Research Findings

How neighborhood violence affects employment discrimination


November 27, 2019

Today, employers’ discrimination against black men applying for jobs is notoriously prevalent in the United States. It is commonly accepted that employers’ racial bias explains disparities in how often black versus white men receive job offers. Seeing a black name on a résumé, for example, could activate a range of stereotypes that depict young black men as aggressive, criminal, and violent, which are widely-known in society and deeply rooted in our collective consciousness.

Not only can names on a résumé activate stereotypes – but events that transpire in a neighborhood can also influence people’s reliance on stereotypes, especially right after they happen. For example, after a police officer is shot by a black suspect, other police officers increase their use of force in routine stops with black people.

This curious and consequential link between what people perceive and what happens in their neighborhood led me to investigate whether violent crimes that occur in an employer’s neighborhood influence the stereotypes they activate when reviewing résumés for a job opening. Experiencing violence, either by seeing it on your block, hearing about it from a neighbor, or watching it on the evening news scares people, leading them to avoid public transportation and/or even begin carrying a weapon.

Because the connotation between blacks and violent crime is so strong, even minimal exposure to localized violence (e.g., when one employer hears from another about recent, nearby violence) is likely to activate stereotypes about blacks and criminality.

To study the link between neighborhood violence and employer’s evaluation of white, black, and Hispanic job applicants, I submitted résumés for hypothetical job applicants to real job openings for back-of-the-house positions at restaurants in Oakland, California. I used different types of names to signal the race of the applicant to real employers—names like Alan Sullivan, Armando Hernandez, and Jamal Robinson.

I also varied whether or not the hypothetical job applicant had been incarcerated for a nonviolent crime so I could see if having an actual criminal record, rather than just assuming criminal behavior is associated with specific racial groups, made a difference for employers’ callbacks to white, black, or Hispanic men.

Overall, I found that employers’ callback rate for black job applicants is 11 percentage points lower than the callback rate for white or Hispanic job applicants. Put another way, a black man must apply to twice as many jobs to earn the same number of callbacks as his white or Hispanic counterparts.

Applicants with a criminal record suffer a 12 percentage point penalty in callback rate from employers as compared to applicants without a criminal record—applying to 50% more jobs, than otherwise equivalent job applicants.

But I still wondered if employers’ exposure to recent violence in their neighborhood affected callback rates for different types of job applicants.

To measure an employer’s exposure to violence, I used data detailing where and when crime events occurred in the city from the Oakland Police Department. Then I counted how many violent crimes occurred in the restaurant’s neighborhood in the days just before I submitted a fictitious résumé to the restaurant’s real job opening.

When prospective employers were exposed to more recent and proximate violent crimes than was typical for their neighborhood, the callback rate for black job applicants was further reduced by 10 percentage points, exacerbating the effect of their race on getting a job.

Callback rates for Hispanic and white job applicants, on the other hand, were not reduced. For job applicants with a criminal record, who already suffered a twelve percentage point penalty, exposure to recent proximate violent crime events had no additional impact on employers’ callback rates.

Surprisingly, employers’ callback rates for all black job applicants, whether they had a criminal record or not, were similar—regardless of whether or not employers were exposed to more recent and proximate violent crimes. Apparently, the typical employer does not perceive a distinction between black men with and without a criminal record—penalizing by association the entire population of black men. This suggests that race and criminality remain deeply intertwined in our cultural consciousness.

These study results highlight that how employers evaluate job applicants is a dynamic process where their racialized judgments are shaped by neighborhood violence. Neighborhoods and the events that transpire within them can have different effects for different people: in this case, neighborhood violence negatively shapes employment opportunities for black men, but not white and Hispanic men, even those with a criminal record.

This means that a black male job applicant is unlikely to find employment in a neighborhood that has recently experienced an uptick in crime: this is not the case for white and Hispanic men.

If modern prejudice is so cloaked that it can lie deep in a person’s unconscious, understanding the social contextual characteristics that trigger these beliefs is critical for investigating when and how racial prejudice is consequential. The psychological ripples of violence linger in people’s minds, such that prejudicial stereotypes about blackness are activated and lead to discriminatory outcomes. Thus violence has the potential to affect some social groups, such as black men, twice: first, through mere exposure and, second, through exclusion from the labor market.

In contrast and at a broader level, these findings also suggest that exposure to violence has the potential to shape perceptions of whiteness in evaluation processes, including where and when advantages accrue to white men with and without a criminal record.

This study provides new evidence that employers are nearly equally likely to call back black men and black men with a criminal record, suggesting that they already assume that black men have a criminal disposition even when a record is not disclosed on their résumé.

Read more

Sanaz Mobasseri. “Race, Place, and Crime: How Violent Crime Events Affect Employment Discrimination.” American Journal of Sociology 2019.

Image: torbakhopper via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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