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Social Exclusion and Black Women’s Pay

Amy Traub

August 7 is Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, marking the date when African-American women’s wages since January 1, 2017 finally catch up to what the typical white man was paid in calendar year 2017. This day falls more than 8 months into 2018, underscoring the harsh impacts of racial and gender inequity in the American labor market: Employers pay black women who work full-time, year-round just 63 cents for each dollar they pay to non-Hispanic white men. Black Women’s Equal Pay Day falls nearly 4 months after white Women’s Equal Pay Day (April 17), as black women are paid 84 cents to every dollar a white woman brings home. This disparity in the wages employers pay is one reflection of the systemic economic, social and political disadvantages facing African-American women—all forms of social exclusion.

Last week on this blog, I explored the ways that the higher unemployment rate for workers of color reflects social exclusion in the labor market. Black Women’s Equal Pay Day is an opportunity to consider another aspect: Social exclusion promotes the constructed notion that workers of color—and particularly black women—are less deserving of good jobs with the wages and benefits that enable working people to thrive and to sustain a family. A range of policy choices and individual decisions rooted in this idea prevent African-American women from receiving equitable pay for their work.

As I pointed out last week, middle managers and human resources directors enforce and perpetuate social exclusion in the labor market even though they did not originate these discriminatory ideas and may not be aware that they are propagating them. For example, research finds that African-American workers are more heavily scrutinized by supervisors than their white counterparts and are held to a higher standard of job performance than white workers. For black women, racial discrimination on the job is compounded by supervisors’ gendered expectations and practices that inhibit the success of women in the workplace. Discrimination on the job can include disparaging workers’ performance or abilities, offering patronizing assistance, isolating the target of discrimination, withholding key information, hazing, or assigning low-status tasks like making coffee or taking notes at meetings regardless of job responsibilities. This type of workplace harassment can target working people by gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, disability status or any of a range of characteristics—and may be most intense for workers, like black women, with multiple disadvantaged identities.

According to a recent survey, young black women report the highest rates of harassment on the job. As Katherine Giscombe of Catalyst points out, “women of color experience both racialized and sexualized harassment and assault, stemming from the historical context of their experiences [with slavery and colonialism]… From these historical roots, stereotypes of women of color were formed, which in some ways rationalized sexual violence.” In the era of #MeToo (a movement created by a black woman, organizer and activist Tarana Burke), there is increasing recognition for the role that harassment can play in pushing women out of jobs, particularly in better-paying, male-dominated occupations. This is overt social exclusion: a clear message from the harassing supervisor or coworkers that the person being harassed does not “belong” or deserve to thrive unmolested in that workplace, job, or entire occupation. While campaigns like Times Up are working to shine a light on (and provide resources to fight) harassment in industries beyond Hollywood and professional positions, including the service industry jobs where African-American women are overrepresented, black women continue to report that they face greater barriers to being heard and believed.

In the workplace, the results of this exclusionary behavior are clear: The National Women’s Law Center finds that employers pay black women less than comparably qualified white men at every level of education, whether they lack a high school diploma or have earned graduate degrees. In my previous post, I discussed how policymakers’ decisions around education, criminal justice, and financial regulation promote social exclusion in labor markets, effectively raising barriers for people of color to access good jobs. As a result of these and other barriers, including the harassment discussed above, African-American women are overrepresented in low-wage jobs and underrepresented in high-wage jobs. Yet even within these occupations, black women face further discrimination: Whatever occupation they work in, black women are typically paid less than white men in the same occupations. A lack of public support for caregiving (for example, inadequate paid family leave and child care) is an additional institutional factor limiting wage gains and career opportunities for African-American women and for women more generally.

Exclusion from “good” jobs shows up not only in lower pay for black women, but also in black workers’ reduced access to critical employment-based benefits like health care and retirement plans. While employers provided health coverage to 64 percent of non-elderly white Americans in 2016, just 46 percent of the non-elderly black population had this benefit. The divergence is a result of higher unemployment rates among African Americans as well as lower job quality. Meanwhile in 2014, only 47 percent of black workers had a retirement plan at work, compared to 53 percent of their white counterparts. Diminished access to health care and retirement benefits through an employer has a direct impact on African Americans’ ability to build wealth: Employees without health coverage (or with only a bare-bones plan) risk incurring substantial medical expenses that can drain savings. On the other side, pensions or 401(k) plans with an employer contribution offer a mechanism for employers to contribute directly to retirement savings, adding to household wealth. Lacking access to these benefits through their jobs reduces African Americans’ economic security in the immediate term and drains wealth that could fuel social mobility for future generations, laying the groundwork for continued social exclusion.

A future post in this series will explore how union membership among African-American workers has kept these disparities in pay and benefits from being even larger.