The goal of the "Exposing Inequity" project is to create testimonials from Black low-wage workers in Washington D.C. and answer the question, "how do Black workers experience wage theft in the nation's capital?" These narratives shed a light on the working conditions of Black working class D.C. residents, which often subject them to undignified and exploitative conditions.
Ms. Angie Whitehurst is a born and bred Washingtonian. Her first jobs included collecting newspapers and cans with her siblings to sell at the local trash collection center and babysitting. By the time she graduated high school, she had worked as a waitress because she did not qualify for one of the many job opportunities programs started by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Administration for racial minorities in economically depressed areas. She did not qualify simply because her father had a professional degree and worked for the federal government. In her words, the federal government presumed that because she was not living at the very edge of the margins, she did not need any help.
However, even though she came from a middle-class family and graduated from Connecticut College, the intersections of anti-Blackness and sexism plagued her throughout her college days and her career. For example, one of her white woman classmates commented on Ms. Whitehurst’s lighter complexion. The woman proceeded to pull back Ms. Whitehurst’s collar from her neck to reveal Ms. Whitehurst’s skin underneath because she “… wanted to see where the black was.”
The politics of colorism, discrimination based on skin color, and the specific types of misogyny Black women face in relation it, followed Ms. Whitehurst into the workplace. The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines colorism as the unfavorable treatment of someone based on their skin color. Discrimination based on color within the Black community severely impacts darker-skinned Black women because lighter-skinned Black women are more often favored in general society. In Ms. Whitehurst’s case, the fetishization of her lighter skin by Black men, who were her superiors in the workplace, led to intense sexual harassment. It also led to her women colleagues projecting their own internalized misogyny on to her.
Ms. Whitehurst first experienced misogyny and sexual harassment in the workplace when she worked for D.C. government after it obtained Home Rule back in the early 1970s. Some people claimed that she only obtained her job because she had lighter skin. As Ms. Whitehurst pointed out, “no one had issues calling me a negro or [other slurs],” even if she did work in D.C. government. Her male superiors at work also targeted her because of her lighter skin. Ms. Whitehurst recalled how she was repeatedly groped at work in the office during business hours. Other women endured worse fates.
In Ms. Whitehurst’s words, although some men had integrity, the vast majority of men in this workplace promoted a “pay-to-play” scheme. She said the men punished, snubbed, or forced women out who refused to sleep with them. The women targeted explicitly for this form of sexual harassment were Black American, Latina, and Afro-Caribbean. Ms. Whitehurst credited her education at a woman’s college to “stand your ground and fight like hell” against these conditions. However, she concedes that her privilege of being a single woman, and not having to support children, afforded her the privilege of not feeling it was necessary to become a survivor of this sexual coercion. In her words, “they were forced to do this to survive.” Ms. Whitehurst said that the men in the D.C. government protected each other because they were all guilty of the same actions. Ms. Whitehurst’s refusal to perform sexual favors for men in her workplace led her superiors to pass her over for promotions over three times. As a result, she left her job at the D.C. government and went to work for the National Endowment for the Arts. She also claimed she was severely underpaid because of the reputation she developed for “standing her ground” and refusing to have sex with her superiors for job promotion opportunities.
Even working as a federal contractor for the Department of Commerce in West Africa did not spare Ms. Whitehurst from the particular sexism and misogyny she experienced as a Black woman. For example, many men she worked with asked her to be their “girlfriend” because they could not bring their wives over with them. She said she learned from her days working in D.C. government that she needed to make allies to protect herself in the workplace. Conducting fieldwork in West Africa when she was oftentimes the only woman there magnified this need. At one point, she had to “phone a friend” to pull strings to get her out of trouble.
After suffering a stroke, it became increasingly difficult for Ms. Whitehurst to work as she had before. She fell into precarious housing situations because of her economic instability relating to her stroke. Eventually, she found paid and volunteer work at various non-profits like StreetSense and ONE DC’s Black Workers and Wellness Center. However, even a non-profit organization meant to uplift formerly incarcerated people victimized Ms. Whitehurst.
