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Friday, March 5, 2021

She works hard for (less) money

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For millions of Americans, August means blistering days (and nights), kids returning to school (even during a pandemic) and the return of football (in normal years). But, for millions of Black women, the sweltering summer days of August place a white-hot spotlight on economic inequality.

Specifically, the 13th of this month is “Equal Pay Day” for Black women. It is the day on which sisters finally earn as much money as men did — way back in 2019. 

Yes, you read that correctly. Black women must wait more than 200 days into 2020 to make as much money as men did last year. (The wait would be even longer if Black men, who make only 87 cents for every dollar that white men make, were excluded from the equation.) By contrast, Asian American Women’s “Equal Pay Day” was in February of this year. White Women’s “Equal Pay Day” was in March. Native Women’s “Equal Pay Day” is Oct. 1. Latinas? Unconscionably, their day is not until Oct. 29. 

Given that more than 90% of Americans have been negatively impacted by the Great Depression-like economic effects of COVID-19, the particular plight of Black women will likely be lost in the shuffle. Of course, even when economic times were better, the “good old days” were not so good for the vast majority of Black women. This is despite the fact that, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, Black women are the most highly educated people in the U.S. — followed by Asian women, white women and white men.

As Angela Bronner Helm reported four years ago in The Root, education is a story of “good news, bad news” for Black women. Despite their superlative educational achievements, their earnings trail white men, white women, Black men and Hispanic men (in that order). This stark wage disparity exposes the lie that hard work and educational attainment are the great “equalizers” in America. That’s a bunch of … well, you know.

To be clear, I am not advocating that African Americans, female or male, shun postsecondary education. With few exceptions, less education translates into less income. (Please note that “postsecondary education” includes trade school, apprenticeships and other types of “non-academic” training after high school.) 

Still, greater educational attainment cannot, by itself, close gender- and race-based wage gaps. Macro socioeconomic structures (i.e., systemic racism and sexism) have given white Americans a nearly insurmountable economic advantage over African Americans. In short, even if we were able to close the wage gap in a few years, it would still take decades before we closed the wealth gap. While the former is important, our ultimate focus needs to be on the latter.

How do we level the proverbial playing field? There are at least four steps that this nation must take. First, white Americans (government officials and the electorate) must agree that reparations are necessary for Black people to thrive. Period. Reparations do not, necessarily, need to be in the form of a large check written to African Americans. (But I would not, necessarily, rule out that possibility.) 

Second, lawmakers must strongly enforce laws against racial and gender discrimination in employment, and racial discrimination in housing. Third, we must stop funding public schools via property taxes, which virtually ensures unequal educational opportunities for most children of color. 

Fourth, we must eradicate the school-to-prison pipeline and end for-profit prisons. For-profit businesses need customers to survive. Black men and women are disproportionately the “customers” of such prisons. The nexus between race, gender and class as regards Black folks means that righting these historic racial wrongs will mitigate the racial wealth gap — which ultimately is more important than the wage gap.

I genuinely empathize with the fact that millions of white Americans struggle financially. Saving this nation requires that they come to understand that the above steps are ultimately in their best interests. The erstwhile “American Dream” to which they aspired has become the American Myth. That’s because white America’s intra-racial wealth gap is at an all-time high. And growing. (For us it has always been the American Nightmare.)

As legendary Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall observed, “No one benefits from racism” — at least in the long run. The marathon for racial justice in America is an exhausting and maddening race, but this nation’s survival demands that we endure it until the end.

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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