Americans face a lot of tough economic challenges today. The student debt crisis. Unaffordable housing. Wage gaps. These issues (and more) make it harder for folks to live their best lives. And Black women bear the heaviest burdens, which is why lightening their loads can help lift the whole economy.
That's the idea behind what former Department of Labor chief economist Janelle Jones — the first Black woman to hold that title — calls “Black women best.” Aka policies that center around uplifting Black women. Because, by default, they should work for nearly everyone else, too.
Black women have been making some progress.
It's true many Black women have made incredible gains in recent history. Vice President Kamala Harris became the first Black American (and the first person of Asian descent and the first woman) to hold that office. Susan Collins will be the first Black woman president of a Federal Reserve bank. And Erin Jackson became the first Black woman to medal in the Winter Olympics speedskating event — and she got the gold. On the macro level, Black women earn the most college degrees of any demographic. But all that excellence alone has not closed (and will not close) the economic gaps Black women face.
The big question: “Why aren’t all of us rising through the ranks?” asks Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman, author of “The Black Agenda: Bold Solutions for a Broken System.” She recognizes that while some individual Black women have been highlighted for their accomplishments, the systemic problems remain. “Representation isn't at all indicative of progress,” she told theSkimm.
But people of all races and genders face financial challenges, right?
Right. The problem is that Black women are often disproportionately affected by economic inequalities. For instance, Black women graduate with the highest student debt balances. Black women are also more likely than women of any other race to be the head of a household. And while women overall make only 82 cents for every dollar a man is paid, that wage gap is worse for Black women, who earn just 63 cents by comparison. (Latinx and Native women get paid even less, on average.) Plus, the gap in homeownership between Black and white Americans is wider than it was pre-civil rights movement.
Can we fix this?
Yes. And we need to. But that’s no small task. “There is no progress until we start talking about systemic solutions,” Opoku-Agyeman says. “And people don't want to talk about systemic solutions because people don't want the system to change by, frankly, serving people.”
Her book outlines ideas for the future across disciplines — climate, health care, tech, economics, and more — to center Black women in policymaking and thus improve conditions for everyone.
“No solution that is going to have a lasting effect on closing inequality minimizes or ignores Black America,” Opoku-Agyeman says. “Black America is at the center of all these solutions. If you don't address how economic inequities have shaped Black America and continue to shape the different opportunities and access to opportunities Black America gets or doesn’t get, this economic inequity that we're seeing now — that we've seen for hundreds of years — will not disappear.”
OK, so what can I do?
The actions of a few individuals can’t fix a broken system. But the more people do to get educated and take a stand, the closer we get to creating change. So consider taking action when you’re able to uplift the Black women in your life.
Support Black businesses: Because they have a much harder time securing funding from sources like business loans and venture capital than their white counterparts. Shopping Black-women-owned brands and investing in Black businesses are small ways you can help.
Hire (and fairly pay) Black women: Many companies took up diversity initiatives in the wake of 2020’s racial reckoning. But it’s up to all of us to make sure those promises are kept. Wherever you can, advocate for Black talent. Help ensure that Black candidates have access to your company’s job postings, and push for pay transparency.
Advocate for policies that center Black experiences: The pandemic recovery has further proven that Black people, and especially Black women, will keep being left behind as long as policies do not directly address them. Listen to Black women who are working to educate and empower their peers to build wealth in spite of the obstacles. Solutions for unemployment, caregiving, and housing all need to prioritize Black women because they’re often the most affected.
A better world for Black women would mean a better world for everyone. Policies put in place to address economic problems, from student debt to homeownership, need to work for Black women to ensure they work for everyone.
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