Friday, July 24, 2009

Race and Minimum Wage

It's sad that even in this day and age, a Black professor from Harvard can't unjam his own front door without being arrested. My first thought after reading the initial news reports was that if Professor Gates were white, this wouldn't have happened. Or Asian, because in American stereotypes, Asians are smart and well-behaved. But the arrest probably would have happened if he were Latino, or Middle-Eastern.

I was also troubled by the idea that the "attempted break-in" was reported by one of Prof. Gates' neighbors. Surely they should have know what he looked like.

But really, this sort of racial profiling happens all the time. Ralph Medley, a retired professor in Chicago was once arrested while performing maintenance on his own property. According to the New York Times, Blacks operate under an unwritten code in dealing with law enforcement to avoid such mis-arrests.

Many of us would like to think we've moved beyond this ugliness, particularly with the success of minorities including President Obama, Clarence Thomas, Oprah Winfrey, Carol Mosely Braun, and other visible role models. But really, they are the outliers. As a country, we create conditions that keep minorities (and women) from achieving great success. One of them has to do with income levels.

Forbes ran a piece online today with the headline "Mandating Higher Unemployment." The article argues that as minimum wages rise, companies will have to lay people off to cover the extra pay raises. It didn't matter to the author that $7.25 (the new minimum) is not a living wage anyway, and that the people who rely on that minimum wage are primarily minorities in this country, and lower-class whites. Please take a look at the author:

Bruce Bartlett is the ultimate Rich White Male. From his combover, to his power tie, to his jowls, this man is someone who has never had to worry about being mistaken for a burglar at his own home. Mr. Bartlett is writing about his views being a very well-off businessman. He is comfortable telling lower-income workers that they don't deserve to earn more, because that would mean layoffs higher up the line. Some of the reason that Mr. Bartlett doesn't want to raise minimum wage:

Minimum wage workers are not well educated. About 40% don't have a high school
diploma, and a third have only a high school education. Just 3% of those working
at the minimum wage have graduated from college.

About a fourth of those working at the minimum wage are married, and 80% of them are women. It's reasonable to assume that most have working husbands, so their earnings probably don't affect the family's standard of living very much.

So, because minimum wage people don't have great educations, they don't deserve to be paid more. Aha! And women should be just fine because they have husbands to earn the real money. What Mr. Bartlett does not point out is the overlap between these statistics and race. 17% of minimum wage earners are Black. I'm willing to bet that many more are Latino.

One of the best ways to make progress against racial prejudice is to give minorities the tools they need to advance, including education, safe, clean housing, health care, and job training. All of these things require money. Raising minimum wage is a small step forward, particularly since this isn't a very big increase. Giving people a living wage so that they can compete with the Bruce Bartlett's in the world is only fair.

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