While its meaning for many of us has been diluted to a Monday off work marking the unofficial end of the summer, the true spirit of Labor Day is to “recognize the many contributions workers have made to America’s strength, prosperity, and well-being.”
As we approach the holiday this year, particularly in the wake of the recent SCOTUS decision against race-based affirmative action, we must reckon with the fact that this country has fallen far short of acknowledging that Black women are the backbone of our economy — yet they are consistently underpaid, overworked and funneled into positions with no hope of advancement.
This country’s economy could not function without the labor of Black women, yet our economy was built to marginalize them. It’s time for leaders to support them by passing policies that would improve their financial security like the Paycheck Fairness Act.
While the 1963 Equal Pay Act theoretically codified gender pay equity, loopholes in the legislation have long allowed employers to continue their discriminatory pay practices. The Paycheck Fairness Act — introduced by Senator Patty Murray and Representative Rosa DeLauro in March — would remedy these gaps through measures like banning employers from retaliating against workers for discussing their salaries, prohibiting employers from screening applicants by salary history and requiring employers to prove that any pay discrepancy is legitimately job-related. All of these steps would provide an outsized positive impact for Black women, given their lower pay for the same work compared to other groups.
Black women historically work for pay at higher rates than any other group of women. This is evidenced by this group’s labor force participation rate, the highest among all women. And, when unemployment for Black workers soared during the pandemic, they still maintained that level of attachment to the American workforce. Even during an ongoing childcare crisis exacerbated by the pandemic, Black mothers worked more than any other group, with a 2020 labor force participation rate of 76 percent — several percentage points above any other major female demographic.
And yet, Black women are continually underpaid: they make 64 cents on each dollar a white man is paid. While many love to point the finger at this discrepancy to a lack of education, a Black woman with a doctoral degree earns a whopping one cent more (for a grand total of 65 cents) compared to a white man who also holds a doctoral degree. In fact, Black women with only a high-school diploma fare better in closing the gap, making 69 cents per dollar, but those are generally tenuous positions without stability and routinely without basic benefits.
The narrative we’re sold in this country is that if you work hard and better yourself through education and ambition, you will be financially rewarded. But this has never held true for Black women. As Michelle’s research has shown, it’s actually in more senior roles that the pay gap shows up most prominently, with Black women in management positions earning an average of $66,000 annually compared to the $110,000 of a white man in the same job. The pay inequity across sectors accounts for an underpayment to Black women collectively of $50 billion a year, every year.
As Black women in prominent economic positions, we have first-hand experience with this reality. Anne recently resigned from her position as executive director of an organization focused on economic justice after the board repeatedly refused to compensate her at the same level as men who held the position previously, despite the fact that she brought in more grants than any leader in the nonprofit’s more than 50-year history.
Situations like this are not only financially taxing, but emotionally caustic. Racial weathering, a term that gained traction during the pandemic to explain the stress of racism and unequal health outcomes, has been linked to more rapid physical and mental deterioration among people of color. For Black women specifically, research indicates that racial weathering is connected to the abysmal rates of maternal and infant mortality rates in the Black community.
Improperly compensating Black women isn’t just bad for those of us directly experiencing it, but a risk to the economy at large. As highlighted in work done by the Economic Policy Institute, the devaluation of care work is directly related to anti-blackness and sexism. In our nation’s history, Black women were first forced to do our care work and now they are overrepresented in a field known for its low pay and lack of benefits. This is why we have such dismal care policies and remain the last industrialized nation without basic paid leave and care policies. This hurts us all.
Fostering equitable compensation for Black women is necessary to creating a strong, fair and sustainable economy. One way to do this is for Black women to routinely get in the habit of asking for more than they think. But the onus to change the embedded racism and sexism within our labor market should not fall on Black women — it is ultimately the responsibility of employers and policymakers. It is incumbent upon leaders to pass meaningful reforms, such as those contained within the Paycheck Fairness Act, to ensure that the labor of Black women is fairly compensated every day of the year.
Anne Price is co-president and co-founder of The Maven Collaborative; a nonprofit that centers race, gender and joy in the pursuit of economic justice.
Michelle Holder is an associate professor of economics at John Jay College, City University of New York; has written two books, and was recently a distinguished senior fellow at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth in D.C.