Settling Gender Discrimination Class Actions (Part II)

It may not seem credible that gender discrimination remains widespread and systemic in American workplaces. Women outnumber men in colleges and graduate programs; they have entered the workforce in force; women run some companies, universities, states, and departments of the federal government.

Despite all this progress, though, discrimination persists. Women are only 17% of Congress members. Women head a mere 2.6% of Fortune 500 companies. In other words, men still overwhelmingly control our most powerful political institutions and our economy.

The familiar glass ceiling argument could explain this striking disparity: women can rise up through the ranks professionally, but at some point they hit the glass ceiling and cannot go any higher. If that were the only problem, it might explain why women are so conspicuously absent from the powerful positions listed above. But the gender disparities start well below the highest levels of power.

A striking pattern emerges from statistics analyzing the numbers of women at various levels in financial services companies (which I’ve become familiar with from representing so many women in discrimination cases against them). At the entry level, there can be as many female as male employees. At the next level up, women make up a smaller percentage of employees. At the next level, even fewer of the workers are women. And on it goes, until you reach the near complete absence of women from the position of CEO. Graphically, the numbers describe a pyramid: with every promotion the percentage of women shrinks.

Social scientists like
William Bielby of the University of Illinois at Chicago
and Barbara Reskin of the University of Washington
have studied this phenomenon and traced it to its roots: unconscious bias that affects subjective decision-making.

Even the most fair-minded people are subject to unconscious biases. The Implicit Association Test is one of many studies to demonstrate that people can have strong preferences and antipathies they may not be aware of. Even people who consider themselves very fair-minded can be unconsciously prejudiced against minorities, for example. To give a very rough summary of part of the underlying theory, people tend to think in terms of “in groups” and “out groups.” My “in group” is the group of people who are like me in salient ways such as gender, race, religion, age, educational background, profession, family status, etc. I tend to attribute more positive characteristics to members of the in group and more negative characteristics to members of the out group, who are unlike me. For instance, as a native Midwesterner, I may unconsciously prefer fellow Midwesterners to people from other parts of the country, although if you ask me whether I think Midwesterners are better than other Americans in any way, I will honestly answer that I don’t. The bias is unconscious.

Unconscious biases operate in the workplace as they do in every other sphere of human interaction, with the result that the groups in power tend to stay in power. Male managers may subconsciously believe that other men are more capable than women, outperform women, or are more committed to their work than women. Again, these beliefs can be subconscious, but they still affect decision-making. When it comes to a subjective decision such as who deserves a promotion, a male manager with an unconscious bias in favor of men is more likely to promote a man than a woman. The same is true of granting raises, distributing assignments, and making opportunities like management training available. This is how unconscious bias can combine with subjective decision-making to favor men (and other groups like whites) and to create the pyramid that leaves women at the lower corporate levels while disproportionately men climb to power.

There are other factors at work here too. People tend not only to think more highly of members of their in group, but to be more comfortable with them. As a result, a male manager may invite some employees to a golf outing or to dinner – nothing formal, just being a down-to-earth supervisor. He invites the employees with whom he feels most comfortable or thinks he has the most in common. A slew of scientific studies demonstrate that he is likely to feel most comfortable with the employees who belong to his in group – in this case, men. As a result, he gets to know his male subordinates better and become friends with them. When plum assignments or opportunities for promotion arise, the manager is more likely to dole them out to the subordinates he is more comfortable working with and is friends with.

Unconscious bias is difficult if not impossible to change. Researchers including Frank Dobbin of Harvard University have shown that common techniques for combating prejudice, such as diversity training, not only do not help – they actually backfire.

The way to tackle workplace discrimination is not to try to change people’s unconscious thoughts, but to make decision-making processes less subjective and therefore less vulnerable to unconscious bias. Action must come from the top of the organization: an employer that provides clear, objective criteria to guide otherwise subjective decisions, and that enforces the use of those criteria, will make the workplace less discriminatory by diminishing the opportunity for decision-makers’ unconscious biases to affect their judgment.

The settlement of the gender discrimination class action against Novartis discussed in the first part of this post takes a stab at making these kinds of changes. It requires Novartis to clarify and systematize the criteria for evaluating employees, to train managers to evaluate employees fairly, and to “calibrate” evaluations to check that evaluators are applying performance criteria in a uniform manner.

