Cover Page

Work & Society Series

Thomas Janoski, David Luke & Christopher Luke, The Causes of Structural Unemployment: Four Factors that Keep People from the Jobs They Deserve

Karyn Loscocco, Race and Work: Persistent Inequality

Cynthia L. Negrey, Work Time: Conflict, Control, and Change

Marcus Taylor & Sébastien Rioux, Global Labour Studies


Persistent Inequality

Karyn Loscocco


I offer heartfelt thanks to the scholars whose work has inspired and informed my analysis of persistent inequalities in race and work. I hope I have done their important work justice. I am grateful to Richard Lachmann, Melinda Lawson, Hayward Horton, Christine Bose, and Carol Tye, who took time out of extremely busy schedules to read parts of the manuscript. Their suggestions and assurances were extremely helpful. Thank you to the Polity readers who provided insightful suggestions and pointed out blind spots. Special thanks to editor Jonathan Skerrett who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, launching me into a project that has expanded my horizons. During our journey together I have been consistently impressed with how good he is at his job. I also want to thank editors Rachel Moore and Susan Beer who ushered the manuscript into print with skill and patience.

I was fortunate to have the research assistance of Rachel Sullivan, Elizabeth Harwood, and Wen-Ling Kung at various stages of the research and writing of the book. Very special thanks go to Annemarie Daughtry whose excellent skills and impressive work ethic have been essential throughout the project.

I am grateful to my wonderful family and friends for showing interest in the book and for understanding when I disappeared. Additional thanks go out to Kecia Johnson and Dawn Knight-Thomas, who convinced me that I had a contribution to make, and to Dorene Earner for being my mirror and my anchor.

Thank you, again and forever, to my parents, whose generosity and sacrifices made it possible for me to do meaningful work. Thank you to my son Nicholas for letting me know (in his own way) that he values my work, and for being an enjoyable distraction. My biggest debt of gratitude goes to my life partner Larry, for his unflagging support and understanding. Thanks for keeping the home fires burning (and the house from burning down).

I dedicate this book to all of the people who have fought – in whatever ways they could – to create more racial equality. And to those who are part of the resistance now.


Discussions of race and work are common at dinner tables, across campuses, and on social and news media pages. Social science corroborates what a cursory look at the content of those discussions shows: people from different race groups see things very differently. While some groups call attention to equal work opportunity as a key unfinished goal of the Civil Rights Movement, others are convinced that whites are now oppressed as much or more than blacks, Latinos, and Asians – particularly when it comes to finding and keeping good jobs.

There are many misconceptions about the economic histories of different racial and ethnic groups. There is confusion about the extent and content of racial disparities in the work realm. Finally, misleading and incorrect information about the reasons for race-based patterns in work and occupations abounds. In these pages you will find the evidence and conceptual building blocks needed for a more accurate discussion of race and work in U.S. society.

Sociology makes a unique contribution to the study of work and race systems because of its emphasis on structure. This is an important corrective to our cultural emphasis on “rugged individualism.” People tend to look to individual behavior and attitudes for explanations, even when there are clear and consistent patterns. It is as though they focus in on the final frame of a video clip, instead of examining what came before. If they watched the whole video clip, their interpretation of the behavior of the person in the single frame might be different. While sociologists certainly acknowledge the important role of agency, or the self-conscious decision-making and actions of individuals, social context is particularly important to the study of race and work. That is because when we believe that work outcomes are the product of individual inputs, we conclude that we all get the work lives we deserve. This is a strong cultural value which can lead some people to overlook large amounts of data showing that structural forces channel individuals into work positions and affect attitudes and behaviors.

Because race and work developed together in the United States, work is an important focus for understanding race, and race should be front and center in the study of work. Society is built around the economy so the effects of racial inequities ripple out well beyond the workplace, into homes, communities, and futures. Work is likewise a key potential site for disrupting race-based inequities and tension. Of course work systems do not exist in a vacuum. Employment systems, occupations, and industries, and the ways they sort people by race, are intricately connected to other systems such as education, polity, and family. Though detailed discussion of other social institutions is beyond the scope of this book, you will see that race-based work and employment patterns affect and reflect patterns in other institutions.

The sociological study of race and work exercises the critical thinking skills prized in today’s business and professional world. It pushes us to reject surface explanations; instead, we go deeper, excavating the sources and consequences of the intertwined work lives of people from various racial-ethnic groups. Though it is common to judge and reason from one’s own limited standpoint, robust thinkers and leaders situate individuals, groups, and events in social context.

Thus, this book presents “the whole video clip” about how race and the U.S. economic system developed together, the role of race in propelling white ethnics into the middle class, the stubborn persistence of racial disparities in unemployment rates, how a racialized immigration process creates race disparities in occupations, and much more. My goal is to provide an unvarnished analysis of race and work in the United States. As others have noted, the language with which we often talk about both American history and race has been sanitized to hide prickly truths (e.g. Moore 1988; Loewen 1995; Bonilla-Silva 2001).

Even well into the second decade of the twenty-first century, there is a great deal of segregation by race in U.S. neighborhoods, schools, churches, and social organizations. The workplace is the single most common arena where adults from different racial and ethnic groups have close and continuing interaction (Estlund 2003). Employers seek job candidates who understand the role of race at work, whether visible or invisible. Perhaps that is motivation for reading this book. Of course it is more important than ever, in this age of constant information and opinion, to be an informed community member, parent, voter, and consumer of the internet. The race and work story told here provides framing, context, and information that contribute to that end.

As the title makes clear, the focus of the book is race. For that reason it does not provide a full analysis of how gender intersects with race to create unique patterns for women and men. Nor is there a full discussion of class variation within race groups. As I will explain a bit more in the next chapter, I made these choices to make the race story clearer. But I hope that readers will keep in mind that race is always created and experienced at the intersection of other major social statuses such as gender and social class.

In these pages you will find an analytical rather than a comprehensive review of research on race and work in the United States. The book would be far too long if I tried to include counter findings and critiques of every topic. That means that there is always other research “out there” and I encourage you to find it and evaluate it for yourself. I have chosen to highlight research that illustrates race inequality in the United States. Based on the preponderance of research evidence, I believe that our starting point should be to assume racism and disprove it rather than taking the more common route of having to prove it exists. As noted sociologist Barbara Reskin (2003) has pointed out, when elaborate statistical models show racial disparities the default hypothesis should be that racism is at work; researchers should reject that hypothesis only if they verify another causal mechanism. Further, even small statistical differences matter because racism is hard to measure and any amount can reflect important differences in people’s lives.

The book begins with a brief introduction to the major conceptual tools that will be used in the chapters that follow. The next two chapters provide essential historical context. Chapter 4 presents data documenting systematic patterns as well as fine-grained detail about race and work. It is followed by an explanation for those research findings that uses many of the concepts from Chapter 1. Chapter 6 takes a look at current trends related to race and work. The book concludes with a sketch of how we might move toward greater racial equality in work opportunities and experiences.

I offer what follows in the spirit of deepening understanding and elevating the discussion of race, racism, and work in the United States.