Rhymes with racism

How the growing wage gap between black and white workers hits young black women the hardest

Getty Images

The hourly wage gap between black workers and white workers is the worst it’s been in nearly four decades, according to a new report from the Economic Policy Institute.

The racial wage gap has been widening since 2000, and reached 26.7% last year. (As a basis of comparison, the wage gap between black and white workers in 1979 was 18.1%.) What that means in actual dollars is that, on average, white workers make $25.22 an hour compared to $18.49 for black workers.

That’s already a shocking disparity, but it’s black women who have been hit hardest by widening pay inequity (emphasis mine):

As of 2015, relative to the average hourly wages of white men with the same education, experience, metro status, and region of residence, black men make 22.0 percent less, and black women make 34.2 percent less. Black women earn 11.7 percent less than their white female counterparts. The widening gap has not affected everyone equally. Young black women (those with 0 to 10 years of experience) have been hardest hit since 2000.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the percentage of black women who are full-time minimum-wage workers is higher than that of any other racial group. To make matters worse, there’s an even bigger pay gap in the service industry, where black women are paid on average just 60% of what their male peers are paid. That’s why a livable minimum wage is crucial to all women (who make up two-thirds of tipped workers), and especially black women.

And like a lot of the data out there on different kinds of wage disparities, the EPI report found that “observable factors,” like differences in education, can explain part of the racial wage gap. But after running through all of those factors, it also concludes that the wage gap has grown “primarily because of discrimination.”

That’s because differences in “observable factors” like differences in education attainment between black and white workers can’t be separated out from, say, glaring racial disparities in access to education.

A 2016 analysis from the Brookings Institute found that “on every tangible measure,” whether it’s qualified teachers or school lunches, schools that serve a student population that is primarily of students of color have significantly fewer resources than schools with mostly white students. Another study of graduation rates between 2003 to 2013 found a growing gap between black and white students.

And having a college degree is no guarantee that black workers will see their wages catch up to white workers. “In general, [black] college graduates have fared the worst when it comes to the widening of the gap,” according to the report.

“Education unquestionably enhances mobility and increases wages, but what it does not do as effectively is eliminate racial disparities,” Valerie Wilson, director of the EPI’s program on race, ethnicity, and the economy, told The Associated Press. “More education means higher wages, but it does not mean equal wages between blacks and whites as they ascend that ladder.”

Because the causes of the wage gap are structural, the solutions need to be, too. Consistent enforcement of anti-discrimination laws is a good place to start. So is strengthening the basic supports in place for all workers—like raising the minimum wage to a living wage—the prevailing number to cover minimum expenses right now is $15 an hour—and strengthening collective bargaining rights and unions more generally.

Given the United States’ pathological reluctance to admit it has a racism problem, and given the Republican party’s recent decision to elevate a racist demagogue as its standard bearer, even these modest policy gains will need to be hard fought. Because, as the report concluded, “In many ways, identifying wage gap trends and the factors contributing to them is the easy part.”

Story Tags