The University Record, January 23, 1996

ISR panel looks at discrimination, perceptions of discrimination

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

Findings from the Multi-City Study of Urban Inequality, a series of surveys of workers and employers in Atlanta, Boston, Detroit and Los Angeles, were presented last Monday as part of the Martin Luther King Day commemoration at the Institute for Social Research.

In his introduction to the presentations, ISR Director David Featherman noted that the pervasiveness of the problems facing Black Americans in these four metropolitan areas underscores the challenges facing Black Americans across the nation.

The presenters included Alice O'Connor, University of California at Santa Barbara; Chris Tilly, University of Massachusetts at Lowell; Lawrence Bobo, University of California at Los Angeles; Harry J. Holzer, Michigan State University; and Camille L. Zubrinsky, Ohio State University.

Throughout the presentations, one theme emerged: In jobs and housing, the study provides fresh evidence that race still matters and racial discrimination still exists. "More than a decade after the social significance of race was thought to be declining, its significance is now being rediscovered," said UCLA's Bobo. "Yet what is discrimination? In some ways, it's a black box --- what you have left after you control for education, income, family structure and all the other variables used to explain differences.

"If you ask, `Does discrimination affect Blacks?' most Blacks will say `Yes.' But if you ask, `Does it affect you?' the proportion who will say `Yes' is very low."

According to the new study, about 59 percent of African Americans in the multi-ethnic metropolis of Los Angeles report that they have personally experienced racial discrimination in the work place, Bobo said. This compares to about 31 percent of Latinos, 25 percent of whites and 22 percent of Asian Americans.

But well-educated African Americans and Asians reported experiencing far more discrimination in the work place than their less well-educated counterparts, he noted. Only about 47 percent of African Americans, 3 percent of Asians and 33 percent of Latinos with less than a high school diploma reported workplace discrimination, compared to 98 percent of African Americans, 64 percent of Asian Americans and 51 percent of Latinos with post graduate degrees.

"What constitutes discrimination is a complex interpretative process," Bobo said. "Without questioning the validity of any claim of discrimination, it is clear that the less well-educated reported far less discrimination than did the well-educated."

In his analysis of the bottom tier of labor market jobs --- those requiring no more than a high school diploma---Tilly found other signs of discrimination. In Atlanta and Detroit, at least, formal screening criteria such as tests serve to disqualify Black job candidates from higher-paying positions, while these same formal criteria are cited by employers as reasons for hiring Blacks for lower-paying positions. Interviews with Boston and Los Angeles employers are still ongoing.

"Martin Luther King was concerned with getting access to better jobs," Tilly said. "But as demonstrated by his final trip to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers, he was also interested in improving the conditions of jobs at the bottom of the labor market. These are the jobs that may be pushing young women onto the welfare rolls and young men into the drug business."

Tilly noted that he had participated in the Unity March on the Michigan Diag held right before the presentations, and that it brought back memories of marching in Ann Arbor as a high school student twenty-five years ago. "I'm not happy there are still things to march about," he said. "But I am glad there are still people marching."

Zubrinsky presented data on residential segregation patterns and attitudes, frequently citing earlier Detroit Area data analyzed by audience member and U-M researcher Reynolds Farley. Zubrinsky's multiracial sample of about 4,000 adults in various Los Angeles neighborhoods showed that the actual or perceived cost of housing was not a barrier to integration.

She also found that although all groups showed some degree of preference for same race neighbors, this tendency was strongest among whites and weakest among Blacks. "Blacks face the greatest hostility in the search for housing," Zubrinsky reported, and "racial minorities are more open to sharing residential space with whites than with other minorities."

The discussion following the research presentations was led by panelists William H. Frey, research scientist at the Population Studies Center and adjunct professor of sociology; Patricia Y. Gurin, professor and chair of psychology and professor of women's studies; and Mary E. Corcoran, professor of political science and public policy.