I recently had opposing counsel on a race discrimination claim I filed tell me that the gross disparity in pay between my client, an African American woman, and her predecessor, a white woman, had nothing to do with race but rather had to do with the fact that my client was just not as good at negotiating as the other woman was. This attorney was actually noticeably uncomfortable using the word “white” in describing the woman who held my client’s position before she did. It made me laugh to myself because here I was filing an entire case based on race - one supported by concrete evidence, nonetheless - and even talking about race made this person uncomfortable.
Race is the premise of the whole case - if we can’t talk about it, how will we get through it? I thought that this is an interesting way to victim blame and really is a red herring. Her negotiation skills are what set her back? It was her own fault? Furthermore, let’s take a moment to talk about wage gaps. According to the National Women’s Law Center, in Illinois, women make 79.3 cents to every dollar that a man makes. 1For black women, it is even worse at 62.6 cents 2. Is this because the women just didn’t negotiate hard enough when offered the job? Or can we discuss the company’s corporate social responsibility to concern themselves with pay equity? And to take it even further, if in fact one would say that maybe women don’t negotiate hard enough or that a black woman didn’t negotiate as hard as a white woman, the more interesting question here is: why?
To me, the answer is a complex one but roots in systemic oppression. If I have been taught over years by the very society that I am a part of that the most I can have is “x”, then I will undoubtedly settle for it if it is offered to me. It is quite frustrating to consistently run across attorneys, people who have taken an oath in the name of justice, be so blind by their own bias. It also continues to give me added fuel to stand up for my clients. We have to keep making people uncomfortable so that they can see where they need to bend. I have to believe that each victory contributes to the larger change needed for us to live in a society that realizes equity.