Bad Idea for Black Unemployment

by Roger Clegg

As Mark Krikorian mentioned yesterday, the Washington Post had a story about how BET founder Robert L. Johnson is urging President Obama to encourage U.S. corporations “to voluntarily embrace a plan to interview at least two qualified minority candidates for every job at the vice president level or above.” This, says Johnson, is designed to address the black–white employment gap (he would modestly call this the “RLJ Rule,” and would also ask companies to follow a similar procedure for awarding vendor contracts).

Johnson first made this proposal at a White House meeting last year, and President Obama said he liked the idea, but Johnson says the effort “fizzled out.” Perhaps the reason it fizzled out is that it is clearly illegal. 

In response to Johnson’s remarks on Wednesday, a White House spokesman said in a statement that the president is committed to ensuring that “everyone has a fair shot, a fair shake and plays by the same set of rules,” which would seem to rule out Johnson’s proposal. After all, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits racial discrimination in private employment, and that’s what this is. The statute covers hiring, of course, and also makes it illegal for an employer to “classify his . . . applicants for employment” in a way that doesn’t provide equal treatment on the basis of race.

It might be objected that there’s no harm here, since it’s only requiring additional interviews. But suppose the shoe were on the other foot, and the company’s requirement was that at least two white candidates always be interviewed. Would the Obama administration let that fly?

And there will be harm. Suppose that, for a given job opening, a company normally narrows the field to four candidates and then interviews them. If it keeps this practice, then if you’re white candidate No. 3 or 4, you’re out of luck, because now you have to make way for the minority interviewees. Suppose the company decides to interview a fifth and sixth candidate instead. Well, the minority applicants who were the tenth and eleventh choices now leapfrog over white candidates six, seven, eight, and nine — all out of luck because they are the wrong color. And, of course, if a minority candidate is hired, then one of the white finalists — the one who would have gotten the job otherwise — is out of luck, too. (All this is true also of the National Football League’s Rooney Rule, on which this is modeled — and which is also illegal.)

Note, by the way, that Johnson — and the Post article — are sloppy in equating “minority” with “black”; the employment gaps are different for different groups, which is going to create problems in deciding which groups ought to get the preferential treatment and how much. And of course this proposal will do little to address any gaps for anyone below the vice-presidential level.

Finally, there may be some Beltway incest here: Tuesday’s Post story is written by reporter Michael A. Fletcher; Johnson’s renewed call for his plan was inspired, the article says, by his reading a Washington Post article over the weekend about the racial unemployment gap (focusing especially on “fresh research [that] has led scholars to conclude that African Americans also suffer in the labor market from having weaker social networks than other groups”); that article was also written by Fletcher.

Here, by the way, is the comment that I posted on Fletcher’s earlier article: 

No one would deny that discrimination still exists, but this article really doesn’t make the case for its assertion (in at least two places) that it is the *principal* reason for higher black unemployment. For example, the article acknowledges only obliquely that there are different education levels among different groups; even if within each level there is discrimination, there will still be an additional problem since African Americans generally have lower levels of education and that makes it harder to find work. And there are lots of other variables that need to be controlled for — some of which are mentioned by the article (for example, blacks tending to have jobs that were harder hit by the recession), but some not (African Americans with college diplomas nonetheless having lower grades or less attractive majors, and disparities in criminal-record rates, all of which also makes it harder to find work). Finally, to the extent that discrimination is a problem — and, again, there’s no denying that it is to some degree — the way to address it is by enforcing the laws against it, not by layering politically correct disrimination (a.k.a. affirmative action) on top of politically incorrect discrimination.