Today marks a "holiday" that's nothing to cheer about: the day when African American women's earnings catch up, at long last, to what white men earned the previous year.
The reality is that African American women make only 63 cents for every dollar paid to white men, and Black Women's Equal Pay Day highlights the fact that African American women have to work a full 20 months in order to make the same amount of money white men make in twelve.
The conversation around the pay gap all too often focuses on the national number for all women: 79 cents on the dollar. But when you break it down by race, it's clear that some women are harmed even more than others. The not-even-close pay gap reality experienced by African American women and Latinas is far more dramatic than the one facing white women.
According to the National Women's Law Center, over a lifetime of working, Black women will lose out on more than $877,000 in wages. That's close to a million dollars in lost earnings. It's a stunning loss that perpetuates already existing inequalities for women and their families and stands as a major barrier to economic security for many women of color and their daughters.
The U.S. Census reports that in "20 states with the largest number of African-American women working full time, year around, pay... ranges from 48 to 69 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men in those states."
Researchers note that part of the pay gap can be understood by looking at occupations—for example, that African-American women are more likely to have jobs in lower-paying fields like education, office administration, sales and service, and often have to take time off as caregivers and for child care—but not all of the gap can be explained by these factors. In other words, even when all other employment factors are equal, African American women are still paid less.
This very real injustice deserves greater attention,but not in the way adopted by some political leaders who dismiss the pay gap as a myth, or blame women for it. GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, for example, thinks women are paid less because we don't "do as good a job" as men. Former governor Rick Perry has called equal pay legislation "nonsense."
Representative Glenn Grothman has even argued that women are paid less because we care less about money, saying "money is more important for men." Rather than joining the conversation about how to best address this serious policy issue, Republican leaders are making ridiculous claims and pointing the blame at those of us being cheated out of hundreds of thousands of dollars across our lifetimes.
African American women are being shortchanged with each paycheck—which, in turn, can affect any number of other parts of our lives, from health care to education to housing.
With the elimination of the wage gap, for example, the National Partnership for Women and Families in 2015 reported it would mean "169 more weeks of food for her family (3.2 years' worth); 15 more months of mortgage and utilities payments; more than 23 more months of rent; 10,753 additional gallons of gas."
The 2016 election is a pivotal moment for addressing this very real, not-even-close pay issue head-on. Every election matters and every vote must be counted. When someone asks you "why vote in 2016," say that we have to elect officials at all levels who are committed to closing the pay gap.
Why vote? To bring greater attention to the need to eliminate cultural bias and stop the penalization of those 29 percent of African American women who in 2014 had no choice but to work shorter hours even when they wanted longer hours.
Why vote? So that those who brush pay equity off as a non-issue or who think women are the problem will hear directly from the millions of Americans who support correcting this very real present day inequity what it means to walk in our heels.
Minister Leslie Watson Malachi is the director of African American Religious Affairs at People For the American Way.