The Melting Pot 2009: Job Applicants Choose Assimilation as Means of Economic Survival

by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse

melting potWhen I hear the words Ellis Island, one of the first things I think of is not the New York point of interest or tiring travel across waters to reach the grand goal of the U.S. of A. and its related Dream. The first words that come to mind for me are “name changes” and “assimilation.” But with the recent economic crisis and the lagging recovery process, Ellis Island comes to mind. Only this time, instead of Eastern Europeans, Italians or the Irish knocking on the door of American opportunity, only to learn that their identities must be altered or ensconced, their traditional cultures erased for the sake of infinitely approaching some Nordic white ideal, the group scrambling for the promised land of economic security and job market acceptance is black.

That’s not to say that blacks in America have never sought assimilation as a means of achieving social acceptance and equality, in fact both during and following slavery, some black Americans employed various methods of mirroring the white majority as they recognized it could mean a chance at social and class mobility. Black immigrant groups arriving to America also faced a similar challenge. Having lived in countries where race-based terminology and categorization, media representation, and general opinion of blacks may have varied from those in the United States, only to arrive and gain an externally-defined identity based on perceptions of black Americans, black immigrants may also have felt or still feel the pressure to change or deny elements of their culture, nationality, ethnicity, and ultimately race.

In the aftermath of the recession, as the competition for the limited jobs that are available has sharpened, few applicants have room for error. Unfortunately for blacks living in the United States, one possible means of avoiding the potential disaster of not even getting a foot in the door at hiring companies is deleting any and all signs of their race. It is common knowledge that “ethnic sounding” names or, in other words, names that are not of Western European, particularly Anglo-Saxon origin, often lead to discriminatory hiring practices.* Even among these names, there are specific ethnic groups whose names are least welcome in the corporate world. Unfortunately, blacks are often the common victims of this discrimination, the bearers of African-American names, despite their qualifications, often being relegated to the bottom of the résumé stack. 

However, most of the fears of being rejected from job opportunities are spread through anecdotes or are the result of self-fulfilling prophecy based on a perception of inadequacy from simply being black (i.e. assuming the hiring party is white and would not be interested in taking on a black employee, thus not applying for the job at all), research often following as a result. Several studies comparing the successes (or lack thereof) of blacks and their white peers have been conducted (particularly as a means of measuring the success of affirmative action policy implementation and its continued need), though all ended with the same result: even with equal levels of educational and occupational experience, white candidates are more likely to be hired following the interview process than blacks.

In light of these studies, the pressure of being hired during a recession, and the discrimination based on racial markers as mentioned above, the New York Times recently released an article on history repeating itself entitled “In Job Hunt, College Degree Can’t Close the Racial Gap.” In the article, one of the few attempts made by the Times to report on the effect the recession has had on those other than wealthy whites, author Michael Luo points out with frank honesty that the push for obtaining a college degree has done little to help blacks gain footing as they compete with other applicants. Any indication of their blackness on their résumé alone could be a hindrance to their job search success.

Noting the false sense of temporary confidence Obama’s success in being voted the nation’s first black President may have given Americans of all colors in terms of progress and hope for race relations, Luo explains that little has changed when it comes to racial inequity:

That race remains a serious obstacle in the job market for African-Americans, even those with degrees from respected colleges, may seem to some people a jarring contrast to decades of progress by blacks, culminating in President Obama’s election.

But there is ample evidence that racial inequities remain when it comes to employment. Black joblessness has long far outstripped that of whites. And strikingly, the disparity for the first 10 months of this year, as the recession has dragged on, has been even more pronounced for those with college degrees, compared with those without. Education, it seems, does not level the playing field — in fact, it appears to have made it more uneven.

Luo goes on to profile applicants who have resorted to referring to themselves in their résumés by names that they normally do not use:

. . . Barry Jabbar Sykes, 37, who has a degree in mathematics from Morehouse College, a historically black college in Atlanta, now uses Barry J. Sykes in his continuing search for an information technology position, even though he has gone by Jabbar his whole life.

“Barry sounds like I could be from Ireland,” he said.

This quotation by Mr. Sykes struck me as particularly ironic, and fit quite appropriately with my note that the process of “cleaning up” one’s ethnic identity in the present is a sign of social regression in the race relations continuum, particularly considering that the Irish once received considerable discrimination for not being quite the right type of white, if white at all. During the same time of the largest immigration of the Irish population to the Americas (1845-1849 as a result of the Great Famine), Dred Scott was suing for his freedom and his trial was going through state courts, and two decades later, black American slaves were given their freedom with the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment. Now, in 2009, a black American man hopes his name sounds more like that of one of the immigrants who were socially on as low a level as many of their black peers.

