Are black women MIA in the equal pay debate?

May 16

Female members of Congress take photos in April as President Obama signs executive actions aimed at closing a compensation gender gap that favors men. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Black women are among the lowest paid workers in the United States. In many professions they’re near the bottom of the pay scale. They earn less than white men – on average just 64 cents for every dollar paid to white men – and less than women overall, who earn on average 77 cents for every dollar earned by white men. And despite far outnumbering black men in the labor market, black women also earn less than their low-wage male counterparts.

Nevertheless, African-American women are heads of households in larger numbers than any other group. Some 4,078,457 U.S. households are headed by black women, and 38.1 percent, or 1,553,892, of those families live below the poverty level, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families. An analysis by the organization using U.S. Census Bureau figures clearly indicates that black women are holding down jobs that don’t pay them enough to adequately support their families. Many of these women work in low-wage service industry jobs. Even in black households headed by two married parents, more than 50 percent of married mothers bring in half or more than half of their families’ income, the analysis found.

These numbers have far-reaching implications for black families, according to an issue brief, “How pay in equity hurts women of color,” prepared by the Center for American Progress. Closing the wage gap is key to reducing poverty among women of color, including Hispanic women who earn 54 cents for every dollar earned by white men – and their families. Yet when it comes to policy debates about fair pay and gender gaps, income inequality and growing poverty, black women don’t appear to be visibly out front in large numbers on these important issues.

It’s unclear if they’re choosing not to lead the charge, or if they’re being ignored by the media or drowned out by louder factions in the pitched political battles over fair pay. Some may simply be too busy working and others may fear losing their jobs in a tight labor market.

By many accounts, the 15 black female members of Congress and the heads of black women’s civil rights organizations have worked hard to improve the economic status of women of color, but none has emerged as a leading voice on this issue.

“I just don’t think that black women are covered enough on these issues,” says Melanie L. Campbell, president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable. “Part of it is we have to be more vocal and make sure we’re more organized and getting more actively involved when we have the opportunities.”

Campbell considers U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge, who chairs the 43-member Congressional Black Caucus, one of the strongest leaders in Congress on fair pay issues. Still, she says, “We just don’t have enough women in Congress.”

In April, Campbell’s organization released a major report assessing the political, economic, and social status of black women. The report was given to the White House Council on Women and Girls, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau, and to members of the Congressional Black Caucus and influential women’s groups around the country. The White House council is led by two women of color: Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Obama, is chairwoman and Tina Tchen serves as executive director.

Campbell says her organization, which is also on the planning committee of the White House Summit on Working Families scheduled for June, plans to use the report as a call to action.

“It wasn’t an academic exercise, it was organizing exercise,” she says of the report. “Women in the states are using it to tell our story and to find solutions. The report helps us to really focus in on income inequality efforts that were working on and to do so from a black women’s perspective.”

E. Faye Williams, chairwomen of the National Congress of Black Women, Inc. was among the women present at the White House last month when President Obama signed an executive order strengthening enforcement of equal pay laws by federal contractors. She says the work of her organization and national affiliates often fly under the radar of media that don’t see black women’s issues as mainstream issues.

“We don’t have as much access to the press and are rarely asked our opinions about these issues,” she says.

Black women, particularly those who aren’t white-collar professionals, experience the unfairness of unequal pay on a different level than white women who earn less than their male counterparts. While black women earn on average $599 weekly compared to $665 earned by black men, the pay gap between them is much smaller because black men’s earnings are also lower than that of white men and women. African American women are paid 89 percent of what African American men are paid, but just 64 percent of what white men are paid, according to the American Association of University Women’s (AAUW) annual report, “The Simple Truth.”

Additionally, the 12.4 percent black male unemployment rate is nearly double the national unemployment rate of 6.7 percent and considerably higher than the rate for white (5.8 percent ), Hispanic (7.9 percent ) and Asian ( 5.4 percent) males., according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Building and maintaining strong black families, especially those not headed by two working parents, requires lots of focus and energy at a time when those families are still teetering from the aftereffects of The Great RecessionSo it’s a good thing that black women’s pay is being discussed at all, even if they aren’t the ones leading the discussion. Still, it’s important that they stay involved in the fight, says Carol Joyner, director of the Labor Project for Working Families and a member of the Black Women’s Roundtable.

“You do see organizations headed by white women disproportionately represented but there are lots of women of color behind them,” she says. “It’s important to look at the whole picture, who’s behind the message and engaged on these issues. There are huge coalitions working behind the scenes and many have people of color leading them on these issues; the justice and civil rights groups, the labor unions as well.”

“These distinctions about the racial income gap are being made because there are more women of color involved in these conversations, and increasingly engaged on these issues,” she says. “This is an opportunity and a moment for white-led advocacy groups to diversify their hiring practices but it’s also an opportunity for more groups led by people of color to make equal pay and other working family issues one of their core issues.”

Marjorie Valbrun is a journalist in Washington.

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