| Whenever I write an article about racism,
or give a speech concerning the
ongoing reality of discrimination in the labor market, I am assailed by
those who refuse to believe what virtually any study done in the past two
decades confirms: namely, that people of color are not seeing things, nor
crazy when they suggest that racial bias is very much a modern-day
These assaults typically arrive in my e-mail inbox, within hours of an
article going out over the web, as if pre-prepared long before, and as if
their authors were simply waiting for an opportunity to pick an electronic
Sometimes their retorts are little more than racist rants about how blacks
and Latinos are lazy, or how American Indians are all drunk. But oftentimes
the denial comes wrapped in far more sophisticated garb than that,
occasionally bordering on the scholarly, in fact.
While some of the conservatives who regale me with their rationalizations
for racial inequality manage to quote a gaggle of right wing "experts" to
help make their case, the claims they forward are hardly the stronger for
For example, the argument that racial wage gaps merely reflect different
levels of experience and qualifications between whites and blacks is simply
untenable, when one examines the data.
Fact is, earnings gaps persist at all levels of education. According to
Census data, whites with high school diplomas, college degrees or Master's
Degrees all earn approximately twenty percent more than their black
counterparts. Even more striking, whites with professional degrees (such as
medicine or law) earn, on average, thirty-one percent more than similar
blacks and fifty-two percent more than similar Latinos.
Even when levels of work experience are the same between blacks and whites,
the racial wage gap remains between 10-20 percent.
Looking at whites and blacks of similar age, doing the same work, earnings
gaps remain significant. Among 25-34 year olds, white lawyers, computer
programmers, and carpenters earn, on average, about one-fourth more than
comparable blacks; white doctors and accountants earn, on average, one-third
more than comparable blacks; and even white janitors earn sixteen percent
more, on average, than comparable blacks.
Although these gaps do not necessarily reflect overt discrimination by
employers – in fact, they mostly reflect the segmented labor market, whereby
whites have greater access to more lucrative clients and companies – the
effect is the same: whites continue to receive advantages in the labor
market over equally qualified blacks.
And contrary to the claims of some, differences in black and white wages are
not the result of different cognitive abilities or IQ scores. The results of
over thirty studies confirm that test scores and other academic achievement
differences can account for no more than three percent of the wage gaps
between whites and blacks.
The two most common excuses for racial wage inequity are age and geography:
excuses popularized by black conservatives like Thomas Sowell, and repeated
ad infinitum by white reactionaries like Abigail and Stephen Thernstrom.
Since blacks are, on average, younger than whites they will earn less, so
the argument goes; and since blacks disproportionately live in the South – a
lower-wage region of the country – they will earn less, even if there were
racism operating in labor markets.
Regarding age, though the median age among whites is about nine years older
than the median for blacks, and although persons who are older typically earn
more than those who are younger, this fact does not explain differences between
white and black earnings, and even to the extent it is a factor, it
cannot be separated from the issue of racism.
First, even when whites and blacks of comparable age are compared, wage gaps
remain substantial. Black men with college degrees earn, on average, 20-25
percent less than comparable white men, even when they are the same age.
White families headed by persons of every age group are far better off than
comparable blacks, and indeed a black family headed by a 45-54 year old is
3.5 times more likely to be poor than a comparable white family, and twenty
percent more likely to be poor than a white family headed by someone who is
twenty years younger!
Secondly, the older median age for whites is due to a larger number of
elderly citizens, which is the result of longer life expectancy. But of
course, life expectancy itself is related to racism, so age gaps between
whites and blacks hardly qualify as an independent variable to explain
As a number of studies have documented, blacks routinely have less access
high-quality health care, and also suffer from discriminatory treatment at
the hands of doctors. Even when health care is available, doctors are less
likely to order a full range of diagnostic tests and treatments for black
patients than for whites, even when these patients' finances and insurance
coverage are comparable to their white counterparts.
Even when comparing blacks and whites of comparable age, sex, severity of
disease, geographic location, and other factors that could influence the
quality of medical treatment, blacks are sixty percent less likely to
receive a coronary angioplasty or bypass surgery to relieve a serious heart
As one study found, doctors presented with identical patient histories and
symptoms overwhelmingly refer whites for more advanced treatment. According
to the study, which presented doctors with videotaped patient interviews
(actually actors trained to pose as patients with identical medical
histories and symptoms), doctors were far less likely to refer black women
for aggressive treatment of cardiac symptoms than white women.
