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Honoring Dr. King and the Fight for Civil Rights with Pay Equity

Topics: Pay Equity

Today, as our nation honors the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., we look back at his life and legacy. Many will listen to his famous “I Have a Dream” speech and celebrate how far we’ve come since the days of government-sanctioned segregation. But, many more will look at the state of our nation and see how much work is left to be done in order to achieve the dream set forth by Dr. King, especially when it comes to race relations and how workers of color are treated in the workforce.

It has been almost 57 years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the March on Washington. And, while he spoke of his dreams of a day in which a man would be judged not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character, he also spoke at great length of the injustice of the poverty the black community had been sentenced to by America’s society and leaders. In the opening lines of his speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said:

Five score years ago, a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree is a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But 100 years later the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still badly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.

Today, as we reflect upon the work of Dr. King, we must take the opportunity to recognize inequality and pay inequity in the workplace, especially when it comes to the racial wage gap. Are our policies further isolating workers of color on an island of poverty? Or, are we closing the racial wage gap?

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The Link Between Labor and Civil Rights

Dr. King spoke often about the crossover between laborers’ rights and civil rights. In a speech to the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) in 1961, King said:

Negroes in the United States read this history of labor and find it mirrors their own experience. We are confronted by powerful forces telling us to rely on the goodwill and understanding of those who profit by exploiting us. Our needs are identical with labor’s needs, decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community. The duality of interests of labor and Negroes makes any crisis which lacerates you, a crisis from which we bleed.

America’s history is full of events that prevented the accumulation of wealth in the black community. Now, black citizens have been tasked with solving endemic poverty caused by slavery, segregation, indentured servitude, the denial of voting rights and the racial wage gap. The injustices Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marched against created a society where black citizens are expected to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but that same society is the one that stole their boots. It is all too easy to believe that because we live in a post-Jim Crow era, all citizens are equal, but the data, especially when it comes to the wages of black workers and other workers of color, tell a much bleaker story.

The Racial Wage Gap

Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits pay discrimination on the basis of race and other factors, equal pay for equal work is still not the reality for many workers. Here are some of the statistics:

There are a number of factors that contribute to the racial wage gap over the course of a black worker’s career. According to PayScale’s research, hiring biases drive unemployment for people of color. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for black or African Americans in the first quarter of 2019 was at 7.1 percent. For Hispanics, it was 5.1 percent. For whites, it was 3.7 percent. In fact, hiring discrimination hasn’t seen an improvement in 25 years. According to a study by PNAS, “since 1989, [white applicants] receive on average 36 percent more callbacks than [black applicants] and 24 percent more callbacks than [Latino applicants].”

In an article for Forbes, Erik Sherman points to the issue of people of color having the deck stacked against them from the outset, saying, “The truth, based on lots of data over years, is that if you’re black or Latino in the U.S., you get far from an equal shake. Your efforts have to be longer, stronger, and chances are you still will be treated worse. The deck gets stacked against you even as you try mightily and then people throw the results in your face.”

This type of discrimination is a large part of what Dr. King was referring to when he addressed the AFL-CIO in 1961. And, he was still working in the interest of black workers in Memphis, when he died. Speaking in support of striking sanitation workers in April of 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said:

…in the human rights revolution, if something isn’t done, and in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed.

The racial wage gap goes against everything Dr. King worked for. Still today, race is consistently shown to have a high impact on getting callbacks or interviews for a job. When an applicant of color consistently receives fewer callbacks, they have a much lower chance of finding a job than candidates who are white. Their options are limited, which means they might be forced to take a job at lower pay than what they are worth, just because they cannot afford to turn down the work. Thus, the racial wage gap widens.

Closing the Racial Wage Gap

It is easy to think that unless we are the head of HR or the CEO of a company, we have no power. But, to believe that would be to lie to ourselves. We all have a responsibility when it comes to closing the racial wage gap. Dr. King implored religious leaders in Memphis to support the striking sanitation workers, saying:

That’s the question before you tonight. Not, ‘If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?’ The question is not, ‘If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?’ ‘If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?’ That’s the question.

So, what can we do to close the racial wage gap? There are a number of things we can do to help cultivate equitable outcomes for all people within our organizations. First, be sure your organization practices intentional recruiting. There is robust evidence that diverse teams produce better outcomes, and when an organization builds diversity into its DNA, it’s more likely that you’ll have people asking the right sorts of questions to ensure that the work environment leans toward equity.

If your organization is already lacking diversity, then assuming you can solve that issue without significantly disrupting the recruiting process is harboring false hope. Many organizations fall into patterns — e.g., recruiting from the same set of schools or relying heavily on employee referrals — but it’s those patterns that are generating the outcomes you may be looking to change.

Next, consider whether your organization is transparent about pay. Pay transparency can help ensure workers are being paid equitably for equal work. When there are fewer secrets surrounding how compensation works and how salaries are calculated, it becomes much more difficult for pay inequities to occur.

Finally, look at how your organization determines job offers. In PayScale’s report on pay equity, we discuss the practice of asking job candidates to disclose salary histories during the recruitment or interview process. There has been a sea change movement against this practice in recent years, as it has led to lower pay for women and people of color who may already be earning less in previous jobs due to bias. As we say in the report, “It would be wise for all organizations to consider how learning someone’s compensation history might impact the offer. We have a mantra we often repeat at PayScale and that is, ‘Price the job, not the person.’ Before you’re ever talking to candidates, the work of determining the range for the open role should have been done. Then it’s a matter of fairly determining where that candidate falls into the range. If it’s lower in the range due to needed ramp time or some other reason, consider how you’ll plan to move them through the range over time. Once an employee’s pay is set upon their hire, it can be a challenge to advance them rapidly through their pay range unless they’re in a highly competitive role. Planning ahead can ensure you’re not going to run into a pay equity issue further into your new hire’s tenure with the organization.”

So today, as we honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., remember that the work of equality is far from over. And, we all have a responsibility to look out for those who suffer discrimination. As Dr. King said the night before his assassination:

Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.

Alida Mooreston
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