Where bias is conscious and discrimination is intentional, decision-makers will find ways around objective criteria for decision-making. Conscious prejudice presents an entirely different set of challenges than unconscious bias. But I’d like to believe that a lot of workplace discrimination results from unconscious bias and that employers will improve their procedures to protect decision-making processes from that bias. Some employers have already done so, albeit usually under court order (demonstrating the need for more discrimination class actions). Employer initiatives to make subjective decision-making more objective will help end workplace discrimination. Please post a comment to share your workplace experience.

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Settling Gender Discrimination Class Actions (Part I)

Eight- or nine-figure settlements of gender discrimination class action lawsuits regularly make news. It seems like discrimination this pervasive – essentially, discrimination as corporate policy – should be a relic of the Mad Men past. To the contrary, in countless companies and even entire industries, discrimination against women is business as usual. The latest example is Novartis, a pharmaceutical company, which settled a gender discrimination class action for up to $175 million last week. (Note that the first legal step in this case was taken seven years ago – keep that in mind before you run out to sue your boss.)

As a lawyer, I spent several years bringing and settling discrimination lawsuits against large employers. I talked with female employees who told similar stories of discrimination derailing their careers and sometimes even damaging their health. I learned that it will take an awful lot to eradicate gender discrimination against women at work.

Company-wide discrimination looks pretty much the same no matter the employer’s industry, region, or public image. Managers deny women opportunities for management training. They deny women in sales the best accounts and territories. When a woman succeeds in building up a previously lackluster account, management takes it away and gives it to a man. Managers exclude women from networking opportunities, management training, and promotions. They deny their female employees awards and recognition that they have earned. Managers penalize women who take legally-mandated leave to give birth or to bond with an adopted child. Offending companies pay men more than their female peers.

Then there is sexual harassment, which can include public humiliation, wildly inappropriate comments, even more wildly inappropriate touching, sexual propositions, public discussions among male employees and managers about their female colleagues’ and clients’ physical appearances or sexual proclivities, you name it. I know of a male manager instructing a female subordinate to unbutton her blouse more before meeting with a male client to increase her chances of making a sale. I know of a male manager raping a female subordinate. And everything in between.

Woe betide the woman who dares to complain about discrimination to Human Resources or to the government agencies responsible for enforcing anti-discrimination laws. The traditional next step is for the company to retaliate against her – never mind that retaliating against someone who complains about employment discrimination violates federal law. Retaliation means not only more of the same for the complaining employee, but worse. A manager who had not been in the habit of humiliating women in front of male colleagues and clients will take it up as a new hobby. Any raises, bonuses, promotions, training opportunities, etc. that management had promised to the woman vanish, never to reappear.

The Novartis complaint includes the detailed allegations of Novartis’s discrimination against 22 women. Combined, their stories cover pretty much all of these bases. One recurring theme is the utter pointlessness of complaining through official channels about discrimination or retaliation. Woman after woman reports that she submitted a complaint to Human Resources, and Human Resources ignored it.

This is not surprising. Human resources originated as a corporate response to the labor movement: companies discouraged employees from organizing unions by offering them newfangled personnel management or human resources departments to address their needs, assuring workers that their employers would take better care of them than unions would. From the beginning human resources was corporate CYA, tasked primarily with protecting the company from threats including unions and legal liability, and only secondarily (if at all) with helping employees. Some companies have moved past that history and created human resource departments that actually support employees, but that is far from the norm.

The Novartis settlement agreement, like many other class action discrimination settlements, focuses on reforming human resources and the complaint process so that it works for employees and not against them. The settlement agreement devotes page after page to detailing the coming reforms.

If all goes according to plan these reforms will be a welcome improvement for Novartis’s women, even if they are only partially successful. Theoretically they will serve three goals: (1) ending ongoing discrimination against individuals who file complaints (“complainants”); (2) preventing retaliation against individual complainants; and (3) deterring discrimination at Novartis. These are all ambitious goals, and perhaps not entirely reachable, but the most implausible is the second. Imagine the scenario: a woman files a complaint with her employer about her male supervisor’s discriminatory behavior. Human resources can warn him not to retaliate; his own bosses can warn him not to retaliate; the company’s lawyers can warn him that retaliation is illegal; but still, realistically, he will retaliate. Maybe he will be smart and it will be subtle. He won’t pal around with the complainant. His performance evaluation of her will be less than stellar. When he has the opportunity to promote somebody, if there is someone else with credentials reasonably similar to hers, guess who will get the promotion. And all this is the best case scenario. A less smart, less subtle supervisor will make the woman’s work life a living hell.

