Issue 137 - May 5 2005



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Whenever I write an article about racism, or give a speech concerning the ongoing reality of discrimination in the labor market, I am assailed by those who refuse to believe what virtually any study done in the past two decades confirms: namely, that people of color are not seeing things, nor crazy when they suggest that racial bias is very much a modern-day phenomenon.

These assaults typically arrive in my e-mail inbox, within hours of an article going out over the web, as if pre-prepared long before, and as if their authors were simply waiting for an opportunity to pick an electronic fight.

Sometimes their retorts are little more than racist rants about how blacks and Latinos are lazy, or how American Indians are all drunk. But oftentimes the denial comes wrapped in far more sophisticated garb than that, occasionally bordering on the scholarly, in fact.

While some of the conservatives who regale me with their rationalizations for racial inequality manage to quote a gaggle of right wing "experts" to help make their case, the claims they forward are hardly the stronger for it.

For example, the argument that racial wage gaps merely reflect different levels of experience and qualifications between whites and blacks is simply untenable, when one examines the data.

Fact is, earnings gaps persist at all levels of education. According to Census data, whites with high school diplomas, college degrees or Master's Degrees all earn approximately twenty percent more than their black counterparts. Even more striking, whites with professional degrees (such as medicine or law) earn, on average, thirty-one percent more than similar blacks and fifty-two percent more than similar Latinos.

Even when levels of work experience are the same between blacks and whites, the racial wage gap remains between 10-20 percent.

Looking at whites and blacks of similar age, doing the same work, earnings gaps remain significant. Among 25-34 year olds, white lawyers, computer programmers, and carpenters earn, on average, about one-fourth more than comparable blacks; white doctors and accountants earn, on average, one-third more than comparable blacks; and even white janitors earn sixteen percent more, on average, than comparable blacks.

Although these gaps do not necessarily reflect overt discrimination by employers in fact, they mostly reflect the segmented labor market, whereby whites have greater access to more lucrative clients and companies the effect is the same: whites continue to receive advantages in the labor market over equally qualified blacks.

And contrary to the claims of some, differences in black and white wages are not the result of different cognitive abilities or IQ scores. The results of over thirty studies confirm that test scores and other academic achievement differences can account for no more than three percent of the wage gaps between whites and blacks.

The two most common excuses for racial wage inequity are age and geography: excuses popularized by black conservatives like Thomas Sowell, and repeated ad infinitum by white reactionaries like Abigail and Stephen Thernstrom.

Since blacks are, on average, younger than whites they will earn less, so the argument goes; and since blacks disproportionately live in the South a lower-wage region of the country they will earn less, even if there were no racism operating in labor markets.

Regarding age, though the median age among whites is about nine years older than the median for blacks, and although persons who are older typically earn more than those who are younger, this fact does not explain differences between white and black earnings, and even to the extent it is a factor, it cannot be separated from the issue of racism.

First, even when whites and blacks of comparable age are compared, wage gaps remain substantial. Black men with college degrees earn, on average, 20-25 percent less than comparable white men, even when they are the same age.

White families headed by persons of every age group are far better off than comparable blacks, and indeed a black family headed by a 45-54 year old is 3.5 times more likely to be poor than a comparable white family, and twenty percent more likely to be poor than a white family headed by someone who is twenty years younger!

Secondly, the older median age for whites is due to a larger number of elderly citizens, which is the result of longer life expectancy. But of course, life expectancy itself is related to racism, so age gaps between whites and blacks hardly qualify as an independent variable to explain income inequality.

As a number of studies have documented, blacks routinely have less access to high-quality health care, and also suffer from discriminatory treatment at the hands of doctors. Even when health care is available, doctors are less likely to order a full range of diagnostic tests and treatments for black patients than for whites, even when these patients' finances and insurance coverage are comparable to their white counterparts.

Even when comparing blacks and whites of comparable age, sex, severity of disease, geographic location, and other factors that could influence the quality of medical treatment, blacks are sixty percent less likely to receive a coronary angioplasty or bypass surgery to relieve a serious heart condition.

As one study found, doctors presented with identical patient histories and symptoms overwhelmingly refer whites for more advanced treatment. According to the study, which presented doctors with videotaped patient interviews (actually actors trained to pose as patients with identical medical histories and symptoms), doctors were far less likely to refer black women for aggressive treatment of cardiac symptoms than white women.

