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New Report On Black America Reveals 'A Tale of Two Truths'


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, can I tell you how great you look? No? Well, that's my Can I Just Tell You essay and it's coming up in a few minutes.

But first, we are focusing on the economic progress or lack thereof facing African-Americans. This year marks the 50th anniversary of a number of important dates in civil rights history, including the march on Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech.

Today, the National Urban League releases the State of Black America - Redeem the Dream. That is that group's report on the economic progress of African-Americans over the last five decades and it finds that African-Americans have made significant gains in access to education, but have not closed the gap with white Americans in attaining economic power.

We wanted to talk more about this report and some of the factors that contribute to this so-called racial opportunity gap, so we've called journalist Corey Dade. Also with us is Nancy DiTomaso. She wrote the book, "The American Non-Dilemma: Racial Inequality Without Racism." She's a professor of management and global business at Rutgers University. They're both with us now.

Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.


COREY DADE, BYLINE: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Corey, you've reviewed the report and you've talked to the Urban League. What are some of the key findings?

DADE: Well, it's really the tale of two truths, so the first is that African-Americans, as you just said, have made enormous strides since 1973 in virtually all the important categories - gains in education, gains in economic status, quality of life. The most notable sign of progress is probably that poverty, in general, among blacks is down in the last 50 years.

But when you compare blacks of today to whites of today, there's another truth that becomes clear and that's sort of the other side, and with all those indicators what it shows is that blacks and whites at the same levels of education, the same income levels, etc. - the blacks among those groups - they are twice as likely, for example, to be unemployed as whites with the same levels of education.

So this report is special in being able to show that while blacks have had enormous gains, the comparisons to whites show that there are inequalities that still haven't been addressed.

MARTIN: Does the report offer a theory about why this is? Because it has been - it is one of those verities that economic advancement follows educational advancement and you've told us...

DADE: Right.

MARTIN: ...that college graduation rates have increased dramatically. Home ownership has gone up dramatically among African-Americans, and yet you're saying that the economic standing, particularly relative to whites, has not. Now, what's the theory on that?

DADE: Right.

MARTIN: Why is that?

DADE: Well, what they do is point at access to jobs, so when you look at blacks who are in the workforce, they have a better shot over the longer term of their working careers of narrowing that income gap, of obtaining more economic wealth, but they have to get the jobs first. And so what this report does is point it back to the joblessness, the unemployment rate. So if they can get the jobs, then their fortunes are higher and so that's kind of where they focus it.

MARTIN: Professor DiTomaso, this is where your research comes in. First of all, I'm interested in your assessment of these findings that Corey's just brought us about kind of the gap in economic standing and what insights your own research brings into why this persists.

DITOMASO: Well, the notion of a tale of two truths, I think, is a very good characterization. In the research that I've been doing, I didn't start out looking at the issue of jobs, but it soon became a very key part of what I was trying to understand, which was basically why it seemed to be that all of the people in my classes, most of whom were white, believed in civil rights, was against discrimination, thought equal opportunity was the standard for fairness, thought people should be rewarded for their effort. And yet we still have racial inequality, so I was trying to understand that gap.

So I started the research in trying to understand the life experiences of people like those in my classes and how they came to understand issues of inequality, particularly racial inequality, and the issue of jobs became a very important part of that. I got detailed job histories, starting with high school to the time I did interviews with people in three parts of the country, and one of the startling things that I found was that 99 percent of the people that I talked to got 70 percent of the jobs that they held over their lifetimes with getting some kind of help from family, friends, acquaintances, in terms of getting inside information, having someone use influence on their behalf or someone who could actually offer them a job or an opportunity.

And when you have almost every job that people get over their lifetimes with that kind of inside help, it raises questions about what actually is the job market if most jobs, in fact, are not available to just anyone out there, but is available to primarily someone who has an inside edge.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are talking about new research about economic and employment disparities between whites and African-Americans. Our guests are journalist Corey Dade. He's reporting on the National Urban League's new report. And Nancy Ditomaso is author of "The American Non-Dilemma: Racial Inequality Without Racism."

So professor, could you talk a little bit more about your researches. When you research this question of in part, you compared how white people navigated the job market over the course of their careers and comparing that to how other people navigate. But is it that white people were willing to use their connections to help each other and themselves, and African-Americans were not? Is it that African-Americans were afraid that if they did use those connections it would be viewed as favoritism? Or is it they just didn't have those connections to use?

DITOMASO: One of the things that I came to understand as I was doing this research is that when we talk about issues of racial inequality we so often frame it primarily in terms of whites doing bad things to black people or non-whites. And we think about the job market as whites denying jobs to blacks and to other minorities. But the research that I did found that most people get jobs because whites are helping other whites get jobs, as opposed to trying to keep blacks out of jobs - at least in the post-civil rights period. And that difference is very important because discriminating or excluding people from jobs is illegal. But helping friends or family members or acquaintances get a job is not illegal. And it's...

