Ban the Box? An Effort to Stop Discrimination May Actually Increase It
Policies aimed at ending discrimination against people with criminal records may actually have the unintended consequence of increasing racial discrimination.That, at least, is the finding of a fascinating new study that focused on so-called ban the box regulations — rules that prohibit initial job applications from asking prospective employees to check a box indicating whether they have a criminal history.
It has implications for nearly all policies aimed at eliminating racial inequities.
When we try to end discrimination without addressing the underlying causes of discriminatory behavior, our efforts may accomplish little — and may even backfire.
Efforts to ban the box are racially charged. As Bruce Western, a Harvard sociologist, documented in his 2009 book, “Punishment and Inequality in America,” many of those with criminal histories are black, particularly among the roughly 30 percent of black males who do not have high school diplomas. By 2013, nearly 70 percent of black male high school dropouts in their early 30s had served time in prison.
The researchers sent fictitious job applications to employers before and after the regulations took effect, focusing on jobs for “candidates with limited work experience, no postsecondary education and no specialized skills.” Some applications were randomly assigned a criminal history and some were not; some were assigned a first name found to be more common among American blacks (like Tyree), while others were given names that have been more common among whites (like Scott).
Before the regulations took effect, candidates with criminal histories were far less likely to be called back, irrespective of race.
After the regulations took effect, though, things changed. Lacking the ability to discern criminal history, employers became much less likely to call back any apparently black applicant. They seemed to treat all black applicants now as if they might have a criminal past.
These were big and disheartening effects: Banning the box extended discrimination to virtually all black applicants.
But where should we go from here? It would be wrong to conclude from one study that these regulations are a bad idea. Research continues, and while other studies have reached similar conclusions, the verdict is not in yet.