But with the unemployment rate for college educated black males 25 and older being double that of their white peers, 8.4% to 4.4%, respectively, the push to erase one’s blackness goes beyond name changes. Applicants have noted that any mention of black business associations, black fraternities and sororities, and any experience that may somehow hint at one’s racial background (i.e. writing for a black issues blog) could prove hazardous. To make matters worse, Luo notes, even Asian-American and Hispanic managers are more likely to hire whites than blacks. That is not to say that someone of non-white (Anglo) racial or ethnic origin should feel obligated to hire someone who is also nonwhite, but the fact that these practices reach beyond white managers and are committed by those who could potentially be more empathetic is alarming.

Other applicants in Luo’s article mention that if and when they get beyond the application stage and are actually called in for an interview, their chances at being hired do not increase. In fact, in-person interviews sometimes lead to more problems such as outright discrimination, shock and surprise that the applicant is black, and ultimately rejection for the position despite presumed stellar interviews and excellent applications. The rejection can be without motive, leaving the applicants to second-guess not only their skills, but also whether or not their race played a role in their not being hired:

Whether or not each case actually involved bias, the possibility has furnished an additional agonizing layer of second-guessing for many as their job searches have dragged on . . .

Many interviewed, however, wrestled with “pulling the race card,” groping between their cynicism and desire to avoid the stigma that blacks are too quick to claim victimhood. After all, many had gone to good schools and had accomplished résumés. Some had grown up in well-to-do settings, with parents who had raised them never to doubt how high they could climb.

Luo also mentions the impact of networking and connections that go beyond the typical hiring process. In spite of blacks becoming part of the ever-expanding American middle class as a result of more educational opportunities since the Civil Rights Era and subsequent increased inclusion in the workforce, one of the most damaging residual effects of segregation and social exclusion from whites (Jim Crow, anti-miscegenation laws, ghettoization of the black urban population by way of discriminatory housing laws and restricted covenant, racial profiling and imprisonment, etc), has been the fragmentation of black and white populations’ interaction (even with the end of its legal prohibition). By way of stigmatizing (legally and socially) black and white interaction, whites continued to align themselves with their own social networks and blacks were left to form their own, albeit less validated, community-based social networks and connections.

Edward Telles, author of Race in Another America: the Significance of Skin Color in Brazil, an amazing text based on his comparative studies of race relations in the United States and Brazil, notes that “Recent research in economic sociology shows that hiring, even in the modern employment sector in the United States, continued to be governed by social-network ties” (Telles, 163). I found that Telles’ observations about the Brazilian job market and related hiring practiced greatly mirrored those of the United States as reported by Luo:

Most recruiting and hiring for these jobs used networks and patronage systems. Such informal methods favor whites, so that employers often do not directly deny jobs to nonwhites. Rather, blacks and browns [note: people of multiracial backgrounds that include some percentage of African heritage] seem to be discriminated against by being denied access to these networks or they are less likely to know job sponsors. When they do have access, job sponsors and networks are likely to screen out nonwhites, and especially blacks, themselves. Job sponsors may mostly recommend other whites because they themselves prefer whites or assumer employers prefer whites. Similar, persons in networks with information about jobs, including those who currently hold such jobs, are also likely to recommend whites, especially because it may enhance their own status in the eyes of their employers. (Telles, 162)

In short, even before blacks can apply for a job, it is more likely than not to be discussed amongst and filled by whites. This is what might be the most frustrating aspect of the problem. The issue itself is hard to resolve simply because a big portion of the discrimination occurs by way of silent and often unintentional exclusion. Bias does not always play a direct role in the hiring or rejection of an applicant. Though hopefully with the continued participation of blacks in higher education and the corporate world, the networks can expand to include blacks or, at least, following the older model, blacks can continue to construct their own networks as a means of gaining acceptance into the higher levels of the formal labor sector.

One fear, however, is that such findings can be discouraging in terms of morale, possibly making self-fulfilling prophecy a recurring theme in the daily lives of black Americans. Another fear is that assimilation by way of identity erasure may become a normative means of achieving success, which is disturbing considering the advances so many people of color (including, but not limited to, blacks) have made without having to resort to it. What could this mean for future generations of blacks, and further, incoming immigrant groups to the United States, where pluralism is an accepted method of both governance and social interaction (at least, in public)? In some ways, is this fear of being initially “outed” as a nonwhite racial other, particularly a person of African descent, a sign that an American identity is being tightened in the wake of economic crisis?

*for more information, please refer to the study “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?” from The American Economic Review

(Image: “Melting Pot” political cartoon)