After a long search, Keisha Orr — a human resources manager working on Wall Street in the early 2000s — believed she had found the perfect candidate for a job at her financial tech company. The applicant had it all: an ambitious resume, a decorated educational career, and poise. Keisha asked her supervisor and the hiring manager to move the candidate to the next round. They bristled.
Even though the client service position didn’t require a degree, the hiring manager told Orr that the candidate wasn’t eligible because he hadn’t finished college, never mind that he was a college senior a few months away from completing his bachelor’s at New York University. Orr couldn’t help but wonder whether the resistance was because the potential hire was Black.
“It was almost like I was cosigning for him in some ways,” Orr, who is a Black woman, told Vox. “No one we had interviewed even held a candle to him. It was very baffling and mind-blowing to me.”
Thanks to Orr’s persistence, the candidate was eventually hired, staying with the company for years. Yet she’s never gotten over the sense of angst that she might be held responsible if he didn’t meet expectations. Only now, 20 years later, does Keisha recognize that what happened was discriminatory.
When something is as ubiquitous as discrimination, it becomes familiar, and what is familiar quickly becomes so ordinary as to be almost imperceptible. That’s why discrimination is regularly dismissed, even by those whom it affects the most. The hurdle for Keisha and others has long been that it’s often hard to prove.
Decades’ worth of discrimination studies collected by researchers at the University of Chicago and shared with Vox, however, spotlight how common experiences like Keisha’s really are. In the face of denials from many white Americans that systemic racism exists, the myriad studies provide tangible proof that it is, in fact, pervasive, affecting many areas of life.
“The thing we were surprised by was after George Floyd, there was this debate about, ‘I don’t know, is discrimination really systematic?’” said Devin Pope, a professor of behavioral science and economics and one of the University of Chicago researchers who set out to compile the data. “We’re like, wait, people don’t realize that this is a closed topic? The evidence is overwhelming that Black Americans get treated differently than white Americans in so many points of their lives.”
Research around discrimination in America continues to grow and capture attention. There are the big examples: Black people dying needlessly while giving birth, receiving smaller paychecks than their white colleagues, being excluded from certain neighborhoods and all the amenities and opportunities they provide. Discrimination steals their health, degrading their cells through a process known as weathering. It makes the American dream of embracing the freedom of the open road a nightmare. It prevents folks from accessing quality health care. It is buried in the code that powers the digital world. Each of those circumstances comes with its own anxiety and angst.
The studies provided to Vox by the University of Chicago researchers — Pope, Oeindrila Dube, and Sendhil Mullainathan — illuminate the everyday experiences: having emails go unanswered, having trouble getting help in public, being undertreated when in pain. Those quotidian tasks make up the average American’s day, yet when tainted by racism, they can make daily life for Black Americans more difficult, with myriad repercussions.
Vox’s review of more than 40 studies, which were conducted over nearly 50 years, animates a reality that any Black American could expound upon at length, offering a view into what discrimination snatches from individual Black Americans every day of their lives. It’s one thing to know that racism exists; that it has made life more challenging in both hidden and obvious ways and has not meaningfully improved in the last few decades. It’s another to see those experiences boldly affirmed in reams of data, to have tangible proof that what you think you’re experiencing isn’t just in your head, and that it is systemic and endemic.
The research used various methodologies (including correspondence studies, field experiments, statistical analyses, and review studies) and were conducted in a range of locations from North Carolina to Chicago to Seattle, looking at a range of ages and class divides. (The University of Chicago researchers worked on some of the studies; others informed their own work.) They all drew the same, insidious conclusion: Anti-Black discrimination practiced by Americans, white and otherwise, routinely robs Black people of opportunity, money, health, safety, and dignity.
Black life isn’t just unfairly strenuous; it’s also artificially short. The National Center for Health Statistics projects that the average life span for a Black American is 70.8 years. The projection for a white American? 76.4 years. That gap makes time all the more of the essence for Black people.
Yet anti-Black discrimination wastes their time — a lot of it.
Vox analyzed the data from the studies to provide an expansive picture of just how much. We learned that the average Black American could lose years, if not decades, of their life to discrimination.
The studies collected by Pope and his colleagues, as well as a breadth of other research, contain countless examples of this time-stealing phenomenon. Black Americans have to wait days longer for an appointment with a new doctor. They must be prepared to wait one day longer for a response for information about joining a new church and have to send out twice as many emails to get a response from a potential roommate. They spend more time applying for mortgages, and they see more Uber rides canceled — the list goes on.
Orr is just one example. She lost time — to worry, sleepless nights, and nerve-racking conversations with leadership — that she could have spent advancing her career or taking care of herself and her family.
A longer wait time doesn’t necessarily mean racism. Yet Black Americans feel negative consequences even from potentially discriminatory actions, the studies showed.
The difference in response rate when an individual . . .
“The minute you point out what you think or feel, it’s ‘You’re playing the race card’ and it immediately diminishes what is a reality,” said Henrika McCoy, a professor of social work at the University of Texas at Austin who researches equity in mental health for Black males and writes about institutional racism. “Racism is not about intent. Racism is about power to implement the prejudice that you have, but it’s also about the outcome.”
A 2015 study by Tara Goddard, Kimberly Barsamian Kahn, and Arlie Adkins contains a particularly acute example of the irrelevance of intent. They measured the time it took for cars to stop for Black and white pedestrians at a crosswalk without a signal in Portland, Oregon. The researchers found that Black pedestrians had to wait an extra 2.4 seconds to cross the street on average.
What is 2.4 seconds? Ephemera, seven blinks. But what if you are an average Black American and you live to age 70.8? What if you cross the street once a day? Then you’ve spent about 17.16 hours longer waiting to cross the street than you would have if you were white. That’s more than a full waking day of your life taken by discrimination.