When asked to give their impression of the actors (whom they believed to be
real patients), doctors routinely said they perceived the black "patients" as
less intelligent, less likely to follow doctor's recommendations and thus cooperate
with a treatment regimen, and more likely to miss appointments:
this, despite the fact that the actors had made identical comments and had
presented identical symptoms.
So, if whites have a longer life expectancy, and if this is due in part to
racially disparate provision of health care, it is absurd to claim that the
younger average age of the black community explains racial earnings gaps,
independent of racism, since the age gaps and racism are intimately related.
Even racism experienced outside the realm of health care is correlated with
negative health outcomes. After all, the biggest killer of African Americans
is high blood pressure leading to stroke, heart disease and kidney failure;
high blood pressure has been shown to be associated with experiences with racism.
Additionally, there is a significant reason why median ages for whites and
blacks, despite their disparity, would have virtually no actual impact on
median wages for either group, and thus would be incapable of explaining
racial earnings gaps: namely, the younger median age for blacks is caused by
a disproportionate number of youth in the black community relative to
whites. But neither the elderly whites who skew white average ages upward,
nor black youth who skew black average ages downward, have an effect on median
earnings for either group. This should be obvious since neither white
elderly or black children are generally in the labor force, and thus are
incapable of affecting the earnings of those between the ages of 15-65 who
The only real issue of importance in terms of relative white or black ages,
and how those might affect earnings, is the relative ages of whites and
blacks who are actually in the labor force, or potential labor force, which
will generally mean those between 15-65.
If anything, white workers are probably a bit younger on average than black
workers, for two reasons. First, white teens are more likely to be working
or looking for work thanks to greater job opportunities. Indeed, there is
persistent 15-20 percentage point gap between white and black teen
unemployment rates. While whites are only sixty-five percent of persons
15-17, they are seventy-six percent of such persons with a job (thereby
affecting wage rates). Likewise, blacks are fifteen percent of 15-17 year
olds, but less than eight percent of such persons with a job.
Secondly, blacks are more likely to work longer into their older years,
thanks to having less accumulated capital and thus being unable to retire as
early as whites. So, if anything, the median age of those in the workforce
would likely be higher for blacks than whites, which means that using
conservative logic, the older average black workforce should earn more than
its younger white counterpart.
According to Census data, 66.5 percent of whites and sixty-six percent of
blacks are between the ages of 15-64: the years of typical labor market
eligibility; sixteen percent
of whites and sixteen percent of blacks are
35-44 and fifteen percent of whites and a little more than twelve percent of
blacks are 45-54, the peak earning years for those in the American labor
In other words, the median age differences for the cohorts whose potential
presence in the labor market might actually affect wages are not capable of
explaining the substantial wage differentials between blacks and whites.
Finally, some dismiss claims of discrimination as central to the earnings
gap, by claiming that disparities are largely a function of geography. In
other words, because blacks are concentrated in the south and because the
south is a lower-wage region, naturally blacks will have lower median
But where blacks live is hardly a variable that is independent of racism:
after all, blacks are heavily concentrated in the south due to a history of
slavery and sharecropping that was disproportionately concentrated in the
southern states. As such, to whatever extent geography plays a role in lower
black wages, it is impossible to disentangle this reality from the history
of racial oppression.
Secondly, although there are earnings differences between families living
different regions, these differences are far smaller than the observed
racial gaps. The region with the least blacks, for example, only outstrips
the south in terms of median earnings by about a thousand dollars annually.
This is far below the typical racial gap between white and black families,
which is over $15,000 a year.
In truth, black median incomes in every region are lower than median incomes
for whites, so that even if one controls for location of residence and only
compares like families, racial disparities remain.
As a parent, I have learned how readily children will offer virtually any
excuse for their own misbehaviors, some of which can be quite creative, even
comical. While such prevarication can be endearing when practiced by a four
year old, it becomes quite a bit less amusing when practiced by so-called
social scientists out to debunk what all rational persons realize, and what
all the best evidence demonstrates: namely, that racism is far from a thing
of the past, and that whites continue to receive substantial privileges and
preferences in the American labor market.
Tim Wise is the author of two recently published books: White Like
Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son (Soft Skull Press) and Affirmative
Action: Racial Preference in Black and White (Routledge). His website is www.timwise.org and he
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You are encouraged to write to Mr. Wise for footnotes to this article.