Discrimination has long been seen as the primary reason for this disparity, which is evident among workers from engineers to laborers. But fresh research has led scholars to conclude that African Americans also suffer in the labor market from having weaker social networks than other groups.
Having friends and relatives who can introduce you to bosses or tell you about ripe opportunities has proved to be one of the most critical factors in getting work. Such connections can also help people hold onto their jobs, researchers say.
“It is surprising to many people how important job networks are to finding work,” said Deirdre A. Royster, a New York University sociologist. “The information they provide help people make a good first impression, get through screening and get hired.”
Cruise, who is black, said that in her early years in business she struggled to place her mostly minority clientele. Part of the problem, she suspected, was whites were more often in a position to hire and “tend to hire people who look like them.”
“African Americans are constantly fighting to overcome a perception of being less-than,” she said. “You have the president of the United States, you have Oprah, you have all the people who have done phenomenal things. But they are seen as the exception.”
Several studies show that black workers tend to lack these connections.
In her research, Royster followed the experiences of a group of similarly situated black and white men, all graduates of the same vocational school and who sought jobs in the same areas. She screened the men for things that might normally affect their employability: values, work ethic and performance. It turned out that the white men did much better getting jobs, which she said grew in part from their access to a more robust network of contacts.
“It just happens to be the case that if you are a white guy you are more likely to know people who have access to a certain set of jobs,” she said. “It has to do with becoming part of a network of reciprocity.”
Recent research also shows immigrants have active networks that help new arrivals navigate the country, and trading information about jobs is an important part of that.
That is one reason that Hispanics — more than a third of whom are foreign born — have lower jobless rates than African Americans despite, on average, having fewer educational credentials.
“Immigrants have to use their networks for a larger variety of activities than other people,” Royster said.