Rutgers University professor Nancy DiTomaso has an intriguing piece on the New York Times’ Web site. At first blush, “How Social Networks Drive Black Unemployment” might seem simplistic. A few times while reading it, “Well, duh!” crept into my head. But DiTomaso’s argument that “favoritism” is as much responsible for African American employment troubles as is “discrimination” is a more nuanced and complete look at the problem than I’ve seen before. It also holds an implicit lesson for blacks striving to get ahead.
“Getting an inside edge by using help from family and friends is a powerful, hidden force driving inequality in the United States,” DiTomaso writes. “Such favoritism has a strong racial component. Through such seemingly innocuous networking, white Americans tend to help other whites, because social resources are concentrated among whites. If African-Americans are not part of the same networks, they will have a harder time finding decent jobs.” She adds, “The mechanism that reproduces inequality, in other words, may be inclusion more than exclusion.”
Even though DiTomaso’s thesis focuses on the black-white divide, her observations about favoritism cuts across all lines.
You don’t usually need a strong social network to land a low-wage job at a fast-food restaurant or retail store. But trying to land a coveted position that offers a good salary and benefits is a different story. To gain an edge, job seekers actively work connections with friends and family members in pursuit of these opportunities.
Help is not given to just anyone, nor is it available from everyone. Inequality reproduces itself because help is typically reserved for people who are “like me”: the people who live in my neighborhood, those who attend my church or school or those with whom I have worked in the past. It is only natural that when there are jobs to be had, people who know about them will tell the people who are close to them, those with whom they identify, and those who at some point can reciprocate the favor.
“People who are ‘like me’ ” is as much a class statement as it is one about race. I can’t tell you how many times a classmate, former co-worker or friend who was white asked for my help (a recommendation, an introduction, a lead) in looking for or securing a job. And I have been more than happy to help. But I am well aware that, in the grand scheme of things, I am the exception to DiTomaso’s rule. In fact, looking back on my own career I see the helping hand of affirmative action. Yet I also see the not-so-invisible hand of the favoritism that DiTomaso say gives whites a leg up in securing the good-paying jobs every American strives for.
After graduating from Carleton College, I worked as assistant to the president of my alma mater. It was a year-long post awarded to a graduating senior. As my stint drew to a close, I started looking for jobs in television in New York. Thomas B. Morgan, class of 1949 and a Carleton trustee, overheard me talking to another trustee about my job search. He’d just been appointed by Mayor David Dinkins to run then-city-owned WNYC television and radio stations, and he asked if I’d want to work for him as his assistant. I took the job.
Two years later, I was a researcher at the “Today” show. But one day I got a call from Bob Laird, then the op-ed editor of the New York Daily News. The new publisher was looking for young people who could write for the tabloid’s editorial page. Laird, who worked with Morgan in the administration of Mayor John Lindsay, called his old friend for ideas. Morgan gave him my name. And it was such favoritism that led to my career in newspapers.
“There’s no question that discrimination is still a problem in the American economy. But whites helping other whites is not the same as discrimination, and it is not illegal,” DiTomaso writes. “Yet it may have a powerful effect on the access that African-Americans and other minorities have to good jobs, or even to the job market itself.”
The key takeaway in that assertion for me is that, while favoritism has a powerful effect on access, it is not an insurmountable effect. It requires having a dream and being willing to put in the hard work to turn that dream into reality. It’s not easy, but as my own experience attests, it certainly is possible.
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