Stiffer laws and fingerpointing: how strategies that helped people of color can help working women

When I  first starting working as a journalist, we had few, if any, minority reporters at the newspaper. We had none whatsoever in our rural Central New York bureaus, where our readers were mostly white.
Yet, here we were condemning others for not having people of color on their payrolls.
Newspapers across the country praised new government incentives. We reported on the lawsuits. We exposed the inequities. We wrote editorials about unfair and racist policies. We pointed fingers and demanded fair pay and equitable hiring practices.
Then the world woke up and started pointing fingers at us.
Who were we, with our lily white newsrooms to condemn them?
Things changed.
Our bureaus suddenly became more colorful.
At the time, I was routinely working 14-hour days with little or no overtime pay. I sometimes worked six- or seven-day weeks. I thought nothing of it. The culture was encouraged by the newspaper as a whole — by everyone from the publisher to my editor to fellow reporters.
That was how we got ahead.
We did the work of two people for the pay of one. We made ourselves invaluable and if we did that well enough, we might just get moved to the city desk. When women decided to have kids, they either quit, took copy editing jobs or resigned themselves to rarely seeing their children.
Those who tried to reign in their hours were written off by the rest of us.
They were no longer “real” journalists.
Men who wanted more time with their families got the same treatment.
So imagine my surprise when one day, a young, black woman — a recent college grad — who worked in my bureau, refused to work overtime. I heard her on the phone taking a stern tone with an editor. She told him she had a life and she had plans.
She wasn’t about to work for anyone free of charge.
I was sure she wouldn’t last.
But she did.
When she left, it was on her own terms.
I was a journalist.
I couldn’t resist.
I asked her how she got away with it.
It was simple, she said. Newspapers needed journalists of color. They were desperate, but people of color had never before been encouraged to study journalism. It was a matter of supply verses demand. Newspapers were low on supply, so she could demand.
Some called her treatment unfair, preferential because of her minority status.
But I saw what was unfolding and I watched with amazement.
Newspapers didn’t want to be accused of giving people of color unfair advantages any more than they wanted to be accused of denying them. And this wasn’t really even an advantage. What newspapers had been doing was illegal and these new employees of color had the power to expose those practices and, more important, to take better jobs elsewhere.
So when this reporter and others like her starting refusing to work unpaid hours, our bosses had to comply with the law on behalf of all employees. The newsroom culture started changing. I was no longer afraid to request overtime and I often (not always) got what I asked for.
I never again worked an extra day without pay or other compensation.
So when I heard our President talk about creating equity in the workplace for women Tuesday night by making it easier for them to juggle family and work with child care incentives and better health care, I shook my head. Those are good things, but they are not enough.
They still give employers no reason to offer equal pay and equal opportunities.
What helps is empowerment and empowerment comes in the form of enforceable laws, constant monitoring and public pressure. Someone has to point the finger. Someone has to threaten exposure and lawsuits when that finger is pointed. The lawsuits and the exposure must hurt.
That works.
There is no need to devalue of women (like me) who choose to stay home with their families, but women who make the opposite choice must be valued as highly as their male colleagues. It’s only logical. It’s only fair. It shouldn’t be an issue.
But we are battling fierce cultural norms.
And, sadly, just as we needed government quotas, incentives and more enforceable laws to initiate equity for people of color, we need that same kind of pressure for working women. Women will not be the only benefactors.
Laws that helped people of color helped me, a white woman  from the Adirondacks.
Laws that help women will help men. They will help families. They will help single people. They will help stay-at-home moms and dads. They will help employers, who will have more loyal and stable workforces. They will make the United States a better, more stable, more desirable place to live.
Laws — not binders, not tax breaks — will inspire change.


What happened to "indivisible"?

