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Equal pay movement has these lessons to learn

This year, once again, instead of raising my fist in protest on ...

Posted: Apr 10, 2018 4:19 AM
Updated: Apr 10, 2018 4:19 AM

This year, once again, instead of raising my fist in protest on Equal Pay Day, I felt disconnected from the fight.

It's not that I haven't been inspired by the millions of women who've spoken out as part of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, or, taken part in marches across the nation to expose the blatant misogyny, harassment and systematic pay inequity we face in the workplace.

The frank and oft-times painful conversations we are finally beginning to have about what women's equality should look like for all women, regardless of race or religion, give me hope.

Since its inception, the women's movement has focused on an agenda for white women with barely a wink and a nod to black and brown women, who've battled on the front lines for equality. From the mid-19th century, when some feminists fell out over whether to champion women's rights or abolition, to the mid-20th century, when noted white feminist leaders like Betty Friedan dismissed the concerns of poor women, women of color, and queer women, there has been a disingenuous strategy of trickle-down equality, which means women of color continually come up short of substantive gains toward full equality. Leaders of the movement historically have been reluctant, or simply refused, to examine how thoroughly race intersects with issues such as equal pay for women.

No more. That tide may be turning thanks to a new generation of women like Laurie Cumbo, who is majority leader of the New York City Council. Cumbo has introduced legislation that would require gender and race wage data for the public sector and city contractors be made available and transparent to the public. She understands that pay inequality and racial inequality cannot be separate issues when it comes to fighting for equal pay for all women.

"Just as harassers and abusers are being exposed, we must expose the racism and sexism at play in the systemic wage losses for women, and women of color in particular," Cumbo wrote for nydailynews.com.

Time's up on using black and brown women as pawns (on the 21st century red carpet or the 19th century lecture circuit) to advance the equality of our white sisters at the expense of our own well-being and equality.

Since President John F. Kennedy signed the equal pay law in 1963 -- when white women made just 59 cents to each dollar white men made -- we've witnessed woman of all races standing, marching and singing together to demand equal pay. And this is important work that must continue.

Yet the message always sounds off-key to me because there is no expanded conversation on how to help the women who struggle most gain a little more ground. I hear no calls to examine the reasons behind the racial pay gap among women.

We need a new strategy if we are serious about equality. This one doesn't work for all women.

My white sisters are great at articulating a one-note statistic of how women (meaning white women) today make about 82 cents for each dollar white men earn. But they seem less willing to acknowledge that the gender pay gap doesn't affect all women equally, or to advocate for the women most affected by it. Black women, for instance, earn 65 cents, and Hispanic women make 58 cents to each dollar earned by white men. Asian women fare better than most at 87 cents, though that is still unacceptable.

The conversation always flips back to the 82-centers. Their struggles, their demands. Their privileged perspective -- intended or not -- dominates the entire Equal Pay agenda.

Other successful equal rights agendas, from civil and gay rights to the fight for minimum wage, have set a strategy for incremental advancement. But in the Equal Pay movement, too many women seem satisfied to see the gains of everyone's efforts mostly benefit those already at the top of the pay scale.

The march toward a living minimum wage is a good example of how fighting for incremental economic equality can improve lives immediately. Though many civil rights advocates want a $15 per hour federal minimum wage, reaching that goal will be a fierce legislative fight. So across the nation, the livable wage movement has adopted a multi-pronged strategy that is playing out in many states, municipalities and private business.

In North Carolina, the state general assembly enacted a "preemptive law" in 2013 that prohibits cities like Durham from passing laws to increase the minimum wage above the state minimum of $7.25 per hour. That roadblock has neither stopped the Durham City Council from agreeing to raise the rate to $15, nor the more than 100 companies that have voluntarily agreed to raise employee salaries. At the start of 2017, 19 states have increased the minimum wage. But the battle continues: 23 states, mostly across the South, have adopted laws that ban its urban municipalities from passing laws to increase employee wages. So now livable wage advocates are taking their message to the rural areas, and crossing racial lines.

"If we want economic justice, we can't focus just on urban areas or one demographic of workers," North Carolina AFL-CIO Secretary MaryBe McMillian told The Guardian at the first Fight for $15 rally in Gastonia.

The same can be said of the fight for Equal Pay for women. Women of color will continue to lose if the tone of movement focuses mainly on pay equity for white women.

White women have narrowed their pay gap with white men by 22 cents, up from 60 cents to the 82 cents they now earn for every dollar white men earned in 2015, according to recent Pew Research Center and Bureau of Labor Statistics data. The news is not so promising for black women, who've gained 9 cents in earnings on that same dollar, up from 56 cents to 65 cents. Hispanic women are at the bottom, earning just 5 cents more today than the 53 cents they earned to every dollar white men made in 1980.

Let's be honest, oftentimes women can be the gatekeepers of our own oppression. It's easy to lay the blame for our inequality at the feet of white men and make them our common enemy. But is it really that simple?

I've had more jobs than I can recall since I first began working as a teenager. But I do remember that it wasn't always a white man who determined how much or how little I got paid. Whether working part time at the mall, flipping burgers or climbing the corporate ladder, plenty of white women were happy to pay me less. Less than white men and far less than women who looked like them, doing exactly the same work -- even when I was more experienced and outperformed my higher-paid coworkers.

Throughout my media career, especially after I was promoted to the executive ranks, I watched these seemingly well-intentioned women. They are the same women who urged women of color to join their diversity groups, to lead discussions of inequality in the workplace, and many times to be the face of the latest corporate diversity initiative. Yet when given the opportunity to make corrections to the gender pay gap, I've seen many instead continue to set lower salary ranges for women of color.

Not exactly a unified front.

Women -- Blacks, Latinas, Asians, Native Americans and others -- have been on the front lines, fist raised, for equality since day one. We lifted our voices when our hands were shackled generations back. We lift our voices today because we know that we've come too far to turn back now. But don't think for one second, my sister, that we don't see you quietly sitting there. Your silence, whether it be unconscious or not, limits us all.

Imagine what we could accomplish if we truly believed all women were equal, no matter their race, religion or politics. If only we lived by the words of protest we so passionately speak, our possibilities would be endless. And who knows, maybe one day we'd even stand together to elect a woman President of the United States -- not simply because she's a one of us, but because we recognize our own value.

Now that would be a day worth celebrating.

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