Working for Justice

Beyond Seventy-Eight Percent

Posted April 7th, 2015 by in Race Discrimination.

Sometimes lost in the discussion about the wage gap between male and female workers is the role of race. Though white women earn a mere 78% of what their male counterparts earn in America, the gap is far greater for women of color. African American women earn 64%, American Indian women earn 59%, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders earn 65%, and Latina women earn only 54% of white men’s earnings. Asian American women face the slimmest wage gap, with their earnings representing 90% of white men’s earnings. Factors such as education do play a role, as lower high school and college graduation rates for African American and Latina women do cause a decrease in earning potential. However, women of color generally earn less than white women even when they have the same educational background, suggesting that other factors must play a role.

This disparity is just one example of how inextricably linked race and gender are for women of color.  Women of color face a three-headed monster when it comes to discrimination. In addition to the more general gender discrimination issues faced by both white women and women of color, women of color face race-based biases faced by minorities of both genders and a uniquely ugly mixture of gender and race-based biases and double standards seemingly reserved just for them.

For decades the feminist movement has struggled to fully address the unique barriers faced by women of color, and this struggle has caused schisms within the feminist community that persist into the present. Many women of color have accused mainstream feminists of being dismissive of the specific hurdles they face. In 2008, Gloria Steinem and Alice Walker wrote opposing essays, with Steinem advocating for Hilary Clinton and Walker advocating for Barack Obama. During a 2013 Twitter exchange between bloggers Mikki Kendall (African American) and Jill Filipovic (Caucasian), Kendall created the hashtag #Solidarityisforwhitewomen, setting off a firestorm of tweets about the frustrations and double standards faced by legions of minority feminists.

The most recent example of the tension between white feminists and feminists of color came in the wake of Patricia Arquette’s off-stage Oscar remarks. While many believe that Arquette meant no harm, it is easy to see why these statements touched a nerve with women of color. After all, as pointed out by Amanda Marcotte of Slate Magazine, “‘gay people’ and ‘people of color’ are both categories that include women.’ Obviously, these women cannot so easily set aside their additional struggles for the greater good of mainstream feminism because quite simply, there is no separating or prioritizing these intersecting elements of a person’s identity. Ultimately, it is quite likely that the backlash from Arquette’s remarks has less to do with the remarks themselves and much more to do with the persistent feeling that women of color are sometimes, consciously or unconsciously, left out feminist C-suite.

While it is true that the ultimate goal of gender equality is theoretically shared by women of all colors and cultures, we must remain sensitive to the fact that this struggle is different for every woman. After all, while a 22% across the board pay raise for all women would bring white women in line with their white male counterparts, African American and Latina women would still face a significant gap. Women of color might feel more at home in the movement knowing that the feminist struggle extends beyond that 22%.

John McKnight

John McKnight

John McKnight is a Senior Litigation Counsel in the Washington, DC office of Sanford Heisler Sharp who works primarily on qui tam / whistleblower cases. Learn More

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