Black Men Still Face Uphill Struggle in the Working World

Black Men Still Face Uphill Struggle in the Working World

By Manny Otiko

Being laid off has been a challenging time for me. Many of my experiences have reinforced why black people, especially black men, are still struggling with employment and short lifespans. It also reinforced how much I hate the interviewing process, which is essentially a crapshoot. The interviewee usually has an up hill struggle to convince the employer why they should hire him.

Many employers, who are mainly white men and women, still harbor negative stereotypes about black men. Black men still have a reputation for being unreliable, uneducated or threatening. One would think that the more education black men gain, the better their chances are of employment. Not necessarily, I interviewed for a position unloading trucks with a major retail store recently criticized by the NAACP for its lack of contracting opportunities with black businessmen. After sailing through the background check, drug tests and the sit down interview, I was told by the woman interviewing me that I was overqualified for the job.

The general manager also commented on how well I spoke. After being jerked around for two weeks, I finally received a card thanking me for my interest and letting me know the position had been filled. Apparently I got punished for answering the questions correctly, I guess if I had come into the interview speaking Ebonics and wearing a gold-plated grill, they would have felt more comfortable. The idea of a black man, as smart if not smarter, than the person doing the interview seems to be much scarier than an ignorant black man.

Employers go over the applications of black candidates with a fine-tooth comb looking for reasons to exclude them. Being in the workforce has taught me that if someone wants to hire you, they will and if they do not want to hire you, they will find a reason not to. When I worked as a reporter in Oklahoma I used to cover a small town of about 500 people. It was the type of place where everyone knew each other and the good-old boys ruled the roost. A position in city government came open and a local candidate’s name was put forward. He was someone they all knew, but he did not have the right qualifications for the job. The city council members decided to hire him and told him to go and get the needed qualifications. Basically they bent the rules to fit their candidate.

In his ground-breaking show Dave Chappelle had a skit where he plays a black president who is interrogated by the media on every decision he makes. The implication was that a black man would always be second guessed on his choices. There is a still a certain amount of privilege bestowed on white men. (White women are still struggling for acceptance in the corporate world, even if they admit it or not). Nobody seems to question their competency. MSNBC pundit Tucker Carlson never graduated from college, yet he has managed to secure top-level TV jobs on CNN and MSNBC. I believe a black candidate would have been barred from those jobs because he did not have the right qualifications. Now, I am not saying Carlson does not have the talent to do his job, but I believe that nobody questioned his lack of academic credentials. Recently The Nation reported that college drop-out Blake Gottesman, a former intern in the White House whose job duties entailed walking the president’s dog, was admitted to Harvard Business School, a graduate-level college. Gottesman, a former beau of Jenna Bush, spent a total of one year at Claremont-McKenna College!

American society likes to bill itself as a meritocracy where even the poorest child can grow up to be president but how far you go often depends on your connections. There is a definite reason why prominent families like the Bushes keep repeating the same name. George Prescott Bush, nephew to the president and son of Florida governor Jeb Bush, is the third Bush to bear the name George. (By the way, the name Prescott was the name of the current president’s grandfather, a Connecticut senator). The Bush family repeats these names because they realize they carry clout and open doors.

The only people who still believe hiring decisions are based on merit are people of color. Asians have the highest test scores among all ethnic groups, but colleges insist that they have well-rounded applications to cut back on their numbers. If admissions were based strictly on SAT scores, American colleges would be dominated by Asians.

So if Asians have the highest test scores why are their numbers not more prominent in the top levels of the corporate world? Currently about 90 percent of the CEOs on Fortune 500 companies are white men, who’s average test scores are lower than both Asians and white women. I am sure corporate America thinks Asians are good enough to work in the IT departments, but when it comes to running the companies, those jobs are reserved for the good-old boys. Because of these attitudes more women and people of color are starting their own companies. Jerry Yang, co-founder of Yahoo, probably would have never been able to generate a $2.6 billion fortune if he had stayed in mainstream corporate America.

Affirmative action is a necessary evil needed to combat the lingering effects of discrimination. Until the gatekeepers can guarantee they are making color-blind decisions, affirmative action is essential to assure at least a sliver of ethnic diversity. There is a reason why there are so many black people in government jobs. Most government agencies are mandated to hire a certain amount of people of color and they are among the few organizations that take diversity seriously. There are very few punishments for companies who do not hire people of color. Most of them do not realize the error of their ways until they are hit with a lawsuit or Jesse Jackson shows up on their doorstep.

My advice to young black people entering the workforce is to forget everything their parents taught them about the working world. Rely more on networking than on your education and resume. Also understand that many firms will look for a reason not to hire you. I would advise a young black person to seek out a career field which has a desperate shortage of workers. Employers cannot afford to be picky when they are understaffed. Alternatively start your own business so you avoid the hiring process altogether.

Hopefully one day affirmative action will be unnecessary. To the people who loathe the policy here is my suggestion. Guarantee that the “best qualified candidate” will be hired and I will happily do away with affirmative action. Sounds like a fair trade to me?

Manny Otiko is a freelance writer based in Southern California. He is also the creator of an online comic strip called “Ghetto Fabulous.”

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