When asked to give their impression of the actors (whom they believed to be real patients), doctors routinely said they perceived the black "patients" as less intelligent, less likely to follow doctor's recommendations and thus cooperate with a treatment regimen, and more likely to miss appointments: this, despite the fact that the actors had made identical comments and had presented identical symptoms.

So, if whites have a longer life expectancy, and if this is due in part to racially disparate provision of health care, it is absurd to claim that the younger average age of the black community explains racial earnings gaps, independent of racism, since the age gaps and racism are intimately related.

Even racism experienced outside the realm of health care is correlated with negative health outcomes. After all, the biggest killer of African Americans is high blood pressure leading to stroke, heart disease and kidney failure; and high blood pressure has been shown to be associated with experiences with racism.

Additionally, there is a significant reason why median ages for whites and blacks, despite their disparity, would have virtually no actual impact on median wages for either group, and thus would be incapable of explaining racial earnings gaps: namely, the younger median age for blacks is caused by a disproportionate number of youth in the black community relative to whites. But neither the elderly whites who skew white average ages upward, nor black youth who skew black average ages downward, have an effect on median earnings for either group. This should be obvious since neither white elderly or black children are generally in the labor force, and thus are incapable of affecting the earnings of those between the ages of 15-65 who are.

The only real issue of importance in terms of relative white or black ages, and how those might affect earnings, is the relative ages of whites and blacks who are actually in the labor force, or potential labor force, which will generally mean those between 15-65.

If anything, white workers are probably a bit younger on average than black workers, for two reasons. First, white teens are more likely to be working or looking for work thanks to greater job opportunities. Indeed, there is a persistent 15-20 percentage point gap between white and black teen unemployment rates. While whites are only sixty-five percent of persons 15-17, they are seventy-six percent of such persons with a job (thereby
affecting wage rates). Likewise, blacks are fifteen percent of 15-17 year olds, but less than eight percent of such persons with a job.

Secondly, blacks are more likely to work longer into their older years, thanks to having less accumulated capital and thus being unable to retire as early as whites. So, if anything, the median age of those in the workforce would likely be higher for blacks than whites, which means that using conservative logic, the older average black workforce should earn more than its younger white counterpart.

According to Census data, 66.5 percent of whites and sixty-six percent of blacks are between the ages of 15-64: the years of typical labor market eligibility; sixteen percent of whites and sixteen percent of blacks are 35-44 and fifteen percent of whites and a little more than twelve percent of blacks are 45-54, the peak earning years for those in the American labor market.

In other words, the median age differences for the cohorts whose potential presence in the labor market might actually affect wages are not capable of explaining the substantial wage differentials between blacks and whites.

Finally, some dismiss claims of discrimination as central to the earnings gap, by claiming that disparities are largely a function of geography. In other words, because blacks are concentrated in the south and because the south is a lower-wage region, naturally blacks will have lower median earnings.

But where blacks live is hardly a variable that is independent of racism: after all, blacks are heavily concentrated in the south due to a history of slavery and sharecropping that was disproportionately concentrated in the southern states. As such, to whatever extent geography plays a role in lower black wages, it is impossible to disentangle this reality from the history of racial oppression.

Secondly, although there are earnings differences between families living in different regions, these differences are far smaller than the observed racial gaps. The region with the least blacks, for example, only outstrips the south in terms of median earnings by about a thousand dollars annually.

This is far below the typical racial gap between white and black families, which is over $15,000 a year.

In truth, black median incomes in every region are lower than median incomes for whites, so that even if one controls for location of residence and only compares like families, racial disparities remain.

As a parent, I have learned how readily children will offer virtually any excuse for their own misbehaviors, some of which can be quite creative, even comical. While such prevarication can be endearing when practiced by a four year old, it becomes quite a bit less amusing when practiced by so-called social scientists out to debunk what all rational persons realize, and what all the best evidence demonstrates: namely, that racism is far from a thing of the past, and that whites continue to receive substantial privileges and preferences in the American labor market.

Tim Wise is the author of two recently published books: White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son (Soft Skull Press) and Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White (Routledge). His website is and he can be reached at [email protected].

You are encouraged to write to Mr. Wise for footnotes to this article.

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