Freedom Rider: Job discrimination lives on

“Half of all private sector employees would have to change jobs in order for full racial and gender equality to take place.”

Black people lag in their ability to get and keep good jobs in the private sector because of racial discrimination. That racial animus is the same reason we are more likely to be arrested, receive inferior health care, or live in substandard housing. It is why we may have incomes but in all likelihood no real wealth. These obvious and easily provable statements are too rarely spoken aloud. As a consequence most discussion of the state of affairs in the black community is needlessly muddled. History tells us that black people as a group thrive the most when these truths are expressed and without hesitation or apology.

A recently published book on the subject of employment discrimination, Documenting Desegregation, is much needed and important, but it tells most thinking people what they have already figured out for themselves. Workplace discrimination continues because the people with the power to end it refuse to do so, and they refuse because they and their friends and their relatives all benefit from the status quo. Black people can only escape this bleak picture during times of active popular pressure which includes demands for justice and enforcement of the law. Conversely we are worse off when that pressure diminishes or political winds begin to shift.

The high water mark for progress on this issue took place during the 1960s. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 brought clear and almost immediate improvement in private sector employment. Opportunities for black people at first improved but had stalled by 1980. Then the Reagan administration severely curtailed enforcement of civil rights laws and any progress was dead on arrival and never recovered.

“Workplace discrimination continues because the people with the power to end it refuse to do so.”

Now the collapse of capitalism, known as the great recession, has further undone the progress which was made in the 1960s and 1970s. Corporations no longer even go through the pretense of offering jobs to all potential applicants. Now they openly and without fear of punishment declare that they will not consider unemployed people for open positions. Other large private sector employers cut off all hope of consideration for black workers by choosing only those new employees who are referred by current employees. This state of affairs has been extant for a long time, and the never ending economic down turn has magnified what has always been a problem for black people.

The authors of Documenting Desegregation state that, “Little to no national aggregate progress is being made in terms of either desegregation or access to good jobs. Progress toward workplace equal opportunity has stalled.” They document a continued racial and gender divide in the work place. Despite the popular perception of advantage, black women have benefited the least from equal employment opportunities. Black men and women are rarely hired to supervise white people. Black men supervise black men, black women supervise black women, and white men are in positions to manage everyone else. There is no evidence of the often used term “reverse discrimination.” White men continue to be advantaged and have the most access to the best jobs. The situation is so bad, that half of all private sector employees would have to change jobs in order for full racial and gender equality to take place.

“Black women have benefited the least from equal employment opportunities.”

The presence of a black president has done nothing to alleviate the many crises afflicting black people. Of course he wouldn’t have succeeded in being elected and then re-elected unless he had assured the people who maintain this system that he would do nothing to rock their boat. Barack Obama’s successful candidacy hinged on a promise to disappear black people and bring them out into the open only if they were being condemned. Race specific political discussion was taken off the political table. The result is an ever worsening situation for the people who are always at the bottom of good indicators and at the top of every bad one.

The political demands which emanate from mass movements are our only hope of getting any justice. The presence of black politicians in high office are not guarantees of progress, and as in the case of Obama, may even make matters even worse. We will remain out of work, and subjected to all manner of indignities if we do not remember why the Civil Rights Act and other legislation came into being in the first place. We brought them into being with our own actions. The work place and the jail house will continue to be segregated if we shy away from stating those truths.

Margaret Kimberley’s Freedom Rider column appears weekly in BAR, and is widely reprinted elsewhere. She maintains a frequently updated blog as well as at Ms. Kimberley lives in New York City, and can be reached via e-Mail at Margaret.Kimberley(at)

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