way that you really can't prove yourself. You can't say, well, yes, I really earned my degree. And there was assumption that, you know, you not only got in, but you graduated, because people were passing you along. And I wondered if the reporter who did the story really found this and if he found this was a piece missing in his story?

CONAN: Well, let's talk to Michael Luo. Then we'll put the same point to Algernon Austin. Go ahead.

Mr. LUO: Yeah, that's really observant of you of the comments. That is the big elephant in the room, and I was just really struck by how much the affirmative action issue was raised in the comments.

And that actually gets at some of the experiences that people had, like Johnny Williams(ph), the guy who was in the lead of the story, and yeah, you played a little snippet of his comments. You know, he talked about, you know, you go in into the interview and just being pushed a little bit harder, like, he was in the finance. And so just binge pushed a little bit harder, did he fully grasp these concepts and was he quantitative enough and just really sort of this - he talked about - and other people talked about sort of being treated with a little bit of a skepticism that he could have the credentials that he had. And he went to the University of Chicago and earned an MBA from that school.

CONAN: Algernon Austin, is what we're hearing is black degrees are valued less even if they're from Yale?

Mr. AUSTIN: Yeah. Well, that's part of - that's what we're talking about is sort of prejudice and bias against blacks, and this is - that would just be another manifestation of it. The important point to remember is that these issues were, you know, the issues about sort of qualifications were put to the test with the studies that Mike Luo talked about before where you send out identical resumes, some of them have the name Emily(ph) and Greg(ph). Some of the - has the names Lakisha(ph) and Jamaal(ph), and yet the Emily and Gregs received 50 percent more positives. So that - those studies are designed specifically to test whether, you know, people of equal qualifications would receive equal treatment, and in that study and in other studies of similar design, they all show a strong preference for white applicants.

CONAN: And indeed, the same kind of studies have been carried out with housing and�

Mr. AUSTIN: Yes, yes.

CONAN: �and show similar kind of results.

Mr. AUSTIN: Yes, yes.

CONAN: Here's an email that we have from BJ(ph) in Paducah, Kentucky. I, too, am college educated, African-American woman. While I have experienced neo-racism while applying for employment, I've also experienced the opposite with my current employer. I feel my impressive qualifications - i.e. educational background, field experience, bilingual abilities - were considered. But upon my hiring, my employer commented my race was a bonus. While I feel fortunate that I work for an employer who embraces diversity, I also feel I must work harder than my Caucasian counterparts to validate my qualifications to my colleagues.

And, Michael Luo, that goes back to the perception that some people have - and, indeed, some employers have - that if you can find a qualified minority, well, ding ding. This looks good.

Mr. LUO: Yeah. I mean, that really is the perception that's out there. I mean, this - the sum of this work that's being done about the effectiveness of diversity programs was really interesting to me because that really is the perception out there, that it's better to be a minority. The - some of the research that's in that field showed, for example, a diversity training that's so pervasive out there. And that actually does not tend to increase the minority representation in companies and actually can lead to backlash, especially when it's forced upon employees. The thing that they found that is effective is when a company puts somebody accountable for increasing the minority representation, like having like a chief diversity officer. And that part sort of a diversity program has been shown to be effective, but it's not -it's obviously a minority of companies that has something like that specifically.

CONAN: All right. Mary, thanks very much for the call. Good question.

MARY: Well, thank you. Also, you know, I have a son who's getting a graduate degree from Yale on academic fellowship, so I'm hoping this problem has cleared up by the time he's looking for a job.

CONAN: Oh, absolutely. It'll be - it'll all be fixed by then. Not to worry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thanks very much, Mary. We're talking about unemployment among African-American men, why it's almost twice that of their white counterparts. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get Mary Ann(ph) on the line, Mary Ann from El Cerrito in California.

MARY ANN (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thank you for taking my call. This is a little bit, you know, to the left or right of what you're talking about. But I worked in Silicon Valley from late 1995 until the end of 2001. And I was in the position of hiring all the entry-level positions: receptionists and people who work for me in managing the facilities and so on. And whenever I had - oh, and I should stop and say that all of these people came from agencies. They were all screened, they were all qualified. Whenever I had an African-American candidate, people would start asking me about child care and transportation and - which was - it took me a while to catch on because it was confusing to me. I noticed if it was a non-African-American candidate, nobody asked me about those questions. And, finally, I realized, you know, to put it bluntly, it was just simply racism. And because I was in the position of no matter what their opinion was - I worked for the CEO.

CONAN: Right.

MARY ANN: No matter what their position or people's thoughts were, I could hire who I wanted to and did so. But it's particular, I guess, sort of shtick of mine, I myself am Caucasian and�

CONAN: Well, how does asking about child care and transportation translate into racism?

MARY ANN: Because it wasn't asked about non-African-American candidates.

CONAN: Oh, I see. The questions would come down and then be asked to those people.

MARY ANN: People only question - well, does she have or does he have transportation? Do they have child care there?

CONAN: I see. The people to whom you would be referring these people. I see. Inside the company.

MARY ANN: Yes. No one - those questions were never asked about non-African-American candidates.

CONAN: Well, those are entry-level jobs. Were they college people with college degrees?

MARY ANN: No, that's why I was saying it's a little to the left of it�

CONAN: Little off center. Okay.

MARY ANN: It was absolutely, I think, you know, in my opinion, it was just simply racism. If they looked at an African-American candidate, they immediately had thought some questions about them that did not come up with non-African-American candidates.

CONAN: All right, Mary-Ann. Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

MARY ANN: You're welcome.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

And Michael Luo, where does this go? We just have a few seconds with you left.

Mr. LUO: Yeah. It's depressing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LUO: I'm not 100 percent sure where this goes. I mean, it should be interesting - we haven't talked about - too much about the Obama effect.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LUO: And, you know, something�

CONAN: Oh, now, that there's an African-American president, we don't necessarily have to stick to these diversity goals?

Mr. LUO: Right. Well, we don't - I mean, yeah. What is the Obama effect? It could be - some people actually talked to me about maybe there's - some black jobseekers told me that they felt like there's some kind of backlash going on because there is a black president. There's only so much progress that people can take. But then, you know, there's also - you know, perhaps people talked a little bit more optimistically about, you know, maybe - you know, that he could - there could be some difference that seeing that he - this black man is president. It's hard to say. It will be interesting to look at the data in a couple of years.

CONAN: Well, I'm sure you'll have more stories to report. Michael Luo, thank you very much for your time today.

Mr. LUO: Thank you.

CONAN: Michael Luo, a reporter for the New York Times with us today from our bureau in New York. And our thanks as well to Algernon Austin, director of the Race, Ethnicity and Economy program at the Economic Policy Institute. He was with us here at Studio 3A. And I could talk like that forever. This is NPR News.

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