Reforming the human resources department at a company rife with gender discrimination is both necessary and laudable, but it is not sufficient (nor is it all the Novartis settlement agreement provides for – that document is 68 pages long). Ending discrimination can only happen before discrimination starts. Stay tuned for the details in Part II.

Burqas: A Civil Right, Patriarchal Oppression, Liberating Refuge?

France is well on its way to banning burqas. Leftists generally consider this a Very Bad Thing, both because it discriminates against Muslims and because it would restrict civil liberties. Some feminists argue to the contrary that burqas are a tool of patriarchal oppression and France would be liberating Muslim women from a sexist practice by banning them. I see merit in both of these arguments, though the second requires some elaboration (more on that below). I also have a primitive gut reaction: burqas are creepy.

You already know this, but burqas are those head-to-toe black shrouds that cover everything but a woman’s eyes. They look hot and confining, and undoubtedly impair peripheral vision.

So here’s the creepy part: burqas cover the wearer’s face. Masks provide anonymity and thus, ironically, lend people who wear them a limited measure of freedom to act without consequences. This is why bank robbers wear masks or those stupid-looking nylon things on their heads. Spiderman, Zorro, the Lone Ranger – fictional or not, all wore masks to evade the consequences of their actions. I’m not suggesting that women are wearing burqas to facilitate crime sprees or to become vigilante superheroes, just that masks can make other people nervous, and for good reason: the wearers can see you, but you can’t see them. Something primitive inside me finds that threatening, while at the same time I feel bad for the women confined in what looks like some very unpleasant attire.

Back to the ideology and symbolism: when I see women wearing burqas I recoil at what appears to be extreme control of women by men, as feminists argue. (Full disclosure: I am a card-carrying feminist, which is no surprise to those of you who have read some of my other posts, e.g. Women: What Is So Bad About Your Names? or Fashion Industry vs. Women.) But many women who wear burqas say that they freely chose to do so, which brings us to the controversial topic of false consciousness. False consciousness occurs when (in this case) women “believe they know what’s going on, but they really don’t, and [therefore they] do things to support the…very system that oppresses them…without” intending to. From where I sit, choosing to wear a burqa looks like a classic example of false consciousness: women choose to wear an uncomfortable and unwieldy uniform for religious reasons, when really the burqa is not required by the Quran and serves the primary purpose of marking women as sinful objects who can lure men into profane behavior, while also making women’s lives more difficult. (Of course, the women who choose to wear burqas would argue that I am the one who does not know what is going on.)

Women choose to wear burqas for many reasons, among them that they feel freer when they wear a burqa because men do not stare at them or treat them as sex objects. That means that the problem is not the burqa itself, but the way some men think of women solely as sex objects whose most salient characteristic is their ability to distract men or seduce them into wrongdoing. Ultra-Orthodox Judaism provides another example of this phenomenon: men in that culture are not supposed to hear a woman singing, much less see a woman while praying, lest she distract them from their concentration on holiness. The implication is either that it does not matter if men distract women because women’s prayers are insignificant, or that women have no sexual drive and are not distracted by sexual desire – or both. (The complete disregard of homosexuality’s existence pretty much goes without saying when you’re dealing with this extreme level of religious observance.)

The religious discrimination arguments against banning burqas are sympathetic: singling out a religion for discrimination is a very, very dangerous slope to start down. But I’m not that concerned with protecting the right of a culture to swath its women head-to-toe in black, the same way I don’t respect the right of a culture to mutilate the genitals of its female children. Perhaps I appear naïve in saying that it is okay to discriminate against a religion in one way (banning burqas) but not in another (say, closing mosques), and expecting government to stay within those lines. In fact, I don’t expect government to stay within those lines. I do expect myself and others to exert all possible pressure on any government that goes beyond those lines. One step down a slippery slope does not guarantee a slide to the bottom when the public stands up to its government.

In the end, ironically, I come down against banning burqas for feminist reasons. A ban will do nothing to change the underlying religious and societal beliefs that force women to wear burqas or make burqas their most appealing option. I can’t say I know how to change those beliefs, but I do know that the primary impetus for change will have to come from Muslims themselves, not from the French government. The more a secular government tries to impose this ban from outside the religion, the more Muslims will resist it. By banning burqas, France would likely make them even more popular, and as a result could even reinforce the patriarchal oppression that created burqas in the first place.

How Oil Kills Birds

The news from the Gulf of Mexico about oil killing countless birds is heartbreaking, but to me it has been a little obscure: I don’t understand how oil kills birds.  So I did some research, and here are the maudlin details.

