Is This Job Discrimination?

An African-American's story of a frustrating job search leads to a frank discussion of race as a factor in employment, along with some solid advice on landing a job. January 10, 2008

I am a woodworker and furniture designer born and raised in New York City. For the past two years, I have been trying to go from freelance to working for a company. Every company I have been to and interviewed at has told me that I am talented and that they love my work, but they aren't hiring. These are places that I have seen post ads on craigslist and to show that they are hiring.

I have also noticed something else at these places - there are never any African Americans working there - a large majority of Mexicans and a handful of other ethnicities, but never any African Americans. I recently brought this up to a guy who I had been referred to for a position to draft his plans by hand, something that I have done and can do. His response was that everyone loves hiring Mexicans because they work hard and don't talk back. Is there any truth to this?

At first I thought maybe it was because my training is basically from self teaching, but I found out from people that actually own these woodworking businesses that in some aspects I am either at their skill level or just below. They never seem to be interested in hiring me once they see that I am a black man. I'm open to all responses on this topic, especially those of you who reside in New York City.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor I:
I think your ethnicity is not the reason of your rejection. You're probably doing something wrong on interviews. Are you properly prepared for interviews? Do you have a resume or portfolio? Do you know what a future employer expects from you? Are you properly dressed? Ask yourself what are you doing wrong, that you are not getting hired.

From the original questioner:
I do everything professionally and I take notice of the employees working at every establishment. I do believe it is because of my race when a place that says they are hiring is all of a sudden not hiring, even after telling me they love my work and I am talented. After the last phone conversation I must conclude it is my race.

From contributor J:

I would hate to think that someone would not want to hire you because you aren't Mexican. I hope the days of hiring by race are way, way behind us. I do believe that there are lots of companies out there that hire illegals because they figure they don't have to pay them much, and if they abuse them, they are probably not going to complain (or sue them). By the way, how many white guys did you see in these shops? I just talked to a guy last week who told me about a job he worked at a few years back where he was the token white guy in a shop of about a dozen workers, and they paid him $8/hour. I heard a similar story from another guy a few years back. You might want to call the INS to report a few of these shops, not that they will do anything about it.

By the way, I got the old white guy discrimination when I was still looking to get hired as a software engineer. Actually, I doubt my race had anything to do with them not wanting to talk to me. They just wanted cheap labor and less gray hair.

As John McCain says, "They (the illegals) do the jobs Americans won't do." I guess that includes working in cabinet and furniture shops.

From contributor K:
I know a white guy that can't find a decent job in Texas. I don't know how you look, but this guy is all covered in tattoos and earrings, tongue stud and such. He thinks the world is against him, but he is blowing his own chances. I think if you are clean cut and look like a pro, you should not have too hard of a time getting work. The only other thought I have is, communicate by e-mail for the first little bit, sending photos of your work and solid references. Then if it all looks good until you show up, you know why.

From contributor P:
It's entirely possible that you are correct, and the shop owners are just racist. It's also possible that the other responders are correct, and that there's something amiss in your presentation. You should first of all make sure that you have your own house in order: that your portfolio truly represents your capabilities, that your resume is perfect (spelling, design, and no unexplained gaps in the timeline), that you can provide references, that your personal attire is appropriate, and that your pay requests are realistic. If you have done all of that, and you still aren't getting any nibbles, I would suggest knocking on doors of the higher end shops - they are the ones most desperate for skilled labor.

I think that even in this day and age, it's hard for us whiteys to believe the amount of flat-out racism that still exists in our society. I hope that's not what's happening to you, but it wouldn't surprise me if it was. I would be happy to review your resume if you want to email me a copy.

From contributor S:
Another thing to consider is the fact you owned your own company. I once hired a fellow such as yourself, and he spent more time telling me and the other employees how he would do it. He never got any work done, for all his complaining. It probably has nothing to do with the color of your skin, but the fact you have experience he would rather you don't. He may also be questioning why you chose to close your business. Maybe in this case, less information would benefit you. I know that in an interview you are supposed to sell yourself, but try just showing them the work you do, and leave out a lot of detail.

From contributor D:
I think racism still exists (and will always exist to some extent), but business owners have figured out how to do it legally. That is to say, they are very careful in how they discriminate - i.e., they are "not hiring at the moment," etc. They will never say a bad word to you for fear of a discrimination lawsuit, but for whatever reason, they will not hire you. They just don't want to give you any obvious reason to sue them for discrimination.

I think that the real answer here is economic. Those owners know that there is an abundant supply of illegal Mexicans to hire from at below market salaries. They indeed are hard workers (or they are fired) and the risk of being sued by a fired Mexican is very, very low because they are in the country illegally.

Until this abundant and cheap labor source dries up, those owners will utilize it to maximize their profit margins. INS needs to enforce the laws so that these companies get the message that there will be consequences for breaking them! However, we all know that it will be a cold day in hell before that happens. Our current government stance is lax on this issue because they know that for American companies to compete on a global scale against China, Mexico, India, etc, we "need" cheap labor.