In January 2021 of this past year, Ms. Whitehurst was supposed to start working for a non-profit that had a federal contract with AmeriCorp. This paid job opportunity would focus on mentoring people recently released from the prison system. Although Ms. Whitehurst was scheduled to start the job in January 2021, the contractor pushed back her start date to February 2021. She began working for the organization shortly thereafter. However, Ms. Whitehurst was never paid. Ms. Whitehurst asked her former employer about her paychecks, and he said he put them in the mail. She gave him the benefit of the doubt. She considered the fact that the owner of the non-profit was also a Black man and that Black men are placed under various pressures and are marginalized by society. Weeks passed by, and she still did not receive any payment. She asked her former employer again and he said, “Didn’t I tell you it was in the mail?” Ms. Whitehurst noted that while almost everyone who worked for that organization had issues getting paid, other men and younger people at least received some money. Ms. Whitehurst then realized that although she had escaped the oppression of being reduced to a sex object in the workplace as a younger woman, as an older woman, she was disregarded and disrespected because of her age and other vulnerabilities associated with that.
Ms. Whitehurst took the initiative to call AmeriCorp to report this issue. However, they said they did not count him as a contractor, and that the D.C. government was the actual contractor. She said people in the D.C. government who gave him the contract did not know what he was doing and could not check if he complied with his contract.
“Life is supposed to be better for women and minorities in the workplace, but I’m not quite sure about that,” said Ms. Whitehurst towards the end of our interview with her. She said there is no quick fix in thinking about how the general public could help Black workers in Washington, D.C. She said the biggest hurdle to assisting Black workers is still exclusion. While there are many government programs intended to help Black workers, many of these programs are not effective in promoting these programs to those who need them most. Further, physical labor jobs that workers with less formal education often performed by Black workers are increasingly becoming less in-demand. Ms. Whitehurst questions what impacts COVID-19 will have on the livelihoods of Black people and senior women.
As a native Washingtonian, Vernon Suggs, watched the District evolve right before his eyes. He grew up in the neighborhoods known today as Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan. One of seven kids in his family, Mr. Suggs recalled always having some type of job. As a Black man, his employment experiences have been wrapped up with themes of anti-Blackness and discrimination. These often took place in the form of higher-expectations and demands of Black workers than both White workers and other non-White workers without similar opportunities for advancement that were offered to White workers.
Mr. Suggs explained how he got his first job at sixteen. “I had to get a job because I was expecting to be a father.” Jobs were often found by word of mouth or through help wanted signs in his neighborhood. After obtaining a work permit through DOES, he began working as a dishwasher for a restaurant. Race dictated what positions you could have in the kitchen. Mr. Suggs recalled how he was consistently denied opportunities to advance within the kitchen. Despite his familiarity with the kitchen, how to prep and cook, and knowing the menu, he was consistently denied opportunities to move to forward-facing positions within the kitchen and management opportunities. Instead of promoting him and other qualified Black workers from within, restaurants would bring in external hires for management positions. These new hires were almost always White. This discrimination was not always subtle. Mr. Suggs remembers Black applicants, like himself, receiving different applications than White applicants for the same position.
Being kept out of management positions was not the only way that restaurants exploited their Black workers. Opportunities for smaller promotions and raises were far and few between. Stereotypes about Black men and their superior physicality were a driving factor in the inequity between Black and non-Black workers. “The expectation was that because you were Black, you could do more physical labor.” Employer expected Black workers to work three times as hard and do the more strenuous labor because they could physically handle it.
The rise of Latino immigrants allowed restaurant management to demand even more of Black workers. In addition to underpaying and exploiting Latino workers, restaurants weaponized this exploitation against Black workers. Black workers were expected to “bend over backwards” in order to keep their jobs without any prospects of advancement or promotion from within.