Birds’ feathers keep them alive.  Each feather is precisely positioned to create a water-tight, air-tight bodysuit that maintains a bird’s body temperature in cold or hot water.  When birds preen, they are carefully repositioning each feather.  Another reason birds preen is to spread the natural body oil their glands secrete to condition and waterproof their feathers.  (Washing oiled birds removes this beneficial body oil, but the birds will produce more as long as their glands have not been damaged.)  Preening is so important that if forced to choose, a bird will preen rather than eat.

Oil coats and separates birds’ feathers so they cannot lay properly against each other, leaving the bird vulnerable to heat and cold.  Oiled birds preen in a doomed effort to remove the oil from their feathers, while in the process they ingest oil which poisons them.

Oil can cause hypothermia or hyperthermia, dehydration, and starvation in birds whose feathers cannot protect them, who spend more time preening than eating, and who ingest oil both when they eat and when they preen.  Oil can also make a bird too heavy to fly. 

There is some debate over whether bird rescuers who clean, rehabilitate, and release oiled birds are making any difference.  Some scientists say that nearly all of the rehabilitated birds, once released into new habitats, die quickly, and that it would be more merciful to euthanize them upon capture.  Others argue that rehabilitation is effective.  It seems that most agree that in the case of at least one species, the brown pelican, rehabilitation is worth trying because without it the species is almost certain to become extinct.  After close to 40 years on the endangered species list, the brown pelican was delisted only last year.

Understanding the mechanics behind the tragedy only makes it sadder as it becomes easier to imagine the birds’ suffering and clearer that perhaps there is little we can do to help.  Still, I can’t give up on the birds who need help today.  But for the long term the most effective action is to prevent future tragedies by continuing the effort, so familiar it is almost trite, to reduce our dependence on oil.  So turn off your computer, your speakers, and your monitor (or just your laptop) when you’re done – it may save a bird some day.

iWidow

I have lost my husband to Steve Jobs.  My husband Aviv is an IT professional, which, as far as I can gather, means that he writes some software code, and sometimes opens up computers and messes with their innards, and spends a lot of time on the phone with colleagues and clients using acronyms I don’t understand.  (I can always tell when he has finished a sentence though: they all end in “man.”) 

Steve first entered our lives in late 2007 when Aviv’s boss presented everyone with iPod Touches.  This was entirely engrossing to Aviv, what with the configuring and the downloading and the changing of earphones.  The iPod Touch was followed by an iPhone 3G, which of course required hours and hours of attention itself.  This year we have a double whammy: the iPhone 4 and the iPad all at once.  I speak to Aviv now and he doesn’t even hear me.  It’s not just that he doesn’t listen; he literally doesn’t hear. 

I blame Aviv’s boss.  Yes, it is Steve Jobs who claimed him, but his boss who introduced the two.  Aviv is addicted to the iToys, but his boss is his pusher. 

The iPad sits on our living room coffee table in front of the TV, so that while I watch a movie, Aviv can do whatever it is that people use the iPad for. (I’m still not entirely sure what the purpose of this new doohickey is – it’s a laptop with no keyboard?  What’s the point?  Great, it’s small – so is my netbook which fits in my purse, keyboard and all.)  The new iPhone hasn’t left his hands since he took it out of the box, and I exaggerate only slightly here.  First we had the cataloging of its faults: it’s not as rounded as the 3G and therefore not as comfortable in his hand, plus what if it doesn’t fit in the iPhone holder he wears when he bikes?  Why are there so few wallpaper choices?  Why did the phone receive only one of two calls he placed to it?  Where is the visual voicemail?  Oh – there it is, never mind.  (The fault was with my home office, which seems to be lined with kryptonite and gets no cell reception ever.)  Then we had the celebration of its advantages: you can put the icons in folders!  It is so fast!  Etc.  I think he’s running out of ways to play with it, because after tapping away on it for a bit, he just reported to me the balance in his bank account.  He has already set it up to beep when he gets an email from work. 

It could be worse.  I’m not a golf widow or a sports widow, so he doesn’t leave the house or make lots of noise when he plays with the toys.  But it is a little annoying that wherever we go, his pocket keeps beeping.  I blame his boss for that too.

