For most of the past 50 years, the overall black unemployment rate has remained twice as high as the white unemployment rate. That gap has consistently grown larger during times of economic distress. Indeed, the center study found that the gap between the unemployment rate for young African-American college graduates and all other graduates has soared from 3.7 percentage points in 2007 to 6.8 points today.
"This study—its findings, as terrible as they are—honestly should not come as a shock to anyone who is willing to face the truth about employment and unemployment in the United States," said Nancy DiTomaso, a professor at Rutgers University who studies inequality and organizational diversity.
DiTomaso says the study, like other research, challenges the assumption that opportunity is available to all Americans who equip themselves with the right skills. Private-sector labor data reported to the federal government shows little change in the share of management and executive-level jobs held by racial and ethnic minorities since the 1980s, she said. In fact, in industries that offer workers the best wages, the share of white men in these jobs has actually grown.
The center's study noted that half of the nation's management, professional, and related occupations—those the study described as fields where many college graduates ultimately work—employ a disproportionately small share of black male workers.
In her 2013 book, The American Non-Dilemma: Racial Inequality Without Racism, DiTomaso concluded that racial inequality isn't rooted solely in racist ideas or conscious efforts to exclude some groups from distinct opportunities. Instead, she argued that informal networks allow whites, who still hold most of the decision-making positions in the private economy, to hoard and distribute advantage among their family and friends, who tend to be mostly white.
While researching her book, DiTomaco conducted 246 interviews with working-class and middle-class white individuals over a decade in Tennessee, Ohio, and New Jersey. DiTomaso gathered detailed job histories and information about the way her study participants obtained jobs over the course of their careers. The whites among those DiTomaso interviewed found 70 percent of the jobs they held over their lifetimes through inside information shared by a family member, friend, or neighbor, a direct intervention (someone walking a resume into a hiring manager's office or a direct request that a family member or friend get an open job) or other means not open to the general public.
"I think it's high time," DiTomaso said, "that we really started to look closely not just at the ways that the labor market is biased against blacks but the ways in which it is biased in favor of whites."
The researchers behind the center's study of black college graduate employment patterns emphasized the role that the recession has played in dampening every worker's employment prospects. But they concluded that the long-term unemployment crisis among black college graduates ultimately could not be explained without accounting for continuing discrimination against black applicants.
One of their final pieces of evidence: A study pushed into the national spotlight last month in which partners at a number of law firms scored the same memo far differently when told that the author was white or black. "Those are the institutional factors that have a long-term effect on people's economic lives," Schmitt said.