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The Equal Pay Gap Isn't Equal Across Ethnic Lines

On average, black men and women make roughly the same, in stark contrast with the large pay gap between white men and women. This isn't because of a commitment to gender equality in the black community; it's because of the lack of economic opportunity.
Foreclosure rates in Maryland are the highest in majority-black Baltimore. (Photo: Lee Burchfield/Flickr)

Foreclosure rates in Maryland are the highest in majority-black Baltimore. (Photo: Lee Burchfield/Flickr)

The wage gap wars are heating up in earnest, particularly as Republican presidential hopefuls stake out the hardest right positions they can find while Democrats stand ready to use the issue against them next year. But as black women brace for a dizzying onslaught of debates sparked by white feminists and male politicians (many if not most of whom leave black women out of the discussion entirely), recent data reveal a gaping wage gap detail that makes it much more complicated: black men.

If you’ve been watching closely, front-runners in a fast-crowding 2016 GOP pack so far have been dismissing the wage gap as either too speculative a topic or too expensive a proposition for businesses to matter as a political priority. Lone presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, eager to win over the woman vote, drew some fire from the right last month when she cited a World Economic Forum study showing “the United States is 65th out of 142 nations and other territories on equal pay."

Yet among both candidates who affirm and those who deny the centrality of equal pay as an issue, an important nuance is missing. Namely, if current wage gap figures were exclusively focused on the earnings distance between black men and women, the United States would find itself ranked in the top 10 of advanced global economies. A recent study by the American Association of University Women discovered a median annual pay gap of only nine percent between African-American men and women. On average, black men earn less than $38,000 year while black women earn a little over $33,000.

Yet among both candidates who affirm and those who deny the centrality of equal pay as an issue, an important nuance is missing.

These numbers exist in stark contrast with pay gaps among white men and women, where there is a vast 22-percent pay difference—an average of $52,452 per year versus $41,010. And while, on the surface, we see smaller gender pay gaps within the black community, the overall economic picture they paint is really not all that rosy.

Black gender wage gaps aren’t necessarily a positive indicator of a diminished wage gap between black men and women. What they suggest is that systemic economic and personal financial hemorrhaging within the broader black population continues. Black women may have narrowed the gap, but it’s not like they’re making what they should in comparison to white men and women. As we’ve noticed, the events in Baltimore have snapped us back into that conversation and we need to keep having it. Black women, compared to other populations, may be almost completely caught up with their male peers by average income, but that gap is narrowing at a time of alarming decline for black men. While a disappearing black wage gap speaks to the rising educational and economic gains of black women, it unfortunately illustrates persistent socio-economic challenges faced by communities of color: poverty, black male unemployment, and mass incarceration.

In the 10 states with the largest populations of black residents, the cents on the dollar earned by black women falls behind white men by an average of between 15 and 20 percent; the places where that gap is the narrowest are the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Delaware—yet the gap is still high. Interestingly enough, we can’t seem to find that breakdown for black men by state. What we do know, however, is that black men make 69 percent of what white men make on average each week in all professions.

An early May analysis of the D.C./Maryland/Virginia metro area by local NPR affiliate WAMU-FM offers some insight. It found jurisdictions like Washington, D.C. and Prince George’s County, Maryland, enjoying wage disparities of only 17 percent and seven percent, respectively. It just so happens these are majority black jurisdictions.

But these figures—while certainly cause for further study and for optimism about future wage parity—are, in the short-term, more strongly indicative of lagging economic trends in heavily black communities like D.C. and Prince George’s County. Foreclosure rates in majority-black Baltimore city and Prince George’s County, for example, are the first and second highest such rates in the state of Maryland. It should be noted that these locations are home to a thriving regional black middle-class built on federal, state, and local government employment and contracting. Still, they are also some of the most impoverished areas in the region, with black unemployment rates still double-digits in the city while Prince George’s County continues tackling high foreclosure rates.

“[R]ace also figures into these earnings differences," Ariane Hegewisch of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research told WAMU. "African-American women traditionally are more likely to work full-time than other women and also African-American men, of course, are impacted by discrimination possibly and really do not get the high-paying jobs." In a peculiar and ugly twist, the closing of that gap with black men may not mean actual progress as much as it means black men are simply losing significant economic ground.

In a peculiar and ugly twist, the closing of that gap with black men may not mean actual progress as much as it means black men are simply losing significant economic ground.

Such trends are seen elsewhere throughout the country where there are large concentrations of black residents or where there are majority-black populations. The Census Bureau's American Community Survey is not tracking granular racial wage gap figures by city and county. But a random sampling of ACS data shows such gaps are smaller in majority-black areas or urban centers than in places with massive majority-white populations. In large black urban cities like Detroit, Philadelphia, Richmond, and Baltimore, the general earnings gap between men and women is 1.45 percent, 9.47 percent, 10.2 percent, and 13.5 percent, respectively.

But in jurisdictions with huge majority-white and relatively middle-class populations like Provo, Utah, Loudoun County, Virginia, Missoula, Montana, and Fargo, North Dakota, the general wage gaps are much, much wider at 61 percent, 47 percent, 38 percent, and 28 percent, respectively. Even within a major city like New York, gaps vary by borough: 21.4 percent in majority-white Staten Island but just 6.5 percent in Brooklyn, which is much more ethnically diverse. The more people of color a population in a given location has, the more chance its wage gaps will diminish.

That’s not because communities of color have a magical ability to erase wage gaps. It’s due to a combination of already sub-par wages for black women compared to white men and white women, compounded to ongoing economic doldrums for black men. These numbers matter because they reveal the extent to which most mainstream earnings comparisons are largely conducted as if men of color—especially black men—don’t exist. Many wage gap studies (like this one) use “white, non-Hispanic male earnings” as the lead performance metric for male earnings overall without even factoring in black or Latino men.

In the current environment where black unemployment, underemployment, and poverty is still double the national average, the totality of the African-American community’s unique socio-economic circumstances must be taken into account. Black male economic health can’t be left out of the equation around the politics of the pay gap. White women are subject to grueling pay gaps, but they also face these problems from the context of more financially stable communities. The big question mark for black women, however, is if they and their fathers, brothers, and sons will continue to face an unpredictable economic climate and whether these troubling trends will persist over the next decade or generations to come.

This post originally appeared in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get The Weekly Wonk delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.