I first realized the roadblocks to professional and economic success that Black girls like me face on my first day of middle school.
I had switched from a school that was three blocks away to one that was a 15-minute bus ride from my house. Students were given Metrocards to cover the ride, but on the first day of school, I was told that my card would be “half-fare” because I lived nearby. When I told my immigrant mother that I only got a half-fare card and that she would have to pay an extra $3 every day to get me to and from school, she would not have it.
She sat me down, told me to take out a piece of paper from my bag, then proceeded to guide me through writing a letter to my principal’s office. In the letter, she let the school’s administrators know that she could not afford to pay an extra $15 every week for an education that was supposed to be free. She ended the letter by politely telling them that “they better not make her come up there.”
I always knew, for the most part, that my family was working class, but this was the first time I realized that a lack of money could keep me from something important—something that could significantly impact the rest of my life.
Black Women’s Equal Pay Day was last September, but one day is not enough time to do all the work needed to establish pay equity for Black people. This year and in the years to come, we must address the various ways that misogynoir and discriminatory policies strip Black girls and gender-expansive young people of opportunities to earn equal pay and thrive. Black youth first encounter such policies in their schools—the very places that should be helping them to realize their potential.
School Pushout Aids Pay Inequity
Black women’s lifelong journey for equal pay starts on their first day of school. Bright-eyed and ready to learn, Black girls walk into school sporting cornrows and box braids adorned with tiny colorful beads that speak to what should be a care-free, innocent period of their lives. However, early in elementary school, Black girls begin to experience racialized and gendered discrimination, silencing, and gaslighting, leading them down school-to-confinement pathways, also known as school pushout.
Zero tolerance policies sit at the top of the pyramid of the myriad ways that Black girls are disproportionately targeted and harmed at school. Thanks to these policies, a simple disagreement or fight can turn a student into a “juvenile delinquent,” ensnarling the student in the criminal legal system and limiting their educational progress. Across this country, Black girls are more likely to be expelled, suspended, or referred to law enforcement, and they are arrested on school campuses at rates that exceed their overall enrollment in schools and at far higher rates than their white counterparts. The destructive consequences of these suspensions and expulsions follow Black girls throughout their schooling and beyond.
Indeed, zero tolerance policies systemically push vulnerable Black girls and gender-expansive youth out of schools and into prison and legal systems. In turn, involvement in the criminal legal system leaves Black girls susceptible to low-wage work, sex- and gender-based violence, economic hardship, and much more.
Moreover, when Black girls are denied a full education due to pervasive, intersecting racial and gendered biases that burden these girls with negative stereotypes—such as “having attitudes,” being as a threat due to “adultification,” or being sexually deviant or hypersexualized—they are more likely to suffer from other forms of violence. For some, devastating school experiences lead to the pursuit of endeavors that meet Black women’s immediate monetary needs or make them feel safer. While such endeavors may involve consensual sex work, they can also include survival sex work and may make Black women targets for sex trafficking and gender-based violence.
All this adds up to “school-to-confinement pathways” that push Black girls out of their schools and childhoods, setting Black women up to work jobs that do not pay a living wage and for which they are paid significantly less than their white, non-Latinx male and female counterparts.
Higher Education Doesn’t Solve Poverty
Black women make up only 15 percent of students enrolled in higher education, yet Black women who do earn higher degrees are among the most educated group of people in America. But despite our best efforts to prove that working more or harder will get us ahead, this has never been the case for Black women.
Upon entering the traditional workforce, Black women face a wage gap that persists across all industries and levels of educational achievement; they earn only 63 cents for every dollar earned by their white, non-Latinx male counterparts and must work an additional 214 days to earn total wages equivalent to such men’s earnings. And thanks to this country’s lack of affordable childcare, which limits childrearing women’s career options and inhibits their earning potential, Black mothers earn only 52 cents on the dollar. Young Black women are pushed out of schools and into paycheck-to-paycheck jobs—and because the pay from one job doesn’t make ends meet, they are forced to work multiple jobs. Unfortunately, this cycle has repeated for generations.
As Melissa Harris-Perry noted in a speech delivered before the Congressional Caucus for Black Women and Girls in 2016, Black women already work more than any other group of women while reaping fewer economic benefits. Harris-Perry cites a 2015 report from the National Partnership for Women and Families to emphasize this point: one in four Black women live in poverty, a rate two-and-a-half times that of white women. As the report says, “In spite of consistently leading all women in labor market participation, Black women are among the most likely in America to be poor.”
Black Women’s Equal Pay Day must address Black women’s full lifespan, starting with their childhoods. We must be willing to discuss the problem of and find solutions to the systematic pushout of Black girls that forces them further and further away from avenues of opportunity, starting at an early age.
That first day of middle school, I learned a heartbreaking lesson: only people with money have access to what should be accessible to everyone. I remember feeling embarrassed because I knew that the next day I would have to get on the bus without enough money for the fare, but I was also proud of my mother, who used her voice to advocate for our family. I know that not every parent is equipped to speak up and fight for themselves. Our story could have had a different ending—one that involved cobbling together the extra $15 each week to get to school but not having enough money for food or other essentials.
Ultimately, my school gave me a full-fare card. And while this was not the first time that I was made aware of my family’s finances, it was yet another demonstration of how working-class families, particularly those headed by Black mothers, fight uphill battles at every turn so that their children receive the quality education they deserve. Unfortunately, parents often end up losing these battles because of the web of neglect and inequitable policies that entrap their children from the day they set foot in their schools until they leave.
We must ensure that no Black girl has to deal with the humiliation I felt over not having full bus fare. We also need to make sure that we have the right systems in place to support all Black girls and gender-expansive youth in their schools.
The pathway to equal pay for Black women will be paved with educational equity for Black girls.