Formerly Incarcerated Black Women and the Anti-Black Labor Market

Dr. Algernon Austin is available to lecture on "Anti-Black Discrimination in the Age of Obama." Analyzing and reviewing unemployment data, audit studies, and wage analyses, he shows that it is not a "culture of failure" that holds blacks back, but persistent anti-black discrimination.

Contact him for more details.


In 2007, there were over 200,000 women in prison or in jail. Of these women, nearly a third were black, giving black women an incarceration rate that approached four times the white female rate (see Prison Inmates at Midyear 2007, [PDF] Tables 9 and 10). The large and growing numbers of women, and particularly women of color, in America's prisons and jails led researchers at Henderson Center for Social Justice at the UC Berkeley School of Law to assess the effect of a criminal record and race on women's employment prospects [PDF]. This question has been asked of men, but to my knowledge this was the first investigation of these issues for women.

The study builds on the work of some recent discrimination studies that have received a fair amount of media attention. It employs a variation of the paired-tester or audit methodology. This methodology presents equivalent information from job applicants in the same manner to employers. The job applicants are therefore the same as candidates except for race or a criminal record. By doing this testing, researchers can determine is employers tend to be biased based on race or a criminal record.

Probably the most famous of the recent paired-tester research is by Devah Pager and Bruce Western. They found that formerly incarcerated men were less likely to receive call-backs for interviews or job offers from employers. Black men were also less likely to receive favorable responses than white men. The surprising finding was that black men without a criminal record were treated about the same as white men with a criminal record.

Instead of using actual people to visit employers and apply for jobs, the Henderson Center researchers decided upon another now famous methodology. They sent similar résumés to employers but with names commonly assumed to be of a particular racial group. This technique was used by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan in their study, "Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal?" Bertrand and Mullainathan found that "white" names received 50 percent more callbacks for interviews than "black" names.

The Henderson Center researchers sent out comparable résumés to employers in the Bay Area of California with a subtle indications that some of the women were formerly incarcerated. They found, as the research of men did, that a criminal record significantly lowered the rates of positive responses.

The study was not large enough for strong conclusions on racial disparities, but it does suggest that black women have the most difficult time finding work in the Bay Area labor market. Résumés with "black" names were less likely to receive callbacks for an interview than those with "white" names. Among the formerly incarcerated, "black" résumés also did worse than "white" ones. The surprise in this study is that "black" women with and without a criminal record appeared to do equally poorly. In other words, it appeared as if all "black" women were treated as if they were black ex-offenders. Unlike in the study of men, "white" women with a record did better than, not equal to, "black" women. Again, because of the relatively small sample size, there is a potentially large margin of error in these findings. We need other researchers to replicate and refine this study with a larger sample to provide us with more solid results.

Some people believe that anti-black discrimination in the labor market is something that ended in the 1960s. If it does exist today, these people say that it is just a few bad apples. Collectively, these studies and as well as a large body of additional research shows that anti-black discrimination continues to be a reality across the country.

The data for the Pager and Western studies were collected in 2001 and 2004 in Milwaukee and New York City respectively. The data for the Bertrand and Mullainathan study was collected from 2001 to 2002 in Boston and Chicago. The data for the Henderson Center study was collected in 2008 in the Bay Area of California. The only way someone arrives at the idea that America is post-racial is by making a conscious effort to ignore all of the research showing the contrary.

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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.

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