A New Side to Work Anxiety

American workers have few rights in the workplace, and those afflicted with mental health disorders are among the most vulnerable.  Any worker can be fired, demoted, transferred, etc. at any time for just about any reason.  There are very few areas of refuge: employers can’t discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age, and disability (on the federal level – some states and cities have additional protections, including marital status, sexual orientation, and others).  Mental disorders can qualify as disabilities, but workers who suffer from them often miss out on the legal protections available to them. 

Approximately 57.7 million American adults experience a mental health disorder, from a single bout with depression to schizophrenia, in any given year.  http://www.nami.org/Content/NavigationMenu/Inform_Yourself/About_Mental_Illness/About_Mental_Illness.htm.  That is about one in every four adults.  Not every one of these individuals is too disabled to work, and many of them need only a temporary leave.  But for many reasons these workers do not get that accommodation.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability and requires reasonable accommodations of disabled employees, and the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires some employers to provide some employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave if it is medically necessary.  The FMLA applies only to employers with 50 or more employees (the ADA applies to employers with 15 or more employees), and only to employees who have worked for that employer for at least a year and worked at least 1,250 hours during the year before the leave. 

A recent decision by the federal Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held that an employer did not violate the ADA or FMLA when it invited an employee with an anxiety disorder to resign with two weeks of severance pay rather than granting him medical leave or a reasonable accommodation.  (The case is called Kobus v. College of St. Scholastica, Inc.: http://www.ca8.uscourts.gov/opndir/10/06/091583P.pdf).  The employee made two big mistakes, according to the court: first, he did not inform his employer that he had a disability or a medical condition that required leave; second, he did not request a leave. 

On the surface those sound like good reasons: it isn’t reasonable to expect an employer to provide leave or another accommodation to an employee that it doesn’t know is ill, or to provide leave to an employee who doesn’t ask for it.  But if you dig a little deeper this case reveals how the laws protecting ill and disabled workers let people with mental disorders fall through the cracks.

First, is it really any surprise that an employee wouldn’t tell his employer that he was suffering from a mental disorder?  There is an enormous stigma in this country (at least outside of Manhattan) to admitting that one is seeing a therapist or is on psychotropic medication.  Often people don’t tell their family or close friends these things.  There is even less reason for them to risk the repercussions of telling their employers, who might question their ability to do their jobs or even demote or fire them rather than keep a “crazy” person around.  The employee in this case testified that he didn’t tell his employer that he was taking medication because he “wasn’t real proud of that fact.”

But the employee did tell his employer about his illness.  After he was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and prescribed Paxil, he “began” (suggesting he did it more than once) telling his supervisor that he was suffering from anxiety and stress.  In the recent past the poor guy had endured “the illness and death of [his] mother after an apparent medical mistake; the serious illness of his brother; his ex-wife’s cancer diagnosis; and news that his son had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had subsequently dropped out of college.”  Despite all this, the court focused on the fact that he did not tell his employer that he was taking medication for his condition or that he was depressed.  In contrast the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is the federal agency responsible for enforcing the ADA, recommends that “an employee’s request for time off because he is ‘depressed and stressed’” should be “sufficient to put the employer on notice that the employee is requesting reasonable accommodation,” which could include a leave of absence.  My guess is that “anxious and stressed,” which is what the employee in this case told his supervisor, would be sufficient for the EEOC, meaning that the employer did know that the employee was ill.  But the federal appeals court can choose to ignore the EEOC’s recommendation, and so it did.

Second, the employee did request a leave, specifically a “mental health leave.”  But he had no vacation or sick leave available, which illustrates an important gap in the laws: employers are not required to provide paid vacation or paid sick leave (although in this case he may have just used all his leave).  Even for salaried employees, an employer can choose not to provide any paid leave at all.  On top of that, the 12 weeks of FMLA leave (assuming one is even eligible for them) are unpaid.  And, the FMLA allows employers to require an employee to provide a doctor’s certification that they are ill and cannot work, but seeing a doctor requires health insurance (in this case, the employee said that he did not have a doctor and therefore could not meet the requirements for FMLA leave), cash, or both.  A sick employee who should take a leave but can’t afford to forego the income might rationally choose not to request a leave.  That doesn’t mean the employer should lose a lawsuit because the employee didn’t request leave.  It means that the laws need to change so that people don’t have to choose between their health and four weeks of pay plus the cost of a doctor’s visit. 

