Last week, President Obama signed legislation implementing financial reform and extending economic benefits. He also endorsed legislation that would make it easier for women to get equal pay in the workplace. It was a week when the economic justice agenda was advanced in many ways. And it was a week when race dominated the airwaves.
From an economic perspective, the big news was that the President, flanked by some of the same unemployed Americans that Sharon Angle, the Tea Party Republican opposing Senator Harry Reid in Nevada has described as "lazy", scolded the Senate and told them to get off their duffs and pass legislation providing benefits for the nearly 3 million people who have lost jobs and had their benefits cut off. President Obama rarely goes into stern/scold mode, and many think he should do it more often. In this case, he showed unemployed people the support they needed during these hard times.
The President scolded Monday and by Wednesday the Senate had passed the $34 billion piece of legislation that will extend unemployment benefits and provide benefits retroactive to June 2 for those who have been cut off. Kudos to Maine Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe who bypassed partisanship to provide needed votes to the important measure. Thursday, the House of Representatives affirmed the Senate bill, and late that afternoon, President Obama signed the legislation, still excoriating "a partisan minority" for standing in the way of much-needed relief for unemployed families.
On Wednesday, the President signed the financial reform legislation that will establish an independent consumer protection agency. Before the ink was dry, Republicans started excoriating Professor Elizabeth Warren, the former Harvard professor who is also a bankruptcy expert and consumer advocate. Warren floated the idea for an agency to protect consumers from financial fraud in a 2007 article and is the logical choice to lead the new agency. Yet some Republicans feel she may be "too" activist for bankers' comfort. Who ever said this legislation should be about banker "comfort"? The passage of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act is cause for celebration.
Tuesday, Vice President Biden, White House staffers Valerie Jarrett and Melody Barnes, EEOC head Jackie Berrien, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, and Attorney General Eric Holder called for the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act at a White House briefing. President Obama also affirmed his support for this legislation, which has been reintroduced by Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski as part of legislation that will provide recession relief to small businesses. It is important to use the word recession in context with paycheck fairness, since women's earnings have been especially important in a recession where men have been losing jobs more rapidly than women. To illustrate the point, Lily Ledbetter spoke at the Tuesday briefing about the way unequal pay had shaped her life and her family life. Earning 40 percent less than men who did the same work, Ledbetter now gets a smaller pension, and, as she pointed out, had less to use to pay for tuition, health care, and other necessities. The homespun elder spoke of eating "lots of beans" during lean times, beans she might not have had to eat with more equal pay. Unequal pay, she said, is not only a women's issue, but also a family issue, and a national economic issue. Though the Paycheck Fairness Bill has yet to pass, the spirited advocacy of it is an important step toward economic justice.
From my perspective, the Administration hit a home run for economic justice last week. Instead of celebrating economic good news, though, race matters dominated headlines. Without minimizing the rush to judge Sherry Sherrod, the malicious distortion of her comments, her resignation, the apologies, and her reinstatement, it seems to me that economic progress is far more significant than this story. At the same time, it reminds me of my early days in talk radio, when a veteran told me that whenever you wanted to "light up the boards" or get lots of calls coming in, you should inject race, religion, war, or abortion into the conversation. The man advising me said he made no promises about the quality of the conversation. Too often, you get more heat than light, but it's not a talk show host's job to make public policy, it's to keep the conversation moving.
For better or worse, Sherry Sherrod is now a household word, and an illustration of our nation's unfinished race business. During the same week she dominated headlines, we also made considerable progress in the economic arena, but you'd never know. I know race matters are far more exciting than economic progress, but in some ways economic progress is equally, if not more, significant.
Dr. Julianne Malveaux is a noted economist and president of Bennett College for Women.