MARTIN: How, that is a fascinating and it's an important difference. So how would you then address this question of disparities? Because as we know, explicit efforts to require that more people of color be interviewed, even for jobs - like the so-called Rooney Rule, right, in the NFL, highly controversial and really only available in specific kinds of workplaces. What does this suggest in terms of policy or does it suggest anything in terms of policy? Is this really a hearts and minds issue?

DITOMASO: Well, I don't think it's just a hearts and minds issue. I think that everyone tries to help their family and friends to the extent that they can do so - non-whites as well as whites. But because whites on average disproportionately hold better jobs with more authority, jobs that provide more benefits, training opportunities and so on, when whites are primarily helping other whites, that obviously gives them disproportionate advantages compared to those that don't have those kinds of connections. So it's not that whites wouldn't help non-whites or blacks, but we live such segregated lives, even in this day and age, that most people who have some opportunity to help someone would think of people primarily like them.

And there is some research that has looked at the extent to which blacks used networks for job finding - and particularly for low-wage jobs. Some of that research has found that blacks don't help each other as much as one might expect, not so much because they think of it as favoritism. Some of the research has suggested perhaps because they might feel somewhat more vulnerable, if they help a friend get a job and that friend doesn't do well then it might reflect badly on them. But my research again, was primarily looking at whites. And one of the things again, that was quite interesting about it is that it really didn't make a difference whether this was a good job or a bad job, class differences were not - didn't differentiate in terms of this process. Essentially, all kinds of jobs are obtained in this way.

MARTIN: Corey Dade, did the Urban League report offer suggestions for how to address these issues? I mean one thing that you have to note is that one area of the job market where African-Americans have thrived over the years has been in the public sector, whether in the armed forces or whether in the civilian public sector, but those are precisely the areas that we now see being curtailed, for all kinds of reasons. Did the Urban League report talk about - or offer solutions for - breaking this logjam of employment?

DADE: That's right, Michel. The public sector has been the driving force for the gains that African-Americans have achieved economically. In fact, the public sector - state, local and federal government - built the black middle class, as we know it. And so, as all these cuts are happening to government in this bad economy over the last few years, the African-American wealth and the income prospects have been precipitously dropping.

For the Urban League, they have been pretty consistent in championing, for example, the president's jobs bill that obviously did not move out of the Congress. But economic opportunities and access to jobs they believe is the number one way that you can get at this. And the other thing I'll add also, Michel, with that is that it's not just that blacks have been disproportionately hired in the public sector. It's that that's where you see the most narrow, the smallest economic gap. The salary gaps in the public sector are actually narrower than in the private sector. So not only do blacks get hired at a higher rate there, but they actually have started to close the gap much more quickly than in the private sector.

MARTIN: Professor Ditomaso, before we let you go, we only have a minute left, do you have some suggestions about the ways that the gap, this racial equality gap, can be addressed within the boundaries of the law?

DITOMASO: Well, one of the things that I wanted to do in doing this book is to change the frame of reference for how we think about racial inequality. Instead of thinking primarily about discrimination and racism, to call attention to the extent to which people use favoritism or advantage - essentially, unequal opportunity instead of equal opportunity - as ways to get jobs and to position themselves for decent lives.

MARTIN: Can I ask you, though, and I don't know if this was part of the scope of your research. So when you talk to your white respondents about these issues did they have any consciousness of the fact that they were advantaging their friends and family? Did they think that that was fair? Did they have any sense of whether it was fair, and even any sense of how that could connect to disadvantaging somebody else, even if not intentionally?

DITOMASO: The answer to that is basically no. I did ask a number of questions about issues of fairness and inequality and what that means. Even though, again, 99 percent of the respondents for 70 percent of the jobs got some kind of help, that's not what they said when I asked them what most contributed to their life situation. Instead, they talked about how highly motivated they were or what good workers they were or how persistent they were. In fact, only 14 percent, I think it was, mentioned help of any form, let alone this kind of help. And that is also consequential because the people that I talk to, again, believe in civil rights, said they believe in equal opportunity, thought discrimination was wrong, but they didn't perceive that they contributed in any way to those things because they weren't doing bad things to black people. They were simply doing good things for white people. And they therefore did not think that racial inequality was something they contributed to. They, in fact, thought they were part of the solution instead of part of the problem.

MARTIN: Nancy Ditomaso is professor of Management and Global Business at Rutgers University. She was kind enough to join us from Chicago. Journalist Corey Dade was also with us. He joined us from our bureau in New York. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

DADE: Thank you, Michel.

DITOMASO: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.