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Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Unbearable Non-Whiteness of Being: On Resume Whitening

A recent study by University of Toronto Professor Sonia Kang and her colleagues showed that job applicants that are members of racial minority groups are more than twice as likely to receive a callback when they “resume whiten,” that is, when they tailor information on their resumes to appear to be white. Their paper is available here. This study confirms what other research has shown regarding, for example, the relative lack of success of job seekers with stereotypically black (such as "Lakisha" and "Jamal") or Latinx names.

This study also accords with my own anecdotal experiences, and with those of many, many people of color that I know. I discussed these sorts of experiences in another blog article a few years ago where I coined the term "phone passing." I "resume whitened" decades ago when I was seeking to begin my career as a lawyer. I believed that having a race neutral resume would at least get me into the initial interview.  Once I got in, I reasoned, I would have a chance to persuade interviewers to seriously consider me. In theory and in limited practice the notion of the race-blind resume has potential. Race-neutral resumes got me into far more interviews than when I added biographical details that suggested that I was black. The on-campus interview process at my law school, and later sending out unsolicited resumes after graduating, were perfect laboratories for testing out my hypothesis. The non-raced resume was clearly superior as a tool for obtaining a first interview. I was proved wrong, however, in my hopes about what would happen once I got into such interviews.

On-campus interviews where I went in race-blind were especially painful. To summarize, many interviewers who did not know my race before the interview lost interest when I actually appeared at the interview. I was a frequent visitor to the office of the Dean of my law school, lodging complaints against employers because so many interviews that I did on campus resulted in shocked stares and offensively obtuse comments when they saw the "mismatch" between my resume and my face. A real life example: "Princeton; is there a community college by that name? You didn't go to the undergraduate school in New Jersey, right?"

Perhaps worse was the sudden attention to my GPA that arose only after I got into the door of an interview: "Oh, it's too bad; if only you had half a point higher GPA." Why, I wondered, had they invited me to the interview if they felt that my stated in advance GPA was disqualifying? Never mind that white classmates with much lower GPAs obtained jobs at these very same firms. Sometimes differential application of formal requirements is as a result of unconscious bias. But differential reliance on formal requirements is often a conscious tool used to exclude and/or disadvantage people of color or other people on the social margins. Arguing prerequisites and procedural normativity is, of course, not new to those with bad faith objectives: such is the stuff of voting literacy tests and other tools of invidious discrimination. In the hands of ill-intended people, procedure is a sword and a shield. Procedure is often used with impunity to undermine substantive rights and to create and maintain inequality.

In short, while having excellent educational credentials and quality experience is certainly helpful when job seeking, adding femaleness and racial minority status dramatically reduces opportunities. This is the reality for many people. What can be done about it?

It is difficult to address this kind of discrimination in the open marketplace. However, in the case of lawyers, there are, I believe, mechanisms that can be implemented to help dismantle such discrimination. To start, I believe that law schools have a duty to address the problem of racial and gender–based employment discrimination head-on. Schools might begin with conducting their own surveys to determine the race and gender of students with full-time, JD and/or bar passage requiring jobs after graduation. Currently the American Bar Association requires law schools to report employment status and duration for graduates. The journal U.S. News and World Report, which ranks law schools, also collects these same statistics when they survey law schools for their annual rankings.

Neither the ABA nor U.S. News appears to collect the race and gender of those employed. The absence of such publicly accessible data leaves students of color, and especially women of color, at the mercy of anecdotal evidence and “Negro motorist green book”-style publications. This is not to disparage such publications; on the contrary, some are useful in several respects. See, for example, The Black Student’s Guide to Law Schools. But these publications sometimes rely upon metrics that may be poor indicators of whether minority students are likely to obtain JD or bar passage required jobs after attending a particular law school. Only actual data could begin to tell that tale.

Law schools can also help by instituting and demanding adherence to ethical standards for employers that are permitted to recruit on campus. Employers should be urged to offer clear, transparent standards for hiring and to avoid nebulous assertions about "fit" and "collegiality." And where explicit standards for hiring are stated, employers should be urged to examine, for example, whether their insistence on certain prerequisites such as class standing or legal experience are good-faith, bona fide occupational qualifications. Are firms less well served by looking at the top twenty-five percent of a class as opposed to the top ten percent? And where firms insist that they legitimately require such prerequisites, they should be required to demonstrate that their hiring norms are in line with those stated prerequisites. Many of these suggestions are already in place via the National Association of Law Placement Principles and Standards. But it is one thing to articulate a set standards.  It is quite another thing for law schools to create an environment where students feel that they can discuss their recruitment experiences and have their concerns taken seriously.

Perhaps an even more direct approach for some law schools would be to avoid fine-tuned ranking systems or to refuse to rank all together. As some have noted, law schools in the top of the U.S. News rankings routinely give higher grades to more students than do lower-ranked schools. In contrast faculty at some lower ranked schools are exhorted to use "the full range of grades" on grading curves without sufficient regard for the fact that sometimes student performances are so closely stacked together as to make highly-differentiated grading systems exercises in hair-splitting.

There are probably some who will argue that in this time of relatively scarce legal jobs, law schools should do nothing that might reduce employers' willingness to recruit at law schools. This argument, however,  unfairly promotes the interests of some students over others.  This argument also ignores very real and persistent discrimination that no amount of resume whitening will eliminate. Law students need employers, but employers also need law students, even in a narrowed legal job climate. Law schools are ideally situated to foster relationships that are mutually beneficial and fair to both employers and students.