Meet Steve and Kwame, two fictional guys who just graduated from the University of Maryland. Almost everything about them is weirdly identical—they majored in the same subject, they got the same grades in college, they have the same bullet points on their resumes—but Kwame is African American and Steve is white. Now, they’re both spending their post-pomp-and-circumstance summer looking for jobs. Do they have the same employment prospects?
A recent report from the advocacy group Young Invincibles suggests not: African American millennial men need two or more levels of education to have the same employment prospects as their white peers. White male college graduates have a 97.6% employment rate. Black male college graduates have a 92.8% employment rate—which correlates more closely with the job prospects for white men who have some college education but no degree (92.5%).
The 19th century reformer Horace Mann may have called education the great equalizer, but 150 years later, the numbers suggest otherwise. The reason for this is obvious—as the report points out, “the legacy of racial discrimination across centuries continues to impact economic disparities, and so young African Americans start on an uneven playing field.”
The study reports one (somewhat) hopeful finding: “Increased educational attainment clearly closes the gap, and closes it dramatically.” That means that each level of education an African American student achieves makes a steadily bigger difference in his employment prospects. Earning a high school diploma has a 50 percent larger impact on a black man’s employment likelihood than it does on a white man’s. By the time those two men arrive at the professional degree level, the 50 percent has become 146 percent: the African American man is much, much more likely to be employed now than he was with just a bachelor’s degree—even though a white man with a bachelor’s degree still has slightly better employment prospects than a black man who has gone to graduate school.
The outlook might change for African American students who gain entry to the nation’s top colleges—like Kwasi Enin, Akintunde Ahmad, and Avery Coffey, all young black men who made news this spring after receiving impressive numbers of acceptances from the Ivy League. Since they’re on their way to very prestigious institutions and will stand to benefit from extensive support networks, it’s reasonable to assume that the gap may shrink even further for them.
But it’s possible that it won’t disappear entirely, Ivy League pedigrees notwithstanding: inadvertent or not, discrimination still pervades the hiring process. In another study, fictitious job applicants with white-sounding names got 50 percent more callbacks than those whose names sounded African American, even when the resumes were otherwise the same.
Finding ways to increase the number of African American students at American colleges and graduate schools is certainly a worthwhile aim. But it's equally important to make sure they're getting the same advantages as their white peers after graduation day: the support networks and internship programs that can lead to stable careers. Otherwise, as The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates often points out, even the brightest African Americans may find it hard to succeed without being “twice as good and half as black.”
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