Earlier this week, a comprehensive study from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research put some eye-opening numbers behind what we as a society know, but have utterly failed to acknowledge: Black women face staggering inequality in this country. Not least of all when it comes to working and earning.
For all the issues surrounding gender equality that get discussed in terms of women in general, these findings show that black women face significantly greater obstacles. Among some of the most jarring findings:
But it doesn’t end in the office. Black women experience disadvantage when it comes to domestic violence too; experience nearly 10% higher rates than women in general: 41.2% versus 31.5%. When it comes to education, political partipication and incarceration, the systemic odds are just as stacked.
Young black girls are disciplined at higher rates in public schools than any other group of girls. They composed 45 percent of girls suspended from K-12 schools between 2011 and 2012. And when they grow up, they continue to be disproportionately disciplined by the state. In 2014, black women were twice as likely to be imprisoned as white women.
Despite their high rates of participation, democracy is failing them. In the last two presidential elections, black women voted at a higher rate than all other groups, yet they remain underrepresented in government, holding just over 3% of the seats in Congress and none in the Senate. Only two Black women in the country held a position in statewide executive elected office.
These are tough numbers to face; it’s even tougher to acknowledge the reasons why. Alicia Garza, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement and special projects director of the Domestic Workers Alliance, the organization that funded the study, wrote the following in the foreword:
“White women were able to enter and succeed in the workforce largely because of the work of Black women and other women of color. Without Black women’s labor inside of white households, white women would not have been able to break (some) of the barriers of sexism that relegated the value of women’s contributions to the sphere of the home… The result is a racialized economy where Black women are losing ground. The care economy was built, in large part, from Black women’s labor. Today, the care economy is one of the fastest growing sectors of the US economy, overall. Yet, in the fastest growing sector of the economy, wages are not growing. The people who care for those we care for the most are underpaid, undervalued, and under-protected….Thirty percent of the workforce that cares for us are Black American women.”
In order for the country to reduce these inequities, the report offers recommendations including shaping policy that protects black women’s voting rights, improving access to benefits and increased wages, and building better access to education and healthcare, among others. And while the study shows practical and legislative efforts are of the utmost importance right now, there’s another side, too:
When I met Alicia Garza at a bar in Silver Lake just before the holidays in 2014. In the months prior, Eric Garner has been choked to death by police on Staten Island, and Michael Brown had been shot by a cop in Ferguson. She was in Los Angeles to meet with other leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement to organize protests. When my boyfriend and I asked her and her colleagues what we could do to support them, they told us to go home to our family for the holidays and have difficult conversations about race.
Not with strangers at the bar, but with the people we loved the most, because the conversations that hurt are the ones that stick. They told us that we need to put our bodies and our privilege on the line, and to be willing to risk arrest at a protest, because that was the only thing that was going to make a difference.
It sounded drastic at the time, as those kinds of actions always do for someone who hasn’t lived a life that necessitates them. But as the bodies of black men and women have continued to fall at the hands of the state, and studies like this continue to illustrate the brutal and suffocating inequity in this country, it’s become increasingly clear that if your lived experience is something other than that of a black person in America, imagining those differences requires more than a passing effort.
It requires more than repeating slogans and ensuring that your raised-fist emojis represent a range of skin tones. This failure of imagination in allyship has lead to a failure of empathy and a failure to act. And the next time we talk about the pay gap, about access to healthcare, childcare, maternity leave and education, this failure of imagination is unacceptable.