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It's Who You Know: Favoritism, Race, and Getting a Job

David Callahan

Here's an obvious point that often gets forgotten: Who you know makes a big difference in getting a job, and white people are far more likely to have social contacts that lead to employment. 

This elementary insight has long underpinned affirmative action policies, which push employers to look beyond their social networks in hiring, but it hasn't gotten much attention lately as a way to explain the brutally high black unemployment rate that I wrote about here a few days ago. So it was refreshing to read Nancy Ditomaso's piece on the New York Times website today that shared her research on race, social networks, and unemployment rates. 

Ditomaso argues that racial discrimination is not why blacks are nearly twice as likely to be jobless as whites. Rather the culprit is favoritism: "Getting an inside edge by using help from family and friends is a powerful, hidden force driving inequality in the United States."

The job market, Ditomaso says, is not a sphere in which people compete on an equal playing field where opportunities are determined by skills, qualifications, and merit. Quite the contrary: Most job seekers try to jump the line or avoid equal competition by getting help from friends or family members. 

Help is not given to just anyone, nor is it available from everyone. Inequality reproduces itself because help is typically reserved for people who are “like me”: the people who live in my neighborhood, those who attend my church or school or those with whom I have worked in the past. It is only natural that when there are jobs to be had, people who know about them will tell the people who are close to them, those with whom they identify, and those who at some point can reciprocate the favor.

And that's not good news for African-Americans or other people of color. 

Because we still live largely segregated lives, such networking fosters categorical inequality: whites help other whites, especially when unemployment is high. Although people from every background may try to help their own, whites are more likely to hold the sorts of jobs that are protected from market competition, that pay a living wage and that have the potential to teach skills and allow for job training and advancement. So, just as opportunities are unequally distributed, they are also unequally redistributed.

This is, as I said, a pretty obvious point if you actually sit down and think about it. But one of Ditomaso's disturbing findings is that most people don't tend be self-aware about how they got ahead. Most of us don't acknowledge the powerful ways in which favoritism -- and race -- factor into our careers. Just 14 percent of those Ditomaso interviewed for her research reported they had received any help in getting jobs and instead tended to cite their qualifications and hard work. 

This is another variation on the insidious "I did it myself" myth about success that lies at the heart of conservative and libertarian ideology. In America's strong culture of individualism -- or is "cult" a better word? -- people are too often oblvious to the role that a wide array of external supports play in their success, from education, infrastructure, and various public services, to the most basic fact that we often get jobs through social connections. 

Yes, personal grit and good ideas play a huge role in our success. The individual matters a lot. But so do the structures in which we live and work.