Many women’s organizations commemorate Equal Pay Day, which this year was April 5. It meant that women, in general, would have had to work all of 2016, and until April 5, 2017, to earn the same amount of money that a white man earned in 2016. Few will recognize July 31, 2017, the day that the pay for African-American women catch up to the 2016 earnings of white men — seven extra months. Hispanic women will have to work until October, or nearly 10 extra months, to earn the same money white men earned last year.
I wonder about our “women’s coalitions” when majority women’s organizations, like the National Organization for Women, are basically silent on Black Women’s Equal Pay Day. I wonder how much black women’s issues really matter to majority women’s organizations. It matters when they want to present a multiracial, multicultural “united front” at a Women’s March, but less so at other times.
The lesson, black women, is a lesson some sisters remember from 1991, when Anita Hill testified during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. People had all kind of explanations for Hill’s testimony, most of them woefully wrong and viewed through a lens, darkly. Led by feminists Elsa Barkley Brown, Deborah King and Barbara Ransby, more than 1,500 women raised enough money to pay for an ad in the New York Times on Nov. 17, 1991. The ad, titled “African-American Women in Defense of Ourselves,” reminded black women that no one should speak for us, except us. No one can be relied on to defend us, except us. And no one can be depended on to celebrate us, but us. No one can lead advocacy for our equal pay, but us.
I’m not dismissing our allies — “woke” men of color (especially black men), “woke” white women and other women of color — I’m just saying we can’t count on everybody to be woke. Evidence: How much noise did majority group’s make on Black Women’s Equal Pay Day?
And in the Reign of Ignorance, there is likely to be even less noise, as the House Appropriations Committee has actually proposed defunding a program that collects salary data from employers. Without the data, we won’t know the extent of pay discrimination. We know plenty now. We know that black women earn 63 cents for every dollar paid to white men, and white women earn 80 cents for every dollar white men make. We know that black women in Louisiana earn the least compared to white men, about 48 cents on the dollar. In comparison, black women in Missouri, Tennessee, Maryland and Pennsylvania earn 68 cents for every dollar a white man earns. Whatever we earn, it ain’t equal.
What we don’t know is how women fare inside some organizations and you can’t dismantle pay discrimination without having the details of it. Under President Barack Obama, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission established requirements to provide pay transparency. Businesses with more than 100 employees were required to start releasing salary data in March 2018. Of course, those who want to sweep pay discrimination under the rug argued that it would cost too much to collect the data. And now, the Republican Congress says that no resources may be used to collect this very necessary data. It reminds me of the old folks who used to say, “you don’t miss what you can’t measure.” But we can measure the pay inequity, and we can see it in the quality of women’s lives. We might not be able to point a finger at one company or another (Republicans are also likely to make class action lawsuits more challenging), but we have enough aggregate data to know that there is pervasive gender discrimination in the workplace, and that black women shoulder an extra burden, because of the intersection between race and gender.
Not only do African-American women earn less, but we also catch more shade because of our skin color, because of who we are and what we represent. Former first lady Michelle Obama has spoken out, though very gently, about the racism she experienced while in office. At a recent gathering in Colorado, she spoke about the many “cuts” she experienced, telling The Denver Post, “The shards that cut me the deepest were the ones that intended to cut,” referring to comments about her looks, and especially those that referred to her as an “ape.” She said she was dismayed in “knowing that after eight years of working really hard for this country, there are still people who won’t see me for what I am because of my skin color.”
When I read Michelle Obama’s comment, I thought about Dr. Maya Angelou and her classic poem, “Still I Rise.” One stanza reads, “You may shoot me with your words, you may cut me with your eyes, you may kill me with your hatefulness, but still, like air, I’ll rise.”
Black women endure unequal pay, disrespectful treatment (consider the treatment of Sen. Kamala Harris or Congresswoman Maxine Waters), police brutality and more. And yet we are still here. And yet, “when they go low, we go high.” And yet, like air, we rise.
Malveaux’s podcast, “It’s Personal with Dr. J,” is available on iTunes. Her latest book, “Are We Better Off?: Race, Obama and Public Policy,” is available via amazon.com.