The recent Supreme Court decision in the New Haven firefighters case has launched a spate of op-eds on affirmative action. Did the Court drive a stake in its heart? Does it really matter if it did?
Shelby Steele, a senior fellow at the right-leaning Hoover Institution, thinks no. The real problem today, he says, is “black underdevelopment,” not discrimination. True, some blacks still suffer from deprivations rooted in past discrimination, but “we also live in a society where race is no longer a significant barrier to advancement.”
Last month, the Center for American Progress co-hosted a panel discussion on black male unemployment. You’d think panelists were talking about a different world.
I was most struck by findings presented by Algernon Austin, Director of the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy. Happily, they’re summarized in an article that asks, “Why Is the Black Male Employment Rate So Low?”
The article presents research that contradicts common answers to this question. No:
- It’s not that black men lack a work ethic because they wouldn’t be counted as unemployed unless they were actively seeking work.
- It’s not that they reject jobs they think pay just “chump change” because, on average, the lowest wage they’ll accept is lower than the the average that’s acceptable to whites.
- It’s not that they lack the skills employers are seeking because the greatest black-white employment gap is among high school dropouts, i.e., those competing for low-skill jobs.
- It’s not that employers prefer the “soft skills” and cultural sophistication that people from well-off families tend to have because black teens from families earning $75,000 to $100,000 a year have a lower employment rate than poor white teens.
- It’s not that black males don’t live where the jobs are because the difference in employment rates between black males in cities and suburbs is much greater than the difference for white males.
So, the argument goes, if it’s not any of these things, what’s left but race discrimination? It may, as Austin says, be subtle–even unconscious. But it’s no less a barrier to equal opportunity than the old in-your-face kind.
And if that’s so, then the “ultimate measure” of blacks equality with whites has to be something more than “parity in skills and individual competency,” Steele notwithstanding.