[Must read, must cite] Lincoln Quillian, et. al., (Northwestern, Harvard) on "Racial Discrimination in Hiring Over Time"...

“Meta-Analysis of Field Experiments Shows No Change in Racial Discrimination in Hiring Over Time”

Lincoln Quillian (Northwestern), Devah Pager (Harvard), Ole Hexel (Northwestern), and Arnfinn H. Midtbøen (ISR, Norway)

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Volume 114, Number 41 (October 2017).

Lincoln Quillian (Northwestern)

Lincoln Quillian (Northwestern)


These researchers from pre-eminent universities find that the degree of racial labor market discrimination/exclusion has remained pretty much constant since 1989.  These findings not only call into question the United States’ commitment to ending racism, they may also undermine progressive coalitions and the political capital spent on enacting anti-discrimination laws.  They seem to verify Derrick Bell’s Interest Convergence Theory, which insists that whites will fight for civil rights when it is in their interest to do so; however, because the sale of labor is competitive, reducing labor market exclusions is not an interest on which blacks and whites converge.  I refer to this legal-economic dynamic in terms of an “imperfectly ‘free’ market” as ‘asymmetrical imperfect market competition’.

“We observe no change in the level of hiring discrimination against African Americans over the past 25 years, although we find modest evidence of a decline in discrimination against Latinos. Accounting for applicant education, applicant gender, study method, occupational groups, and local labor market conditions does little to alter this result. Contrary to claims of declining discrimination in American society, our estimates suggest that levels of discrimination remain largely unchanged, at least at the point of hire.”

Quillian, etc., identify commonly cited indicators of racial progress:

“[A] variety of indicators pointed toward a reduction of discriminatory treatment. Surveys indicated that whites increasingly endorsed the principle of equal treatment regardless of race (4). Rates of high school graduation for whites and African Americans converged substantially, and the black–white test score gap declined (5, 6). Large companies increasingly recognized diversity as a goal and revamped their hiring to curtail practices that disadvantaged minority applicants (7). With the election of the country’s first African-American president in 2008, many concluded that the country had finally moved beyond its troubled racial past (8).”

They are, however, cognizant of the winds blowing in the opposite directions:

“[R]acial gaps in unemployment have shown little change since 1980 (9, 10), and the black–white gap in labor force participation rates among young men widened during this time (11). Recently, the Black Lives Matter movement shone a spotlight on the ongoing struggles with racism and discrimination experienced by people of color in interactions with law enforcement. The election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States with the support of antiimmigrant and white nationalist groups highlighted the persistence of racial resentment (12) ….[R]acial bias has taken on new forms, becoming more contingent, subtle, and covert (15–18) ”

The authors perform a ‘meta-analysis’ in which they crunch all available studies between 1989-2015 (published and unpublished) from field work in every labor context available that use ‘fictionalized matched candidates’ to determine whether similarly situated applicants are treated similarly. 

“These studies include both resume audits, in which fictionalized resumes with distinct racial names are submitted online or by mail (e.g., ref. 19), and in-person audits, in which racially dissimilar but otherwise matched pairs of trained testers apply for jobs (e.g., ref. 20).”

The primary goal for each experiment was to receive a ‘callback’:

“We assess discrimination for each study using the ratio of the proportion of applications that received “callbacks”—or invitations to interview—by white applicants relative to African-American or Latino applicants. We calculated the proportions based on counts of the number of callbacks received by each group (white/African American/Latino) within each study.”

Their findings:

“On average, white applicants receive 36% more callbacks than equally qualified African Americans (95% confidence interval of 25–47% more), based on random-effects meta-analysis of data since 1989, representing a substantial degree of direct discrimination. White applicants receive on average 24% more callbacks than Latinos (95% confidence interval of 15–33% more).”

This does not reflect positive change:

“[W]e see no clear change over time in the level of hiring discrimination against African Americans.”

With respect to Latinos, the numbers show some positive movement, except the bank of studies are fewer and therefore the conclusions therefrom are less reliable:

“Latinos in 1990 to 15% more callbacks in 2010 (1.30 vs. 1.15). Because of the small number of Latino field experiments (n = 9), there is high uncertainty in characterizing this trend.”

The studies with respect to African Americans were sufficient to account for different personal attributes as well as regional differences:

“The “Applicant Attributes” model introduces covariates representing applicant characteristics (e.g., gender, education) and study design (resume or in-person audits). The “UE & Regions” model adds controls for the unemployment rate of the local metropolitan area and dummy variables for region. The “Occupations” model includes controls for occupational categories of blue collar, officefocused, and restaurant occupations.”

The authors are careful to limit their conclusions to the hiring process.  They remain hopeful that other aspects of labor relations, like promotions and harassment, have gotten better:

“[F]rom an accountability standpoint, discrimination is less easily detected, and therefore less costly to employers, at the point of hire (26). It may be the case, then, that more meaningful reductions in discrimination have taken place at other points in the employment relationship not measured here. What our results point to, however, is that at the initial point of entry—hiring decisions—African Americans remain substantially disadvantaged relative to equally qualified whites, and we see little indication of progress over time.”

The authors conclude in favor of strong enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, as well as the implementation of affirmative action programs.

“Discrimination continues, and we find little evidence in regards to African Americans that it is disappearing or even gradually diminishing. Instead, we find the persistence of discrimination at a distressingly uniform rate.”

If you are scholar who cites Derrick Bell’s Faces at the Bottom of the Well for the proposition that racism is permanent, this the study for you.


Other works by Lincoln Quillian:

Quillian, Lincoln. 2017. “Segregation as a Source of Contextual Advantage.” RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences 3(2): 152–169.

Quillian, Lincoln and Hugues Lagrange. 2016. “Socioeconomic Segregation in Large Cities in France and the United States.” Demography 53(4):1051–84.

Does Segregation Create Winners and Losers? Residential Segregation and Inequality in Educational Attainment Social Problems 61(3): 402-426, 2014

Segregation and Poverty Concentration: The Role of Three Segregations American Sociological Review 77(3): 354-379, 2012

Estimating Risk: Stereotype Amplification and the Perceived Risk of Criminal Victimization With Devah Pager; Social Psychology Quarterly (ASA), 2010

Walking the Talk? What Employers Say Versus What They Do With Devah Pager; American Sociological Review, 2005