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Overcoming Racial Discrimination

 

Despite real progress over the last generation in overcoming discrimination in our society, the reality is that Americans are still regularly refused employment, housing or equal treatment under the law because of their nationality or the color of their skin.  The numbers highlighting this racial discrimination are stark:

  • Whether they have high school diplomas or master's degrees, African American men still earn roughly 25 percent less than white men at the same education level.
  • Latino men make only 63 cents to every dollar earned by their white male counterparts.
  • Women only early 76.2 percent of what men earn and among women employees, African American, Native American and Latino women experience lower earnings than white and Asian American women.

And despite right-wing happy-talk on the end of racism, the American people don't buy that we are in a post-civil rights world.  As we described in our Dispatch a few weeks ago, a recent Pew Poll reported:

However, most Americans believe that racial discrimination in the workplace is very much alive-- only a third of the public believes discrimination against blacks is rare.  While the public is divided over "racial preferences," 70% of the public support some form of "affirmative action programs to help blacks, women and other minorities to get better jobs and education," a significant increase since 1995 when only 58% of the public supported affirmative action to deal with discrimination.

This Dispatch will highlight the severity of the problem of modern day racial discrimination in the areas of: employment, housing and credit, education, and the prevalence of hate crimes and racial profiling.  While the problems are far-reaching, state actions can and are helping to overcome ongoing discrimination.

 

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The Persistence of Racism

 

The extent of racial disparity most recently came to the surface of public discussion during Hurricane Katrina, when it was so painfully obvious that African Americans suffered more deeply and severely than their white counterparts.  Unfortunately, it didn't end with the natural disaster. 

The National Fair Housing Alliance conducted a series of tests to track the pervasive housing discrimination facing Katrina victims trying to relocate. The study used a series of testers, where white and black testers posed as Hurricane Katrina evacuees and identified themselves as such. The tests used a "sandwich style" where the white tester would make an inquiry, then the black tester would make the same inquiry, and then another white tester would make an inquiry as a control variable.  The study found that:

  • In nearly 6 out of every 10 rental transactions, the African American testers encountered less favorable treatment based on race.
  • Housing providers often simply didn't return phone calls from African American testers, didn't provide applications to African American testers, and/or didn't show available rental units to African American testers. 

The use of testers has shown discrimination in several other areas:

  • In a study by the Urban Institute using paired "testers" - one white person and one person of color with similar economic profiles - found that African American and Hispanic home buyers receive, on average, less favorable treatment than comparable whites when visiting mortgage lending institutions to inquire about financing options.
  • For example, African Americans were denied basic information about loan amounts and house prices and told about fewer products while Hispanic candidates were quoted lower loan amounts on house prices.
  • Another study using testers showed that Asians and Pacific Islander home buyers frequently receive less information about available homes and white home buyers were consistently favored over comparable Asians and Pacific Islanders.
  • Racial bias extends beyond housing discrimination.  The Discrimination Research Center reported that in a pair testing experiment of temporary employment agencies in California, white applicants were favored 4-1 over African Americans in Los Angeles and more than 2-1 in San Francisco.  

The effects go beyond just the blatant discrimination.  Temporary employment is a major gateway to permanent jobs.  Over 90 percent of companies utilize temporary or contract workers.  Being shut out of these jobs further depresses the economic gains of the African American community.

 

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Countering Employment Discrimination

 

The state of employment discrimination is such that even the sound of a name can result in lost opportunities. A recent study selected 1,300 help-wanted ads from newspapers in Boston and Chicago and submitted multiple resumes from phantom job seekers.  The researchers randomly assigned the first names on the resumes, one set being particularly common among African Americans, the other common among whites.  Apart from the names, the resumes had the same experience, education and skills so that employers had no reason to distinguish among them.  The results showed the applicants with white-sounding names were 50 percent more likely to be called for interviews than those with black-sounding names.

With employment discrimination persisting, state actions can help deter employers that engage in discrimination.

