A take by economists on racism in the US

A take by economists on racism in the US

The trial of Ali İsmail Korkmaz, the university student who fell into a coma after getting beaten by plainclothes police officers during the Gezi protests and died 38 days later, continued last week. Across the Atlantic, a Missouri grand jury decided not to indict a white police officer over the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager in August.

The two trials say a lot of the speed and efficiency of the Turkish legal system, but my focus is somewhat different. Would the jury have been as lenient if the boy had been white? Raw statistics show that blacks are much more likely than whites to be imprisoned, suspended in school or unemployed. But these could be due to different characteristics between blacks and whites.

Employment deserves special attention. After all, as the late Gary Becker pointed out, Adam Smith’s invisible hand should ensure that racism does not survive in the marketplace. Nonracist employers would grab discriminated workers and drive their racist competitors out of the market. But maybe blacks have higher unemployment rates simply because they have less education and skills. The key question is therefore the following: When faced with two identical candidates, one black the other white, would an employer prefer the white one?

One of the most innovative economics papers I have come across, “Are Emily and Greg more employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A field experiment on labor market discrimination,” tries to answer that question. Economists Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan sent fictitious resumes to help-wanted ads in Boston and Chicago newspapers in 2001 and 2002, randomly assigning black and white-sounding names to the CVs.

White names received 50 percent more callbacks for interviews. You could argue that employers could be assuming that black names were coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. If that were the case, signals of quality would be more important for black applicants. But callbacks were also more responsive to the quality of CVs for white names than for black ones. Using mothers’ education as a proxy, Bertrand and Mullainathan found little evidence that employers were inferring social class from the names, either. Finally, the racial gap was “uniform across occupation, industry and employer size.”

The authors of the paper, which was published in the prestigious American Economic Review in 2004, two years after I first listened to the results in awe at an MIT seminar, conclude that “differential treatment by race still appears to still be prominent in the U.S. labor market.” Unfortunately, I do not know of a similar study for Turkey, even though I have plenty of anecdotal evidence of racism based on ethnicity or religious affiliation.

Neither am I aware of a similar study on the U.S. legal system. But I do know that President Barack Obama did not give the policeman the order to shoot. Neither did he bestow white tradesmen with a policing mission and tell them to beat black teenagers to death.