Checking the Box

job applicationMany job and college applications include a question that reads something like, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” While this may seem like a simple question, used to filter out people who have committed crimes, it actually has huge racial implications and is therefore a very problematic question to have on an application. Whether companies and colleges realize it or not, this question traces back to laws in the criminal justice system that are made to purposely keep White people at the type of the hierarchy.

In her chapter on mass incarceration, Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow; 2010) explains that police are actually allowed to do a search based on race, but after that, all of the laws are based on the conviction and are therefore “not about race.” Colorblind ideology is the norm, so people are encouraged to avoid talking about race all together. However, for that split second, police can ignore that and be overtly racist when deciding who to search. After that, they switch right back to colorblind ideology and the crime is no longer talked about or thought about in terms of race.

Once someone is out of prison, they are kept in what Alexander calls an invisible cage. It becomes much harder, almost impossible, to get back into normal life. One obstacle is this box on applications that asks about being convicted of felony. Because people of color are more likely to be searched based on race and are seen as more culpable, they are more likely to be convicted of a felony. Therefore, this seemly simple question actually follows colorblind ideology in that it allows for companies to discriminate based on race without acknowledging it. This is just another way to keep the racial system of control in place.

Should applications remove this question from their applications? Clearly this is a short term solution to a bigger problem, but could this a good first step to take in the mean time?

4 thoughts on “Checking the Box

  1. On the one hand, I think that it is important to know if applicants have been convicted of a crime, but it is also important for the company to know the severity of the crime as well. Maybe there could be other questions on applications to specify what type/severity of the crime? Would this be problematic as well?
    This makes me think of having to have a state issued photo ID to vote. This is designed to disadvantage people who are of a lower socioeconomic status who cannot pay or have a way to obtain a photo ID. A group of people who are constantly at this disadvantage are people of color. As we discussed in class, people of color are constantly pushed back by the law that purposely puts them on an unequal playing field.

  2. I’m also not sure that getting rid of the question is the best solution, only because I feel like companies should know if they are hiring people who have committed serious crimes. However, I think it should be based on company policy to further discuss the felony with the applicant, rather than discarding them immediately. In an interview, the applicant would be able to explain their crime. Perhaps the company would realize that there is no actual threat to hiring the applicant because maybe they were only in prison because of a racialized judicial system. This would allow for the company to not hire a murderer but still hire someone who maybe got time for illegally using marijuana. But even still, this solution requires the company/interviewers to be open-minded and put aside their preconceived notions about crime (something I don’t think most companies can do right now). I’m not really sure. This was really thought-provoking though!

  3. Interesting topic. I think that you’re right in that those boxes are a perfect example of a small way that the system continuously works against people of color, especially in terms of employment. I’m not sure if eliminating the question entirely from applications is the answer. I think the more important factor is the person that reads the application and that person’s level of knowledge surrounding topics of race. If a person of color has a criminal record, the forces working against them must be considered in the hiring process, and if they’re not (which is often the case), that’s the big problem.

  4. There’s a potential disconnect here. I think that when people are imagining that people that have to check the box, they’re thinking of murderers, and violent people, when in reality, the people who are having to check the box are people who were arrested on lesser crimes, such as drug crimes, who aren’t a danger to people in the way that others imagine.

What do you think? Join the conversation!