The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

Networks and Black Unemployment


Nancy DiTomaso of Rutgers argues that one of the sources of persistently high black unemployment is the fact that African Americans tend not to be part of the most privileged social networks. As most of us who have navigated a private sector job search understand, jobs are often only publicly-listed after a more informal search. Large firms will begin a search by evaluating internal candidates, and trusted employees will be asked to identify potential candidates from within their professional networks. Having well-situated relatives and friends is thus highly advantageous, as it gives you access to opportunities that you’d never know of otherwise. And so, according to DiTomaso, racial inequality is in a sense driven by inclusion (whether you belong to the right networks) rather than exclusion (an institutional determination to deny opportunities to members of a given group). But the upshot is the same. DiTomaso has just published a book, The American Non-Dilemma, on how “opportunity hoarding” among members of the most privileged racial groups can yield racial inequality in the absence of racism, which I look forward to reading.

But my tentative sense is that DiTomaso is more sanguine about racial preferences than she should be:

Seeing contemporary labor-market politics through the lens of favoritism, rather than discrimination alone, is revealing. It explains, for example, why even though the majority of all Americans, including whites, support civil rights in principle, there is widespread opposition on the part of many whites to affirmative action policies — despite complaints about “reverse discrimination,” my research demonstrated that the real complaint is that affirmative action undermines long-established patterns of favoritism.

The interviewees in my study who were most angry about affirmative action were those who had relatively fewer marketable skills — and were therefore most dependent on getting an inside edge for the best jobs. Whites who felt entitled to these positions believed that affirmative action was unfair because it blocked their own privileged access.

Another view is that the informal mechanisms we use to identify job candidates capture qualities that a narrower, by-the-numbers search would not. This matters more in some domains, like team-oriented service work, than in others, like highly autonomous work that is compensated on the basis of productivity (e.g., a salesman who works on commission). In Still the Promised City?, sociologist Roger Waldinger observed that during the early 1970s era of “white flight,” new immigrants, from the Caribbean rim and Central America, etc., tended to sort into private sector employment, like low-end manufacturing, while African Americans gravitated to the civil service. Yet because the private sector was more permeable to informal social networks — a valued immigrant employee would be encouraged to recommend friends, who tended to be coethnics — than the civil service, which hires via highly bureaucratic procedures, different patterns of the transmission of capital and skills emerged. Uplift for an individual African American climbing through the ranks of the civil service didn’t necessarily mean uplift for her wider network, while uplift for an immigrant in a position to recommend other members of her network was a more collective experience. Granted, it is also true that learning how to navigate the civil service hiring process is a skill that can be transmitted within a network, but the basic point is well taken. 

The strongest argument in favor of racial preferences is DiTomaso’s: that in its absence, entrenched networks of privilege will exclude outsiders. One of the stronger arguments against (I’d say the mismatch hypothesis is the strongest argument, in higher education at least, against large preferences) is that racial preferences represent “seeing like a state,” i.e., they are a crude tool that misses more nuanced aspects of the social landscape, like Pat Sharkey’s findings on multigenerational poverty or Matt Lawrence’s intriguing work on the value of having had a college-educated grandparent in addition to a college-educated parent. I assume that Sharkey and Lawrence are both supporters of preferences, yet their work suggests that looking at race in isolation — and not also taking neighborhood environment and family history into account — might give us too constrained a view.

So while I think the problem that DiTomaso identifies is real, we shouldn’t efface the value of informal networks — one of the reasons we rely so heavily on them, by the way, is that they raise the stakes of making a recommendation: I would be embarrassed if the person I recommended to you for a job turned out to be a bozo, and this social sanction is difficult to replicate through institutional means. Rather, we should work towards fostering more inclusive networks by, for example, reducing concentrations of poverty through more effective crime control, less restrictive zoning laws, and other measures that will yield other economic benefits as well. Firms, meanwhile, need to be attuned to the dangers of overlooking potential sources of talent. Year Up, a Boston-based social enterprise, connects urban young adults with large business enterprises to help foster the kind of relationships DiTomaso has in mind, and it seems to have met with great success.   


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