Black Workers Stopped Making Progress on Pay. Is It Racism?

Black Workers Stopped Making Progress on Pay. Is It Racism?

Consider information technology, which offers some of the best-paid jobs in the country. African Americans earn around one in 10 bachelor’s degrees in computer science nationwide. By contrast, they account for only 2.6 of every 100 computer workers in the region around San Francisco, including Silicon Valley.

Even with the credentials that many African Americans have in the field, Dr. Spriggs said in an interview, “Silicon Valley says, ‘Yeah, but they are not skilled.’”

But for all the evidence of racial disparities, many economists say employers’ racial biases cannot fully explain what’s going on in the workplace. The idea that discrimination alone has determined Black workers’ lot at work — their employment and their wages — does not mesh with how American society changed over the past half-century.

Simply put, if racism is the reason that Black workers have lagged in pay, said Erik Hurst, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, how is it that they made such progress after World War II, significantly closing the wage gap with whites while segregation and other explicit barriers were still widespread? And why did this progress stop even though racial animus, by various measures, declined over the years?

The share of whites approving of interracial marriage, for example, rose to 87 percent in 2013, the last time Gallup asked the question, from 48 percent in 1965. The share of whites who said they would vote for a Black presidential candidate increased to 96 percent in 2020 from 77 percent in 1983 and 38 percent in 1958. Answers to many other questions asked by the General Social Survey, a long-running academic effort to understand the views of Americans, suggest that racial prejudice has declined over the last several decades.

Most of the gains made by African Americans in the workplace were made from the 1940s to the 1970s, when racial biases were much more prevalent across society. Then they got stuck.

“There was convergence between Blacks and whites, but then it stopped,” said Dr. Hurst, who is also ​deputy director of the Becker Friedman Institute for Economics, which sponsors a podcast I host. “The question is why.”

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