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Damn Those Pesky White People!

It is not easy to select the dumbest article to appear in the New York Times in any given week. Even if we exclude columns by Paul Krugman and Tom Friedman on the ground of lifetime achievement, there is plenty of idiocy to choose from. My nominee for this week is this piece by Nancy DiTomaso, titled “How Social Networks Drive Black Unemployment.” Ms. DiTomaso, a professor at Rutgers business School, undertakes to explain persistently high unemployment among African-Americans. Some would say the obvious culprit is the anti-growth policies of the Obama administration, but Ms. DiTomaso is not interested in turning over that particular rock. Her starting point is quite different:

The most obvious explanation for this entrenched disparity is racial discrimination.

Well, no, actually it isn’t. But Ms. DiTomaso thinks she has brilliantly hit upon an alternative theory:

But in my research I have found a somewhat different culprit: favoritism. Getting an inside edge by using help from family and friends is a powerful, hidden force driving inequality in the United States.

Such favoritism has a strong racial component. Through such seemingly innocuous networking, white Americans tend to help other whites, because social resources are concentrated among whites. If African-Americans are not part of the same networks, they will have a harder time finding decent jobs.

There is a kernel of truth to this observation. Especially in small business, it is common to get a job through a relative or friend. So in general, it is good to have friends and relatives who have jobs or, better yet, own businesses. But Ms. DiTomaso makes this commonplace observation the driving force of our economy:

Favoritism is almost universal in today’s job market. 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; they all used personal networks and insider information if it was available to them.

This is a ludicrous claim. It would be fun to see Ms. DiTomaso’s original research, and to deconstruct it. She offers a little more detail here. It turns out that her “research” consisted of “interviews … conducted with almost 250 whites in New Jersey, Ohio, and Tennessee.” She concluded that:

In my study, I found that 99 percent of the interviewees found 70 percent of the jobs they had held throughout their lifetimes with the added help from family, friends, or acquaintances, who provided them with inside information not available to others, such as when a job was available, used influence on their behalf, or actually offered them an opportunity or a job.

So if someone tells you a job is available, you are benefiting from white skin privilege! And if you are offered a job by an “acquaintance,” as opposed to a perfect stranger, you are part of a racial hierarchy. Does that mean that, if you have been working for a company for 15 years and the person who decides to promote you is someone you have worked with and are acquainted with, you have gotten your new job with the aid of “favoritism”? I suspect that if we saw Ms. DiTomaso’s original data, the answer would be Yes.

Moreover, Ms. DiTomaso only interviewed (a pathetically small number of) whites. If she had interviewed people of other races, would the result be the same or different? We don’t know. I suspect that if she applied the same criteria, Ms. DiTomaso would find that African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and whites find jobs through friends, relatives and acquaintances in more or less equal proportions. Without having any such basis of comparison, her research is useless at best.

One obvious defect of Ms. DiTomaso’s theory is that she does not differentiate among jobs. So if you work during high school in your father’s grocery store, and your college roommate tells you a local factory is hiring, at minimum wage, for the summer, and you then attend medical school and get a job as a doctor in a medical clinic–voila! Two-thirds of your jobs are the result of white skin privilege!

Every sentient being knows that universities give preferential treatment to African-American applicants, and large businesses of all kinds do the same. Still, there are constraints: you can’t become a lawyer without going to law school, you can’t become an engineer without being able to do math, and you can’t get a job of any kind if you are in prison. In Ms. DiTomaso’s world, all such obvious realities are washed away: it’s all a question of whom you know!

The point of Ms. DiTomaso’s book, on which this column is based, is to explain why African-Americans’ high unemployment rate and relatively low incomes, on the average, are the fault of whites, even though there is little racism or race discrimination (of that kind, anyway) in our society. But like most liberals when they talk about race, Ms. DiTomaso is oblivious to the diversity of American life. She sees only in black and white. To hear her tell it, whites are an entrenched overclass who maintain their status by “networking,” to the detriment of African-Americans. This description of economic life in America could make sense only to someone who doesn’t get out much. In fact, Asians, on the average, out-earn whites by a substantial margin.

How can this be, if the principal determinant of job progress is white networking? Ms. DiTomaso writes that “Favoritism is almost universal in today’s job market,” and she ridicules the idea that people get ahead through hard work. She says that “Inequality reproduces itself because help is typically reserved for people who are ‘like me.’” But why has inequality not reproduced itself with respect to Asian-Americans, if “favoritism is almost universal?” It is also worth noting that the income gap between Jews and gentiles is wider than that between whites and blacks. Is this, too, the result of “favoritism?”

As I said, it isn’t easy to identify the dumbest article in a single issue of the New York Times, let alone a week’s worth, but unless something even worse appears in the next few days, Ms. DiTomaso deserves the prize.

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