BLACK WOMEN AND PAY EQUITY:
When John and Ann started working on January 1, 2013, John has something of
an advantage. Because women earn 77 cents for every dollar John earns, it will take Ann
until April 11, 2014 to earn the same amount of money that John earned in the calendar
year of 2013. The issue of unequal pay is so pressing that President John F. Kennedy
signed the Equal Pay Act 50 years ago. While we have come a long way, baby, the pay
gap has remained stubborn. This is why President Obama signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair
Pay Restoration Act as soon as he assumed office.
This year, to commemorate National Equal Pay Day (that’s the day Ann finally
earns as much as John), the President signed an Executive Order protecting workers from
retaliation when they speak of unequal pay in the workplace (one of the ways employers
can maintain unequal pay is to make discussing pay grounds for firing). The President,
through the Secretary of Labor, is also requiring federal contractors to provide data on
pay, race, and gender to ensure that employers are fairly paid. Furthermore, the Senate is
considering the Paycheck Fairness Act, which may pass the Senate, but not the House of
We know all about John and Ann, but what about Tamika? If women earn 77
percent of what men earn, what about an African American woman. Women surely have
come a long way, but some are moving far more slowly than others. How many African
American women are there in the Senate? Among Fortune 500 leaders? In other
positions of power? What about pay? African American women earn about three
quarters of what other women earn, meaning that if it takes Ann until April 11 to catch up
with John, It will take Tamika until about June 1 (or about another 6 weeks) to catch up.
Tamika earns in 18 months what Tom earns in 12 months.
Even African American women with the highest levels of education experience
these differences. White men with a postgraduate degree earns a median salary of $1666
a week African American women earn a median salary of $1000 during the same time
period. For all the talk of pay equity and paycheck fairness, the status of African
American women is largely ignored.
It wouldn’t take much for the President, or some of those feminist groups who
support paycheck fairness to throw in a line or two about African American women. Nor
would it hurt African American organizations, especially those who serve black women,
to point out this injustice. Are African Americans invisible? Don’t we count? African
American women raise the majority of our children, and shoulder many of the challenges
in the African American community. Ignoring us in a conversation about unequal pay
simply marginalizes our experiences and us.
The focus on “overall” data is yet another way of marginalizing not only African
American women, but other women and men of color as well. Reporting aggregate data
gives some notion of economic progress. Reporting data as it pertains to African
American women and men makes it clear, for example, that African Americans
experience depression-level unemployment rates.
I was delighted that President Obama signed the Lily Ledbetter Act when he did,
and have been privileged to hear Ledbetter speak on more than one occasion. She is an
amazing woman with a talent for “breaking it down”. When she learned
that men doing the same job she did earned more money, she cried “foul” but the law said
it was “too late” for her to complain. In her inimitable way, she said that grocers did not
charge her less money because she was female, nor did doctors, or anyone else. She said
that higher-paid men didn’t have to make uncomfortable choices about which child
would get new shoes or clothes.
African American women can tell the same story as Lily Ledbetter. Indeed, the
gaps African American women are likely to be more severe than the ones Lily Ledbetter
faced. The pay gap for African Americans is larger and too many live in food deserts
where the cost of food is higher even as the quality is lower.
Lily Ledbetter deserves the limelight she earned because she brought this matter
to the President’s attention. There’s a black woman out there who can tell a similar story.
She, too, needs to be lifted up. We ought to know her name, see her name on a piece of
legislation. Ledbetter is an ordinary shero, a working class woman who stood up for her
rights. She reminds us that, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “you don’t have to
be great to serve”. We need a similar sister to remind us that we don’t have to be elected,
appointed, or anointed to make a difference.
When African American women are marginalized so are our girls. They are left
with the impression that we have not fought for our rights. We’ve been fighting and
fighting, but somehow the story of a sister struggling is too unremarkable to be noted by
Race and gender continue to shape the opportunities that African American
women have, and race and gender continue to marginalize us black women. When do
African American women have equal visibility in the policy and imagery arena? When
we demand it, when we stop applauding at our own marginalization!