Episode 2: Roots

0:00 / 37:22
August 11, 2020

Center for American Progress researcher Jocelyn Frye reflects on how the gender pay gap and gender pay discrimination persists today—and its historic roots, from slavery to segregation.

In The Gap was created with the support of the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting and In These Times magazine. Contact the show at podcast@inthesetimes.com.



CHANDRA THOMAS WHITFIELD, HOST: Welcome to In The Gap, a podcast about how and why Black women aren’t getting their green. Yes, I’m talking about money. I’m your host, journalist Chandra Thomas Whitfield. Today, we start, well, from the beginning: history.


[FROM RECORDING] JOCELYN FRYE: As Black women’s bodies were viewed as merchandise, and they were used to produce more merchandise. They were mistreated. They were subjected to terrifying sexual exploitation solely for the purpose of producing more children that also would be born into servitude. And even though that history is long behind us, the stain of that experience continues to live with us.


WHITFIELD: That’s our guest today, researcher Dr. Jocelyn Frye from the Washington D.C.-based think tank The Center for American Progress. She is going to help us dig into the roots of the gender pay gap and its ongoing impact on the lives of Black women in America.

So let’s face it. Economic and employment opportunity has always centered around race and gender from day one. For many Black women in the labor force, that has meant battling the double whammy of managing the challenges that come with being both Black and a woman in America—something that Black feminist scholar Moya Bailey refers to as “misogynoir.”

Many experts assert that since the era of slavery, the dominant view is that Black women should be laborers, not power brokers or decision-makers, but moneymakers—our Black bodies serving the primary purpose of generating profit for others and birthing more Black laborers. So both during and well after slavery, Black women have most often been pushed into caretaking and service jobs. And that’s a trend that persists. In fact, today nearly a third of Black women work in the service sector, especially jobs like child daycare, hotel housekeeping and home health aides. And that’s compared to just one eighth of white men. This is the kind of work that requires a lot of responsibility, but offers very little in terms of pay.

Dr. Frye, our guest today, is among many scholars who assert that history matters. She says that the pay discrimination that Black women face in the workforce today is merely an extension of longstanding racist and sexist belief that have long been held in this country.

Welcome to In The Gap, Dr. Frye.


FRYE: Well, thank you so much for having me. It’s great to be here.

WHITFIELD: You know, the research—you know what the research says, and quite frankly, the statistics are pretty sobering. They suggest that Black women have always had to work to help ensure the economic stability of this country and their families even while facing ongoing discrimination.

For example, Black women have always had the highest levels of labor market participation of any group of women, regardless of age, marital status or presence of young children at home. Black women continue to be disproportionately represented in service jobs and low-wage domestic jobs that involve cooking, cleaning and caregiving, yet simultaneously we’re often devalued as mothers and wives in American society.

So you fast forward to current day, and despite notable advancements in educational attainment and entrepreneurship, the numbers show that Black women are earning on average about 61 cents for every dollar earned by white men, adding up to an estimated average lifetime earnings gap between Black women and white men of close to $950,000, and you say this all has direct ties to the days of enslavement. Please explain that.


FRYE: You touched on it a little bit at the beginning, which is that we can’t talk about Black women’s experiences in the workplace without understanding first how we view work and how we view the work of Black women. And I think the reality is that we think about work differently, whether it’s work being performed by men or women or people of color or Black women or Latinas or so forth.

And if you look historically, we have treated what we call work differently. We viewed it differently depending on who’s performing it. So when, you know, when we go back, historically men were perceived as doing quote-unquote “the real work.” Women were in the home and certainly doing work and hard work, but it wasn’t viewed as quote-unquote “work” in the same way. It was devalued. It was what women were supposed to be doing. And Black women were really caught in the intersection of that because on the one hand, they certainly were not perceived of as doing the same work as white men.

However, there was a view that Black women, coming out of our history of slavery, were quote-unquote “best-suited” to basically be doing work for white families. They were always viewed as being in service of the status quo that was a prevailing white majority. They were devalued in terms of how people perceived them vis-à-vis white women. White women were put up on a pedestal to be revered, but at the same time, they were certainly not respected as doing real work that was compensated to the same level as white men. So that has its roots in how we have viewed women and people of color, and Black women stand at that intersection—that intersection of racism and sexism that is very much embedded in our history as a nation.

