Who You Know: Favoritism and Racial Discrimination

In 1996, California enacted Proposition 209, essentially ending affirmative action in the state by making it illegal for public entities to “[give] preferential treatment […] on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin.”

Since 2001, the Los Angeles city government has tried to get around this ban. Their goal: granting 22% of their contracts to female and minority applicants.

Bloomberg reports that this effort has failed: “[F]irms owned by white men won 92 percent of the $2.1 billion in contracts awarded by the city, though they’re just 14 percent of the population.”

NYC also struggles mightily on this count, although it improved a little in 2011-12:

In New York, not covered by an affirmative action ban, 7.1 percent of $4.5 billion in contracts subject to racial and gender preferences went to firms owned by minorities and women in the year that ended in June 2012, according to a city report card. A year earlier, such firms accounted for 5.1 percent of contracts.

Last weekend, the New York Times ran an excellent and apropos piece: “How Social Networks Drive Black Unemployment.” Written by Nancy Ditomaso, an academic, the article examines the effects of social and familial connections on job hunting. Unsurprisingly, personal contacts are a crucial resource for almost everyone. Ditomaso writes, “In interviews with hundreds of people on this topic, I found that all but a handful used the help of family and friends to find 70 percent of the jobs they held over their lifetimes.”

Ditomaso further explains that “social resources are concentrated among whites,” and “whites help other whites, especially when unemployment is high.” (Emphasis added.) All of this adds up to the suppression of job opportunities—and government contract access—for minorities. As she writes:

[W]hites helping other whites is not the same as discrimination, and it is not illegal. Yet it may have a powerful effect on the access that African-Americans and other minorities have to good jobs, or even to the job market itself.

As the Bloomberg article points out, in its upcoming term the Supreme Court will hear a case that could dramatically alter affirmative action law (Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action). The widespread legal favoritism described by Ditomaso is a perfect illustration of the value of affirmative action programs.

Check out our other posts about racial discrimination, and contact us if you have any questions about employment law.