In the spring of 2003, when Fred Johns arrived at New York City’s Lower East Side neighborhood to open an old-fashioned butcher shop, he thought he had found his ideal setting. The old American furniture store had the rustic neighborhood feel he wanted for the place, which he named Minnesota Beef.
Mr. Johns, who was white, wanted to hire a black employee, but he did not want to ask what the applicant was doing at night. So Mr. Johns took a risk. He called up the black person, Julio Louis, a former Marine who had taught salsa classes in the neighborhood and was the son of immigrants from Haiti. He met him at his workshop. When Mr. Louis could not get a response in return, Mr. Johns laid him off.
“I felt if this was going to work,” Mr. Johns said, “you had to make some kind of an effort.”
It was a good strategy. The average black man for a given open job is 50, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For the same reason, the average white man has a 36 percent chance of being hired for a job. The black minority is systematically underrepresented in jobs, mostly in lower-paying occupations.
But Mr. Johns had to get over himself. In his business and in his home, he had been unafraid to assert his identity. So why was he unafraid of hiring someone who was black? “I didn’t like that question,” he said.