(Un)fortunately, you are talented and experienced, and you expect and deserve to be paid commensurately. Sadly, this formula (experienced and not Mexican = expensive) is not what these employers are looking for in their labor force (overhead cost).

I agree, you should focus on the high-end shops where the profit margins are more likely to be able to support hiring a person with your abilities. Even if they are not advertising for help, approach the shops you want to work in and initiate a conversation. Let them know you'd like to work there, and tell them how you can make a contribution to their bottom line. Almost always, the best places to work usually aren't advertising for help! At the very least, those high end shops can probably help you network among other high end shops that may be looking for more employees. Anyway, good luck in your job search!

From contributor C:
I'm from NYC and I find it hard to believe that race would be the deciding factor. This is a very diverse, multi-racial, multi-ethnic city. If you are a skilled woodworker, and aren't asking for salary way above normal, there may be something in your presentation, or you may be perceived as way overqualified for the position.

From contributor H:
I suspect that contributors S and C may be on to something. You may be coming off as overqualified. Having, or seeming to have, as much or more experience than the person that you want to hire you is not always the best. Employers see this as someone who will stay with them until the next better offer comes along. Do not tell them you had your own shop.

Get off the race card, especially in the New York area. It's one of the most diverse places in the US, or the world, for that matter. I work there on an off for repeat clients and see all types of ethnic groups doing all types of work. It's more about money and who will work for less and not so much about color.

From contributor I:
Remember, finding a good job is the art of selling yourself to an employer. Do not say you had your business. It looks bad - you are spoiled by being your own boss. You never will be "sir, yes sir" again. Think about it. Forget about racism.

From contributor B:
Assuming everyone with medium brown skin is an "illegal Mexican" is a bit racist, if you ask me. I ran a shop where the highest paid employees (over 100) were Hispanic. They were all legal, intelligent, had a great work ethic, and no chip on their shoulder. Anyone that fits that description regardless of color gets a job in my shop and I'll bet most other shops as well.

From the original questioner:
I'm asking for your opinion on the situation, not for a vocabulary lesson. I never said anything about medium brown skin being Mexican - I am repeating what was actually told to me. Actual color of skin is not the factor, I know what Mexicans look like as well as Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans, etc. And when an owner of a shop responds that the reason why everyone hires Mexicans is because they don't talk back and they just work, that's what I find as a racist remark. This is happening in New York City, no matter how many races live here and no matter how diversified it is. Racism happens everywhere. I figured it would happen in the sophisticated world of woodworking, but I was wrong.

From contributor A:
Shame on all of you who are trying to blame the questioner's grammar, attitude, etc. Let's go through the list of his "problems":

1. Communication: Anyone who writes a clear, grammatically correct posting like his, doesn't have a communication problem of any kind.

2. Overqualified: Come on! Finding talented people to hire is the most difficult task for running a quality cabinet making business. There're lots of people available as hands, but skilled people are at a premium.

3. No positions available? When someone applies for a job and is told there are no openings, when there in fact are ads out there, is being lied to, period. I suspect that these shops are violating not only immigration laws, but civil rights laws as well.

Where do I get off preaching to any of you? 30 years ago I started training minorities, women, even a gay, as well as ordinary white guys. I was looking for talent and didn't give a damn what package it came in. When it came time for these folks to leave my shop and seek employment, I told them we'd begin the last phase of their training: role playing. I started to behave the way shops in the "real world" would treat them. This was with their consent; they knew their career survival was at stake. I remember a wonderful letter from a fully trained woman apprentice who was the first woman hired on in a commercial cabinet shop in a large eastern city. She expressed her gratitude for teaching her how to deal with the sexism she encountered.

Historically, the building trades here and in Europe (probably elsewhere as well) have been very resistant to anyone different. We furniture/cabinetmakers, even the artistic ones, are still part of the building trades. Anyone who thinks that racism didn't play a significant part in the questioner's difficulties finding employment, even in New York City, has their head so far in the sand they can see China.

From contributor I:
If you drink water believing it is poison, it may kill you. If you believe it is a cure, it may treat you.

From contributor B:
Hurray for Mexicans! "They don't talk back and they just work." I would add that they probably appreciate having a job. That is anything but racist. As a business owner, it's my blood, sweat, tears, and capital that has brought me to a place of being able to hire employees and I'm going to hire the very best for the very least. That way I can stay in business longer and hopefully hire more Mexicans or anyone else who is willing to "Not talk back and just work."

By the way, it was contributor D's comments about "illegal Mexicans" that I was referring to in my previous post.

From contributor C:
You're right, contributor H. If someone comes into my shop, is perfectly qualified, and well experienced, if that person is white, black, Asian, man, woman, or whatever, I'm hiring that person - but if they want way more money than I can pay for that position, want more money than all my other employees, come across as a know-it-all, have an experience level at or beyond my own, or appear to have ambitions far beyond working for me, then I'm probably going to pass.

