National Black Women’s Economic Plan Would Better All Workers’ Rights

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In all measures, including health, education, and economic security, black women in the United States fare worse than other women, as detailed by the Center for American Progress. Black women earn 63 cents on the dollar in comparison to the 79 cents for white women as revealed by a study by the American Association of University Women. Linda Burnham, National Research Director of National Domestic Workers Alliance, in Gender and Black Jobs Crisis, has written that this pay gap can be attributed to the over representation of black women in low wage jobs such a health care, fast food and retail sales: often concentrated at double or triple the rate of their share of the workforce.

In the area of health, one in four black women are uninsured, and suffer from health issues that are treatable. They are four times more likely to die from pregnancy related causes and have the highest rate of premature births. Although the college graduation rate for women has improved, rates for black women have remained lower in comparison to their white counterparts. Data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, over a 26-year observation, 29.5 percent of black women with high school diplomas, but no college degree experienced 10 or more spells of unemployment compared with only 13.5 percent of white women with the same education.

These statistics showing consistent and pervasive inequality for black women, should ring an alarm, yet, consistently, black women’s socio-economic well-being has been ignored and has not garnered national public attention. Even as Black Lives Matter has propelled a focus on criminal justice reform, and black women are at the forefront of this movement, the narrative around reform has not always included black women. This is why activists have mobilized around #SayHerName, and the African African Policy Forum has engaged in critical and ground breaking research, and conversations to make black women’s experience visible.

The economic state of black women did not happen through coincidence or happenstance, but through a long history of exploiting and devaluing black economic labor in the United States, especially that of women, upon which American society has built its economy and infrastructure. To speak of economic inequality in America, is to speak of the exploitation of black labor. Black women as domestic workers after Reconstruction facilitated the entry of white women into the workforce. White women were able to work because they extracted cheap labor from black women.

Black women’s experience in America reveals a deep, pervasive fault line in structural racism and sexism, through which women continually fall through the cracks. Americans experienced an economic recession in 2008, from which the African American community has not recovered, and the existing inequalities exacerbated particularly for black women. It is why Cecilia Conrad in her article Unfinished Agenda, remarked that gains made by black women has since stagnated. “Black women may share policy agendas with black men and with white women, but it is important that the specific impacts of policies on black women not be ignored as we pursue common goals.”

Black women have not been passive in this racialized and sexist construction of the American economy. They have been at the forefront of the civil rights and economic justice movements throughout American history. Premila Nadasen, in her book, Household Workers Unite, recounts the pivotal role domestic workers played in the civil rights movement, especially the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and other campaigns that led to changes in federal wage and hour laws that provided minimum wage protections to domestic workers. Black women’s organizing and advocacy led to gains for all workers.

In her article, Where the Black Leadership Can Take Us, Alicia Garza charts out the consistent and leadership role black women have played in these social justice movements, obtaining real economic gains for all in society. She makes the case that by focusing on black women, all members of society gain. I echo this, as did legal scholars like Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres, in their book Miner’s Canary. There, Guinier and Torres employ the metaphor of canaries that miners used to signal the toxicity of the mines, and reason that racial equality is an indicator of the health of our democracy. Applying both Garza and Guiner’s argument to economic justice, the economic well-being of black women in America is an indicator of its severe inequality, and a focused advocacy strategy geared towards black women, would improve the economic gains for all low-wage workers; such an approach would lift up the economic floor for working families.

Up until now, most efforts to address this socio-economic crisis among black women have been subsumed under women, economic or racial justice movements.   For example, the Fight for 15 movement. No doubt, this movement will improve the lives of low-income black women working in fast food and in retail. Efforts to organize domestic or home care workers will benefit black women that dominate the care-giving industry. In And Still I Rise: Black Women Labor Leaders’ Voices, Power and Promise, examines the role of black women in the labor movement and shared that black women in unions fared better than women who were not. However, those movements have not articulated specific solutions and remedies tailored towards black women.

At present, efforts to address this socio-economic crisis have been handled by a patchwork of non-profit organizations, trade unions, and to some limited extent by government agencies. New York City Council Young Women’s Intiative is a recent example of a local effort spearheaded by Council Member Melissa Mark Viverito to address racial and gender inequity faced by women. However, this effort is not explicitly geared towards black women and girls, but does have black women activists in its conception and leadership. The White House’s recent announcement of programs focused on the challenges faced by women of color and girls is equally encouraging.White House Report on Women and Girls exhaustively lists the challenges that women of color and girls face. Yet, again, it is not clear whether programs that will emerge from this report will explicitly and directly address the issues facing black women.

One of the reasons that any policy effort to focus on black women has failed to take root is because of a liberal adherence to “post-racial” color blindness or racial neutrality in our solutions. Suggestions for any specific program for black women are often met with recommendations to take a “broader” approach to impact all women of color. There is an understandable concern that by focusing on black women, we then ignore the experiences of Asian, Latina or Native American women. By focusing on developing programs and policies focused on black women, we help all women of color economically because we are focusing our attention on the least paid, undervalued, and precarious workers.  And, in focusing on black women, we challenge directly racism, which gets avoided on any conversation around economic justice, and we can put forth an intersectional policy agenda on race/gender/class.

Further, focusing on black women’s needs can be achieved without erasing the unique experiences of other women of color or women in general. Having a focused program with the clear goal of improving the economic lives of black women would not take way from other programs to focus on women broadly. These programs are not mutually exclusive. However, invoking the women banner or women of color banner should not continue to serve to erase programs, services that address the particular experience of black women. This does continue to happen throughout history, and even as we are witnessing a vibrant racial justice and economic justice movement, we again are seeing in our policy solutions the failure to center the needs of black women.

Both the City Council and White House Initiative on women and girls of color provide an exciting platform and opportunity to explore how we might develop such a focus on black women and girls while keeping in mind an effort for all women and women of color and girls. Let us not allow the specific experiences of black women’s economic well-being to be ignored again. Lets put black women squarely in our country’s economic justice agenda. In doing so, all workers will benefit.