A new study from a researcher out of Boston University found that employers in Oakland, California, were less likely to hire Black men for low-skill service-industry jobs if more violent crime than usual had been committed recently in the area, suggesting that racist stereotypes tying Black men to violence impact hiring practices.
Sanaz Mobasseri, an assistant professor of Management & Organizations at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, who designed and executed the study, researches employment and how characteristics like gender and race can impact it.
She thought she might see some shift in attitudes when a violent crime was committed near a workplace — violence has an effect on the human psyche, causing people’s world views to narrow around a given event.
Even she was surprised by the results.
The preference for hiring White people over Black people with equal education and background is nothing new — previous work has shown a 50 percent gap in callbacks between White applicants and their Black counterparts.
Similarly, employers are more likely to reject people with criminal convictions than without one, all other factors being equal.
However, if violent crime above average levels had been committed recently and near the business, employers were roughly 10 percent less likely to call back applicants who they believed were Black men, a result that didn’t vary much whether the applicant had a criminal history or not.
If violent crime above average levels had been committed recently and near the business, employers were roughly 10 percent less likely to call back applicants who they believed were Black men, a result that didn’t vary much whether the applicant had a criminal history or not.
“It’s striking that the race penalty is so persistent,” Mobasseri said. “I was not expecting to find it.”
To test her hypothesis, Mobasseri had to design the experiment in such a way that employers would think that applications were coming from White, Black or Latinx men.
She chose Oakland in part because she knew the area — Mobasseri got her doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley, which neighbors Oakland to the north.
The city was also a good choice because of its diversity, and the propensity of employers to take on diverse candidates even with criminal histories.
At the time, Oakland’s population was 28 percent Black, 26 percent White, 25 percent Hispanic and 17 percent Asian.
The blend of ethnicities was crucial so that employers didn’t become suspicious when they received applications from people that they believed were Black, White or Hispanic, Mobasseri said.
“It’s not a real field experiment if nothing you’re doing is realistic,” she explained.
Next, Mobasseri had to create the fake applications.
She worked with local nonprofits that help people apply for jobs and modeled applications from real résumés in an attempt to make them as realistic as possible.
“I literally counted the number of typos and punctuation mistakes,” Mobasseri said.
To indicate whether or not a person had a criminal history, Mobasseri listed correctional facilities on their work experience.
An applicant’s race was signaled through their name.
Mobasseri sent out applications to businesses in the food and beverage industry that she found on Craigslist, focusing primarily on “back of house” jobs in kitchens where prospective employers would be less likely to be deterred from hiring someone with a criminal history.
She included phone numbers that redirected to her cell phone through an app.
When she got a call back, she would either pretend she was the applicant’s girlfriend or sister, or she would ask her male officemate to answer for her.
To test whether or not there were changes based on violent crime in the area, she worked with the Oakland Police Department to get up-to-date crime statistics.
Then, she let the data flow in.
One key takeaway from the study was that the proximity of the crime in both time and space had an impact on calls back to Black applicants.
The impact on hiring decisions lessened if the crime was less recent or farther away from the business in question.
The results suggest that people making hiring decisions, even for low-skill service-industry jobs, associate Black men with crime and a violent crime event brings that perception to the fore.
“People’s cultural conceptions about Black men are deeply intertwined with criminality in the broader social consciousness, or deep in people’s collective minds,” Mobasseri said. Still, she was surprised to see the degree of the impact in Oakland.
“People’s cultural conceptions about Black men are deeply intertwined with criminality in the broader social consciousness, or deep in people’s collective minds.”
Her work has caused Mobasseri to assess her own actions to ensure that she’s not inadvertently allowing her decisions to be altered by external events.
“When I watch an overly violent television show, what does that mean when I grade my students’ exams?” she asked.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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