  • Aggressive enforcement is one key.  An example is the Indiana Civil Rights Commission's use of testers to uncover housing and employment discrimination to help enforce the law.
  • Denying state contracts is another important tool: Oregon is considering a law this session that would deny state contracts to companies that maintain sweatshop labor working conditions or engage in employment discrimination.  The measure is based on a similar ordinance by the City of Portland, and Los Angeles has a responsible contractor ordinance as well.
  • Denying operating licenses to discriminatory firms: New York City is debating a new ordinance to deny operating licenses to firms that violate wage or discrimination laws.

Language discrimination statutes are a more subtle, yet equally destructive form of employment discrimination, since it can isolate immigrant workers and make it even harder for them to succeed.  Court decisions in many states have found that "English-only" rules by employers are discriminatory when they prohibit workers from speaking another language to other workers or are used to create a hostile workplace for employees of color.

California has adopted provisions that prohibit such English-only rules unless (1) the language restriction is justified by a business necessity; and (2) the employer has notified its employees of the circumstances and the time when the language restriction is required to be observed.

 

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Ending Housing & Credit Discrimination

 

The Fair Housing Act, part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, bars discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of dwellings and other housing-related transactions based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status and handicap. However, as pointed out above, racial discrimination is an endemic problem in the housing industry. 

A study by the Center for Responsible Lending shows that African Americans and Latinos were more likely to receive a higher-rate loan than white borrowers with similar qualifications.  The most striking disparities that emerged for African Americans were associated with prepayment penalties and for Latinos, the greatest disparities were related to loan type purchase versus refinance.

Taking Action on Housing Discrimination: One example of aggressive action is in New York, where state officials are increasingly using testers to prove discrimination. Using testers, the officials found real estate agencies consistently treated the testers of color differently. After being informed of the test results, the violating agencies agreed to, among other things, train their agents in fair housing laws and maintain records that will allow the Attorney General to verify future compliance with fair housing laws.

The New York State Banking Department has issued a set of Fair Lending Policies and Procedures. The procedures help the banking industry implement fair policies, including fair pricing, underwriting, and collection and foreclosure policies.  A finding of non-compliance with the procedures can result in fines, returns of fees and interest paid by affected customers, suspension of operations, or revocation of mortgage banker licenses.

Preventing Section 8 Discrimination: Section 8 Certificate and Voucher programs provide housing assistance in the form of direct payments to private landlords that are secured from a local housing authority for low-income earners to use when renting apartments and houses.  Such payments are a tremendous tool to allow low-income families of color to move to communities with greater job prospects and end patterns of racial segregation, yet people seeking to use housing vouchers often face discrimination from potential landlords who refuse to rent to them.

Several states and cities have prohibited discrimination against Section 8 voucher participants. New Jersey, Massachusetts and Connecticut all prohibit housing agents from discriminating against clients based on source of income. Chicago and Washington D.C. also have laws protecting Section 8 participants.

 

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Restoring Educational Opportunity

 

Affirmative action programs have long suffered the stigma of promoting undeserving or unqualified individuals.  In actuality, as one study has found, students admitted under affirmative action programs were more academically successful than legacy admissions, another type of preferential treatment that favors children of alumni.

The deceptively named American Civil Rights Institute, backed by businessman Ward Connerly, is spearheading a campaign to eliminate affirmative action programs.  The Institute seeks to challenge "the 'race matters' mentality embraced by many of today's so-called 'civil rights leaders.'"  One of the driving forces behind Michigan's ballot initiative last fall, the Institute plans to put challenges to affirmative action programs on the ballot in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, and Oklahoma in November 2008.

Affirmative action programs in education have been under fire for quite some time.  The New Jersey legislature has introduced a bill (AB 2741) that would ban all public and private affirmative action programs.  In a show of how affirmative action is misperceived, the bill states, "It is fundamentally unjust for any individual... to obtain an unjustified or unmerited benefit, solely on the basis of one's membership in an ethnic or racial class." 

