Fair-Chance Hiring: An Antidote to Race-Coding and Inequality

How can the fair-chance hiring campaign, which aims to open job opportunities for people with records, help restore the middle class? At the Governing for Racial Equity Conference on June 11, 2015 (attended by more than 500 public-sector employees), University of California, Berkeley Law Professor Ian Haney López, author of Dog Whistle Politics, made the case for how race-coding—the use of code words that are neutral on their face, but that exploit racial anxiety, stir animosity, and ultimately sway people into voting against their own economic self-interests—has contributed to the decimation of the middle class. I moderated a panel on fair-chance hiring laws at the conference, and as I listened to the presentations of my fellow panelists, I was struck by the restorative power of these laws to neutralize race-coding and change a detrimental narrative.

Professor López posits that a race-coding strategy that equates people of color with “dangerousness” has undermined economic prosperity for far too many communities across America. The characteristic of “criminality” has been associated with people of color in our cultural narrative, evoking threat and fear. According to Professor López, the use of racial anxiety as a tool for gaining political power bolsters an ideology and agenda that ultimately aim to funnel wealth to the few and away from the many.


So how do fair-chance laws help address this severe economic inequality?

A fair-chance hiring law, which provides a structured hiring process, helps de-couple the stereotype of “dangerousness” and “criminality” with people of color. An employer can acknowledge the humanity of the jobseeker by considering the person’s qualifications, instead of making an instantaneous judgment shaped by unconscious stereotypes evoked by a record.

In effect, fair-chance policies can be an interrupter to a race-coding strategy that depends on the fear of people with records. As my fellow panelist, Elliot Imse, director of policy and communications in the District of Columbia’s Office of Human Rights, says in a video created to educate employers about the law, “We’re asking you to think differently and act differently when considering candidates. Ditch the labels.”

By asking employers to “ditch the labels,” these agencies are supporting the values of human dignity for all and challenging the demonization of a segment of our population. Another fellow panelist, Zoë Polk, director of policy and social justice at the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, is a leader in using innovative anti-bias strategies. I had the privilege of co-authoring with Zoë two new policy briefs on fair-chance laws: Best Practices in Fair-Chance Enforcement and Fair-Chance Implementation Case Studies for Government Agencies. We hope these publications will provide insights to help other jurisdictions realize the full potential of fair-chance hiring laws.

From working on these briefs and hearing from leading experts at the conference, including fellow panelist Karina Bull, interim director of Seattle’s Office of Labor Standards, it is clear to me that robust government-community partnerships to implement and promote fair-chance hiring laws have great potential to shift a cultural narrative that has damaged all of our communities—and to ultimately contribute to a vibrant, more inclusive society.

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Michelle Natividad Rodriguez

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