How to Fight Racism With a Drug Test

Photographer: Huntstock/Getty Images

Racism is subtler than the recorded rantings of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling . As social scientists continue to find evidence of widespread discrimination in American society, nowhere is it starker than in hiring and drugs. A new study puts a surprising twist on these hot buttons.

Both hiring managers and police officers , studies show, tend to believe that blacks are likelier to use drugs than whites. That's not true. A federally sponsored survey, the 35-year-old National Survey on Drug Use and Health , has found whites and blacks use drugs at roughly similar rates. From 1990 to 2006, an average of 13 percent of whites and 12 percent of blacks report some drug use in the past month. Whites are likelier to say they've used hard drugs, and blacks marijuana.

But how do those attitudes affect the job prospects of African-Americans? University of Notre Dame economist Abigail Wozniak decided to investigate the impact of drug-testing laws passed in many states since the 1980s.

The “War on Drugs” resulted in the rapid rise of drug testing: 45 percent of U.S. workers are at companies that conduct some form of testing. While some states encouraged testing, others banned it, citing privacy and civil liberties concerns. That variation in laws across states allowed Wozniak, using three decades of data on economic and drug use data, to conduct her analysis .

The study showed that by passing a drug test, blacks seem to have overcome some of the prejudices of hiring managers. The effect was greatest for low-skilled black men. In states that encourage testing, their proportion in the industries likeliest to conduct tests, such as mining and manufacturing, went up between 7 and 10 percent. When those states were compared to states that banned drug tests entirely, widespread drug testing meant the employment of low-skilled black men increased up to 30 percent. Their wages also rose, as blacks were able to get better-paid jobs at the large companies that are likeliest to test employees.

The survey “suggests that [drug] testing improved blacks' access to jobs in large firms, with better benefits and higher wages,” Wozniak writes.

Heck of a way to earn an employer’s trust.

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