A Twilight Struggle for Justice


The harvest is past, the summer is ended and we are not saved" (Jer. 8:20).

The American Dream can be expressed with two words: equal opportunity. Sadly, this principle was subverted by more than 200 years of legal discrimination against blacks--from enslavement to Jim Crow and beyond. Their hopes for equal opportunity and upward mobility were rendered impossible.

The landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawed racial discrimination in the workplace, and the creation of federal agencies to punish offending businesses added teeth to the legislation. But even with formal restraints lifted, the 30 percent wage gap between similarly-qualified black and white workers has shown no sign of closing over the past generation.

In his recent work titled The End of Racism, author Dinesh D'Souza went so far as to declare that discrimination has disappeared entirely in this country. Conservatives dismiss the wage gap by observing that equal employment opportunity need not yield equal monetary results. But their simple explanation is also inaccurate.

Even after controlling for various occupations, locations and unionization rates, repeated research shows that one-third of the pay differential cannot be explained rationally. Despite D'Souza's assertion, it is painfully obvious that the fault lies in the blatant and subtle discrimination which still pervades American society and manifests itself in today's workplace.


Civil rights legislation and affirmative action policies notwithstanding, employers discriminate against black workers. A 1991 Urban Institute study--which sent black and white men with carefully matched qualifications, experience and demeanor to apply for the same jobs in Chicago and Washington, D.C.--helps to prove this claim.

Despite their identical abilities, whites regularly advanced further in the hiring process and were three times more likely to receive job offers. In addition, white employees marginalized their black co-workers, and customers tended to avoid businesses with higher percentages of black employees. Discrimination may be illegal, but it has not disappeared.

Workplace discrimination reflects America's larger perpetuation of a two-tiered society--separate and unequal. Throughout history, lawmakers, bankers and realtors conspired to isolate blacks into housing projects or to confine them to certain neighborhoods. This continues today, as audits by the Department of Housing and Urban Development show that realtors still steer 90 percent of prospective white and black homeowners toward homes in separate neighborhoods.

Blacks managing to crack the housing market's color barrier are quickly greeted with white flight. A mass exodus from an area begins once it becomes over 20 percent black-occupied, according to University of Michigan Professor Reginald Farley. "The presence of even small numbers of black residents is disturbing to a significant fraction of whites," he writes.

The flood of homeowners and businesses leaves behind a shell of the previous neighborhood. Property values decline, and schools lose the tax revenue needed to provide even the most basic education. After whites flee, they thwart all attempts to re-integrate neighborhoods through scattered-site housing or school choice proposals.

As a result, white employers rarely come into contact with prospective job applicants. Sheltered in the suburbs and operating in a world of limited information, their knowledge of black America is limited to the stereotypical images of ghetto crime, moral depravity and welfare dependency broadcast by the mass media. These generalizations, of course, are gross distortions of reality. But repeated falsehoods pass for truth.

Blacks have never been afforded equal opportunity. First, they are hemmed into segregated neighborhoods with poorly-funded schools. Second, they are passed over in job searches because employers consciously exclude applicants from inner-city neighborhoods. Third, and above all, they are hurt by employers' reliance on informal hiring networks--such as recommendations from friends and co-workers--rather than on formal employment agencies seeking to place minorities into the work force.

Thus, the talented black inner-city resident who lacks access to "the good ol' boy network" plays by the rules and loses. Even in neighborhoods with ample job opportunities, like Chicago's West Side, blacks are the last ones hired to fill vacant positions. "It's not where you live in relation to the job," says Wiener Professor of Public Policy David T. Ellwood '75. "It's where you live in relation to your employer."

This is the America in which we live. Yet through this gloomy reality, there are rays of hope. The obvious solution is to assist inner-city blacks via school desegregation and relocation of families into the suburbs. Such a court-ordered program in Chicago was directly credited for increased employment, wages and school performance of participants. But given America's latent racism, the long-term viability of any dispersal program is doubtful.

Other options include expanding job networks to direct employers toward talented black applicants, or extending tax breaks to businesses in the inner-city which hire significant numbers of local residents. Both policies would help revitalize decaying neighborhoods and boost employment.

But in the end, the long twilight struggle for justice will be won only if racism is eradicated. America salves her conscience with economic programs and formal civil rights legislation. Yet our nation continues to sin, and an egregious guilt rests upon our soul.

Christopher R. McFadden is a senior editor of The Crimson.

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