Is the United States justified in seeing itself as a meritocracy, where stark inequalities in pay and employment reflect differences in skills, education,and effort? Or does racial discrimination still permeate the labor market, resulting in the systematic under hiring and underpaying of racial minorities, regardless of merit? Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s African Americans have lost ground to whites in the labor market, but this widening racial inequality is most often attributed to economic restructuring, not the racial attitudes of employers. It is argued that the educational gap between blacks and whites, though narrowing, carries greater penalties now that we are living in an era of global trade and technological change that favors highly educated workers and displaces the low-skilled.
Stories Employers Tell demonstrates that this conventional wisdom is incomplete. Racial discrimination is still a fundamental part of the explanation of labor market disadvantage. Drawing upon a wide-ranging survey of employers in Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, and Los Angeles, Moss and Tilly investigate the types of jobs employers offer, the skills required, and the recruitment, screening and hiring procedures used to fill them. The authors then follow up in greater depth on selected employers to explore the attitudes, motivations, and rationale underlying their hiring decisions, as well as decisions about where to locate a business.
Moss and Tilly show how an employer's perception of the merit or suitability of a candidate is often colored by racial stereotypes and culture-bound expectations. The rising demand for soft skills, such as communication skills and people skills, opens the door to discrimination that is rarely overt, or even conscious, but is nonetheless damaging to the prospects of minority candidates and particularly difficult to police. Some employers expressed a concern to race-match employees with the customers they are likely to be dealing with. As more jobs require direct interaction with the public, race has become increasingly important in determining labor market fortunes. Frequently, employers also take into account the racial make-up of neighborhoods when deciding where to locate their businesses.
Ultimately, it is the hiring decisions of employers that determine whether today's labor market reflects merit or prejudice. This book, the result of years of careful research, offers us a rare opportunity to view the issue of discrimination through the employers' eyes.
PHILIP MOSS is professor in the Department of Regional Economic and Social Development at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.
CHRIS TILLY is University Professor of Regional Economics and Social
Development at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.
A Volume in the Multi-City Study of Urban Inequality