Racial discrimination and income

Two recent studies, one by Katherine L. Bradbury, vice president and economist at the Boston Federal Reserve Bank, and the other by two Rutgers Law School professors, document the extent of employment discrimination against African Americans and its impact on their earnings.

Bradbury’s study compared income disparities between Black and white workers between 1980 and 2000 and found that the higher the educational level, the wider the income gap. The most glaring disparity was between workers with more than a college education who saw their weekly earnings increase by 20 percent during those years and those who failed to finish high school and saw their wages decline by 25 percent.

The study shows that while earnings of Black men with a college degree plus were about 85 percent of their white contemporaries in 1980, they had declined to about 75 percent by 2000. For less than high school, the gap increased from about 83 percent to about 93 percent, due almost entirely to the disappearance of living-wage jobs for less-educated workers.

The pattern for Black women is similar.

“At the end of the 1990s, Blacks not only earned lower wages at each educational level, but also realized less of a payoff for additional education than otherwise similar non-Blacks,” Bradbury wrote.

In her conclusion Bradbury offered two possible explanations for the growing gap in the advantages of education: 1) Institutional factors, including discrimination, and 2) differences in the quality of education, implying that individuals with similar “educational attainment” do not actually have the same education.

The Rutgers study reinforces Bradbury’s conclusions. It begins by asking if the labor market is a “level playing field,” when it comes to employment, job assignment, promotion, lay-off or discharge or “an uphill struggle for women and minorities against intentional job discrimination.”

Its authors say 90 percent of the workers interviewed for the study “were subject to discrimination that was so severe that there was only one chance in a hundred that it occurred by accident.” They add that discrimination is universal and exists in all regions, industries and occupations.

The study concludes by saying, “The ‘glass ceiling’ is now visible. It appears in the sharp differentiation between the proportion of minorities and women as officials and managers, and the much larger proportions in the other occupational categories from which officials and managers normally come.” Some two million minorities and women were victims of intentional discrimination in 1999.

The fact that Black and Latino workers at any given educational level earn less than white workers is especially important because of the growing number of higher-educated workers and because real wages are declining for workers who do not have a college education. Discrimination in employment is compounded by widespread discrimination against Blacks and Latinos in education, housing and health care.

The recommendations of both studies are weak. But Bradbury does propose more vigorous government action at all levels and expanded enforcement. She also sees mass action by civil rights and women’s organizations as important.

Neither study addresses the discrimination in educational opportunities, or the fact that good jobs are probably less likely to be available in areas where many minorities live. But both are important and offer ammunition for those engaged in struggles for equal opportunity.

The author can be reached at fgab708@aol.com