39 Years after Dr. King’s Death … Discrimination in Employment Fight Continues

Society has been fighting discrimination in employment based on race, gender and disability for decades. New studies show the fight is far from over.

Today marks the 39th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a sad day for America.

But the sadness is leavened by the progress in the fight against discrimination since Dr. King’s death – right up to the point where a woman and an African-American are both major candidates for president of the United States.

Unfortunately, several recent studies indicate that there is still still lots to do, especially in the area of employment.


One such study was done by Dr, Joni Hersch of Vanderbilt University. Hersch set out to find what effect, if any, skin color had on employment. She surveyed 8,500 new immigrants to the United States. Those surveyed came from various countries and worked in all regions of the United States.

Her findings revealed an 8 to 15 percent variation in how well they were paid, with those with the darkest skin receiving the lowest pay, and those with the lightest being paid the most.

“I took into account every possible nondiscriminatory reason [this could be so],” said Hersch. “It wasn’t education, occupation, outdoors work which tends to pay lower, or language proficiency. There is a gap that cannot be explained by any other factor.”

Other variations were a side product of the survey. One involved height. Taller respondents were compensated better than those shorter, by an average of 1 percent more pay per inch of added height.


The gap between the pay of men and women also remains a longstanding issue. At the time of Dr. King’s death, women, as a whole, made about 65 percent of what men were paid.

That situation improved markedly with the advent of the feminist movement, and by the mid-90s, equivalent pay had risen to 75 percent. But since then, according to a New York Times article, “one big group of women has stopped making progress, those with a four-year college degree. [Their gap] has actually widened slightly.”

Observers point out that one reason is that many women choose lower paying jobs to spend more time with family, or elect not-for-profit work to benefit society, the Times points out. But that doesn’t explain studies by Cornell University economists Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn, who compared salaries of men and women with the same occupation, education, experience, race and other factors, and found stagnation in women’s pay improvements during the 1990s. Blau and Kahn have not studied the last decade in detail, but they note that “other data suggested there had been little movement.”


Discrimination against people with disabilities was hardly on the radar screen during Dr. King’s lifetime, but it’s become a major issue since, and looks to continue that way, according to Arizona State University researchers Marjorie L. Baldwin and William G. Johnson.

The researchers surveyed more than a hundred studies on the employment and pay of  workers with disabilities, and found a pay gap as high as 25 percent between their pay and the pay of others not disabled doing the same jobs.

This gap has often been attributed to lower productivity by those with disabilities, but Baldwin and Johnson compared only those whose productivity was the same. The result: “The evidence strongly suggests that disabled workers are systematically paid less, unrelated to their functional limitations,” the researchers said.

Baldwin and Johnson noted that their study depended on the veracity of those done before it. But, the researchers said, the fact that the discrepancies showed up across a [wide] range of studies meant they couldn’t “explain it away without acknowledging discrimination.”

Renewed Governmental and Legal Activity

Such studies might discourage Dr. King, were he still alive. He might be encouraged, however, by signs of renewed activity in fighting discrimination, both in government and on the legal front.

More about this, and a tool to improve your compliance with one of the government’s key anti-discrimination requirements, the Affirmative Action Plan, in tomorrow’s Daily Advisor.

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