And that history is relevant. It’s relevant in terms of how we view them today, but it certainly is relevant when you think about the trajectory of work for Black women because they were always expected to work, right? This was never an instance where they said sit at home and quote-unquote “take care of the family.” They were expected to work and support other folks taking care of their family. And they were expected to do it for little or no wages and often in the process ignore their own personal family realities.

So that history is important because it informs how we viewed work being performed by Black women, and it informs to the sense that there continue to be biases and stereotypes about who Black women should be in the workplace


WHITFIELD: Now, OK, you’re talking a lot about the workplace, but let’s bring this back even further to slavery. What was the climate like for Black women during slavery?

FRYE: Horrific is an understatement. We all know, unfortunately, that terrible history of Black and brown bodies, but particularly Black folks being sold and bartered and brought to this country as property and not as people. So our history, the very earliest history in this country, is dependent on a view of Black people and particularly Black women not as people, not as citizens, but something less than that and really something to be owned and to be utilized for the furtherance of the rest of the community, and Black women’s bodies were viewed as merchandise. And they were used to produce more merchandise, right?

They were mistreated, they were subjected to terrifying sexual exploitation solely for the purpose of producing more children that also would be born into servitude. And even though that history is long behind us, the stain of that experience continues to live with us, in part because we have yet to fully reconcile ourselves as a nation to that reality. It’s hard to really confront the fact that you treated a group of people as something less than human beings, and you use them as objects and as property just to further your personal interests. We sort of know that intellectually, but it’s painful, right? It’s painful.

It feeds a narrative of disrespect and devaluation about who Black women were that quite frankly continues to this day. And it is a painful history, but it is a reminder. And it’s an important reminder that the Black women were not viewed as people. They were not given the same dignity and humanity. And as a result, their feelings, their autonomy was rendered invisible, and they were treated really as if their feelings, their personal goals, their desires, their families, nothing else mattered. And it’s important because as we talk about these issues today, we still have those concerns, and it’s rooted in that. And we have to be cognizant that that’s where it comes from.


WHITFIELD: How would you say this evolved over time as we got into the abolition of slavery?

FRYE: The post-Civil War era, when we have the abolition of slavery and we have a period of reconstruction—on the one hand, there were theoretically new attitudes and opportunities for Black women and Black men. But we also can’t ignore the reality that what’s in people’s heads and hearts and minds doesn’t just disappear overnight.

And so while there may have been a change with a legal framework that enslaved people, the new world still had very few opportunities for Black women. They were still primarily doing mostly domestic work. And so there was still these types of jobs that were essentially caring for other, typically white families. They were still held in less esteem, for lack of a better word, than white women, and they were still expected to work and support their families because the conditions were bad for all Black people.

You know, it wasn’t like Black women could adopt what people call a traditional family, where they would stay at home and the breadwinner, the husband, would go out and work. Black women were still working because the broader economic environment was one that required both people to work.

So the legal framework had changed to be sure, and they were not necessarily living in slavery for no compensation. The reality is that the opportunities for them were still in the lowest paying jobs, and the attitude was that of course they should work, they’re expected to work. But nobody was really paying much attention to their opportunities and their development as people and supporting their families.


WHITFIELD: Yeah, I know that was a big topic that came up when the movie “The Help” came out, and I know there was a lot of issue—some people were saying, I don’t want to see a movie about this, and why are we always shown as domestics and things? But I personally was torn about whether to see it, but when I did see it, I really thought that they did a great job of showing what you’re talking about. You’re seeing her have, Viola Davis’s character, having to teach her daughter to do all these things at home while she meanwhile was at a white family’s home, polishing silver and taking care of their baby. But meanwhile, her own family was left to fend for themselves.

FRYE: Right, right. Well, I mean, it’s the irony, and I think the reality of the experience of Black women is that they often are caught at these crossroads where we tell ourselves sort of one national narrative, but if we actually look beneath it and look at the unique experiences of Black women, we see a different story. And it’s important for us to understand that history. It is hard sometimes to watch and think about Black women who were doing mostly domestic or labor jobs, and it can be demoralizing, I suppose, at times. But I think for me, the way I look at that is that it’s also incredibly inspiring, and it shows the resilience and the perseverance of Black women who struggled in a very different way during times that for many of us are simply unimaginable, but nonetheless forged ahead in a way that brought strength and greater economic stability to not only themselves, but the community.

