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What Patricia Arquette got wrong at the Oscars

- February 25, 2015

Patricia Arquette accepts the award for best actress in a supporting role for “Boyhood” at the Oscars on Sunday in Hollywood. (Photo by John Shearer/Invision/AP)
Patricia Arquette’s Oscar acceptance speech and her follow-up comments backstage came under scrutiny for implicitly presenting equal pay as an issue for straight, white women.
Critics argued that her call to action — “And it’s time for all the women in America and all the men that love women, and all the gay people, and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now” — cast the women’s movement as distinct from the gay rights and civil rights movements and overlooked women at the intersection of multiple minority groups.
“Intersectionality” research contends this invisibility of particular subgroups of women is a symptom of their disadvantage. When race and gender are treated as separate movements either implicitly or explicitly, this research argues, women of color fall through the cracks. When Arquette called on “people of color” to help “us” now, she implicitly placed many women outside of the “us” category.
The data on the wage gap between men and women illustrates what intersectionality researchers are talking about. The most well-known data point is that women earn about 77 cents on the dollar compared with men. But African American women and Latinas earn less: from 62 cents to 66 cents and 52 cents to 55 cents on the dollar respectively, compared with white men. The presentation of a single wage gap obscures both the magnitude and the origins of the problem, framing it as a function of gender and ignoring race.
Our own research shows how both gender and race affect political thinking about these kinds of policy issues. In a 2012 survey, we conducted an experiment in which people were asked whether government should be doing more to address the wage gap.
People were randomly assigned to answer one of three versions of the question: a version making no reference to race, a version mentioning the larger wage gap facing black women, and a version mentioning the larger wage gap facing Hispanic women.
The results showed that references to black and Hispanic women activated racial attitudes and decreased policy support, relative to those who answered the question that made no mention of race.
These results are consistent with research on similar policies. For instance, affirmative action policies enjoy more public support when white women are featured as the primary beneficiaries, and, in practice, these policies have contributed to greater gains for white women relative to black and Hispanic women.
In an interesting twist, our research revealed that the racialization of the wage gap and resulting decline in policy support occurred primarily among whites who self-identified as “moderate” or “liberal” but nevertheless expressed conservative views on race. Among whites who self-identified as conservative, support for government action on pay equity was low regardless of how the question was phrased. This pattern of results is found in public opinion toward other policy areas – for example, racially conservative liberals oppose race-targeted, but not class-targeted, scholarship programs.
When people express support for an issue like equal pay and cast it as a woman’s issue but not a racial issue — as Arquette did at the Oscars — it overlooks two things. One is the reality of economic stratification among women based on race and ethnicity.
The other is the persistent racial tensions that exist even among liberals and, thus, within the Democratic party. Liberals are sometimes guilty of looking past race when race isn’t in the foreground of policy debate — even though minority women face larger wage gaps and higher rates of poverty.
Failing to acknowledge these disparities at the intersection of gender and race keeps them underground.
Erin C. Cassese is an associate professor at West Virginia University. Tiffany D. Barnes is an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky. Regina P. Branton is an associate professor at the University of North Texas.