Detecting and Understanding Racial Discrimination in the 21st Century

Sign directly opposite the Sojourner Truth, a federal housing project, in Detroit, Michigan. February, 1942. Credit: Arthur Siegel, Office of War Information, Harry S. Truman Library & Museum. Accession Number 2013–3716. This image is in the public domain.

The image above depicts a dark time in U.S. history. This was the face of racial discrimination before the 1960s.

Public, common, direct, and fueled by outright racial animus.

Scholars define racial discrimination as “different treatment on the basis of race that disadvantages a racial group.” In other words, racial discrimination occurs when an individual or organization takes action that treats individuals in different ways depending on their race.

An important point here: distinguishing whether the treatment is intentional or unintentional does not matter if the result is the same.

The hard-fought Civil Rights Act of 1964 marked the first major statement against racial discrimination by the federal government. The Fair Housing Act followed in 1968. Employers, real estate agencies, and landlords could no longer discriminate based on race without potential legal consequences.

Did these laws change anything? Yes, but not in the ways that many hoped.

To understand racial discrimination in the 21st century, you have to understand the intricacies of how we detect and measure discrimination as a response to civil rights legislation.

How Has Discrimination Changed?

By the 1970s, the federal government began enforcing discrimination law in employment through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Individuals and organizations were put on alert.

Anti-discrimination laws induced a change in U.S. society. Racial discrimination became a more private act. Moreover, racial discrimination slowly became a bit more uncommon and driven less by direct racial animus.

None of this means that racial discrimination disappeared. Nor does it mean that racial discrimination no longer matters.

That is because the federal government can threaten legal action and change the action of discrimination without changing the intentions behind or desire to discriminate.

Detecting and Measuring Discrimination by Talking to People

So how do we know that individuals and organizations changed in response to anti-discrimination laws?

First, public displays in favor of racial discrimination — like the one from Detroit in 1942 shown above — are almost non-existent. The reduction in overt racial discrimination likely stemmed from the threat of legal action.

Second, two of the primary tools of social scientists — surveys and interviews — used to study reports of behavior like discrimination, have essentially uncovered no direct evidence of racial discrimination in about three decades. Other than a pair of interview studies conducted in the late 1980s and early 1990s, no research for an extended period of time has uncovered individuals in positions of power openly admitting to engaging in racial discrimination.

While this news might be somewhat encouraging, it should not be that surprising when you think deeply about it.

Employers, real estate agents, and others know that they could face legal repercussions if they admit to engaging in racial discrimination. Thus, they may lie to protect themselves or to appear less racist. This type of behavior — inspired by a phenomenon researchers call “social desirability bias” — reduces the accuracy or validity of survey and interview research.

If we cannot directly ask people about discriminatory behavior, how can we study it?

The Audit Method

The audit method is the primary tool used by social scientists to examine discrimination. Audits are a type of field experiment. That means it incorporates treatment and control conditions, just like other types of experiments with which you might be familiar.

At their core, audits are pretty simple. We want to know how an individual might fare in a particular context, such as the labor market. Specifically, we want to know how their outcomes might differ if they were Black instead of White. In other words, we want to know the counterfactual, a concept I have discussed in a previous Medium post.

How can we do that if there is no switch that changes a person’s race?

With the audit method, researchers essentially compare hypothetical or fictional characters to each other.

First, we must create these characters. They need names, street addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, credentials, etc. Everything you need to apply for a job, or contact a landlord, or whatever is necessary for the specific context you want to study.

In modern audits, names are the key characteristic used to signal race or ethnicity. I might pick Jamal Washington to signal that my fictional character is Black and Justin Warner to signal that he is White.

Once I have created my characters, I can apply to jobs on one of the major job search websites. I might apply to thousands of jobs to test a few different characteristics (e.g., race/ethnicity, gender, and educational credentials). Afterward, I wait to see who elicits responses from employers, tally them up, and compare across the characteristics.

If this sounds easy, believe me, it is not. Each time a researcher designs an audit, there are dozens of painstaking details to perfect, many ethical quandaries to navigate, and hundreds of hours of work to complete.

What Have We Learned from Audits?

Researchers have conducted hundreds of audits in the United States examining discrimination based on race/ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability, social class, and other characteristics. These audits have uncovered differential treatment from employers, landlords, medical professionals, politicians and public officials, professors, and others.

Generally, these studies show that discrimination against racial/ethnic minorities is persistent and pervasive.

In my own work, I find that even at different levels of educational attainment within higher education, Black job seekers face significant discrimination.

In one study, Black job seekers with a degree from Harvard were only as likely to get positive responses from employers as often as White job seekers with a degree from the University of Massachusetts as Amherst. In another study, Black job seekers were significantly penalized for associate degrees from for-profit colleges(e.g., University of Phoenix) rather than local not-for-profit community colleges.

Other work examining the broader body of these studies shows that racial discrimination in hiring against Black job seekers has not changed since the late 1980s. There is some evidence of a decline since the late 1970s in some types of housing discrimination against Blacks. However, recent studies still show this discrimination has not disappeared altogether.

I am currently working on a new project that examines differences in racial/ethnic discrimination across different types of contexts or scenarios (e.g. housing vs. employment). In this project, we find that racial discrimination against both Blacks and Hispanics is worse in employment than any other context.

These studies make it clear: racial/ethnic discrimination is not just a problem of the past, but a problem of the present. It is discouraging that we have seen minimal changes in the presence and persistence of this phenomenon over the past few decades. However, I believe that the scale of these scientific studies makes it increasingly difficult to ignore the reality of racial/ethnic discrimination.

UCLA professor. Peeking into the interesting parts of the social world through data.

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