So I think it’s important for us to understand that history because it informs where we are now. And when we talk about things and fast-forward and talk about contemporary conversations about workplace discrimination or attitudes and stereotypes about Black women, if you don’t understand the history, then you don’t understand why the attitudes that Black women confront are different than white women and Latinas. Our history is deeply rooted in that experience of slavery and that view of Black women and Black men as something less than human to service the nation. And even though we moved beyond it, and we’ve created more opportunities, that history is still very much underneath our development and how we’ve gotten here.


WHITFIELD: Well, I’ve also read that throughout history, Black women have also routinely been excluded from many worker protections—for example, protections under the New Deal, such as minimum wage, overtime pay and collective bargaining legislation. And from what I understand, that did not initially apply to a lot of the service industries that Black women were disproportionately and continue to be represented in to this day. So what role can you tell us about government and law in perpetuating this disparity?

FRYE: Right. I think that’s an excellent point, which is that I think part of our history is that the disparities and the challenges that Black women have faced in the workforce and just in our society at times have been perpetuated by our own institutions and our government. And if you look at, for example, some of the progress that we like to lift up—for example, around over time, minimum wage—some of those protections were not available to jobs that were disproportionately performed by Black women. And perhaps the one that is most notable is some of the home-care workers were not covered by those protections.

WHITFIELD: Absolutely.


FRYE: And that disparity, that inequity was not fixed until President Obama came into office. And people often point to the fact that one of the first bills that he signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which dealt with equal pay more broadly, but the fix that was needed for Black women came later. It was related to a different Supreme Court case involving a woman named Evelyn Coke, who was a home-care worker and who was not being paid what we would call fair wages, not getting overtime and the like.

So it’s important for us to dig beneath some of those historic landmarks and recognize that for a whole set of reasons, very much rooted in our historical views of who does what work and how that work is compensated, the protections that we sometimes hold dear don’t actually cover people in the same way.

The same is true these days around minimum wage. And there’s the tipped minimum wage for tipped workers who are certainly disproportionately women and often are women of color. And they get a much lower wage than what people think of as the minimum wage. So I think it is certainly the case that one of the things that we have to be mindful of is that our history has always led to a devaluation of the work that Black women do.

WHITFIELD: Now I’m curious how this relates to white women in the workforce. I know I did read that in the ‘70s there was a large number of white women who decided to go to work and they no longer wanted to do the household duties, so they passed a lot of those duties on by hiring women of color to handle those in their household. But I know today there just seems to be a huge divide in thought between Black feminism and white feminism. How does that all play out when you think about it in the context of Black women and white women in the workforce?


FRYE: Yeah, that’s a great question. I look at it in this way: Both white women and Black women experienced enormous levels of discrimination throughout our history. The reality is that if you look back to the founding of our country, that women generally across all races had severe restrictions on whether they could own property, whether they could work in certain jobs if any and how they were treated across society. So I think as a threshold matter, it’s a false narrative to simply pit them against each other, right? When both were dealing with different forms of oppression.

That’s our history, but it is true that the way that that played itself out was certainly differently—that white women were often expected to be at home, and the opportunities for them to do anything other than that were limited and sometimes looked down upon. They were acting out of the norm. And you see this tremendous influx of white women in particular into the workforce in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, post-World War II. That is a clear trend, as after World War II, many of them had gone into work as men went off to war. That continued to happen, and you see a growth in white women’s labor force participation.

For Black women, they were already working. They were always working because of our history of slavery. They were working in different types of jobs typically because the workforce was incredibly segregated. People have to remember in the ‘50s and ‘40s and even into the ‘60s and early ‘70s, it was not uncommon to look up at job announcements and advertisements for Black women, Black men, white women, white men, right? They were incredibly segregated. So that was true.

And it is also true that in recent years, as people have tried to define the women’s movement as largely a white women’s movement, it leaves Black women and other women of color out. And it sometimes ignores the reality that racism and sexism inform the experiences of Black women. It’s not solely about their gender, right? All of that is true. And so I think for us, it should be less about whose experience is worse and who’s eclipsing somebody else. It should be much more about, we have to be cognizant of the unique experiences we bring to the table.


