Raised by her grandmother in North Carolina, Chakilah Abdullah Ali was the eldest of six and had to raise her siblings growing up. Married at 16, she was abused on and off for the next 15 years and was incarcerated for fighting back against her abuser.
Shortly after she got out of prison, Chakilah became the lead teacher at a day care, caring for infants and children while barely making enough to support her three sons.
She has seen firsthand the struggles a Black woman in the United States faces while trying to work for fair wages, raise a family, navigate health care, and withstand a discriminatory criminal justice system.
Now age 60 and a leader of the North Carolina chapter of We Dream in Black, a program of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), Chakilah spoke Wednesday at a forum in Washington D.C., where researchers released a report on the status of Black women in the United States.
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As Alicia Garza, the panel’s moderator, said in a statement, “While Black women are working hard, democracy isn’t working for us, and hard work isn’t paying off. Black families depend on Black women, yet Black women face the highest poverty rates in the nation, second only to indigenous women. We do our part to make this country better—we vote at higher rates than any other racial or ethnic group. It’s time for an agenda that puts Black women at the center, for the sake of all of us.” Garza is the co-founder of Black Lives Matter and NDWA special projects director.
The 96-page report, produced by NDWA and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, analyzes national data and highlight the disparities Black women face in political participation, employment, poverty, health, and safety.
“It’s a much needed, very necessary comprehensive report on the overall state of Black women in the United States,” Nana Afua Y. Brantuo, policy manager with the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, told Rewire. “I believe this is a really great entry point for those who have not been engaging this segment of our population that’s been very impactful, always been very involved in social movements, politics.”
A daughter of immigrants and a PhD student at the University of Maryland, College Park, Brantuo researches the intersection of immigration and education policy. The report has confirmed what she and her colleagues have observed for many years, she said.
While more than 60 percent of Black women are employed, the median earnings for those who work full time—$34,000 a year—lag behind most women’s and men’s earnings, the report notes. About 28 percent of Black women work in service occupations, which have the lowest wages and often lack benefits like paid sick days. Despite these disparities, Black families depend on Black women: More than 80 percent of Black mothers are the primary breadwinners in their households, the report found.
Black women face other disparities at work, too.
“There are so many ways in which Black women’s labor is taken advantage of, especially in academic spaces. So we definitely have incidents of being underpaid when we are doing more work than our colleagues,” Brantuo said. The data in the report “makes you sort of step back because it reaffirms what you, your friends, and colleagues have experienced, what many women around the nation are experiencing.”
Like Chakilah, an overwhelming number of Black women act as caregivers for the elderly or the young, but with limited wages and resources available. The report found that in all but two states, the cost of child care exceeds 20 percent of Black women’s median wages. Health insurance coverage is either very limited or very expensive, and as of 2014, 16.5 percent of nonelderly Black women in the United States lacked health coverage entirely.
From being disciplined at school to being imprisoned, Black girls and women face harsher punishment at all levels. Chakilah told Rewire she went to prison for trying to stand up to domestic violence because the law was not on her side.
Black women are twice as likely to be imprisoned as their white counterparts, and among young women, the situation is worse. Black women between the ages of 18 and 19 are four times as likely to be imprisoned, the report states.
“Here is the dynamic that exists: While Black women are central in holding together households in our communities, they are more likely to bear the hits, like employment and housing discrimination, and mass incarceration,” said Monifa Bandele, Moms Rising vice president and chief partnership and diversity officer, according to a press release.
Data shows Black women vote at high rates, organize in their communities, and are integral to the well being of their families. But policies and practices continue to undervalue and under-represent them.
“Whether one examines Black women’s access to healthcare, earnings, or access to much needed social supports like childcare and eldercare, Black women are getting the short end of the stick, despite having contributed so much to the building of this nation,” the report states.
The NDWA report recommends more resources go toward supporting and recruiting Black women political candidates. The report also recommends expanding Medicaid, raising the minimum wage, and enacting criminal justice reform.
“Black women consistently work for a better country, but our country is not working for them. By placing Black women’s experiences and interests in the forefront of policy changes and social movements, we can address these barriers,” NDWA said.
The Roosevelt Institute and Ms. Foundation for Women last month released a similar report arguing that progressive movements must center the experiences of women of color.