After spending much of his first term facing criticism that he did not do enough to address issues of particular importance to minority communities, President Barack Obama appears to be making a conscious effort to make such issues a priority of his second term. On Tuesday, the president will sign two executive orders specifically aimed at closing wage gaps that hurt women and racial minorities.
One will require contractors doing business with the federal government to include race and gender information when reporting all compensation data. The other will prohibit contractors with federal contracts from retaliating against employees who share compensation information. This is important because in some instances, discrimination has gone undetected for extended periods when employees were unaware that they were being paid less than their peers.
In one of the highest-profile cases involving such discrimination, Lilly Ledbetter sued the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. for paying her substantially less than male managers in the same role over her two-decade-long career with the company. The Supreme Court, however, ruled in 2007 that because she had not filed her suit within 180 days of receiving her first paycheck, she missed the window for suing in the case. Ledbetter, however, did not learn that her male colleagues earned substantially more than she did until many years after the fact, thus making it impossible for her to have adhered to such requirements.
The Supreme Court’s ruling against Ledbetter would eventually lead to the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, the first bill Obama signed into law after taking office. An amendment to the Civil Rights Act, the statute resets the clock regarding fair-pay lawsuits so that future plaintiffs aren’t limited to the 180-day window.
But the act does not address a more problematic issue for many employees: the fact that their employers discourage and, in some instances, explicitly prohibit them from discussing salaries and wages with one another, thus making it possible for someone like Ledbetter to spend two decades unaware that she was being paid less than her peers. Although the president’s executive actions will not directly affect those in private companies like the one that employed Ledbetter, it will have a sweeping effect nonetheless, particularly when combined with his second executive action.
According to the Washington Post, in 2012 the federal government did more than half a trillion dollars’ worth of business with contractors alone, affecting millions of employees. (One analysis found that more than half a million Americans employed by federal contractors make under $12 an hour.) This means that the president’s new requirements will ultimately affect a sizable percentage of the U.S. workforce.
But perhaps even more important, the federal government has historically led the way in a number of civil rights measures that set a standard the rest of the country eventually followed. For instance, it was President Harry Truman’s executive order of 1948 that desegregated the U.S. armed forces, years before various court rulings would lead to integration spreading throughout the rest of the country. It was also an executive order signed by President Lyndon Johnson (later implemented, in large part, by Arthur Fletcher, an African-American official in the Nixon administration) that made affirmative action among government contractors a reality and led to affirmative action programs being seen as a viable tool for promoting equality and diversity.
Executive orders are not the only means President Obama is using to address racial inequality more explicitly. He recently launched My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative aimed at mentoring and ensuring the success of black boys.
The president’s willingness to more openly confront racial inequality is a welcome change for many of us in communities of color. Throughout much of his first term, he largely avoided addressing what many of us viewed as the political elephant in the room: the role of race in influencing both criticism of his presidency as well as much of the equality he spoke about wanting to address. But his new initiative, combined with these executive actions, seems to be sending a message that he is willing to acknowledge that racial minorities face specific challenges—and those challenges deserve their own targeted and specific policy responses.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.