WHITFIELD: What about treatment? I mean, I think about the Me Too movement right now, obviously started by a Black woman. And when you look back at Black women in that regard, in terms of treatment on the job, harassment, just overt discrimination, what have you found in your research were common experiences?

FRYE: The thing that’s most important if you look back at the research and the data is that we have to be very clear about what the research really tells us. If you look at, for example, sexual harassment, people talk about the trajectory of the case law and what we know about the incidents of sexual harassment. And often what gets lost in the conversation is that many of the early cases that form the foundation for sexual harassment law were actually cases brought by Black women, and those very early landmark Supreme Court cases were cases that involve Black women.



FRYE: And it’s an important story, not simply because it’s an interesting fact, but it is a reminder that the roots of this issue have often been borne by women of color, Black women, who are living with the legacy of that history of slavery, right? A people sort of looking at them and treating them as objects to be used, to be degraded, who do not view them as full persons, right? That misuse and abuse of power to degrade women is rooted in our history, as we talked about earlier.

So it is important for us to understand that, fast-forward into the 1980s with some of those landmark sexual harassment cases, that Black women in the workforce were dealing with that legacy. And I think it is incumbent upon us to claim and reclaim the narrative that is out there. People, particularly the media, has glommed onto the celebrity of the moment who has an allegation of sexual harassment, and we ought not to diminish that or say that it’s not important, but our priority must be to say that is important, but it is reflective of a broader narrative that includes women across race, across class, across economic status and across occupation. And the same experience of the actress in L.A. is similar to the experience that the farm worker in Florida is experiencing, and the hotel maid in Chicago. And then we have to recognize the breadth and depth of the problem and understand how it manifested itself in different forms and it impacts women across race and ethnicity. We have to do that. And there’s certainly a lot that we can say about white feminists and Black feminists and to what extent white feminists acknowledge the dual oppressions faced by Black women.


But the truth of the matter is today, we also need to be able to look at the common challenges that we face. We are both living with the reality that harassment and gender-based violence continue to be problems that women experience every day. And we have to be able to see each other’s oppressions in our advocacy, right? It’s not enough to simply speak to your own experience if you are not pulling in the fact that there’s somebody out there who’s working in a field somewhere and is wearing bulky clothing ‘cuz she’s trying to hide from the person who’s in charge who may want to attack her. You have to own that, and you have to acknowledge that reality as well. And I think we all collectively have to take that responsibility. We can’t just say that’s about them and not about us. Because the truth of the matter is that as much as we talk about the broader society disrespecting Black women, we also have that issue in our own community, right? We look sometimes and we dismiss sexism, we dismiss that. We treat that as, a colleague once said, as men being naughty.

WHITFIELD: Boys will be boys, right?

FRYE: Boys will be boys. So we have to own that. We can’t just pretend like that’s just something out there. That’s something we have to confront as well and we have to push back on. And it’s hard, right? It’s hard in an environment where Black men also experience deep levels of racism and sexism and a criminal justice system that is unfair. It is hard, but we have to confront it if we’re going to deal with it.


WHITFIELD: Now you have said in your work that the dramatic pay disparities between Black women and white women is not new, speaking of history, and that closing the gap so to speak will require quote, “prioritizing reforms that specifically address the unique discrimination that Black women face at the intersection of race and gender.” I was like, whoa, that’s a lot to take in there. [Laughs] That’s why I like talking to you smart people. But describe that unique discrimination, and what are the next steps?


FRYE: One of the reasons I said that very long sentence is because oftentimes when we talk about the gender wage gap and we talk about equal pay, we mention the fact that Black women earn less and then we go on. Then we start talking about, here are the policies. My point is that, well first, OK, hold up, stop, right? Black women earn less for a reason. And so let’s unpack what that reason is. And it is rooted both in the fact that they are women, but also the fact that they are Black women, and that there is a unique experience that they bring to the table that is different from Black men and different from white women, and that we have to understand it and we need to understand what does that look like. That’s the first thing.

