Jobs in which the salary gap is narrower pay significantly less, as represented by the higher concentration of smaller dots in the upper half of the chart. The share of Black workers who have these jobs also tends to be higher, as is shown farther to the right on the chart.

How did we get here? A look at the reasons behind this—from uneven education opportunities to flat-out discrimination—sheds light on the mechanics of structural racism.

Uneven education

The jobs in the bottom left corner of the chart, like financial managers and software developers, usually require at least a college degree. Lawyers, of course, have to get an additional three-year law degree to practice in the US, which can cost anywhere from $28,000 to $72,000 a year. 

Black students are at a disadvantage from the start when it comes to education, in large part due the effects of discrimination accrued over centuries. Black school children are more likely to be poor, less likely to attend college, and less likely to graduate if they go, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That means a smaller share of Black workers meet the requirements for the kinds of professions on the bottom left. 

The jobs in which Black workers make more than whites, meanwhile, require less education. The pay gap in those occupations is partially due to geography: Black people tend to live in cities, where overall pay is higher. Black workers in these industries also tend to work more hours than their white counterparts.

But none of that is enough to explain the chart. Even when they have the same education level as their white peers, Black workers get paid less than their white counterparts, according to an analysis by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. In jobs that require a bachelor’s degree, Black employees earned a median $65,000 versus $75,000 for whites, it found. 

This indicates that policies to help Black students get a higher degree are not enough to close the gap, says Anne Price, president of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, an advocacy group that researches economic and racial inequality. 

“The adage goes: ‘Go back to school, work hard, and you’ll be able to move up the ladder,’” Price says. “What the data show is that it doesn’t necessarily pan out that way.” 

Present-day racism

It takes more nuance to explain the differences in occupation and pay that are not related to tangible factors like education, or age or geography.

Through a vast literature of economic and sociological research, we know the other reasons for these differences range from discrimination in the workplace to the value society assigns to certain kinds of jobs.

For example, work traditionally done by women, particularly Black women, is not considered to be worth very much. “It’s just not something we confront,” says Price. “Why does a home health worker make $8 an hour? It’s because immigrants and Black women do it. Fundamentally, we believe that because they do it, it is devalued.”

Then there’s the racism that Black workers face in the workplace, even in the highest-paying occupations. Research shows that Black applicants who remove indications of race from their resumes get called back more often. Other studies point to the propensity of white managers to hire white workers, and whites benefitting more from networks to help them find jobs.

Tsedale M. Melaku, a sociologist at City University of New York, puts this kind of discrimination in the “You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer” category, which is also the title of her book on how race and gender create barriers to recruitment and advancement. She interviewed Black female lawyers at top law firms, and found they encountered a variety of versions of that attitude, from colleagues asking them to make copies to being less likely to mentor them.

“The you-don’t-look-like mentality is hardly specific to the legal industry,” Melaku noted in Harvard Business Review last year. “Its cousins are ‘you don’t look like’ a doctor, a CEO, a congressperson, a scientist, or a professor.”

What to do?

The US has workplace anti-discrimination laws, but they are not well enforced. The agency in charge of enforcement, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, is underfunded and in recent years has been closing more cases without investigating them, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity. 

“There is nobody out there with a big stick to watch and find discriminatory action, so that enables it to keep going,” says Jeff Strohl, director of research at Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

Another way to hold employers accountable is through policies like wage transparency, which would allow job applicants to call out discriminatory pay. Public opinion, too, can pressure firms into diversifying their workforce. 

Ultimately, to create more effective policies, Americans need to change the stories they tell themselves about what it takes to be successful in the US, says Price. The lift-up-yourself-by-your-bootstraps narrative can get in the way of identifying what needs to change.

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