State Action to Preserve Affirmative Action: A state appeals court has given San Francisco a chance to reinstate an affirmative action program for contractors on the basis that the history of discrimination may justify preferential treatment despite California's Proposition 209, which eliminated affirmative action programs. If the city can prove that long-standing and pervasive discrimination by both city employees and contractors resulted in firms owned by people of color and women being illegally excluded from winning contracts, the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection would override Prop 209.

A Texas Solution: After the courts struck down Texas college affirmative action programs, the Texas legislature passed a bill, the "Ten Percent Plan", that required the state university system to accept all applicants who finished in the top 10 percent of public and independent Texas high schools.  

For students outside of the top ten percent, the law lists 18 academic and socio-economic criteria that each institution can consider when making admissions decisions. Among the factors that can be taken into consideration are whether the student would be the first generation to attend college, the student's responsibilities while attending school, i.e. whether the student had to work or help raise children, and where the student resides. Data has shown that the program has increased the representation of people of color at University of Texas institutions.

Spreading the Texas Model: California has a similar plan that allows for the top 4 percent of students at every California high school to gain automatic admission to the University of California system. Florida implemented a similar system through an executive order in which students ranked in the top 20 percent of their class get automatic admissions into the University of Florida system and are considered priority candidates for financial aid. 

These programs are strong models for strengthening diversity in our colleges and universities.

 

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Stopping Racial Profiling & Hate Crimes

 

Instead of improving, racial profiling seems to be on the rise. The Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report that found that while white, black and Hispanic drivers were stopped by police at similar rates, black and Hispanic drivers were much more likely to be searched once they were stopped. Black drivers were three times as likely to be searched, while Hispanic drivers were more than twice as likely to be searched once pulled over. Moreover, black drivers were four times as likely to be threatened or to experience use of force by police and twice as likely to be arrested.

According to Amnesty International, only 15 states prohibit racial profiling of motorists and pedestrians.  An additional six states prohibit racial profiling of motorists, but not pedestrians.  The rest of the states have no laws on the books that prohibit racial profiling in any case. Among the states that have laws:

  • Arkansas requires that law enforcement agencies adopt written policies against racial profiling and formally review all complaints about it. 
  • Illinois launched a four-year study on traffic stops that requires police officers to record the name, address, sex and race of any motorists whom they stop and search in an effort to track and eliminate racial profiling.  Louisiana and North Carolina also have similar reporting requirements. North Carolina also makes the data collected available to the public.
  • Kentucky bans the use of racial profiling by law enforcement officers and provides funds to develop local anti-racial profiling guidelines.
  • New Jersey enacted a law in 2003 that makes racial profiling by police a felony.

Because of fears of racial profiling, legislators in Missouri killed a bill that would allow police to pull people over solely for not wearing seat belts. While there is an argument for encouraging greater seat belt use in the name of public safety, the danger of increased racial profiling overrode the bill.

State Efforts to Stop Hate Crimes:   Along with stopping profiling by police, states have been stepping up to stop racially-motivated attacks on victims of color. All but five states have hate crimes legislation to add penalties to crimes where they were motivated by hatred towards a person or group based on racial, ethnic, religious, gender or sexual orientation animus.

Most of the hate crimes statutes are like Wisconsin, which has a "penalty-enhancement" statute that provides additional penalties for hate crimes.  According to the statute, if the underlying crime is a misdemeanor, the statute changes the misdemeanor into a felony.  If the underlying crime is a felony, the maximum period of imprisonment can be increased up to 5 years and the fine may be increased by $5,000.  Some other states, like Washington, make hate crimes a distinct crime called "malicious harassment." 

 

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Conclusion

 

The depth of institutional racial discrimination is disheartening and, despite many conservative talking points that such problems are naturally going away, the problems remain, as many studies attest. Instead, strong state action is needed to overcome such persistent racism. Violators of equal treatment laws need to face harsher consequences to reinforce the idea that discrimination of any kind is unacceptable. 

 

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