The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently released figures demonstrating that college-educated black men have struggled nearly twice as much as their white counterparts in terms of finding jobs in the economic downturn.  On December 1, 2009, New York Times reporter Michael Luo wrote about this troubling trend in an article entitled In Job Hunt, College Degree Can’t Close Racial Gap.  On December 7, NPR aired a segment on Talk of the Nation called Unemployment and African-Employment Men.  Both pieces contain anecdotal evidence from college-educated black men, including some from prestigious institutions such as Yale University, describing how the application process seemed to turn south the moment the hiring managers realized they were black.    

In recent times, various academic studies have made clear that racism is alive and well when it comes to the job market.  For example, a 2003 American Economic Review study called “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?” found that applicants with “white-sounding” names received twice as many employer responses as did those with “black-sounding” names.  But what accounts for the 2009 trend specifically?  Theories abound.  Some speculate that the election of President Obama has actually created a backlash against blacks.  Others surmise the stereotypes about affirmative action programs negatively impact highly-educated blacks, who would-be employers might assume they only got as far as they did because of affirmative action.  Still others claim informal networking programs that largely influence hiring decisions have a disparate impact on black males.  (See our September 16, 2009 blog on this topic).

Whatever the reason, the fact that black male college graduates have an unemployment rate nearly twice that of their white counterparts (8.4% compared to 4.4%) is cause for concern.  For proactive employers, awareness may be the best defense to falling prey to this trend (and thereby avoiding unnecessary and costly litigation as a result).  Have your hiring managers received training on the discrimination laws?  Have you invested in sensitivity sessions, whether in a group or one-on-one, aimed at raising awareness of subtle, even unconscious bias (dubbed “neo-racism” in Luo’s NY Times article)?  If not, now is as good a time as any.

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