Are black women MIA in the equal pay debate?
By Marjorie Valbrun
Updated: May 16 at 12:32 pm
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
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
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
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
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
“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 Recession. So
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.”