Maybe I’m just forgetting.
But I seem to remember that the horrors of September 11, 2001 united our country, that partisan politics were set aside, at least for a day or two while even the worst of political enemies locked arms to show Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida that even such a sickening, unthinkable act of terrorism could not divide us.
We are strong, we said.
We believe in our country
We believe our leaders will protect us.
So I find it ironic (and sad) that the death of bin Laden has had the opposite effect. Osama bin Laden is dead and his death should have been another such unifying moment in our history. But instead of displaying a united front, instead of standing behind our leaders and telling the world that democracy works, that democracy is worth protecting and defending, we have exposed our worst weaknesses.
And doing so, we have offered fuel to anti-American fire.
A loud segment of our population immediately declared to the world an intense distrust for the president we elected to office. They told the world they believe he lied about bin Laden’s death, that they think he’s hiding something. They could give no reasonable explanation for this distrust, leaving the rest of us to assume the worst, that they distrust him because he is black and because his parents gave him a traditionally Middle Eastern name.
Then, it got worse.
These same people demanded a photo of the dead body, declaring that the photo would provide proof (Would it, really?). Even more Americans joined in this rally, not because they wanted proof, but because they have a grotesque and base need to see the dead man.
They feel so strongly that they are willing to suspend common sense and risk our national security for its sake.
Those who deny or belittle the security risk are naive.
We are a capitalist society. Within a day, we would have t-shirts, banners and mugs bearing bin Laden’s face in death. We’d probably even have a video game or two. Al-Qaida supporters who might have been on the fence about participating in further attacks would be incensed enough to throw themselves into the cause full force.
Bin Laden would most certainly achieve martyrdom in the eyes of his followers.
Even our allies would cringe at our nation’s behavior.
Regardless of whether the photo is released, the damage has been done. The event that was supposed to bring closure, to bring us full-circle from the horrors of September 11, 2001 and provide the world the ultimate proof that democracy works, has backfired.
We have shown the world our weaknesses.
We have shown al-Qaida that we are not as strong as we pretend to be, that perhaps we can be divided and defeated. We have show our enemies and our allies that our melting pot is broken. Certain differences cannot be dissolved within it because there are those who are unnecessarily and unjustifiably frightened by some of its ingredients.
I hope we can overcome this.
I hope President Obama remains strong in his decision to keep the photos secure.
I hope those loud voices fade and are forgotten, within and without of our nation.
I hope that when my children are adults, they will not experience anything like this.
That their hearts will never be as heavy as mine is today.

Obamacare: for some, it’s a lease on life

A friend of mine informed me the other day that she doesn’t have to wonder how she will  die. The government and insurance companies will kill her, she said.
She has lymphoma, one of those cancers that never really goes away.
Four years ago, when she last underwent chemotherapy, she paid a $40 co-pay per treatment.
That was it.
But her coverage has changed since then.
If she comes out of remission now, she will also be responsible for 20 percent of each treatment. That would put her and her husband into thousands of dollars of debt with both of them nearing retirement. She also has to worry about the lifetime cap on their insurance.
What if she exceeds it?
What will happen to him?
She can divorce her husband and let Medicaid pick up the tab, but that’s a gamble.
Sick people have to be divorced for a certain number of years before the goverment will  forgive the spouse of financial liability. If her cancer returned before the deadline, her husband would lose everything and, because they would be divorced, he would have no say in her medical care.
Sometimes, she said, she would rather just give up.
She would rather die.
This is the urgency that opponents to the health care bill do not understand.
Some people cannot wait.
While Republicans and Democrats were battling, people were dying.
Real people.
President Obama’s health care bill might not be a perfect solution, but it’s a step in the right direction.
My friend still has decisions to make, painful decisions.
But, at the very least, this bill alleviates two of her concerns: there will no longer be a lifetime cap on health insurance; and, if her husband loses his job, they will not have to worry that her pre-exisiting condition will leave them with no health insurance.
If it hadn’t passed?
She would probably give up, believing it was the selfless thing to do.
For her husband’s sake.
While politicians bickered, she would die.