This is the latest article in our series on Anti-Racism and Inclusion. Read our previous posts on The Importance of Health Equity, Racism and Physical Health, Racism and Mental Health, and watch the video of our interactive webinar on Disparities in Healthcare.
Across North America, BIPOC employees face structural racism that limits their ability to find high-quality work, ensures that they earn less money, and fosters detrimental economic and psychological harm that can last for generations.
As Olugbenga Ajilore, Senior Economist at the Center for American Progress, explains, “Due to restrictions within the U.S. labor market, African Americans have long been excluded from opportunities for upward mobility, stuck instead in low-wage occupations that do not offer the protections of labor laws, such as those focused on collective bargaining, overtime, and the minimum wage.”
“Unsurprisingly, this history of structural racism has created gaps in labor market outcomes between African Americans and whites.”
In Canada, 54% of Black people and 53% of Indigenous people say they experience regular, ongoing discrimination. 40% say that they’ve encountered it at their workplace, tying with street harassment as the #1 most common place where they face overt racism.
The racial employment gap is real
Racist structures in the workplace result in proven, severe long-term consequences. No matter their level of education or professional history, BIPOC workers consistently encounter barriers, including employment discrimination, reduced job access and significantly unequal pay.
Consistently higher unemployment rates
Over time, new laws have been regularly introduced that seemingly should have helped narrow this gap. But the unemployment rate for Black Americans has steadily held at twice the rate for white Americans since the US Bureau of Labor Statistics started gathering racial data in 1972. So, for almost the last half-century.
This remains steady no matter the state of the labor market, the unemployment rate itself, and across all education levels, industries and ages. In many majority-Black metro areas, the rate is even worse. In Washington, DC, the 2019 unemployment rate for Black people was six times greater than for white people.
Less access to jobs
Traditional markers of access to well-paying, long-term jobs — like a college education — show the same disparities. The unemployment rate for Black college graduates averages about 40% higher than for their white counterparts.
Though college graduation typically improves access to better-paying jobs with better benefits, this effect isn’t evenly distributed for all grads.
This cycle of discrimination continues from entry-level hiring all the way to the most senior positions. Of the Fortune 500 companies, only five CEOs are Black and there have only been 18 Black CEOs in total over the last 21 years.
Across age, gender and employment types, Black workers earn only 77% of what white workers earn for the same jobs. In Canada, BIPOC employees earn 81 cents to the dollar compared to their white counterparts.
Lower wages for Black workers, regardless of their income, contribute to a growing racial wealth gap. On average, Black families in the US own 80% less wealth than white families. Over time and generations, this makes it more difficult for Black people to support education for their children, move to areas with better job access, pay for healthcare or invest for their retirement.
Health Equity and How We Can Achieve It
The major impact of racist microaggressions at work
Once in the workforce, BIPOC employees face not only racist systems built into company structures but multiple, subtle forms of person-to-person discrimination from non-BIPOC colleagues.
Called microaggressions, these acts are “brief and commonplace verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults to marginalized individuals and groups.”
On a daily basis, BIPOC workers report dealing with microaggressions. They can be difficult for non-BIPOC colleagues to see because they first need to be aware of their own biases and racial privilege to identify them. Because of this, historically, many white workers have not known they exist, failed to recognize them as they happen, or downplayed their harm.
Some examples of common microaggressions include:
- Allowing and dismissing racist jokes or race-based comments
- Ignoring BIPOC employees in meetings
- Expressing beliefs that racism doesn’t exist or that a person “doesn’t see color”
- Asking BIPOC colleagues “where they come from” or “how they got their job”
- “Keeping an eye on” BIPOC workers more than their white counterparts
- Commenting on how articulate or well-put-together a Black colleague is
- Asking to touch a Black co-worker’s hair or clothing
- Expecting a BIPOC colleague to perform extra tasks, like getting coffee
All of these microaggressions, and many more, have no place anywhere in society. In the workplace, where they’ve historically been allowed and unchallenged because of a pretense of “professionalism,” they particularly need to be seen, called out and challenged.
That is one of the core actions white workers can take to become actively anti-racist.
Non-BIPOC people need to do their own anti-racist work
All too often, non-BIPOC individuals rely on their BIPOC colleagues or friends to educate them on the realities of racism. This is common in the workplace. Though well-intended, organizations need to be mindful of transferring responsibility for inclusion and anti-racist action onto Black workers.
Black employees are rightfully burnt out. The constant awareness of racial discrimination — and the vigilance it creates — is extremely tiring. On top of that, in many workplaces, BIPOC employees are vastly outnumbered and in the last few months have been increasingly relied on to lead anti-racist work as the world has reckoned with the history of systemic racism.
As marketing leader Najoh Tita-Reid sums up in her recent article in Fortune, “Black people did not create these problems, so please do not expect us to resolve them alone. After all, we are exhausted.”
Companies have to address racism at both the systemic and individual levels
This means confronting everything about how their businesses operate, from how their own employees behave, to adopting proven methods to improve how they hire, and how they support BIPOC employees.
For individuals, being anti-racist involves a lot of personal work that white employees might not have thought about having to do before. It includes learning how to recognize their own inherent biases, truly listening to BIPOC colleagues about their experiences, and understanding that being vocal about race is their responsibility.
Ready to learn more? Browse Confronting Racism At Work: A Reading List by Harvard Business Review to find out how to support BIPOC employees and take action to address system racism in the workplace.
Supporting anti-racist and Black-led organizations is another great step. Learn how to be an ally to local groups, access Black healthcare professionals with lived experience of racism, and much more in our Black Lives Matter Member Resource Guides: