States push Jim Crow when they override minimum wage laws
© Getty Images

Governors and state legislators across the country are on a municipal power stripping spree. Just this week, Missouri enacted a state law preempting local efforts to raise the minimum wage, overturning thousands of pay increases already in effect and literally ripping raises from the pockets of workers.

Media attention has predominantly characterized this phenomena as an issue of Republicans versus Democrats or state versus local control. But the true dynamics at play are far more sinister. Sweeping state interference into local efforts to raise wages and improve the lives of working Americans is a thinly-veiled attempt to perpetuate white supremacy.

Today, African Americans are paid 75 cents per every dollar a white worker is paid. So why does this inequity persist generation after generation? Interference by state governments is the latest iteration of the Jim Crow legacy, an era in which black workers earned as little as 50 percent of what white workers earned.

 

Locally-elected governments are trying their best to address the economic insecurity that disproportionately burdens communities of color: adopting affordable housing requirements, creating jobs for residents on publicly subsidized development projects, raising wages for the lowest paid workers and creating greater protections for employees.

In a few places such as New York and Los Angeles, where political power at the state level mirrors the diversity of urban areas, these locally-driven efforts have survived. But in other cities where the local government reflects the diversity of the city, but the state legislature does not, these efforts have failed.

The Partnership for Working Families has analyzed data on seven cities with large communities of color where black workers continue to earn up to 30 percent less than their white counterparts in the lowest-paying industries. In each, citizens or locally-elected officials attempted to raise the minimum wage, but were stymied by predominantly white state lawmakers. Our research reveals startling links between wages for black versus white workers, the demography of these cities, and the racial makeup of their state’s legislative body.

The events in Missouri offer an example of these devastating trends. In St. Louis, where African Americans make up 49 percent of the population, local elected officials enacted an ordinance raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour, with future increases tied to inflation. Black workers nationwide have the most to gain from minimum wage increases because they earn substantially less than their white counterparts in the lowest-paid industries. In St. Louis, African American workers in these sectors still earn only 81 cents for every dollar made by white workers.

But the hard-fought achievements of St. Louis residents were stripped away this week when the law forbidding local minimum wage hikes — a rule passed by a state legislature where white lawmakers make up 87 percent of the body — went into effect. Sadly, this is just one example of local policy solutions designed, implemented and supported by communities of color to overcome structural and historical barriers that have seen swift obstruction and all-out hostility by predominantly white state lawmakers.

In Nashville, where African-Americans represent more than a quarter of the population, nearly 60 percent of voters in 2015 supported a charter amendment reserving a share of city-funded construction jobs for local residents. But within weeks, the policy found itself in the crosshairs of Tennessee’s state legislature, which is 85 percent white, and was ultimately rolled back the following year. Sobering similarities can also be found in cities such as Birmingham, Cleveland, Durham and New Orleans.

Yet, the overt racism of white interference by state legislatures doesn’t neatly fit along partisan lines. While Republicans have been framed as leading the preemption offensive, it was Democratic governors and state houses in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania that blocked local communities of color from establishing their own minimum wage laws. To address the challenge of white interference, we need to confront its true nature: a racist assault on our country’s civil rights laws and the fundamental freedoms enshrined by the Constitution.

By gutting the ability of local governments to alleviate major problems at the city level, where people of color often have the greatest say in creating policy, state legislators are effectively stripping people of color the right to control their everyday lives. If we want to solve this problem, we must first recognize that state interference into local politics is more than a battle of political theory or even red versus blue power. Instead, the most important color at play may be white.

Nikki Fortunato Bas is executive director of the Partnership for Working Families, a national network of advocacy organizations that support solutions to America’s economic problems.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.