Throughout the course of the Democratic presidential primaries, many have asked which is the bigger societal problem in the United States: racism or sexism? Although the question itself is absurd–the two are often interrelated, after all, and comparing systems of oppression is typically neither intellectually nor ethically very productive–there is little question that both remain significant impediments to equal opportunity.
Or perhaps that’s not so obvious to some. Indeed, in recent years there has been a concerted effort by the conservative right to downplay if not altogether dismiss claims that race and gender discrimination continue to be anything more than minor irritants, such that when folks of color and women of all colors complain of their mistreatment in the workplace, they’re accused of whining, playing victim, or some such thing.
Are there pay disparities between men and women, or between whites and blacks? Of course; but these disparities have nothing to do with bias. Rather, they are the result, it is claimed, of real differences between men and women or between whites and blacks, in terms of human capital, qualifications, work effort, continual service, or other factors that are, ostensibly, independent of racism and sexism. Once these supposedly independent variables are controlled for, in social science lingo, the disparities disappear like a mirage in the desert.
Although the conservative dismissal of racism and sexism is often couched in authoritative language, it ultimately fails when subjected to scrutiny. To understand why, let’s begin by examining the arguments used to explain away both race and gender disparities in income, before turning to the specific excuses used for each on its own.
Experience, Education and Occupation: Are These Really Independent Variables?
Whether the subject is gender bias or racism, conservatives contend that the reason for lower pay rates for women as women, and people of color as racial minorities, is that, on average, women and folks of color have less experience and fewer qualifications than whites and men. In other words, pay differentials–like the oft-quoted 77 cents on the dollar that women receive compared to men–are raw aggregate figures, which fail to account for different levels of experience, different educational backgrounds, or the types of jobs that women do as opposed to men, or folks of color do as opposed to whites. When comparing only men and women, or whites and blacks doing the same job, with the same qualifications, the discrepancies evaporate they say.
But while it is certainly true that factors such as experience, education and job type influence aggregate wages for different groups, what this argument glosses over is that even those factors are not truly independent of race and gender bias. How much experience one has, the quality of one’s education, and the type of occupation at which one labors are all directly related to race and sex.
If discrimination has put some people behind others, and others ahead in the race for the best jobs or schooling, then of course, as time presses on, those with the initial disadvantages will remain behind. But to claim that their status as income laggards is due solely to less experience, when their accumulation of credentials has itself been stymied by inequity of access, would be both absurd and cruel. Likewise, to reward those ahead of the pack for being ahead in terms of experience, when their head start was secured by way of extra opportunity and greater access is to forever rationalize and perpetuate race and gender inequality.
So too, to claim that men get paid more because they do more difficult, exacting work, or that whites get paid more because they are more likely to do managerial work, is to ignore how certain folks got those jobs in the first place and others didn’t. It also assumes that we can draw a bright line between difficult and not-so-difficult work so as to justify pay discrepancies.
But can we? Can we honestly say, for instance, that construction work–which is male dominated and surely grueling, not to mention dangerous–is either more difficult, more exhausting, or requires more intelligence and ability than, say, caring for elderly patients in a nursing home, or providing child care, both of which are female dominated professions? Under what rational calculation could we make such a claim? If anything, the nursing and child care jobs typically require more education, and for those men who think taking care of old folks or kids is easy, perhaps it should be noted how averse men are to doing either one, typically.
That cleaning up after the incontinent or not-yet-potty trained is hardly a walk in the park should be obvious, yet those who do this work are paid not based on some objective scale of merit or social importance, but rather the fact that businesses who want new buildings are flush with cash to pay for construction, while people tend to dump their elderly in homes (in this culture), and have a hard time placing a monetary value on human life, unlike say, a brand new boardroom.
If old people began shitting diamonds once they reached the age of ninety, rest assured, elder care workers would be paid like CEOs, as the value of keeping people alive and taking good care of them, if only for the purpose of the pending diamond harvest, would skyrocket.
Bottom line: work that has been deemed “women’s work,” and paid less for the designation, didn’t come to be known as such through some objective, value-neutral process, in which it was agreed that yes, that work is less important than the work done by men. If anything, many of the jobs that are disproportionately performed by women–be it the unpaid labor of mothering and housekeeping, or the wage-labor work of child care, nursing, or teaching–are recognized as being among the most important vocations in the society.
