Racism, Again: Why Drug Tests Are Helping Black Americans Get Jobs

A new study finds a tendency among employers to need urine samples in order to overcome an assumption that black job candidates are using.

Policies that encourage drug testing potential employees are not, generally speaking, viewed as means for achieving greater racial equality. As the ACLU states on its website (emphasis added), "Not only do these policies constitute a significant and unjustified invasion of privacy, they also single out those living in low-income communities and disproportionately impact people of color." 

A new study supports this: Drug tests do disproportionately impact people of color, but not in the way the ACLU implies. Rather, economist Abigail K. Wozniak finds, drug testing is actually boosting employment for blacks, particularly those who who are relatively unskilled.

How's that? To put it simply: In the absence of information, it seems that employers are susceptible to making racist assumptions about who uses drugs and who doesn't. This suppresses black employment. But in places where drug testing is more common, black employment rises, seemingly given a bit of a lift by the opportunity to prove against stereotype that one is not a drug user.

Data going back to 1979 from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health show that "for most of the survey's history, blacks and whites have reported drug use at nearly identical rates" (though there is some variation in which drugs the different groups favor). It is believed that drug use is underreported, but there's no reason to think that underreporting is more rampant among blacks. From 1990 to 2006, an average of 13 percent of whites and 12 percent of blacks attested to "some drug use in the past month." For those with no college education, the rate is 19 percent for both blacks and whites.

However, as Wozniak writes, "there is evidence showing that the perception is that blacks use drugs at much higher rates than whites." In one 1989 survey (old, but still), 95 percent of respondents described a "typical drug user" as black. Employers, unsurprisingly, are no different from the general public on this matter. Whether they assume lower-than-reality rates of drug use for white potential employees or higher-than-reality rates for potential black employees is unclear, but, either way, it's apparent that they haven't quite internalized the data that drug use is equally prevalent among blacks and whites.

So what if instead of making decisions based on who employers guessed is using drugs, they could test people and know? That's what Wozniak looks at, and she finds that in state that adopt pro-drug-testing legislation, black employment in drug-tested jobs increased seven to 10 percent compared with states with no such legislation, and up to 30 percent compared with states with anti-testing legislation. Wages too rise, three to four percent over neutral states and 12 percent compared with anti-testing states, in part because larger companies are both more likely to test and tend to pay better. She also finds a related jump in black enrollment in health-care plans and pensions. Low-skilled black men seemed to gain more than any other group.

Wozniak finds that the pro-testing legislation did not help everyone: White women lost a bit of ground, in part, Wozniak suspects, because they were benefitting from the discrimination against blacks in the absence of testing.

Maurice Emsellem, director of the access and opportunity program at National Employment Law Project, cautions that this one study—a working paper not yet published in an academic journal—isn't yet enough evidence to throw support behind pro-testing legislation. "It's pretty dangerous to conclude from this report that there should be more drug testing," he said, adding, "We don't know what other implications increased drug testing can have." 

And Wozniak agrees, writing that "more work is needed" in order to understand exactly how the phenomenon she has identified is unfolding and what the impacts are. But taken only at its face value, the paper illuminates one subtle way that racism operates in society today: It's not about the racism of an employer who will only hire whites. It's about the more unconscious racism of an employer who assumes that black job candidates are drug users, or that white job candidates aren't—who requires the information provided by a drug test in order to be fair.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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