In "The Status of Black Women in the United States," a new report from the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR) commissioned by the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), authors Chandra Childers, Ph.D., Asha DuMonthier, Ph.D., and Jessica Milli, Ph.D. show that Black women face a number of setbacks in the political, economic, health, and professional sectors — despite making tremendous strides to shore up their strength in these same areas.
The findings present a series of disappointing contradictions. Black women voted at higher rates than all other groups of men and women during the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections and registered to vote in record numbers. (Not to mention, 94% of them voted for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.) However, Sen. Kamala Harris is the only Black woman serving in the U.S. Senate (she is also the first Indian American senator), and Black women form just 4.1% of officials elected to the House of Representatives.
"Black women have the highest participation of going out, voting, and of activism in their community, yet what we see is that they have very low representation either at the federal level or in our state houses, and we’re also seeing efforts to actually undermine that participation by voter ID laws for example," says Childers, a senior research scientist at IWPR and one of the authors of the report. "We’ve seen cutbacks in early voting, which is central because again, these are women who are largely working."
In the professional world, Black women have always had high rates of labor participation compared to other ethnic/racial groups of women, and currently, 62.2% of Black women are in the workforce. However, nearly a quarter of Black women in the United States live in poverty, compared to 18.9% of Black men and 10.8% of white women (who have the lowest poverty rate among women). According to the report, in 2015, Black women's unemployment rate was "higher than the rate for women from any other of the other largest racial and ethnic groups except for Black men" — and education is hardly a salve.
"In April 2015, the unemployment rate for Black workers with bachelor's degrees was equal to the unemployment rate of White workers with high school diplomas only," the report authors write. The impact? Black women who had advanced levels of education were still shut out from economic opportunities and chances to advance toward more senior positions, while nearly one-third of black women remained concentrated in low-wage, service-sector jobs, which often lack living wages and benefits.
The disappointing stats go on and on, but Childers has some recommendations, focusing on Black women making median-earning income and less.
"Black women have a higher rate of unemployment than women from other racial and ethnic groups, which reflects multiple factors, including discrimination," Childers says. "There’s a role that employers can take in ensuring they’re not making hiring decisions based on characteristics like race and gender, and on stereotypes and assumptions about who would be a good worker or be able to do a job well."
On a policy level, she sees state and federal enforcement of anti-discrimination laws as crucial to ensuring that workers are not retaliated against when they attempt to unionize, particularly in right-to-work states.
In addition to that, she names policies that support affordable childcare, elder care, and family members who have disabilities, and boosting protections for domestic workers, who made as little as $6.15, according to a the 2011-2012 National Domestic Workers Survey.
"Domestic workers are more vulnerable to abuse because they’re not in a public workplace — they’re in a private home" — so raising those wages to a more livable level, ensuring that they have access to benefits like paid leave and pensions would extend protections to their families as well. Likewise, Childers sees raising the minimum wage and eliminating tipped-wage jobs as important for Black women in the service sectors, who often "have to accept [harassment] if they’re dependent on a customer for a tip, versus being paid for the work that they do."
"It’s not asking for anything to be 'given,'" Childers says. "Black women have done the work, they’ve been active politically, and they’re doing all of these things to move not just them forward but their communities and the nation as a whole forward. When people say that women of color need to be at the center of policy development, that’s because when you lift women of color — and Black women in particular — you’re lifting all women."