This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal

By now, that women earn 78 cents for each dollar a man earns has taken on the aura of cliche, a statistic thrown out as a way to quantify an ambient inequity that often defies definition. It's a helpful benchmark and a convenient talking point, but when discussed in a vacuum, it can obfuscate more than it illuminates.

Here's something that can illuminate. Recent data from the Census Bureau allows for the parsing of the gender pay gap by state, and the numbers reveal some lesser-known truths. Among them: the District of Columbia has the smallest gender wage gap in the country, with women earning 91 cents for every dollar a man makes. Pew Charitable Trusts recently reported similar statistics for D.C.

A new analysis by the National Women's Law Center, which separates the data by race, highlights a more disturbing pattern. When you compare what African-American women make to what white men make, the gap in D.C. is bigger than almost anywhere else in the country (with the exception of Louisiana). In D.C., while white women with college educations or higher typically earn close to what a white man does, African-American women make just 53.9 cents on the dollar.

Not that they're worse off on the whole than African-American women in other states. On the contrary, with a median salary of more than $48,000 a year, African-American women in D.C. are still better salaried than those in every U.S. state. What's skewing the results and making the gap so big is this: White men in Washington are doing supremely well. And so far, others haven't been able to catch up.

"White men in D.C. are doing quite swimmingly compared to everyone else," explained the NWLC's Katherine Gallagher Robbins, who helped splice the data. "This is really a story about white men doing so overwhelmingly well." Nobody does better than white guys in D.C., who, according to the analysis, make a median salary of $90,431.

Across all states, African-American women working full time typically make only 64 cents for every dollar white non-Hispanic men make, and the situation for Latina women, in many states, is worse. While California, like D.C., has one of the smallest overall wage gaps, for instance, the wage gap for Latinas there is the largest in the country. Utah and New Jersey ranked among the 10 worst for wage gaps in America, both for African-American women and Latinas, according to the analysis.

The silver lining—and on some level, the irony—is that the District is teeming with advocacy organizations brainstorming creative solutions to the racial wage-gap problem. "It's very important for advocates and policymakers to not become complacent with the idea that one area is particularly successful and their work is done in that area," Gallagher Robbins said. "We're not all the way there yet, so we don't want to congratulate ourselves on accomplishments that are leaving vulnerable groups behind."

The cross-state analysis isn't perfect. D.C. is not a state, after all, and comparing it to other metropolitan areas such as Chicago or even New York City might yield a more accurate assessment. Still, even using this imperfect metric, some disturbing patterns emerge.

Meg Fosque, the national policy director at the Restaurant Opportunities Center United said D.C.'s restaurant industry is something of a microcosm of the rest of the industry. Although the federal minimum wage sits at $7.25 per hour, under a lesser-known subsection of the minimum-wage law known as the "tipped minimum wage," service workers may be paid as little as $2.13 an hour. In D.C., the going rate in the service industry is just $2.77 per hour, plus tips, making it one of the lower wage industries.

Women make up two-thirds of tipped workers nationally (though they're just 39 percent of tipped workers in D.C., perhaps contributing to the lower overall gender wage gap there). The District's tipped workers are also largely minorities—43 percent African-American, 17 percent Hispanic and 5 percent Asian, according to American Community Survey data. "There are a few different things we can do with regard to policy," Fosque said, "but the starting-off point has to be that we're not continuing to legislate that women and women of color are making a sub-minimum wage."

Jenny Reed, deputy director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, pinpoints other problems.

"There's two troubling trends you see in the District," said Reed. One, she said, is that it's hard to get a well-paying job in D.C. unless you have a bachelor's degree or higher education. (D.C. has the highest concentration of bachelor's degrees in the country, and who obtains such degrees to begin with is heavily influenced by race.)

Another is that even among those with a college diploma, African-American workers are much more likely to be unemployed or underemployed, according to a recent study by Reed's organization. "Discrimination and lack of opportunities has to be part of the reason why we're seeing lower rates of employment for black workers with the same educational attainment as white workers," said Reed.

Nikki Lewis, executive director of D.C. Jobs with Justice, is similarly convinced that the root of the problem lies in education, noting communities like those in Wards 7 and 8 simply don't have the funding and resources they need to successfully send students on to college. "I've had some interns, even ones who come from some of the better public schools in D.C., say it's almost like they're being prepared to work at Starbucks or press a button rather than become a fully developed person," she said.

Her list of remedies includes passing legislation to improve workers' hours and scheduling rights, as well as broadening the base of community education, "so low-wage workers know what their rights are."

The NWLC and Gallagher Robbins think this is a good start. And there's nowhere better to begin to close national wage gaps than in the nation's capital. "There are two different worlds here," Gallagher Robbins said, "and that to me is very troubling—trouble is almost too light of a word to describe the urgency with which we need to focus on these factors in our own city."

Correction: An earlier version of this article said women earn 77 cents on every dollar men make. It's 78 cents, according to the newest Census data.

Stephanie Stamm contributed to this article

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.