Sociologist Nancy DiTomaso

Guest interviews are usually available online within 24 hours of broadcast.

A vice dean at Rutgers Business School, DiTomaso shares her conclusions of 12 years of research into the causes of minority unemployment.

Nancy DiTomaso, professor of organization management and vice dean for faculty and research at Rutgers Business School, has studied workforce diversity for more than 30 years. Her specialties include the management of diversity and change and of knowledge-based organizations. She's co-authored/co-edited several books and had articles published in numerous journals. In her latest text, The American Non-Dilemma, DiTomaso weaves together research on both race and class, along with life experiences of her interview subjects, in an exploration of racial inequalities in the workplace based on favoritism versus discrimination.


Tavis: Ask any expert about the best way to get a good job and they’ll tell you to network, reach out to friends and family who have already made their mark and get them to recommend you for a job.

But Nancy DiTomaso, who’s the vice dean at Rutger’s University business school, argues that you cannot network with folk you don’t know, and that racial inequality in the job market isn’t so much about discrimination as it is about favoritism.

People hire other folk like themselves – or to put it bluntly, whites hire other whites. Her latest text is called “The American Non-Dilemma: Racial Inequality Without Racism.” She joins us tonight from New York. Professor DiTomaso, good to have you on the program.

Nancy DiTomaso: Thank you. Good to be here.

Tavis: Let me start by asking the obvious question. How do you have racial inequality without racism?

DiTomaso: Well, the primary argument in my book is that racial inequality gets reproduced primarily by whites helping other whites more than by whites actively discriminating or doing bad things to Blacks and other nonwhites.

Because we have so focused on the issues of racism and discrimination, I think that we have missed this very real dynamic, that people essentially get jobs because other people who are like them help them get those jobs.

In the study that I did, 70 percent of the jobs that people got over their lifetimes included some kind of extra help like this – either getting information that other people didn’t have, having someone use influence on their behalf, such as this is my friend, help them, or someone who could actually offer them an opportunity or a job.

Tavis: Let me play devil’s advocate for a second. What’s wrong with playing favorites? Isn’t that the American way? Everybody wants to get the hook-up.

DiTomaso: Well, it certainly is the way that most people go about getting opportunities in their life, but we start from a structure of inequality, where whites hold already the best jobs, the jobs with the most training, the jobs with the highest income, the jobs where they are more likely to be in a position to make the kinds of decisions about who gets hired.

Therefore, if people are hiring others who are primarily like themselves, then it will simply reproduce the inequality that already exists. This can be done without people actively excluding nonwhites. They simply have to help people who are like themselves – primarily whites.

Tavis: So how does one push back on this notion? I get it, but how do you reverse the trend?

DiTomaso: What has happened is that the laws that emerged out of the civil rights movement were primarily about making discrimination illegal, but there was no attention to the other side of making favoritism or advantages illegal.

So there does seem to be a need for both companies who do hiring and for public policy issues to address what kinds of decisions get made and whether there in fact is open access to the jobs that are available to a broader range of people.

Tavis: So government has, as you know, policies that are known as MBE, WBE, where women and minority-owned businesses have to be allowed, in many instances, to be a part of the process, to be allowed to bid on contract X, Y, or Z.

What’s the equivalent of MBE, WBE, inside of corporate America, or are they not aware of this notion of white-skin privilege that they benefit from?

DiTomaso: Well, after the civil rights movement was passed, and after there was specific presidential orders to pay attention to the outcomes of hiring decisions, specifically through affirmative action reporting and so on, then companies did need to pay attention to what the outcomes of their decisions were.

But what has happened over time is there’s been more and more pushback to that kind of counting the outcomes, and trying to focus the issues on intentions to discriminate.

So what is illegal is if someone intentionally discriminates and we don’t have as many opportunities, either in companies or in terms of public government regulation, to actually look at the kinds of decisions that actually get made.

So what has happened over time is that there has been, to some extent, a re-segregation of some jobs, and certainly of housing and of education, because we haven’t paid attention to the kinds of decisions that are actually being made.

Let me give you an example of the kind of thing that I’m talking about. I heard the CEO of a major company recently talk about his strong commitment to diversity, and I’m sure that that was very genuine. In fact, he said that the success and viability of his company depended on changing the composition of middle management.

He used the language of saying it was “too male, stale, and pale.” (Laughter) What he said was that it was important, given the global reach of his company, to have people be able to work together with people whose names they couldn’t pronounce.

