America is at a crossroads. Following the profound economic and social disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States has the opportunity to adopt policies that produce more racial and economic parity. Or, there is nothing we can do, which would exacerbate already existing inequalities, warns Adia Harvey Wingfield, Mary Tileston Hemenway Professor of Arts and Science and Associate Dean of Faculty Development and Diversity at the University of Washington in St. Louis.
Factors such as technological advancements, increased automation and the growth of low-wage work in the service sector have led to fewer stable employment options, according to Wingfield. As a result, workers see less financial gain even if they put in as many hours as they ever did.
“We live in a deeply unequal society with limited social mobility. It’s the result of decades – even centuries, in some cases – of policies designed to maintain certain types of inequality, ”said Wingfield, whose research examines how racial and gender inequalities persist in professional professions.
Wingfield said legislation that makes it more difficult for employees to unionize and raise the amount of minimum wage in a deliberate attempt to maintain economic and racial inequalities. The increased dependence of companies on contract workers who, by the nature of their job classification, are not entitled to benefits has only worsened existing inequalities. These policies coexist with long-term policies like redlining and gerrymandering, which perpetuate racial inequalities.
“Much will depend on the ability of workers, organizers and others to exert sustained pressure to change the types of institutionalized policies that perpetuate inequalities. The only way to overcome the effects of these policies is to adopt those that are specifically designed to reverse their effects. ‘
Adia Harvey Wingfield
Even as the United States increasingly diversifies, black and Latin American workers tend to be overrepresented in “bad jobs,” or those that offer low wages, few benefits and little stability, a Wingfield said. Likewise, they are less likely to land “good jobs,” those that pay well and offer a comfortable retirement, paid vacation and insurance.
According to Wingfield, to tackle systemic racism in the workplace, organizations should change their hiring processes to go beyond existing networks of managers while democratizing access to leadership training.
They also need to keep in mind a process she calls “racial outsourcing,” in which the job of making organizations more accessible to communities of color falls on the few black workers they employ – often without additional compensation. For example, black physicians are frequently tasked with breaking down institutional barriers that prevent black workers from entering the medical field, and black nurses are often tasked with advocating for patients who might otherwise be overlooked.
Given that, as Wingfield notes, 70% of Americans believe that the current economic system unfairly benefits the wealthy, there might be hope for change. Wingfield describes two possible paths for the future. In one potential outcome, nothing changes – inequalities persist in an increasingly precarious economy and in the midst of growing white supremacy. Alternatively, a multiracial coalition would form that demanded better jobs and pushes for an increase in the minimum wage, while leaders institute tangible consequences for racial abuse within organizations.
“Much will depend on the ability of workers, organizers and others to exert sustained pressure to change the types of institutionalized policies that perpetuate inequalities. The only way to overcome the effects of these policies is to adopt those that are specifically designed to reverse their effects, ”she said.
A few initiatives that research shows could reduce various types of inequalities include the implementation of paid family leave and sick leave; remove barriers to unionization; and the implementation baby ties, a proposed government policy in which each child would receive a publicly funded trust account at birth, with the possibility of more generous funding for low-income families.