Silver Taube: Addressing the impact of structural racism on Black workers
Black workers continue to face significant gaps in the labor market when it comes to promotion, pay and opportunity. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Black Worker Center.

    Structural racism has been an impediment for Black Americans and has had an impact on the economy. If the Black wage, education, housing and investing gaps had been closed 20 years ago, it would have added an estimated $16 trillion to the economy, according to a report by Citi, with the Black pay gap alone accounting for $2.7 trillion.

    Black workers continue to face significant gaps in the labor market when it comes to promotion, pay and opportunity, costing the U.S. economy trillions of dollars.

    A groundbreaking study published in 2003 found employers were more likely to consider white candidates with criminal records than Black candidates with no such history.

    On average, Black men are paid just 71 cents for every dollar paid to white men, according to EPI. Black women, who face both gender and racial barriers, are paid just 63 cents for every dollar paid to white men. Over the course of a 40-year career, the National Women’s Law Center estimates Black women will lose close to $1 million due to this disparity.

    Today, Black workers are overrepresented in low-wage, entry-level jobs and underrepresented in senior leader and executive roles. In the U.S. private sector, Black workers make up 12% of the entry-level workforce and just 7% of the managerial workforce, according to McKinsey & Company.

    At the senior manager and VP level, Black workers comprise just 5% of the workforce. If the current trajectory continues, McKinsey & Company estimates it could take 95 years before Black employees reach parity at all levels in the private sector.

    Black workers also face discrimination in the workplace. In a survey of more than 8,000 respondents in 2020, the Gallup Center on Black Voices found that about one in four Black workers in the U.S. reported discrimination at work in the past year.

    Experiences of workplace discrimination are similar between Black men and Black women, as well as between Black employees in households earning less than $90,000 annually and those in households earning $90,000 or more.

    Black workers younger than 40 are almost twice as likely as Black workers aged 40 and older to report having experienced discrimination at work in the past year.

    In a follow-up question among those who experienced discrimination, 75% of Black workers indicated the discrimination they experienced was based on their race.

    The 75% figure among Black employees is constant across gender, age and income subgroups, with similar proportions of each saying the discrimination they experienced in the past 12 months was due to their race.

    According to Olugbenga Ajilore, senior economist for the Center for American Progress, there are three strategies to address workplace racial inequality. The first is to build worker power. Unions have been shown to reduce racial inequality by raising earnings and narrowing the racial wage gap for workers of color. Policymakers should encourage legislation that promotes the formation of unions and ensures collective bargaining rights.

    The second is stronger enforcement of anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation laws. According to a 2019 report by Vox and the Center for Public Integrity, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency charged with enforcing anti-discrimination laws, lacks the resources for its task. It has a smaller budget today than it did in 1980, adjusted for inflation, and 42% less staff. At the same time, the country’s labor force has increased about 50%, to 160 million.

    Increasing the funding, resources and staff at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the California Civil Rights Department—formerly the Department of Fair Employment and Housing—and the Labor Commission will help ensure that African Americans have recourse when they experience discrimination or pay inequity in the workplace and can fully participate in the labor market.

    The third strategy is to reduce barriers in housing, employment, federal student aid, access to health care and public benefits for people reentering society. Racial disparities in incarceration rates have led to the overrepresentation of African Americans with a criminal record and dismal labor market prospects upon reentering society.

    According to the Brennan Center for Justice, people with criminal convictions can expect to earn at least 16% less, on average, than their peers. Those who have been to prison will lose around half of their earning potential. Over their lifetime, that loss on average is close to half a million dollars.

    Fear of retaliation remains an obstacle to Black workers who experience discrimination or disparities in pay. In a survey by the National Employment Law Project for the California Coalition for Worker Power, 55% of Black workers said that the risks of speaking out are too high. To address pay disparities based on race, we need to strengthen retaliation provisions in the California Equal Pay Act which prohibits unequal pay based on gender, race and ethnicity for workers who perform substantially similar work.

    Under the current law, the worker must prove retaliation occurred because the worker has the burden of proof. It’s difficult to prove that the employer’s reason is false even when it is. If it is the worker’s word against the employer’s, the worker loses. We need to shift the burden to the employer to prove that they did not retaliate against the worker where the worker reports an equal pay violation and a negative action occurs within 90 days. There is also need for a retaliation fund for workers who are terminated when they speak up and more funding for outreach and education.

    There is systemic racial bias across institutions and in the workplace that offers privileges to white people and disadvantages Black people. Diversity, equity and inclusion workshops are not enough to combat structural racism. To eliminate racial inequality in the workplace, we must build worker power by passing legislation that promotes the formation of unions and strengthens collective bargaining rights. We must provide adequate resources to the agencies that enforce existing anti-discrimination laws. We must remove barriers to employment for people reentering society, strengthen retaliation laws and provide more funding to outreach and education.

    San José Spotlight columnist Ruth Silver Taube is supervising attorney of the Workers’ Rights Clinic at the Katharine & George Alexander Community Law Center, supervising attorney of the Santa Clara County’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement Legal Advice Line and a member of Santa Clara County’s Fair Workplace Collaborative. Her columns appear every second Thursday of the month. Contact her at [email protected].

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