Yet this same company that had this very strong commitment to diversity was actually rewarding people for recommending their friends, and then if they recommended someone the company hired, that person actually got a reward.

So while there was a strong commitment to diversity, they were primarily thinking about it in terms of bias or exclusion, and not thinking about what actually took place and the kinds of decisions that got made in that company in terms of how people got hired for jobs.

Instead of, in fact, having a more diverse pool emerging into middle management, they were going to reproduce the existing workforce, because people will likely recommend those that are like themselves.

Tavis: So it seems to me, Professor DiTomaso, that it’s not just that favoritism is unfair, it is also, to my mind, that favoritism is stupid and in the long run will not just intellectually but financially bankrupt you if you’re trying to advance a company in the most multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic America without looking beyond the group of family and friends.

Speak to us about how we, again, as a country, continue to advance in this multicultural society if people who have the hook-up keep hiring other folk who look just like them. Where does that lead us, long-term?

DiTomaso: Well, I think that one of the key things to think about, of course, is globalization. That company that I referred to and many, many other very large companies are primarily growing abroad.

Their markets, their workforces and so on are global, and so they need to have people that are more diverse in terms of the pool of people that they hire in the U.S., and the people with whom they work around the world.

But think about a very familiar example – the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In that particular movie, Uncle Billy was obviously hired in the bank because he was a family member. Yet he was not necessarily the most conscientious or competent person for that job.

We see this unfolding in many different contexts, where if you hire someone who is like yourself you may believe that person to be more competent, you may believe that person to be likely to be more loyal and to be conscientious, but that may or may not be the case.

If you hire from a broader range of people, the chances are that in fact you can hire a higher-quality workforce and that you can get a broader range of skills.

Tavis: Does this notion hold true for women? We talk about the fact that whites hire whites, but do men hire men and women hire women?

DiTomaso: Well, I don’t necessarily know that from the data that I have done. There is a certain preference that is given to those who are in the highest-level positions and those that already have power in the society.

So if men primarily hold those kinds of jobs, men and women might both have an image in their head, what social psychologists call a prototype, that men would be most competent and most worthy and would get some preference in terms of the hiring. But I don’t necessarily have that kind of data in the study that I did.

Tavis: We talked earlier, or you talked earlier, offered a good example of a company with a CEO who thought he was committed to diversity but the company had a program where if you recommend a friend and we hire your friend, you get a reward.

So you know, again, what kind of people they’re bringing into the company – people who look just like the folk who work there. So if that isn’t the answer –

DiTomaso: Right.

Tavis: – to the prayer, as my grandmother might say, if that ain’t the answer to the prayer, then what are you asking us, the corporations and others, to do to expand the pool of qualified persons?

DiTomaso: Well, the first thing that I think is necessary to understand is that when I talk to people about how they got jobs, I found that they primarily got jobs by someone helping them. But when I asked them how they got to where they were in their lives, they all said, “I did it because I worked hard, because I’m motivated, and because I persisted and because I’m so smart.”

So there’s a gap already between what actually takes place in terms of how networking and the use of friends and family members takes place, and how people actually think about what happened in their lives.

Tavis: I think we call that “delusion.” (Laughs)

DiTomaso: Yeah, well, it’s the “I built that” kind of mentality.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughs)

DiTomaso: But it’s a very firm understanding of people in terms of what happened in their lives, but it’s not how they actually live their lives. So the way I talk about it in the book is that while everyone says they’re committed to equal opportunity as the standard of fairness, in fact they spend their lives seeking unequal opportunity.

They don’t actually want to compete in a way in which they don’t know who’s going to win. They want, quote, “to get ahead, to get advantage.” We use that kind of language when we talk about both ourselves and what we’d like to provide to our children.

So if we are going to change these dynamics, then we need to have companies and public policies that pay attention to objective criteria in terms of what is necessary for a job, and then how people are selected for jobs.

We’ve had those kinds of public policies in the past, but they have eroded over time. I think that there is a public interest in knowing what jobs are available to what people and how broadly accessible they are to the population at large.

Tavis: Nancy DiTomaso is at Rutger’s. The name of the new book is called “The American Non-Dilemma: Racial Inequality without Racism.” Good to have you on the program. Thanks for your insights.

DiTomaso: Thank you very much.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

[Walmart sponsor ad.]

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: September 4, 2013 at 1:12 am