In these tough economic times, Americans from all kinds of backgrounds are hurting financially. There seems to be depression reports in the news almost every day. Reports in the media have also focused a lot of attention on layoffs at large corporations, many of whom are shedding employees by the thousands. With that in mind, it may lead many of us to presume that middle class Whites are getting hit the hardest in this recession.

Certainly, many middle class Whites and their families are feeling the brunt of the recession and many find themselves struggling to make ends meet for the first time in their lives. However, as MSNBC reports, the data shows that on the aggregate level, it’s actually Blacks and Latinos that are being hit the hardest by the current recession:

Last hired, first fired: This generations-old cliche rings bitterly true for millions of Latinos and blacks who are losing jobs at a faster rate than the general population during this punishing recession. Much of the disparity is due to a concentration of Latinos and blacks in construction, blue-collar or service-industry jobs that have been decimated by the economic meltdown. . . .

Since the recession began in December 2007, Latino unemployment has risen 4.7 percentage points, to 10.9%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Black unemployment has risen 4.5 points, to 13.4%. White unemployment has risen 2.9 points, to 7.3%. . . .

William Darity, a Duke University professor, said that “blacks and Latinos are relative latecomers to the professional world … so they are necessarily the most vulnerable.” . . .

“Not saying that it’s racism,” [an executive search consultant] said, “but if a manager or a senior executive is looking at a slate of individuals and has to let one of them go, chances are he or she will not let the person go that they spend a lot of time with at the country club or similar places.”

My point is not to play the “Oppression Olympics” and to argue that this group is much better off than another group, or one group is more oppressed than another. Instead, I would like to place these findings in a larger sociological context.

Many Americans feel that our society, while still not a perfect meritocracy, offers Americans from all backgrounds the best opportunities for success and achieving the American dream than at any time in our history — that the playing field is more level and equal now than it’s ever been.

I would agree that the opportunities for socioeconomic success are the most equal that they’ve ever been in American history. But that does not mean that everybody is on an equal playing field. Instead, what this MSNBC article and other sociological studies have shown is that Blacks and Latinos continue to experience particular institutional disadvantages in their efforts to achieve economic equality with Whites.

Specifically, as the article points out, Blacks and Latinos tend to be disproportionately located in service and manual labor industries. Beyond the fact that these industries tend to pay lower wages in general, they are also highly vulnerable in times of economic recession and we’re seeing this play out right now. As such, Blacks and Latinos experience their first disadvantage.

Their second disadvantage is that even for Blacks and Latinos who have professional occupations that normally are well-paying, again as the article points out, they are relative newcomers to such occupations and as such, when layoffs come, they are more likely to lose their jobs due to the “last hired, first fired” principle.

The third point of disadvantage is that due to the legacy of systematic discrimination in the past, Blacks and Latinos have been unable to accumulate the same level of family wealth compared to Whites. This is even despite the fact that while the income gap between Whites and Blacks and Latinos has declined, the wealth gap has actually increased in the past several decades.

This wealth gap is important because it provides a cushion or barrier to soften loss of employment and other financial difficulties. Therefore, because Blacks and Latinos have less accumulated wealth than Whites, they have a much smaller cushion to fall back on and therefore, are more susceptible to financial catastrophes.

Ultimately, these institutional disadvantages play a large part in why Blacks and Latinos seem to struggle more than Whites or Asian Americans when it comes to achieving economic success. They may be well-educated, motivated, and hard-working, but they also have to overcome more structural inequalities and barriers that make them more financially vulnerable in times of recession.

In my article on Employment and Occupational Patterns, I described how, despite the fact that many Asian American work in high-status, well-paying jobs, unfortunately many still experience glass ceiling barriers (sometimes referred to as the ‘bamboo ceiling’ for Asian Americans) and other mechanisms of discrimination in the workplace.

To give us a more detailed picture of this issue, a new report by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC, the federal agency in charge of enforcing employment non-discrimination laws) has just released a new study on the extent of workplace discrimination against Asian Americans in federal government jobs (thanks to AngryAsianMan for blogging about this first).

First, a little background data: this report only looked at Asian American workers who work for federal government agencies. According to EEOC data, there are about 2.6 million federal employees and Asian American comprise about 6% of them. That works out to be around 156,000 Asian American federal government workers.

In comparison, there are about 5.2 million Asian Americans in the total civilian labor force. So of all Asian American workers, around 3% work for the federal government. That may not seem to be a lot but in many ways, we might expect the federal government to be more attuned to racial discrimination in their ranks compared to the private sector. So how did Asian American federal workers fare in this regard?

AAPIs have been called the “model minority,” but this community seems to be the “forgotten minority.” This community has been facing a number of misperceptions or stereotypes – for example, AAPIs are quiet, hardworking, family-oriented, technically-oriented, good at math and science, but are also passive, non-confrontational and antisocial.

However, while some of these stereotypes have positive characteristics, they have become the framework of barriers establishing glass or bamboo ceilings which prevent AAPIs from moving into the upper tiers of an organization. In addition, AAPIs face sticky floors which hold AAPIs at a particular level for a prolonged period of time and other obstacles. . . .

[A Gallup survey in 2005 found that] 31% of Asians surveyed reported incidents of discrimination, the largest percentage of any ethnic group. . . . [However, EEOC data] shows that only about 2% of all charges in the private sector and 3.26% in the federal sector are filed by AAPIs. There is more discrimination occurring in the workplace than is being reflected in our charge/complaint statistics.

The report notes that among all federal government agencies, the Broadcasting Board of Governors has the highest Asian American representation at 13.5% while the Tennessee Valley Authority has the lowest at 0.3%. Also significant is that across virtually all federal agencies, compared to their overall representation with a particular agency, Asian Americans are consistently underrepresented as mid-level supervisors and as executives.

Although the report does not provide many specific examples of discrimination against Asian American federal government employees, its summary of the barriers that they face are very similar to the ones I identified in my own article that I cited in the first paragraph: model minority perceptions leading to narrow and limiting assignments, language and accent discrimination, perceptions of foreignness, perceptions of social deficiency, and perceptions of lack of leadership.

Finally, the EEOC’s recommendations are:

  • Strong leadership and personal commitment to diversity comes from the top down. Hopefully Barack Obama will fulfill his promise to work toward ending this underrepresentation of Asian Americans in the federal government.
  • Strengthen commitment to diversity among agency leadership. This is not just to be politically correct — there is a solid business case to be made that for the U.S. to stay ahead and succeed in the international, globalized economy, its workforce needs to include a broad range of backgrounds, talent, and skills.
  • Ensure that supervisor/manager assessments of their Asian American employees are fair, objective, and free from the cultural biases that I listed above.
  • Ensure that the EEOC agency itself does its job properly in terms of being accessible to Asian American employees who have a complaint and in properly investigating such complaints. Hopefully this will also be easier to do under our new (Democratic) administration.
  • Collaborate with Asian American community organizations and leaders to encourage Asian Americans to work for the federal government and to increase their levels of representation within federal agencies.
  • Actively support Asian American employee groups. Rather than promoting “balkanization” as some critics have charged, these ethnically-focused support groups actually lead to greater worker loyalty, productivity, and satisfaction.
  • Finally, give Asian American federal employees who do have documented skill deficiencies the opportunities and resources to address them and to improve their skills and qualifications so that they can perform better and be promoted more easily.

As the saying goes, all these things are easier said than done. Nonetheless, I am very confident that Barack Obama’s administration will give closer attention to these kinds of issues within the federal government and that things are looking up for Asian American employees. In other words, there is a new sheriff in town and things are going to change around here.