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Jobs and Blacks

In response to:

Ethnic America: An Exchange from the June 16, 1983 issue

To the Editors:

Sowell and Jencks agree that intergroup differences in employment and earnings are partly due to the skills and attitudes of the ethnic groups and partly to the attitude of the larger society. Jencks assigns a greater weight to overt discrimination, and consequently is more disposed than Sowell to favor affirmative action programs. I would be interested in their opinions on a different approach to reducing discrimination in employment among young men who are wage-hour workers.

I’ve studied the causes of job termination for young men in entry level jobs, most of whom were minority workers with between 9 and 12 years of schooling. The only important reason they were fired was behavior on the job which was perceived as unsatisfactory; they were not fired because of lack of education or job skills. The two largest behavioral problems were job attendance (lateness, absenteeism, failure to call in when sick, etc.) and responding unsatisfactorily to the first line supervisor when disciplined for work infractions. Compared to other employees, minority workers were disproportionately likely to be fired for both of these reasons. This is due in part to different cultural norms, and also to what I’ll call simple discrimination—the supervisor’s decision “not to take any crap” from minority members.

So far, I think both Sowell and Jencks would find this result unsurprising; they might, however, disagree about what to do, if anything, to equalize attrition rates.

There are three ways to deal with this situation. We can mandate that the company interview and hire more minority workers to ensure that more will “survive” in absolute terms (i.e., affirmative action). We can retrain the supervisor to modify his or her expectations of the new worker and to become less abrasive in disciplinary interviews. I think this task is too difficult; supervisors no more question their work ethics than creationists question the Bible. A third approach is to train the minority worker so that he better fits the work norm.

This approach is feasible. Even though work norm training cannot, at present, be carried out successfully with former felons, and is very difficult with the deinstitutionalized, it can be done with minority students. Certainly it is expensive and time-consuming, but it is not as difficult as, say, teaching Standard American Speech to a student who speaks Black English.

At present, work norms training is taught only in a modest way. There is a dearth of skilled teachers, a preference for “ethnic pluralism” over “melting pot,” and most importantly, a belief that the basic work problem is discrimination, not job habits. Here we have the Sowell vs. Jencks argument transposed to another arena. Yet perhaps both of these scholars would find work-habits training a philosophically congenial approach. Would they?

Stuart Margulies

New York, New York

Christopher Jencks replies:

Stuart Margulies is not the only person who has found that supervisors charge black workers with disciplinary violations more often than against white workers. The pattern is sufficiently common to warrant serious concern. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to say how much of this difference is due to blacks’ behavior and how much is due to prejudice on the part of supervisors. To find out, one would have to interview both supervisors and subordinates in a wide variety of organizations. Needless to say, few organizations will allow such investigations.

In the absence of direct evidence, we must rely on indirect evidence. We know that young blacks, especially young black men, are much more likely than their white counterparts to engage in criminal behavior. Black “street culture” encourages such behavior, even though most blacks deplore it, since they are usually the victims. It would be quite surprising if these same young black men turned out to be paragons of conformity when they arrived at work. Social norms that lead a small minority to violate the law are likely to encourage a much larger minority to violate employers’ rules and informal expectations, which have far less legitimacy than the criminal code.

Supervisory prejudice may, of course, also contribute to racial differences in disciplinary records. But supervisory prejudice does not always make blacks’ behavior look worse than it is. Many supervisors are tougher on blacks than on whites, but others are more permissive with blacks than with whites. How these two forms of discrimination balance out is hard to know.

I do not know enough about what Margulies calls “work norm training” to have an informed opinion about its usual effectiveness. Most programs of this kind have produced very modest effects, but “most” is not the same as “all,” and it would be a catastrophic error to let generalized cynicism about the value of “government programs” prevent the adoption of those programs that really work.

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