Then the second thing is that as we think about solutions, we have to make sure that those solutions actually are intentional about focusing on what is the impact on Black women. If we are going to talk about things like greater pay transparency and making sure that we know what employers are paying people in different types of jobs, then we need to make sure that the information that we’re getting actually gives you insight into what Black women are earning and not just women writ large. And then there are things like making sure that we can actually engage employers on understanding what’s going on in their workplace, not just for women writ large, but specifically for Black women—where are Black women in terms of hiring and moving up the career ladder? What we know is that their wages are tied to a number of things, including their ability to move out of what people would call sort of the traditional jobs that Black women have done historically and higher paying jobs. And if we’re not actually measuring that, if we’re not holding employers accountable for that, then that change won’t happen. So there are also solutions around pushing employers to do better in terms of moving folks up the ladder and evaluating to what extent that they are doing it, not simply for women, but for Black women.

There are things that we can do around stronger enforcement, around making sure that the law is working vigorously for everybody. And in doing that, are we targeting jobs and occupations that Black women are likely to be in? And is there scrutiny looking at those jobs? Are they looking at those jobs where they are less likely to be working? To me, all of those types of solutions are what we need to think about as we think about how do we close the gap.


WHITFIELD: To be honest, when you get deep into this work, which is actually what inspired me to do this podcast, it can be a little disheartening. It just feels sometimes like doom and gloom, like no hope, just everything’s against you. But we don’t want to leave it with that. You mentioned earlier resilience, the resilience. What message of hope can you leave us with—what is the hope that we can walk away with today?

FRYE: I think the hope and the inspiration is that Black women are the hardest-working people I know, and they have accomplished and continue to accomplish things that nobody has ever expected them to do. When you look back historically at where Black women have come from, the truth of the matter is nobody should have survived all that. You couldn’t have written a more horrific story, but we’re here and we are …

WHITFIELD: Oh, are you quoting “The Color Purple” on me? [Laughs]


FRYE: Really, really. And we’re thriving and surviving and succeeding despite all of these odds that should have been counted against us. And to me, that’s the hope and the inspiration, right?

Should we do better? Absolutely, we should do better. Should we create policies that create a level playing field that acknowledge the multiple oppressions that Black women experience across society? Absolutely. We have an obligation to do all those things, but the positive is that Black women have been extraordinarily successful and capable, even in spite of those terrible things, and continue to do amazing things, and that they are people who families rely on each and every day. And the truth of the matter is that not only are they succeeding for themselves, but they are the model. When people talk about the resistance and who’s leading the charge for women, it is often Black women, and it’s Black women not just for Black women, it’s Black women for all women, it’s Black women for society.

Black women have been able to do extraordinary things, and people are finally waking up to that and seeing that. We should be proud of it, we should celebrate it and we should have confidence that it will continue. And I think if you bring all of that to the table, if you take inspiration from the strength of Black women in spite of enormous odds, then it enables you to not only do the work today, but it enables you to do the work enthusiastically and positively.

I would never count a Black woman out of anything. I have the utmost confidence in Black women’s ability to do better, to be better, to get paid better, because I know what they’ve done before.


WHITFIELD: Absolutely. Well, I have to say, you took the challenge. I actually have a tear in my eye. I’m kind of holding it together.

But no, it is good sometimes just to hear a message of hope, and I do a lot of mentoring personally, and I see the attacks, and I see a lot of discouragement among the young Black women that I do mentor. And I always tell them, go look at history, go look at what these women have accomplished because that’s really all you have, and I said, and they had far less, far less the opportunity and resources than you have today. So you just have to press on.

Man, I have chills. [Laughs] Well, thank you so much, Jocelyn Frye, for joining us today.



WHITFIELD: Again, that was Dr. Jocelyn Frye, a senior fellow overseeing the policy development for the Women’s Initiative for the Center for American Progress, which is a progressive think tank based in Washington D.C.

Her words, to me, they are just a testament of the longstanding belief that those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. Slavery and discrimination are definitely moments in history that we do not want to relive. We want to move forward. So we thank Dr. Frye for just giving us that insight.

Today’s show was hosted and produced by me, journalist Chandra Thomas Whitfield, and edited by House of Pod. Our music is “Convoy Lines” by Blue Dot Sessions. In The Gap was created with the support of the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting and In These Times magazine, which has been covering issues of equity in social justice since 1976. To learn more about the In The Gap podcast and the pay gap for Black women, go to www.inthesetimes.com/inthegap.