It Takes Black Women in the U.S. 20 Months to Earn What White Men Make in a Year. Here's the History Behind That Wage GapRoundup
tags: income inequality, labor history, wages, black women, pay gap
Andrea Flynn is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, where she researches and writes on race, gender, and economic inequality. She is a co-author of The Hidden Rules of Race.
In order to understand the present day race and gender wage gaps we must first look to slavery and the Jim Crow era that followed. The legacy of those two periods—periods characterized by the exploitation of black women’s physical and reproductive labor—distinctly shaped labor market opportunities and outcomes for women of color for decades. The rules of that time had a durability that long outlasted it. In 1930, 40% of black workers were employed in agriculture (vs. 26% of white men) and more than 60% of black women worked as domestic workers (vs. 20% of white women). Even as new labor-market opportunities became available to women, rules and guidelines were adapted to ensure the dynamic remained the same. For example, the practice of tipping—today a source of poverty among working women—emerged in resistance to black workers moving into formal employment and, as my colleague Rakeen Mabud has written, was “explicitly used to avoid paying black Americans for their labor in this period.”
The New Deal, which created pathways to the middle class for white workers, cemented these early race and gender inequities and erected new barriers for black Americans. The 1935 Social Security Act, the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act—among the slate of New Deal policies that transformed the labor market for so many white workers—all excluded domestic and agricultural workers from unemployment benefits and a wide variety of protections such as a 40-hour workweek and a national minimum wage. This was not an accident, but rather a deliberate choice to get Southern members of Congress to support the new laws.
In the decades following WWII, the growth of the service sector opened up new opportunities for black women. In many ways these jobs were an improvement on the insecure and exploitative work of domestic labor, but they were still low-paying and offered few, if any, protections.
The second half of the 20th century saw an ushering in of more inclusive rules that led to more equitable opportunities and outcomes. The passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964—which removed many exclusionary rules and also put forth a set of statutes that explicitly promoted inclusion—began what would be a promising, albeit short, period of progress. The range of policies and programs promoted in the post-Civil Rights Act era focused on increasing human capital through education and greater skills development, and opened up two key paths to the middle class for black Americans: unionized manufacturing jobs and public-sector employment.