I need to feel a potential employee will fit in with the rest of my team, and there are factors other than ability that determine that. For me, it's never about who the person is, as much as what the person can contribute (or at least as I perceive it).

We have heard the questioner share his experience, but there are always two sides to a story, and unless we have all the facts, it's really not fair to make judgments.

From the original questioner:
1. I don't tell them I ever owned anything.

2. I never come off as an arrogant know-it-all at any interview - I just answer questions I am asked as my portfolio is being looked over.

3. I'm not looking to be hired to not talk back and just be a yes man. I see woodworking as an artistic craft and have a lot of respect for the craft and put my heart into anything I create. I don't want to be treated as just a worker, I want to be treated as an apprentice, peer, and equal. If I want to be a yes man, I'd be working for gothic cabinet craft.

I appreciate everyone's opinion, but I don't appreciate the insults to my intelligence when it's obvious that I am venting my frustrations. I am an intelligent black man who knows how to dress for an interview, how to build a portfolio, and how to present myself. These situations that I have experienced are turning me against the craft and leaving me full of despair. I love what I do as much as anyone else. I didn't just pull the profession of woodworking out of my behind; it's something I have taught myself from reading and watching nothing but woodworking shows. I own professional tools, both hand and power. If I had the money to own and operate my own shop, I would. I want to establish myself with a company to grow with that would see me as a professional craftsman and a peer.

From contributor K:
I think the last word you put in your last post sums up the problem. As a shop owner, I can tell you that I don't want a peer. I want someone willing to follow my instructions. Do the work the way I want it done for my customers and in my shop. Mostly I build middle class work for middle class people. I don't want creative. I want output. The other folks that mention finding high end shops may be on the best track for you. I can pretty much guarantee you that if you want to be any owner's peer, you are not getting a job there. Please don't take my thoughts as mean spirited, because they are not meant to be. You asked for advice and you are getting plenty of it from guys on the other side of the interview.

From the original questioner:
I understand about the whole peer thing. You are right that that's a poor choice of words, but they don't even want output. Some shop owners I see could be a mentor to me, someone that I could learn from and look up to.

From contributor N:
Here's one for ya. The fastest and best motocross rider (motorcycle racing, dirt, pro) is Bubba Stuart. He's very successful, is making tons of money, nobody can compete with his abilities. He's also African American in a sport that's 99.9% white. Everyone looks up to him and respects him. His personality is always positive and he gets the job done. It comes down to attitude and doing good work, and delivering it on time. You know I'm a Californian who lives in Oregon and believe me, there are lots of Oregonians who dislike Californians to a degree that's simply amazing. I'm busy and people like my work. When I run into these people, I don't let it get to me. Now that we are overrun with illegal aliens, their dislikes have changed. These problems will always be there, but anyone can overcome them by doing good work and keeping a positive attitude. You will always run into these people who pre-judge, but that's human nature. Nobody would bother getting their hair cut if people weren't judgmental.

From contributor S:
Another thought came to mind. Maybe those people actually did you a favor. If that is the way they conduct themselves, is that a company you would like to work for? You sound like a proud person, and your reputation doesn't end with your company. When you work for someone else, that carries forward with every job you do. If the company you work for does portray the image that they are racist or anything else, then you are better to keep looking.

From contributor R:
You sound as if you have talent in this field. Why not join a co-op? You can share some common stationary tools, bring your own, mix with people, etc. And you are your own business. Here in the Boston area, I have seen shared space for $400/mo. Postings here are in the local WOODCRAFT supply store. Also research the guilds in your area.

From contributor W:
Very hard to judge the situation without being the interviewer or observing an interview. Are you really a good fit for the ads you find? Are they looking for a cabinet helper, but you are showing them pictures of Chippendale chairs, or visa-versa? They want production, and you show them art?

You say you are self-taught: as an employer, I consider someone self-taught to be motivated, and skilled, but from a completely different world than that of production. You want to draw plans, but haven't even gone through a helper phase with a company to understand what is expected at that level. Sure you can draw plans, but that employer probably wants someone who has done it for several years as a full-time job for a decent sized company, or might be willing to train a promising employee who has been with him for a couple of years.

I suggest if you really want work, you tell them "I can do this - xyz - but since I haven't done it for a company before, let me start as a helper. All I ask is that you give me a performance review in 30 days, 90 days, 6 months, and then annually." Do your best work, show up on time, learn how they do things, keep a good attitude, smile and be friendly with everyone. Pay attention when they review your performance. Let them know that you are ready to accept more responsibility. This is what I tell anyone trying to get a foot in the door, so please don't think I am talking down to you. You just may have a different perception than the employers of what position you can start at, because of your lack of specific job experience.

After 4 semesters of calculus, I dropped out of school, and could have drawn the roofs of the houses I was framing, but without the experience, I was just another helper holding the dumb end of a tape-measure. Metaphorically, you may have to hold the dumb end of the tape for awhile, hopefully not too long.