The "Ban the Box" campaign was started to end employment discrimination against those previously convicted of a crime. The movement—which calls for the elimination of requirements that potential employees check a box on job applications stating whether or not they have a criminal record—is a worthy one that has gained traction in recent years, even getting President Obama's support.
But a new study suggests that many businesses prevented by laws and executive orders from asking about an applicant's criminal history are likely to fall back on old-fashioned racial discrimination anyway.
The study, "Ban The Box, Criminal Records, And Statistical Discrimination: A Field Experiment," was conducted by researchers at Princeton University and University of Michigan Law School to see what effect "Ban the Box" regulations have on who an employer hires.
Researchers sent 15,000 fake job applications to New York and New Jersey businesses before and then after those areas banned job interviewers from asking about an applicant's criminal history.
The results from before "Ban the Box" rules went into effect are discouraging, but not surprising. White applicants to businesses that would be affected by the rules received 7 percent more callbacks than black ones with a similar resume. Candidates of all races without a criminal history were 62 percent more likely to get an interview than ones who checked the box.
But once employers were no longer allowed to know if an applicant had a criminal history, something disturbing happened: the racial hiring gap went way up. White applicants were now getting 45 percent more callbacks than similar black candidates.
The study's authors, Amanda Y. Agan and Sonja B. Starr, wrote there are two likely reasons for these statistics. Even though they're unable to ask directly about criminal records, employers are both assuming black candidates are more likely to have one and that white candidates are less likely.
What makes this experiment so chilling is that "Ban the Box" supporters have argued that enacting the ban would lead to higher black employment. Older studies have shown that black men with criminal records have a much harder time finding jobs than white men. Agan and Starr's work would seem to suggest "banning the box" just spreads that discrimination around, rather than eliminating it.
"It clearly has benefits for people with records, and policymakers might decide that those benefits are important enough to justify the law," Starr said in a statement. "But our results are very worrisome in terms of the effects for black male applicants, especially those without criminal records."
Whatever happens with "the box" in the future, the study highlights the deeper problem at play: just how thoroughly racial discrimination is embedded in the fabric of the United States. Racism, it seems, will always find a way to assert itself.