Equal Pay Day for (Some) African-American Women

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Commentary Race

Equal Pay Day for (Some) African-American Women

Alexandra Moffett-Bateau

Black lesbians are hyper-marginalized within their race, gender, and sexual orientation. The rates of poverty and unemployment for Black lesbians means that our society must think more critically about policy and legislation that would improve the quality of life across all marginalized groups.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

It’s an interesting thing: Despite being a professor of political science and spending a good chunk of my time studying inequity in the lives of Black American women, I had no idea that Equal Pay Day for African-American Women was this month.

What is Equal Pay Day for African-American Women, you may ask? It’s the estimated date that the average Black woman would have to work until to earn the same annual income that men (inclusive of all races) earned in 2013. According to the National Women’s Law Center, Equal Pay Day for women overall is April 8, and for Latino women it doesn’t come until November.

So, what does this dearth in pay along race and gender lines mean in practice? Well, in terms of raw numbers, according to a report by the Center for American Progress:

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Women on average earn 77 cents for every dollar a man earns for comparable work—a gender wage gap of 23 percent. Women of color suffer from an even more severe gap. According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, African American women and Latinas in the United States are paid $18,817 and $23,298 less than non-Hispanic white men yearly, respectively. That’s 64 cents and 55 cents for every dollar a man earns.

I have to admit, after looking at the numbers, I was surprised. Not only does the wage gap between men and women inclusive of all races remain sizable, but the gaps within gender and between racial groups are astonishing. The reality that African-American women make 64 cents for every dollar men make has devastating consequences, not only for Black communities, but for the U.S. economy at large. When an entire segment of the population is disenfranchised in this way, regardless of education or opportunity, it creates inequalities around basic needs (like health care, housing, and child care) that become entrenched within the economy.

The number of policy reports that have been written about this issue is staggering. Just about every liberal-leaning policy organization has written a piece about the lack of pay equity in the United States. Most of these reports are doing the good work of pushing for additional policy, executive and congressional alike. But one has to wonder, if pay discrimination was outlawed decades ago, is another executive order really going to fix it?

Don’t get me wrong, doing something is better than nothing; as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 showed us, policy with teeth can push the country into much needed political and social reform. But the most recent executive order to prevent workplace discrimination is no such piece of policy. Especially when, in Oklahoma, you can still lose your job, or be kicked out of school, simply for appearing to be gay. What’s the point of federal policy if states can completely gut it (as was the case with elements of Obamacare)?

Indeed, July 16 wasn’t Equal Pay Day for all African-American women. When the data is further disaggregated by race, sexuality, and gender, the stakes that are at issue are made more clear.

Lesbian women of color struggle even more with issues of pay inequity, high poverty, unemployment rates, and discrimination. Working gay and transgender people of color still earn less than their heterosexual and white gay and transgender counterparts, but lesbian women of color struggle even more severely. The average Latina lesbian couple earns $3,000 less than Latino opposite-sex couples. Black lesbian couples face an even greater economic disparity earning $10,000 less than black same-sex male couples. Black same-sex couples significantly lag behind white same-sex couples with median incomes of $41,500 compared to $63,500.

Furthermore, lesbian couples of color experience high rates of poverty and unemployment. In 2012 the poverty rate for black lesbian couples was 21.1 percent; for Latina lesbian couples the rate, was 19.1 percent; for Native American lesbian couples, the rate was 13.7 percent; and for Asian Pacific Islander lesbian couples, it was 11.8 percent. These numbers stand in stark contrast to white lesbian couples who had poverty rates of only 4.3 percent.

The combination of homophobia, racism, sexism, and classism keeps lesbians of color entrenched in poverty. The pay gap between lesbian of color couples and heterosexual couples means that it is nearly impossible for their wages to keep up with the rate of inflation in the United States—Black lesbian couples earn, on average, $10,000 less that Black same-sex male couples.

In short, Black lesbians are hyper-marginalized within their race, gender, and sexual orientation. The rates of poverty and unemployment for Black lesbians means that we must think more critically about policy and legislation that would improve the quality of life across all marginalized groups.

In a post-Defense of Marriage Act world, a closely held secret is how little marriage legislation has meant for the lived realities of Black LGBTQ people, particularly Black trans and lesbian people. While winning the right to marriage was an important victory for many across the nation, the poverty rate for Black lesbian couples is 21.1 percent, compared to a white lesbian poverty rate of 4.3 percent. Organizations that purport to be concerned about the entire LGBTQ population should be incensed. But, then again, organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, GetEqual, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force failed to acknowledge the anniversary of the passing of the Civil Rights Act three weeks ago, so maybe we shouldn’t be that surprised after all.

Without a living wage, Black women continue to go without access to housing, health care, child care, or quality education. An important start to addressing this issue would be raising the minimum wage to a living wage across the United States. Next, instead of demolishing public housing, we should create low-income housing that offers a healthy and self-sustaining environment for the individuals who live there, and reinvest in public works programs that would rebuild key infrastructure in our cities. With these solutions, we can provide important work and training opportunities for the unemployed across the country, as well as rebuild major cities, whose roads, public buildings, and other infrastructure have been crumbling for decades.

We must continue to raise our voices against inequality within the United States and around the world. It is critical that as a nation, we become committed to making sure that everyone is paid a living wage in accordance with their skills, training, and experience. By bringing attention to the wage gap and the disenfranchisement that stems from it, we can improve the lives not only of Black women, but of people everywhere.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly said that “Black lesbian couples earn, on average, $10,000 less than Black same-sex couples,” when in fact they earn $10,000 less than Black same-sex male couples. We regret the error.