But this stubborn fact remains: The African American jobless rate is about twice that of whites, a disparity that has barely budged since the government began tracking the data in 1972. In last week’s jobs report, the black unemployment rate was 13.2 percent, while the white rate stood at 6.8 percent.
Discrimination has long been seen as the primary reason for this disparity, which is evident among workers from engineers to laborers. But fresh research has led scholars to conclude that African Americans also suffer in the labor market from having weaker social networks than other groups.
Having friends and relatives who can introduce you to bosses or tell you about ripe opportunities has proved to be one of the most critical factors in getting work. Such connections can also help people hold onto their jobs, researchers say.
“It is surprising to many people how important job networks are to finding work,” said Deirdre A. Royster, a New York University sociologist. “The information they provide help people make a good first impression, get through screening and get hired.”
Several studies show that black workers tend to lack these connections.
In her research, Royster followed the experiences of a group of similarly situated black and white men, all graduates of the same vocational school and who sought jobs in the same areas. She screened the men for things that might normally affect their employability: values, work ethic and performance. It turned out that the white men did much better getting jobs, which she said grew in part from their access to a more robust network of contacts.
“It just happens to be the case that if you are a white guy you are more likely to know people who have access to a certain set of jobs,” she said. “It has to do with becoming part of a network of reciprocity.”
Recent research also shows immigrants have active networks that help new arrivals navigate the country, and trading information about jobs is an important part of that.
That is one reason that Hispanics—more than a third of whom are foreign born—have lower jobless rates than African Americans despite, on average, having fewer educational credentials.
Researchers are quick to add that bias—both conscious and unconscious—continues to be the most significant obstacle confronting black job-seekers.
The racial gap in the unemployment rate defies educational attainment and occupational endeavor. African Americans with at least a bachelor’s degree had a 7.1 percent jobless rate in 2011, while the white rate was 3.9 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Similarly, black workers with only a high school education had a jobless rate of 15.5 percent, while similarly educated white workers had an unemployment rate of 8.4 percent.
“The 2-to-1 gap in the unemployment rate is one of the most pronounced signs of the presence of discrimination in our society,” said William A. Darity, a professor at Duke University. “That disparity, I think, is an index of discrimination.”
A 2009 study published in the Journal of Labor Economics, supported that point. After examining more than two years of personnel data from a large retail chain, researchers found that white, Hispanic and Asian managers tend to hire fewer blacks and more whites than did black managers.
In addition, racial audit tests of employers consistently find that when identically credentialed people apply for jobs, whites are much more likely to be contacted for an interview and hired.
Although the disparity is clear and long-standing, many Americans do not view it as a problem. Polls have found that the vast majority of whites think blacks have equal opportunity in the job market. Similarly, huge majorities of whites say in surveys that they do not make negative assumptions when they encounter someone of another race.