Are Criminal Background Checks Racist?

This is the argument and new legal theory that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission unveiled this week when they made several lawsuits against employers. Earlier this week the EEOC accused two large companies of violating the 1964 Civil Rights Act by using criminal background checks as part of their employment decisions.

The EEOC’s logic? African Americans have higher conviction rates than whites, and therefore criminal background checks discriminate against African Americans. Many feel that criminal background checks only discriminate against criminals, not any specific race or gender. Isn’t that the point of using criminal background checks, to find out who has a criminal record?

The EEOC claims that BMW discriminated against African Americans because it screened contractors in South Carolina for convictions of murder, assault & battery, rape, child abuse, spousal abuse, manufacturing of drugs, distribution of drugs, and weapons violations. Because more African Americans than whites are convicted of the crimes, the EEOC is saying that it is racism. The suit says that 70 black BMW contractors and 18 non-black contractors had criminal convictions and the company declined to hire any of them. Their suit does not include the 18 non-black contractors who were declined employment because of their criminal background.

The EEOC is also filing a suit against Dollar General, where 10 percent of African Americans and 7 percent of all other applicants failed their criminal screening. The EEOC sees the three percent difference as a “gross disparity” and is considered discrimination.

The idea that because a certain race is more likely to have a criminal record means that they are being discriminated against seems somewhat ludicrous. Criminal background checks are used to figure out which applicants have criminal backgrounds. This can be a valuable tool for an employer. While convicted criminals do deserve another chance, employers should have the right to decide whether or not they want to hire them.