In the late 80’s Mr. Suggs transitioned to working in the construction industry. He began as a laborer and worked his way up eventually to labor foreman. He felt that at that point he had the skills and technical knowledge to progress into construction management. In order to make that shift, he had to have a degree. Mr. Suggs began taking evening classes at a local college and eventually earned his AA in construction management. He ultimately left his job with the construction company due to an injury.
As a result of his injury and being unable to work, Mr. Suggs was houseless for approximately five years. While at a shelter he was able to complete a thirty-day substance abuse program and move to transitional housing. It was at transitional housing where he was introduced to Shelters to Shutters. Shelters to Shutters matches skilled houseless individuals with employers that will provide support with keeping a job and finding housing. Mr. Suggs’ previous work experience gave him the skills to be a building tech.
For the last five years, Mr. Suggs has been working as a live-in building tech. As a benefit of his employment, the property management gave him a discount on his monthly rent. Mr. Suggs had a generally positive experience at this job until he injured his neck. A consequence of his houselessness and the types of jobs available to him, he he could not access healthcare and prioritize his health. As a result of his injury, he was out of work for around a year and had to rely on disability benefits.
After recovering from his injury, Mr. Suggs went back to work where he began experiencing problems. He was no longer able to work at the building he currently lives in and was transferred to a different apartment building. This reassignment came with many new financial burdens including the need to purchase a car. Mr. Suggs explained that this reassignment came with a greater amount of work than was required previously. The discrimination that Mr. Suggs experienced in his position as a dishwasher because of his race has not disappeared. Instead, it is heightened by ageism. In order to compensate for the greater amount of work, his employer brought in another tech. This new tech, also Black, is much younger than Mr. Suggs. The expectation that Mr. Suggs will work harder and will perform more strenuous labor because he is Black is underpinned with the threat of replacement with a younger Black man who can do the strenuous labor.
In addition to the discrimination Mr. Suggs has always experienced as a worker due to stereotypes about Black men, Mr. Suggs has also experienced specific instances of exploitation because of his race. Mr. Suggs explained his experience working with a non-profit re-entry program in early 2021. The non-profit company was a federal contractor with AmeriCorp. As an employee, Mr. Suggs would help mentor individuals recently released from the prison system and help them re-integrate into society. He believes he was approached to work with the program because of his past experiences with the prison system when he was younger.
This opportunity came with a promise of $1,700 a month in exchange for Mr. Suggs’ work. However, Mr. Suggs did not receive anything close to this amount. He recalls receiving around $250 a month in checks. When he questioned why he was missing pay, Mr. Suggs was brushed off. Eventually he received a check in the mail for an additional $350. However, the paystub accompanying the check indicated that he received the full amount of $1,700. After being consistently underpaid, Mr. Suggs left the organization. Despite the organization being owned and operated by a Black man, Mr. Suggs was underpaid, but he believes the White workers were not underpaid. He explained that he was being taken advantage of because of his specific experiences as a Black man.
Mr. Suggs’ experience highlights the shortfalls of current protections offered to workers. Wage theft is not the only form of exploitation and for individuals in Mr. Suggs’ situation, wage theft in voluntary employment is at the surface level of the ongoing exploitation Black men face in the workplace. Mr. Suggs’ is extremely passionate about helping Black youth avoid entanglement in the prison system. He discussed how the exploitation of Black workers is not limited to just voluntary employment. “The prison system operates a high-level systemic wage theft of Black workers” says Mr. Suggs.
 Race/Color Discrimination, U.S. Equal Emp’t Opportunity Comm’n, https://www.eeoc.gov/racecolor-discrimination (last visited Feb. 22, 2022).
 Maxine S. Thompson & Verna S. Keith, The Blacker the Berry: Gender, Skin Tone, Self-Esteem, and Self-Efficacy, 16 Gender and Soc’y 336 (2001), https://www.jstor.org/stable/3081888.
If you have experienced wage theft and want to share your story with us, email us at [email protected]