Tuesday, May 7, 2013

How Networks Perpetuate Inequality

Nancy DiTomaso had a great piece in the Times a couple days ago distilling some of the information from her recent book, The American Non-Dilemma: Racial Inequality Without Racism. One of the reasons unemployment is so high for African Americans is because access to jobs continues to be conditioned by social networks that are racially distinct.
Favoritism is almost universal in today’s job market. In interviews with hundreds of people on this topic, I found that all but a handful used the help of family and friends to find 70 percent of the jobs they held over their lifetimes; they all used personal networks and insider information if it was available to them.
In this context of widespread networking, the idea that there is a job “market” based solely on skills, qualifications and merit is false. Whenever possible, Americans seeking jobs try to avoid market competition: they look for unequal rather than equal opportunity. In fact, the last thing job seekers want to face is equal opportunity; they want an advantage. They want to find ways to cut in line and get ahead.
Despite the crucial role social networks play in employment, DiTomaso found that most whites are reluctant to acknowledge their good fortune.
When I asked my interviewees what most contributed to their level of career success, they usually discussed how hard they had worked and how uncertain were the outcomes — not the help they had received throughout their lives to gain most of their jobs. In fact, only 14 percent mentioned that they had received help of any kind from others.
The gulf between the 70% figure above and the 14% figure here represents the extent of our delusions. Part of what DiTomaso is trying to get across is that this failure to acknowledge reality has serious consequences. By pretending that there is some sort of level playing field in which everyone gets where their hard work will take them, whites position themselves to be offended by affirmative action. This taking of offense is opportunistic rather than principled, as Di Tomaso finds that "the real complaint is that affirmative action undermines long-established patterns of favoritism."

This ought to drive home the banality of racial injustice. We're not even talking about discrimination (though that occurs frequently too). In this case we're simply talking about people using their existing networks and showing favoritism in completely natural ways. But because of our unique circumstances, this produces horrible outcomes for minorities.  Many whites assume that drastically bad outcomes must have equally dramatic causes. Not at all. When networks are segregated and the bulk of wealth and power is concentrated in one of them, simply going about our business will perpetuate exclusion and inequality. It is made all the worse when those in the powerful network pretend that they are not privileged.

What this means is that if we are ever in a position of influence in hiring but have a segregated social network we need to consciously reach beyond our network in an attempt to break down privilege. To just go through the normal channels and whisper about job openings to friends and neighbors is not some sort neutral playing field. It is a proactive choice to advantage an already privileged group.

The most remarkable thing is how unwilling DiTomaso's respondents were to acknowledge the ways in which they succeeded due to factors beyond themselves. As I think about the nine jobs I've had in my lifetime, I can see that two were very clearly due to network effects. The other seven do not appear to have been, but I may be missing something. More importantly, I probably got some of my subsequent jobs because my resume and skills were dramatically bolstered by my network effect jobs. And I'll keep pounding away at this in a way that makes proud people uncomfortable: one of the big reasons I have achieved the success I have is because I'm white and middle class. I started out on third base. It is to be expected that many Americans would be reluctant to acknowledge their dependence; they often find their identity in their own individual effort. But it is a scandal that many Christians are unwilling to bring the spiritual truths of the gospel down to earth.

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