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Study: African-Americans still underrepresented in high-wage jobs

Fifty years after the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., how has America changed?

King pressured Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits workplace discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion or gender.

California enacted the California Fair Employment Practices Act, which took effect on September 18, 1959, to fight unlawful discrimination in employment, and eventually broadened protection against housing discrimination. This became known as the Fair Employment and Housing Act, to protect Californians from both employment and housing discrimination.

Have these federal and state laws led us to a society in which workers are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character?

There's work yet to be done

We're not there yet, according to a recent Associated Press analysis of government data. Despite significant gains, African-Americans remain chronically underrepresented in the highest-paying fields. African-Americans have seen growth in both graduation rates and income overall, but some experts say subtle, systemic racism continues to keep them in lower-paid, less prestigious occupations.

The top five highest-wage fields average between $65,000 and $100,000 annually, while the average American job pays $36,000.

Nationwide, there are approximately 5.5 white workers for every African-American worker. The AP's analysis of data from the American Community Survey and the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that whites were substantially more likely than African-Americans to hold jobs in the 11 highest-wage fields.

For example, nationwide there are about eight white workers for every African-American in math and computer jobs. There are 12 whites for every African-American in the law, and seven whites for every African-American in education.

  • The ratio of white workers to African-Americans varies by geographic area, but the underrepresentation of African-Americans was found consistently across most metropolitan areas and industries.
  • In Seattle, home to computer companies like Google and Amazon, there are almost 28 white computer and math workers for every African-American.
  • In New York, there are three white workers for every African-American, but the ratio is 6 to 1 in business and finance jobs.
  • In Hollywood, there are almost nine white workers for every African-American worker in the entertainment industry.

Examples of structural racism

The Associated Press asked experts such as the director of Northeastern University's Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy for examples of structural racism that keep African-Americans locked out of the top-paying fields. Besides simple racism in hiring, pay and promotions, American workplaces demonstrate several tendencies with this effect:

  • Valuing "fitting in" more than diversity in job applicants
  • White-dominated office cultures
  • Investors funding projects they relate to rather than ones targeted at minorities
  • Companies decrying a lack of qualified candidates but being unwilling to reach out to minority trainees

The vast majority of Americans want to live in a less racist, more equitable society. We each have a role, including the judiciary, to play in rooting out policies and practices that unfairly favor whites. Employment law attorneys can play an important role in fighting for fairness and equity in the workplace and justice system.

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