Immigrants of African Origin Face Systemic Employment Discrimination

Patrick Mason of the Political Economy Research Institute says immigrants of African origin are facing workplace discrimination similar to African Americans

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

At the height of the U.S. civil rights movement in the middle of the ’60s, foreign-born persons of African descent was less than 1% of the population. Today 16% of America’s African diaspora workforce consist of first or second-generation immigrants, and 4% of them are Hispanic. African-American immigrant experiences and racialized labor market assimilation is the topic of our next discussion with Patrick Mason. Patrick Mason is joining us from the Political Economy Research Institute at UMass Amherst. Patrick is a professor of economics and the director of the African-American studies program at Florida State University.

Patrick, thank you so much for joining us today.

PATRICK MASON, PERI: Okay, thank you for having me.

PERIES: So Patrick, let’s begin with mapping the demographics, the growth from the 1960s to today.

MASON: Well, there has been a significant change. In the middle 1960s at the end of Jim Crow, African-American population was heavily southern, both in terms of where people lived, or where they were originally from. It was heavily, almost completely English-speaking, and overwhelmingly Christian, and native-born. The African-American population today has a very large percentage of first and second-generation immigrants. These immigrants have come from all over the world, but heavily from Caribbean, heavily from Africa, both eastern and western Africa.

The immigrant population also has a fairly sizable persons who are Spanish-speaking, who are French-speaking. And depending on where these immigrants originated from and the time of arrival in the U.S., they may be extremely well-educated. So that, for example, African immigrants, especially West African immigrants, tend to have extremely high levels of education. Typical African immigrant, first-generation African immigrant male, about 45% are college graduates, with a very high percentage of people with graduate degrees.

So all these things have contributed to making the African-American population quite different to date than it was in the middle of the 1960s.

PERIES: So Patrick, in terms of the African-American immigrant population on arrival in the U.S., describe the skillset and levels that they’re coming with and why.

MASON: Well, maybe not necessarily the best. Because typically with immigration, the most affluent people and the poorest people typically don’t immigrate. It’s usually someone who is above average, say, in terms of education or ability. And in some sense they, in their host society, they’re people with the ability to rise to quite a substantial level, but there’s something blocking their opportunity.

So they immigrate to the U.S. So it may be somebody who, in terms of their education or their underlying abilities, are at the 75th, 80th, or 90th, or 95th percentile in their home country, and that person will immigrate to the U.S.

PERIES: So now they’ve arrived in the land of milk and honey. How is their assimilation process?

MASON: That’s complex. On the one hand, since you’re looking at individuals, say, who are coming from Africa, maybe from the English-speaking Caribbean who have above-average levels of education even by American standards, they will have above-average income compared to the typical American.

But that’s not the relevant comparison. The relevant comparison is how do they do in the labor market relative to Americans with the same level of education, experience, et cetera. And in that sense, there is a heavy penalty for being a black immigrant regardless of which country you come from, regardless of whether or not you’re English speaking origins, French-speaking origins, Spanish origins. Or coming from a European country.

So that if there’s, for example, I found that there’s about a 17% wage penalty for native-born African-Americans. Well, for first–

PERIES: By that you mean they’re making less.

MASON: Yes. They’re making 17% less than men who are otherwise identical in terms of where they live, and in terms of different ways of measuring experience. Right, there shouldn’t be any wage penalty at all. I mean, when economists think about inequality, a lot of people like to believe that okay, wages are paid based on skill. So differences in skill drive differences in wage payments. Well, that’s not true when it comes to African-Americans, that race matters a lot. And so for native-born African-American men, they’re under about 17% less than white men of roughly the same skill level.

But immigrant, first-generation immigrant African-American men, the wage penalties are very much higher, ranging from about 20% to, for Haitian immigrants and for African immigrants, sometimes 35 or 40% less.

PERIES: And are you finding these discrepancies even in the higher-skill labor market?

MASON: Yes. And in fact, that’s kind of what’s driving it. I mean, if you think about it in terms of very low-paying jobs, minimum wage jobs, well, everybody in minimum wage jobs make the minimum wage. They make very low wages. That’s why one of the reasons, when you look at racial inequality among women, it’s much lower than racial inequality among men. And that’s because women in general are pushed into lower-paying jobs. And if you have a large group of people, regardless of race, they’re all being pushed into low-paying jobs, you’re not going to observe much racial inequality.

Jobs that require a college degree have a greater amount of variation in pay, and within those jobs, black immigrants have less access to the higher-paying jobs. And this doesn’t, it’s diminished some according to the age level when the immigrants arrive. So that generally people who arrive in the U.S. as children or who arrive in the U.S. before age 12, or arrive in the U.S. during high school will have much lower inequality than people who arrive at 25 or 30 or 40. So that matters.

But it also matters in terms of whether or not you’re looking at someone of first-generation or second-generation. So even second-generation immigrants, that is to say, people who were born and raised in the U.S., but who had a parent from Africa or from the Caribbean, or Europe, or South America, basically their penalties, the amount of discrimination that they will suffer in the labor market is roughly the same as native African-Americans or slightly higher.

PERIES: So, interesting. So in terms of this recent paper that you have written, titled Immigrant Assimilation and Male Racial Labor Market Inequality, you’re finding that the longer you’re in the United States, the less discrimination and so–what does this tell us about the assumptions and the cultural racialized practices that are underway towards immigrants in general, and African immigrants in particular? Although, like in many other countries, they’re coming to the United States with a higher degree of education, training, and perhaps even skillsets.

MASON: Well, that’s a good question. Because it’s kind of complex. It’s true that the longer immigrants are here the better they will do in the labor market, because obviously they get accustomed to the U.S. labor market, they learn more, they know where the job opportunities are. They become more mobile. And the earlier they arrive, the better they will do.

But black immigrants never really catch up to native-born whites. So the assimilation, if anything, is that black immigrants assimilate into roughly the economic status of native-born African-Americans. The one group from my research that I found that maybe do slightly better are Caribbean immigrants who come before the age of 12, so that in terms of their long-term labor market penalty, discrimination they face, it’s about 10 or 12%, versus about 17% for native-born African-Americans.

Which–the conclusion that I draw from that is that racial inequality persists. And left to its own devices, we can’t sort of expect that okay, laissez-faire capitalism will eliminate racial inequality. It won’t. And in fact, that was part of the purpose for doing this particular research. Because I wanted to see what would happen if we have a group of black people who have cultural black backgrounds, and maybe some historical experiences that are slightly different from native-born African-Americans. So that you look at people from all over the world. And what they have in common is that they are all black. And how will they then be treated in the U.S. labor market?

And what we found out is that over time they end up getting treated like native-born blacks. So that their race is a barrier that, that persists in terms of labor market outcomes. Not only in terms of earnings but also employment. And that means that in terms of things like public policy dealing with income inequality or wealth inequality that it’s not sufficient to say well, we’ll just let the market on its own work all of this out, and the market will lead to a solution that’s free of discrimination, and that allows each individual to rise to their own level of ability. In point of fact, that’s not the case.

PERIES: Patrick, I hope you join us again to explore the issues and your findings further in the very near future.

MASON: Thank you.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End

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