Olivia Bennett: Black women should be respected, paid fairly | TribLIVE.com
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Olivia Bennett: Black women should be respected, paid fairly

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A woman attends a rally calling on greater social equality, organized by non-unionized fast food workers demanding for a wage raise from $7.25 per hour to $15.00 per hour and to be unionized on December 5, 2013 in New York.

Thanks to the “Pittsburgh’s Inequality Across Gender and Race” report, Pittsburghers are once again reminded that we live in the worst city in the country for black women. We are dead last in the categories of health outcomes, poverty and income, employment, and education.

The September report, a collaboration with the city’s Gender Equity Commission, served as a stark reminder for black women like me who live in the city. But there was little newsworthy here — and not just because we live with these disparities every day. We have seen similar reports released for at least the last 50 years — heck, we’ve released those reports ourselves.

And that’s part of what makes this latest report so frustrating: It shouldn’t take research by a panel of mostly white women with Ph.D.s for policymakers to take seriously what we all been saying for years. Engaging in the same conversations, sitting on the same panels, and reading the same reports over and over again is not only frustrating but also insulting.

I suspect the reason we keep saying the same thing over and over is because we’re unwilling to really tackle the causes of inequality. According to the city’s own Wage Review Committee, which put out a similar report in 2015, much of Pittsburgh’s inequity can be attributed to the overconcentration of black people in low-wage service work. Pittsburgh, in fact, stands out for this. Our city’s service workforce is disproportionately made up of women and African-American workers, doing the cooking, cleaning and caring work that black people and women have always done. We have never been adequately compensated for our labor, and the effects of exploitation amplify and reinforce gendered and racialized patterns of income inequality and unequal outcomes in a variety of important areas such as education and health.

Low wages for service workers contribute to significant rates of poverty in Pittsburgh’s African-American community. Pittsburgh has the third-highest rate of poverty among working-age African-Americans out of all major U.S. metropolitan areas; and average wages for African-Americans in our city are second and seventh-lowest in the country for men and women, respectively.

A dominant factor contributing to these racial disparities is the type of jobs African-American Pittsburghers have. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 23% of African-Americans in Pittsburgh work in management, business, science and arts occupations, the second-lowest percentage among the top 40 census regions. Thirty-four percent of African-Americans in Pittsburgh work in service occupations, the highest percentage among major census regions.

With so many in Pittsburgh’s African-American community living at or near poverty, it is not surprising home ownership among African-Americans in the city is approximately half that of non-Hispanic white residents (33.8% vs. 59.4%). It is not surprising that limited transportation and poor health outcomes affect people of color in Pittsburgh. It is not surprising that we have substantially higher death rates than white residents and the mortality rate for infants born to African-American mothers in Allegheny County was 15.1 per 1000 in 2012, nearly three times the rate for whites and 30% higher than the already high national average for African-Americans.

To get to the roots of inequality, we need to talk about who exploits and discriminates against black women. Who fires them when they are late three times because the bus doesn’t come? Who sends them to anger management classes when they push back on racist managers? Who commits unfair labor practices when they try to organize? Reports like the “Pittsburgh’s Inequality Across Gender and Race” acknowledge that we need to talk about employment, but they stop short of examining the record or naming names.

Instead, we cheer partnerships with these institutions and hail them as saviors. Instead of pointing out the ways in which powerful institutions keep us down, we invite them to tell us what to do. The city paid the University of Pittsburgh $45,000 to repeat what black women have been saying for centuries — and then look away when that same university fights to stop low-wage adjuncts from forming their union. We celebrate UPMC’s diversity and inclusion program as if it doesn’t pay poverty wages to thousands of women and black people who keep their hospitals clean and their patients fed.

It’s time for our city to put its money where its mouth is. It’s time for local employers — particularly our tax-exempt institutions — to pay black women fairly and respect our rights. We’re tired of trying to make a living in a city that puts tremendous and often insurmountable barriers in front of us. We’re tired of reading about the problems that exist for us while knowing that there’s no will to work toward a real solution.

If the city is truly invested in improving conditions for black women in this region, it would find ways to challenge employers and developers who pay us poverty wages, put us in debt, run us out of our neighborhoods — and then profess their commitment to equity. But as always, black women will be here to save the day and to make the city live up to its proclaimed title of most livable.

Olivia Bennett is Allegheny County Councilwoman-elect for District 13.

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