Ban-the-box laws meant to prevent employers from reflexively rejecting applicants with criminal records may inadvertently worsen discrimination against black job candidates, a new study found.
The findings point to troubling patterns of racial hiring bias at a time when blacks have double the unemployment rate of whites.
Illinois in 2014 joined a growing number of states that have tried to lessen employment barriers for people with criminal records by adopting ban-the-box legislation, which prohibits employers from asking about criminal history on job applications or early in the application process, in hopes of giving those with criminal records a fair shot.
A large-scale experiment conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan and Princeton University found the laws are effective in removing the disadvantage of having a criminal record, but they may have unintended consequences.
The researchers sent 15,000 fictitious online job applications for entry-level positions in New York and New Jersey, some before the adoption of ban-the-box legislation, and some after.
Requiring applicants to disclose criminal history clearly disadvantaged people with records, the researchers said in the working paper. Applications that did not show criminal history received 63 percent more callbacks than those that did.
But after ban-the-box was adopted and employers didn’t know if someone had a criminal record, racial disparities in callbacks soared.
Before ban the box, white applicants received 7 percent more callbacks than equally qualified black candidates; after ban the box, the gap swelled to 45 percent.
The study used first and last names to denote race — for example, Terrell Washington for black men and Scott Weber for white men — and otherwise the resumes were identical.
The findings suggest that employers have “wildly exaggerated impressions of how much more likely black male applicants are to have criminal records,” said Sonja Starr, a law professor at the University of Michigan who was co-author of the report with Amanda Agan, an economist at Princeton.
“It may be that seeing that someone has a clean record helps to dispel what might otherwise be an assumption, whether conscious or subconscious, by the employer about black applicants,” Starr said.
While Starr said she expected assumptions about race might drive assumptions about criminal history in the absence of actual information — known as statistical discrimination — she was surprised by the magnitude of the effect.
And those assumptions are not accurate. Starr said the best study the researchers could find on the likelihood of whites and blacks to have criminal records showed that, among job applicants with high school degrees, 25 percent of white males and 30 percent of black males had felony conviction records.
Having a GED rather than a high school diploma is a much greater predictor of having a criminal record, but the study did not find a significant difference in how employers treated those educational levels post ban-the-box, Starr said.
Starr said the report does not intend to argue against ban-the-box policies, but policymakers must make judgment calls on the benefits and harms depending on what their goals are.
If the purpose of the legislation is to help people with criminal records gain employment, the study offers evidence that it is effective.
But “if policymakers are thinking of ban the box as a strategy for achieving racial equality in the workplace, then our study finds pretty good evidence that it will backfire,” Starr said.
The results are most worrisome for black male applicants without criminal records, Starr said.
While hiring discrimination on the basis of race is illegal, it is difficult for people to prove that race is the reason they were passed over.
To reduce racial side effects, policymakers might consider restricting employers’ access to names or addresses so they can’t even subconsciously guess at a person’s race.
Margaret Stapleton, community justice director at the Sergeant Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, which pushed for Illinois’ ban-the-box law, called the study’s findings “sobering.”
“If we are that discriminatory a society, and there is a lot of information out there that says we are, maybe we should do blind applications,” Stapleton said.
“Maybe a study like this will make Americans more aware that yes indeed there is race discrimination in employment,” she said. “Maybe it’s another piece of evidence in this debate that the country needs to be having about racism.”
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