[NOTE: This post has been UPDATED]
On “The Great Divide,” a “series on inequality” on the New York Times “Opinionator” blog moderated by Nobel Prize-winning Columbia economist and former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors and former chief economist for the World Bank Joseph Stiglitz, Nancy DiTomaso courageously rejects what, to her, is “the most obvious explanation” for why black unemployment is nearly twice the national average, discrimination (“How Social Networks Drive Black Unemployment,” May 5).
On the contrary, argues DiTomaso, a sociologist and Vice Dean for Faculty and Research at the Rutgers Business School, “this entrenched disparity” is caused by “a somewhat different culprit,” nepotism and its first cousin, favoritism, but this “culprit” is really just racism once removed.
Getting an inside edge by using help from family and friends is a powerful, hidden force driving inequality in the United States.
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.
Indeed, DiTomaso finds the road to employment so paved with race that she derides the very idea of a job “market” because the good jobs are “protected from market competition” by what amounts to racial insider trading.
In this context of widespread networking, the idea that there is a job “market” based solely on skills, qualifications and merit is false. Whenever possible, Americans seeking jobs try to avoid market competition: they look for unequal rather than equal opportunity. In fact, the last thing job seekers want to face is equal opportunity; they want an advantage. They want to find ways to cut in line and get ahead.
…. 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.
Because we still live largely segregated lives, such networking fosters categorical inequality: whites help other whites, especially when unemployment is high. Although people from every background may try to help their own, whites are more likely to hold the sorts of jobs that are protected from market competition, that pay a living wage and that have the potential to teach skills and allow for job training and advancement. So, just as opportunities are unequally distributed, they are also unequally redistributed.
By now you can see where this is going, right? Sure you can. It’s an elaborate if somewhat farcical defense of affirmative action, which is opposed by whites not based on any principle of equal treatment but precisely because whites — especially the least talented among them — are bitterly clinging to privileges they think their whiteness has earned them.
Seeing contemporary labor-market politics through the lens of favoritism, rather than discrimination alone, is revealing. It explains, for example, why even though the majority of all Americans, including whites, support civil rights in principle, there is widespread opposition on the part of many whites to affirmative action policies — despite complaints about “reverse discrimination,” my research demonstrated that the real complaint is that affirmative action undermines long-established patterns of favoritism.
The interviewees in my study who were most angry about affirmative action were those who had relatively fewer marketable skills — and were therefore most dependent on getting an inside edge for the best jobs. Whites who felt entitled to these positions believed that affirmative action was unfair because it blocked their own privileged access.
Her argument, in short, is that government-supported black and Hispanic preferences are necessary to counter the entrenched white privilege protected by “social networking.” At least there’s no claptrap about “diversity” here.
There are a number of problems with DiTomaso’s theory, not least of which is its failure to account for Asian success. Why does the white privileged “social networking” that continues to reproduce racial inequality not repress Asians as it represses blacks and Hispanics?
It is tempting to conclude that only a sociologist could listen to large numbers of people “profess strong support for civil rights and equal opportunity regardless of race,” as she reports in her book, The American Non-Dilemma (rejecting from the title to the conclusion Gunnar Myrdal’s emphasis on “the American creed” of equality), and conclude that they suffer from delusional inconsistency because “they continue to harbor strong reservations about public policies—such as affirmative action—intended to ameliorate racial inequality.” Alas DiTomaso’s inability to see that many people oppose affirmative action precisely because of, not in spite of, their devotion to civil rights is widely shared in the academic-media-Democratic party complex.
Jonathan Capehart, a chip off the Eugene Robinson block at the Washington Post and MSNBC, offers a self-flattering endorsement of DiTomaso’s piece, including an almost hilariously unwitting confirmation that one of her criticisms of whites hoarding white privilege can also apply to blacks enjoying “social networking” privileges extended to them . DiTomaso claimed to find in her research that whites were typically oblivious to the degree they had benefited from white privilege-based networks.
When I asked my interviewees what most contributed to their level of career success, they usually discussed how hard they had worked and how uncertain were the outcomes — not the help they had received throughout their lives to gain most of their jobs. In fact, only 14 percent mentioned that they had received help of any kind from others.
Here is Capehart’s conclusion:
“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.
And what is Capehart’s “own experience” that demonstrates to him “having a dream and being willing to put in the hard work to turn that dream into a reality” can overcome the barriers of “white privilege” and race-based favoritism that in effect reserves for whites “jobs that are protected from market competition”? Let him explain:
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.
Capehart’s career, in short, has been built on a foundation of favoritism and, he acknowledges, affirmative action, and his success would seem to contradict DiTomaso as much as confirm her since it demonstrates that in today’s world blacks enjoy many of the same — and thanks to affirmative action, often more — privileges than whites (and certainly more than the Asians absent from DiTomaso’s analysis).
His career also demonstrates another important truth seemingly absent from DiTomaso’s analysis: there’s more to employment than getting a job; you also have to be qualified for and able to do the job. To his and his various employers’ credit, after all, Jonathan Capehart is no Jayson Blair.