Twice in little more than three months, two reputable organizations have produced separate studies showing glaring disparities in the employment levels of college-trained blacks and whites in metropolitan Washington.
First, the Grier Partnership, a private research and consulting firm, and then the Washington Urban League delivered the same unequivocal conclusion: Large numbers of college-trained blacks in metropolitan Washington experience great difficulty in obtaining jobs commensurate with their qualifications. According to both studies, discrimination is a major underlying factor in the apparent inability of many blacks to obtain professional and executive-type jobs.
Neither study uncovered any great secret, but what makes them significant is that two organizations, working independently, published findings that elevated the issue of job discrimination in public debate.
And the reaction that followed in some cases was as revealing as the findings in the studies. At minimum, some attempts to explain the plight of college-educated blacks in the job market reflect an insensitivity, if not a misunderstanding, of the causes and effects of the problem. Indeed, many of the stereotypes contained in some rationalizations may help to explain the mentality at work in the hiring and promotion of black college graduates.
Take, for example, the comment that white men may major more in engineering and the sciences, "which are more attractive to employers than the degrees black men have."
What are we to discern from that? That black college graduates are more likely to hold degrees in unmarketable skills? Are professional and managerial jobs being sought only by black college graduates with degrees in recreation, basket weaving or education?
Not only does that connote a serious indictment of predominantly black colleges; it also suggests that predominantly white universities are graduating black students who can't apply their training in related fields of endeavor. It is the kind of thinking that assumes a) that few black applicants for jobs in the Washington area are graduates of predominantly white universities, or b) that blacks with degrees from Harvard, Michigan, Georgia Tech or the University of Maryland don't seek professional challenges in Washington.
Even if the canard about college degrees were true, Washington is no Silicon Valley. The economy of the city and surrounding areas is dominated by federal employment and the services sector. Retail chains, real estate companies, law firms, insurance companies, the lodging industry and trade associations haven't shown much demand for engineers and scientists.
If there is a weakness in either the Grier study or the Urban League's findings, it is the absence of data supported by empirical evidence telling us why black college graduates here experience discrimination in the workplace. Beyond that, it would be useful to know what Washington's business community is prepared to do now that charges of racial discrimination in the workplace have been raised above a whisper among black professionals.
The Greater Washington Board of Trade might consider it worthwhile to address the issue, if for no other reason than to remove the stigma of discrimination from the business community. The board announced with considerable fanfare at the beginning of the year that it would conduct a study of the employment problem here in an attempt to reduce joblessness.
Another broad study of the unemployment problem at this stage would be superfluous unless there is a commitment within the business community to add more minority employes at the professional level as well as in unskilled positions. Research and studies by the D.C. Department of Employment Services provide ample information about the extent of joblessness in the area. What's more, the DES has developed a fairly accurate profile of the labor force, including the underemployed and the unemployed. If the business community is serious about wanting to change the status quo, then it has to address the findings in the Grier Report and the Urban League's study as well as the problems of the hardcore unemployed. To do that it must be prepared to face the issue, as R. Robert Linowes, a prominent Washington lawyer and business leader, sees it. The barrier to black college-educated applicants is "the very nature of the person being different," Linowes said in an interview for a recent Washington Post story. "There is that latent feeling that I'm sure exists."
George Grier, who coauthored the Grier study, reinforced Linowes' theory in the same story when he observed: "If you're used to seeing a white male, you'll hire a white male."
That's quite a commentary on the times and Washington's business sector.