Housekeeping and child-rearing, for example, when performed mostly by one partner, frees the other partner for the pursuit of wages, relieves the need to pay for nannies and maids, and adds hundreds of thousands of dollars of financial value to the home unit each year. But the women who do the bulk of that work are almost entirely unremunerated, and their skills developed from such labor, while real, are almost never valued in the paid workforce, if they decide to re-enter it after a time in the home. But that is because of a choice we make, in terms of what to value in the market, and what to discount. It is not the result of science, be it social or otherwise.
Fact is, once factors like education and experience are “controlled for” the race and gender pay gaps do fall, but even then not entirely. In both cases, the gaps are cut approximately in half, still leaving a significant disparity that is hard to explain by way of mechanisms other than race and gender bias.
Oh, but not so, say those on the right. There are other things beyond experience, occupation type or schooling that can explain race and gender gaps in pay, having nothing to do with bias. Let us look at some of these supposedly independent variables, as they are offered for each, in turn.
Of Mommy Tracks and Female Timidity: Rationalizing Gender Inequities
When it comes to pay differences between men and women, the two most common arguments made by those seeking to downplay gender inequity are, first, that women don’t place the same value on paid labor as men, and are more likely than men to prefer taking time off to have a child, and staying at home to raise that child after his or her birth; and second, that women don’t employ as aggressive a negotiating strategy when it comes to their salaries.
In other words, men are more likely to push for additional money (be it a starting salary or a raise) than women, and so any differences between men and women in terms of their paychecks can be explained in large measure by the fundamental differences in the way men and women negotiate. Presumably, if women were willing or able to deploy typical male negotiating strategies, they would fare better. So the change needs to come from women, not the mostly male-dominated institutions that hire them.
With regards to both of these arguments however, those putting forth the propositions are conveniently overlooking a few things.
As for the child-rearing preference, the fact is, even if women (presuming for a moment heterosexuality) preferred to share those responsibilities with their male partners, the workforce in the U.S. is not set up in a way that readily allows for such sharing. So what appears to some as a preference for taking time off, and thereby sacrificing continual service with an employer, may be little more than the inevitable result of a labor market system that has long been predicated on the assumption of male breadwinning. Unlike most European nations, which offer paid leave for both mother and father upon the birth of a child (and some actually require this leave, whether desired or not), it has long been taken for granted that in the U.S., mothers quit their paid jobs when a child is born, while fathers labor on.
Indeed, for men who want to share child-rearing responsibilities, the exigencies of the workforce make it difficult to exercise that choice. Most men don’t have the kind of job flexibility that would allow them to take time off, job-share, take leave (paid or unpaid), and otherwise split the home responsibilities with their wives and partners.
Indeed, for a man who wanted to do any of those things, there would be a constant fear, not unfounded, that his employer could (and likely would) replace him, probably with another man whose nurturing instincts and commitment to gender equity in the home was far less concretized. Unless the social structure supports shared sacrifice, sacrifice will end up being made by those with the least institutional power, irrespective of one’s personal desires.
And so long as the society is a male-dominated one, in which men express a preference not to rear children, no matter what women might prefer, they will have little choice but to do the child-rearing and homemaking. Given a choice between that, and not becoming a mother at all, most women will choose to sacrifice a few years of their career. But we can hardly assume that such a choice is rooted in some biological or deeply-ingrained feminine set of values.
So to use women’s choices in this regard as an excuse for wage disparities is to assume that women should, in effect, be punished for making a choice, which they were hardly free not to make. It is to reward men for the nature of the social structure. It is to insist on the perpetuation of patriarchal norms: first by naturalizing the domesticity of women (and sadly, the external labor of men, even if many men might prefer a better balance between the two realms), and then by justifying the wage based disparities that result, to the benefit of men and detriment of women.
Bottom line, that women often have less continual service on the job than men, thanks to child-rearing responsibilities, can hardly be considered a truly independent variable, separate and apart from sexism, when it is sexism itself that has created those norms regarding who should and who shouldn’t be expected to sacrifice their careers, at least in part, for their children.
As for the issue of negotiating strategies, though the research suggests that indeed gender differences in this arena are quite real, new evidence indicates that the reasons for these differences have to do less with natural differences or purely free choice, and more to do with the recognition by women (quite accurate as it turns out) that employers will respond far less favorably to their aggressiveness when it comes to pushing for more money.
