By Tom Demerly.
The year I was born, 1961, journalist John Howard Griffin disguised himself as an African-American man riding buses through the segregated south. He chronicled the racism, discrimination and bigotry he experienced in the masterwork, Black Like Me.
Fast-forward 51 years and our country has made significant progress in all areas of equality.
I’m a 52-year old Caucasian male. Several months ago I left a good full time job as a writer in California to assist in a business a friend opened. Before the new business became fully operational my plan was to get another full time job in retail management, writing or other field I’ve had success in. I have a college education, a good work history and a strong resume in two different industries.
I filled out over 100 online applications that asked my name and other basic information. The questions included, as an “option”, my age. Most also asked me if I would answer optional questions about race and ethnic origin. I always did. I figured the more complete my application, the better my chances.
I got one interview. They weren’t interested.
In reviewing my experience, qualifications and accomplishments and also counting the demographic of the staff in a few of the businesses I was applying for I realized something. I am now a member of a new undesirable demographic, the white, middle-aged male.
My experience does not compare to the brutal racism and discrimination of African-Americans in the Deep South during the 1960’s. It does not. I have never been refused service in a restaurant, relegated to poor seating on public transportation or threatened with lynching.
Quite the opposite in fact. Because I am a well-spoken white middle-aged man everyone assumes I am well off. I get good seats in restaurants; great service and young people treat me with respect. They assume when they see me that I own a car, a house, have a good job. They pre-judge that. I have none of those things.
What I do have is a new appreciation for the type of silent, antiseptic discrimination afforded by online job applications and data-sorting algorithms. They compare key words and “optional” responses to a predetermined desirable profile of the best hire. Regardless of my experience, results, qualifications or talent my key words may not match their key words. So, in a competitive job search something in my key words on an automated job application is kicking my applications out.
Something. I wonder what that is…
I now have the slightest notion of what being discriminated against may be like. I don’t pretend to understand the full gravity of discrimination in our historical context. But, I couldn’t help but reflect on the Nelson Mandela quote, “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
If we claim to have made progress against discrimination in the United States then any mechanism that facilitates it based on age, race, national origin or ethnicity is wrong. That an online job application can even query this data as an “option” is wrong.
If we’re going to rest on the laurels of reduced racism and improved equality it means we favor no one, exclude no one, either in person or through an antiseptic, automated system. I don’t think we’re there yet. That means we need to improve our standards of equality in all areas, including job searches and candidate screening.
Until we do, we’re simply trading one version of discrimination for another.