Say you’re a civic-minded Black American and you never miss an election. A 2022 study by M. Keith Chen, Kareem Haggag, Pope, and Ryne Rohla used smartphone location data and neighborhood demographics information to track wait times in voting lines across the US for the 2016 presidential election. They found that Black Americans living in majority-Black areas have to wait longer to vote, sometimes more than 30 minutes. How long depends on where you live, but on average, wait times in areas with all Black residents were 5.23 minutes longer than in areas with no Black residents. Across a lifetime of elections, that can add up to about more than an hour waiting in line.
“If everything takes you 15 minutes more, now you’ve got less time with your kids, you have less time at work, you have less sleep,” Chen told Vox. “It adds up.”
Hurdles on the way to vote start with hailing a ride
Even fun can be tainted. Trinity Alicia, a 23-year-old living in Boston, recalled an evening she spent at a Cambridge bar. It was an unfamiliar space: Everyone was older and white. Her friends were busy, and so she’d come alone.
“The bartender just was like, ‘You know, you can get a drink somewhere else,’” Alicia said. “He definitely served other people that came to the bar after me. And I was wondering, like, ‘What is this?’ I was confused because I hadn’t had a hidden discrimination experience like that before.”
Deflated, Alicia went home. She’d spent time getting ready, commuting, trying to get the bartender’s attention. Four hours of her life. Vaporized.
One could argue that a few lost hours at a bar aren’t the end of the world. Stolen hours quickly become days and years, however, and that time tariff becomes far more significant in important areas like housing, finances, and employment.
The wage disparity between Black and white Americans is well documented: Black people in this country persistently make less than white people. Black women make less than their male peers and face a double discriminatory tariff, due to both race and sex. An Economic Policy Institute analysis found that in 2022, the average white employee made $34.49 an hour, while the average Black employee made $25.61 — a difference of $8.88, or nearly 30 percent. This can mean the difference between having food on the table, emergency savings money, a 401(k), and student loan debt paid, or not.
The discrepancy means that Black time — that same time stolen by discrimination — is worth markedly less than white time: 43 cents per minute versus 57 cents. To make up the pay gap caused by discrimination, a Black worker must toil an extra 2.7 hours each day. Over the course of a career (assuming one starts working at 22 and retires at 65), that’s the equivalent of 3.4 years of extra work — years that the worker could have spent with their family or friends, or frittering away any way they wanted.
The time tariff affects many other areas of employment, too. In a seminal 2004 study, Mullainathan, collaborating with Marianne Bertrand, found that Black Americans needed an extra eight years of experience to receive the same number of interview requests as a white American of equal qualifications. In the eyes of recruiters, that makes a 22-year-old white job seeker from Princeton University looking for employment in the financial sector equivalent to a 30-year-old Black Princeton graduate who started working in the industry right out of college.
As many wealthy Black Americans have noted, money is no aegis against racism. In fact, scholars Stephen Holt and Katie Vinopal analyzed data from the American Time Use Survey, which tracks how people in the US ages 15 and older use their time. They found that while poorer Black Americans and poorer white Americans spent roughly the same amount of time waiting for goods and services in an average day, wealthy Black Americans spent 26 more minutes than their equally moneyed white counterparts waiting; that’s 1.3 years wasted.
Low-income people wait a lot each day. High-income people generally wait less — yet rich Black people wait the longest.
Discrimination as it exists today is sustained by the interlocking gears of history, white supremacy, white nationalism, sexism, and classism. To destroy discrimination, one must first obliterate its component parts. There’s not always societal or political will to do so. It can also be hard to constantly acknowledge the presence of discrimination and its emotional toll.
“Unfortunately, we live in a society where, in order to be successful as a person of color, especially as a Black person, you have to move past [discrimination], because if you don’t, you’ll probably never get anything done,” said McCoy, the social work professor.
Plus, Valerie Wilson, director of the Economic Policy Institute’s program on race, ethnicity, and the economy, points out, it’s a huge burden for an individual to prove discrimination. “The system currently is set up in a way that you have to have the experience of discrimination before anything happens,” she said, “as opposed to us putting more resources and energy into preventing it or limiting opportunities for it to happen in the first place.”
At the same time, the large body of existing discrimination research can be used to slowly chip away at the issues discrimination causes, several of the researchers Vox interviewed said. It can be effectively used to support arguments in lawsuits, for instance — and has been, perhaps most famously in Brown v. Board of Education, in which the plaintiffs relied on an experiment known as the “Doll Test” to advance their arguments. In closed rooms, where bureaucracy relies on data, these studies provide evidence.
There is no easy solution to the problems discrimination causes, no easy way to get back the time it saps. “We have to get creative,” said Seft Hunter, the director of Black-led organizing and power-building at the DC-based nonprofit Community Change Action. “We know there are folks who are just happy not knowing what’s happening, because then they’re not in a position to have to confront what it means to see these disparities play out uninterrupted all across the country.” Purloined time becomes yet another issue our eyes gloss over, something bad that’s part of the normal fabric of the everyday.
That’s what makes discrimination so frustrating. It is deadly, expensive, tiring, and dehumanizing. It’s also a complete waste of time.
Sean Collins is a news editor with Vox’s politics and policy team. His reporting focuses on race and politics; he’s written about the true meaning of Juneteenth, policing, Black voters, and white nationalism in the Trump administration.
Izzie Ramirez is the deputy editor of Future Perfect, Vox’s section on the myriad challenges and efforts in making the world a better place. She also oversees the Future Perfect fellowship program, developing the next generation of thoughtful reporters.