So, for instance, consider the findings of researchers from Carnegie Mellon and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, which demonstrates that women who haggle for better pay are viewed much differently than their male counterparts. According to the research, which was conducted by one of the same scholars who has long postulated that different negotiating strategies may account for gender differences in pay, the reluctance of women to ask for more money was due to an accurate perception that doing so would brand them as “less nice,” and would ultimately backfire.
Indeed, what the researchers discovered was that in each and every experimental setting, men were less willing to work with women who had attempted to negotiate than with those who didn’t, and haggling by women was twice as likely to result in a negative evaluation by men than when it was men doing the haggling.
So once again, a variable that some might think independent of sexism is actually related directly to it. Yes, different negotiating strategies can affect wage rates for men and women. But if those strategies are themselves the result of rational fears that men will respond negatively to women who bargain aggressively, then bias against women is still controlling the outcomes received by women in the workforce.
The Politics of Place and Age: Whitewashing Racial Inequity in the Workforce
When it comes to racism, direct tests for discrimination–as with matched pair audits, where whites and people of color apply for jobs, having equal qualifications, as well as identical demeanors and communication styles–have long demonstrated, and virtually without fail, the persistence of anti-black and anti-Latino bias in the labor market.
These types of studies are almost entirely ignored by conservatives. They have literally no answer for them–after all, if you send out black applicants with more qualifications than their white counterparts as part of a paired test (as several of these have done), and yet the whites get more job offers, or are offered more hours, on better terms than the persons of color, what explanation could there be, other than racial bias?–so they pretend that such studies don’t exist. Rather, they concentrate on debunking income disparities between whites and blacks, much as with men and women, by pointing to ostensibly non-racial factors, independent of discrimination, that can explain the phenomenon.
In addition to those factors already discussed, such as education and experience levels (neither of which are truly independent of racism since both are contingent on prior opportunity or the decided lack thereof), conservatives add two more categories of consideration to explain away earnings gaps between whites and blacks: geographic differences in terms of where members of the two groups live, and average age differences between whites and those in the African American community.
As for geography, those seeking to explain away income inequalities argue that blacks have lower average incomes than whites because the former live disproportionately in the lower-wage South while whites are more evenly distributed around the country, and are therefore more likely to be in higher-wage regions of the West and Northeast. While it is true that about half of African Americans live in the South (down from as much as ninety percent in the early 1900s), and the South is surely a lower-wage region of the country, the geographic imbalance between whites and blacks can hardly explain a significant percentage of aggregate income differences between the two groups.
Before examining the reasons why geographic wage differences are insufficient to account for the racial earnings gaps that exist between whites and blacks, it should first be noted that the geography of race is hardly a factor that is independent of racism. In other words, blacks are not concentrated in the American South as if by coincidence. The reason that a disproportionate share of the nation’s black population lives in this part of the country is because of a history of racial subordination that was, for so long, centered there, and discriminatory policies (like racial exclusion laws in Midwestern and Western towns in particular) that limited their ability, historically, to move elsewhere.
Even though there have been a few large migrations of blacks out of the South, given the concentration of blacks in the region over many centuries, and given discrimination against blacks in housing elsewhere, it should hardly surprise anyone that most blacks would remain Southern-bound in the twenty-first century. To the extent this regional concentration is itself the result of historical racial subordination, however, it is disingenuous in the extreme to suggest that the clustering of blacks in the South somehow explains racial wage gaps independent of racism and discrimination.
Additionally, however, it is simply not true that those racial wage gaps are largely explained by wage differences based on geography. To begin with, whites and blacks by and large live in the same parts of the country as one another. Of the top five states in which blacks and whites choose to live, four of them are the same for each, and around a third of blacks and a third of whites live in this mere handful of geographic locations: this, according to readily available Census data.
Additionally, although there are certainly regional differences in terms of average incomes, those gaps are relatively small compared to the much larger racial gaps they are being used to explain. As of the mid-90s, for example, the earnings differences between the region with the fewest blacks, percentage wise (the West) and the region with the most blacks (the South) were only about $5000 per year, amounting to a twelve percent earnings advantage for those in the West. Yet, at that same time, the average income gap between blacks and whites was three times as large, at $15,000 per household, meaning that white households were earning roughly 40 percent more than their black counterparts. Although some of the differences in household income can be explained by the higher share of single-parent (and especially single mother) households in the black community, relative to the white community, family structure can’t explain why there are still such large earnings gaps between individuals who are white and black, or why even single-parent white households are so much better off, on average, than single-parent black ones, with much lower poverty rates and much higher average incomes.
