For the past three years, I have been invited to present on the White House's Black History Month panel co-hosted by the Association for the Study for African American Life and History (ASALH). Founded in 1915 by Carter G. Woodson, ASALH sets both the yearly Black History Month theme and the tone for the panel conversation, where black scholars explore and examine the current state of black America through topics as varied as the "Civil Rights Movement" to "Blacks in the Armed Services." On Wednesday, we reviewed President Barack Obama's policies on education, mass incarceration, health care and women and girls.
I spoke about the latter, and I was initially convinced that very little outside of the 2009 Lilly Ledbetter Act, which restored basic protections against pay discrimination, had been done to address the specific needs of women and girls. As the mother of black boys, I am very supportive of the president's "My Brother's Keeper" initiative, which is designed to address the needs of all boys with a particular focus on safeguarding the future of boys of color. I am also aware of the work by the African American Policy Forum to force the White House to redesign this initiative to include the needs of girls of color, particularly because black girls, in comparison with their white peers, graduate at a much lower rate and are six times are more likely to be suspended. I figured that even if the administration was not addressing these issues, they were (along with the fight for equal pay and access) actively being addressed by scholars — myself included — who research and focus on women and girls.
This fight for gender equality is not a new struggle, particularly because policies like the 1963 Equal Pay Act, which required that men and women in the same workplace be given equal pay for equal work, are not being actively applied. Women are still making lower wages than our male counterparts. For every $1 that a full-time, white, male worker earns over the course of a year, white women make 77 cents; black women earn 64 cents; and Latina women make 56 cents. These figures, in so many ways, clearly reflect how the pay gap at its very heart shortchanges both women and their families. Conversations about gender equality are difficult and quickly become entangled in social, legal and political arguments. They also often are not completely accurate unless there is a measure of intersectionality — accounting for the ways in which our lives are complicated by our race, our gender, and our class — that takes place.
So I was prepared to discuss how Mr. Obama's administration needed to work harder to address our needs. To my surprise, I found that they have been actively working to transform this landscape, expanding small business loans to women (by 31 percent in 2013 compared with 2009) along with health care and outreach for women veterans and service members, and funding culturally specific, in-school support programs for girls of color.
Among the administration's other initiatives:
•Founding of the White House Council on Women and Girls and a White House advisor position on violence against women (2009);
•The establishment of the National Equal Pay Task Force to identify and rectify challenges to gender pay disparities (2010);
•The signing of a presidential memorandum to ensure that the needs of women and girls remain central to U.S diplomacy and development around the world (2013);
•And issuance of an executive order in 2014 to raise the minimum wage for workers on new federal contracts to $10.10 along with a challenge to Congress to raise it for all workers by 2016.
This administration, along with their work on behalf of boys, has made incredible strides for girls and women.
In a recent NPR discussion with law students, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was asked whether there were enough women sitting on the bench now that the court is one third female. She replied that there would only be enough when there were nine. In the same vein, although I could not say during the panel that this administration is doing enough (there could never be enough until the pay gap is closed), I did say that its work on behalf of women and girls is showing the country that our lives, voices and contributions matter to the White house, and therefore should matter to everyone.
Karsonya Wise Whitehead is an assistant professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland and the author of the new book, "Letters to My Black Sons: Raising Boys in a Post-Racial America." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is part two of a four-part series of op-eds by Karsonya Wise Whitehead examining the state of black America.