By Blake Neff
Anti-discrimination “ban the box” laws, which prohibit employers from asking about criminal history on job applications, may serve to increase racial discrimination by employers, a new study indicates.
The push to “ban the box” has been popular with the NAACP and the Obama administration, which argue it makes it easier for convicts to reintegrate with society. Unsurprisingly, many companies avoid interviewing job applicants with prior convictions, which makes it much harder for ex-cons to get jobs. This, reformers argue, tends to keep them impoverished and pushes them back into crime. The point of ban the box laws is to help criminals get their foot in the door and have a better chance of landing a job, since a criminal history disclosed later in the job application process is less likely to prevent a job offer.
New research indicates that ban the box laws are effective at helping criminals, but they also have a nasty side effect: increasing racial bias from employers.
The study, conducted by researchers at Princeton University and the University of Michigan, looked at the effect of the laws that took effect in New Jersey and New York. Over 15,000 fictitious job applications were sent in for over 4,300 low-skill, entry-level positions both before and after the laws took effect, in order to see what changed.
Prior to the laws, white job applicants received about 7 percent more call-backs on job applications than similarly qualified black applicants. After the laws, this advantage soared all the way to 45 percent. That’s hardly an encouraging development, as one of the chief goals of “ban the box” is to improve economic opportunities for non-whites.
The reason for the gap isn’t entirely clear, but the researchers have a compelling theory: having been deprived of information about applicants’ criminal history, employers are simply engaging in racial profiling instead. Overall, blacks are substantially more likely than other races to have spent time behind bars, but criminal history boxes enabled non-criminal blacks to stand apart from criminal ones. Now, all blacks are being tagged with the same brush.
On the flip side, the researchers suggested whites may be reaping the full benefit of the laws, as they are now lumped in with other whites in being assumed to have no criminal history.