In addition to geography, conservative critics of the discrimination thesis, like Thomas Sowell of the Hoover Institution (one of the nation’s most prominent black libertarian theorists and economists), or Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, claim that wage gaps between whites and blacks can be explained by the fact that whites are considerably older, on average, than their black counterparts. Since older people tend to earn more than younger people, the argument goes, whites will naturally have higher average wages than African Americans.
On the one hand, it is true that the median age for whites is indeed older than the median for blacks. The median age for whites is forty years and six months, while for blacks the median is only thirty-one years: a difference of nearly a decade. And yes, it’s true that older folks tend to earn more than younger folks, so a forty year old will indeed typically earn more than a thirty year old. But neither the fact of older median ages for whites, nor the fact of higher earning power as one ages, can explain away the wage and earnings differentials between whites and blacks, for reasons that Sowell and others must surely understand, but conveniently gloss over in the hopes no one will notice.
The simple fact is, median white ages and black ages are bid upward and downward respectively–and thus skewed relative to one another–owing to two demographic phenomena that have virtually no effect on wage rates: namely, the disproportionate number and percentage of blacks who are children and the disproportionate number and percentage of whites who are elderly. So, for example, while a little more than one in four African Americans (26 percent) are younger than 16, fewer than 19 percent of whites are that young. And while 15 percent of all whites are elderly, only 8 percent of blacks are age 65 or older. In other words, while elderly whites are nearly as common in the population as white youth, black youth are more than three times more prevalent than black elderly folks are.
Since children and the elderly are generally not to be found in the workforce, the fact that blacks have a disproportionate share of the former (and thus, a lower median group age), and the fact that whites have the bulk of the latter (and thus a higher median age), will mean virtually nothing in terms of median wages for either group. Persons who aren’t working (and unlike the regularly unemployed, due to age, likely aren’t a “threat” to work), logically can’t much impact the earnings of those who are.
The important figures we need to consider relate to the percentages of whites and blacks who are of working-age, and in various age cohorts within the workforce. Obviously, if a much larger share of whites, for instance, were of working age, or if a much larger share of whites were to be found in the prime earning years between 35-54, then the conservative thesis could be, at least in part, correct. But neither of these preconditions for conservative accuracy can be met, because neither is true.
So, for instance, according to data from 2006, to be found in Table 9, on page 12 of the Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstracts for 2008, 66 percent of whites and 66 percent of blacks are between 16 and 64 years of age (thus, the typical years of labor market participation). And while the share of whites in the prime earning years is greater than the share of blacks that age, the gaps are not large: about 30 percent of whites and 28 percent of blacks are between 35-54. Furthermore, 42 percent of each group is between 25-54.
In short, age differences, though they exist at the extremes between whites and blacks, simply do not manifest to any real degree among those in the broad category of labor market eligible persons. As such, age gaps–even ones as large as those that exist, on average between whites and blacks–can be said to account for nearly none of the income gap between the two groups.
When all is said and done, denial of the ongoing salience of racism and sexism, no matter how sophisticated it may sound, is nonetheless rooted in bogus social science and sloppy argumentation. Those who insist the labor market is fair and that race and sex discrimination are things of the past, typically have the luxury of thinking just that, so rarely are they likely to be the ones targeted by practices that subordinate them on the basis of either category.
It is for this reason that no matter how one comes down on the relevance of racism and sexism to the fortunes of political candidates like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, one thing all thinking people should be able to agree on is that for average, everyday people of color, and women of all colors, these forces remain real indeed. And that won’t change, no matter who becomes President, unless the people of this nation decide to make changing it a priority.
This essay originally appeared at www.timwise.org under the title, “The Tyranny of Not-So-Independent Variables: Racism, Sexism and the Deceptive Social Science of the Far Right”. It is republished with permission from the author.
Tim Wise is one of the most respected anti-racist writers and educators in the U.S., having spoken in 48 states and on over 400 college campuses. He has trained teachers, as well as corporate, government, media, and law enforcement officials on methods for dismantling institutional racism, and has contributed essays to 20 books. He is the author of White Like Me, Reflections on Race from a Priviledged Son, and Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White.