The disabled (whether through a physical or mental disorder) are among the populations least able to absorb that loss of income.  32% of disabled adults fall below the poverty line.  http://www.spotlightonpoverty.org/ExclusiveCommentary.aspx?id=0e1ca1a2-e921-4349-866b-273a2216c664.  But people with mental disorders may be the worst off financially.  People “in the lowest socioeconomic strata are about two and a half times more likely than those in the highest strata to have a mental disorder.” http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/mentalhealth/chapter2/sec8.html#introduction, Those disorders are serious: approximately 80% of people with depression find that it interferes with their ability to work.  http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db07.pdf

Workers need more protections in the workplace, and the most vulnerable need them most of all.  For that to happen, we must change the laws.  Individuals with mental disorders need more acceptance in society so they can ask for what they need and exercise their rights.  For that to happen, we must change our minds.  Visit www.nami.org for more information.

The Black Woman In My Closet

I just read The Help by Kathryn Stockett, a book about relationships between white women and their black domestic “help” in 1950’s Mississippi.  http://www.kathrynstockett.com/.  The book is an excellent read, thought-provoking and compelling.  I was appalled anew by the casual injustices, the ignorance, the segregation, and the day-to-day racism prevalent in that culture.   And then I discovered that the black woman who cleans my apartment eats her lunch in my coat closet.

In The Help, the black employees don’t sit down to eat with their employers in order to preserve the social hierarchy and avoid creating even the illusion of equality or friendship.  They don’t use the same bathrooms, ostensibly because of white fear of contamination from black cooties, but also as one more means of reinforcing the message that blacks are inferior servants in whites’ homes.  At first the book reads like a missive from a long-ago though still poignant time, a shameful history that thousands and thousands of people have worked hard to put behind us.   But it’s closer than we like to think.

Nearly every person who has ever been paid to clean my home, starting from my childhood, was a black woman (the others were immigrant women).  Right now I use a service that sends Amanda (not her real name) to my apartment every other week to spend a day cleaning my bathtub, emptying my garbage, changing the sheets on my bed.  My white guilt has kept me uncomfortable with the relationship and its reminder of Jim Crow and “domestics” who tended to white women’s houses all day.  But I treat her with dignity and pay her well, and since I was always away at work when she was at my apartment, I wasn’t often confronted with the unpleasantly familiar dynamic.

Now I work from home, which is how I found Amanda eating her lunch in the coat closet.  Feeling a little sick to my stomach, I asked her if she wouldn’t prefer to eat at the dining room table.  She said she wouldn’t because she just cleaned it and she didn’t want to dirty it up again.  I told her she could eat at the desk, on the couch, anywhere she was comfortable, but I have a bad feeling that she is most comfortable in that closet with the door closed, where she doesn’t have to confront us and vice versa. 

My employment relationship with Amanda is a common one in my neighborhood.  On a weekday there are gobs of strollers on the sidewalks carrying white children pushed by dark-skinned women.  Many of them likely have their own children whom they have left alone or in the care of a family member or friend so they could get paid to watch white people’s children.  The sheer number of these mismatched stroller duos is unsettling.

It’s no big news that although we have a black president, racism and economic inequalities persist.  It’s another thing to realize that each of us contributes to them.  I don’t know what to do about it on an individual level: it won’t help anybody for me not to employ Amanda or for my neighbors to fire their black or Hispanic nannies.  But as long as these economic relationships continue, the ghosts of Jim Crow walk among us.  They bring new meaning to the phrase “service economy”: the less privileged serve the more privileged and the colors of each remind us that poverty disproportionately afflicts minorities, while whites monopolize the best-paying jobs. 

The persistence of these patterns is disturbing, but it helps to remember that they are patterns and not universal rules – many blacks are successful professionals.  Nevertheless, blacks are still clustered on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder.

When Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, he was turning his focus from civil rights to economic rights, particularly the Poor People’s Campaign.  He was in Memphis to boost the sanitation workers’ strike and to raise awareness of the link between racial oppression and economic oppression, about the impossibility of eradicating one while the other remained.  Our failure to recognize or act on that truth is the reason blacks remain disproportionately poor. 

The next step is to pick up where Dr. King left off and fight for economic justice.  Get it on the national radar, remember it in the voting booths.  The minimum wage is nowhere near a living wage, not even half of it, so many people are struggling to hold down two minimum-wage jobs in a doomed effort to support their families.  The jobs in which minorities are concentrated, like childcare, tend to pay less than living wages and thus perpetuate black poverty and the old racial relationships without the need for anything as overt as Jim Crow laws and separate bathrooms.  It is time for Americans to ease up on the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mythology and accept the reality that it takes a whole society to eradicate poverty.  And if that is what we really want, we can do it.