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Two years ago, I took an ethics class in college. I remember one class, we debated the ethics of affirmative action, and whether it’s continued practice was justified. Most people in the class seemed to believe that it was justified at some point in the past, but now that racism is over, the policy should be scrapped. This attitude was also echoed by the Supreme Court when it decided to dismantle parts of the Voting Rights Act in June of last year.

Of course, racism isn’t over. It looks different now than it did fifty years ago, and it’s much less overt, but it’s still just as present and just as harmful. During my ethics class, I mentioned this study:

In response to help-wanted ads in Chicago and Boston newspapers, [NBER Faculty Research Fellows Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan] sent resumes with either African-American- or white-sounding names and then measured the number of callbacks each resume received for interviews. Thus, they experimentally manipulated perception of race via the name on the resume. Half of the applicants were assigned African-American names that are “remarkably common” in the black population, the other half white sounding names, such as Emily Walsh or Greg Baker.

And the results:

The results indicate large racial differences in callback rates…. Job applicants with white names needed to send about 10 resumes to get one callback; those with African-American names needed to send around 15 resumes to get one callback….It indicates that a white name yields as many more callbacks as an additional eight years of experience.

My argument, in class, was that affirmative action is still necessary because people of color are still discriminated against in the hiring practice. Predominately, this discrimination takes the form of an unconscious undervaluing of the skills and experience of people of color in favor of white applicants.

Yesterday, Sikivu Hutchinson wrote a post that mentioned a study conducted around the same time that looked at the effects of incarceration on employment for black and white job applicants. The study found that “whites with criminal records received more favorable treatment (17%) than blacks without criminal records (14%).” According to this research, being black is a worse handicap when job seeking than having a criminal history.

This is why affirmative action is so important. It’s not about giving people of color an advantage in the hiring process, but instead making up for the disadvantages they receive simply for being people of color. Those disadvantages haven’t vanished in recent years, they’ve just become more subtle. But as these studies show, affirmative action is still just as necessary now as it was fifty years ago.

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