President Barack Obama’s recent speech at the Congressional Black Caucus dinner called attention to the unique issues impacting black women. He acknowledged the onerous income disparities (earning 30 cents less for every dollar white men earn), the debilitating sexual abuse to prison pipeline (which turns victimized girls into convicts), and the disproportionate incarceration rate (black women are imprisoned at twice the rate of white women).
Obama’s words were a welcome change for a president who has largely ignored black women’s struggles. But while Obama has finally drawn attention to our concerns, his policies have done little to address them. Instead, he has treated issues affecting black men as synonymous with those affecting the entire black community.
Last year, for instance, Obama launched the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which dedicates federal dollars exclusively to assist at-risk black and Latino boys. In announcing the program, he said “By almost every measure, the group that is facing some of the most severe challenges in the 21st century in this country are boys and young men of color.”
Apparently, the president has never looked at the statistics for black girls and women.
It’s a particularly troubling oversight given that black women have been Obama’s most loyal supporters at the ballot box. Black women accounted for 60 percent of all black voters in 2008 and supported Obama to the tune of 96 percent. In 2012, 98 percent of black women under age 30 voted for Obama, compared to 80 percent of young black men.
And yet, Obama has done little to improve the lives of black women during his seven years in office. The economic recovery that he oversaw left black women out in the cold, as employment rates improved for every demographic group except black women. Their unemployment rate was 181 percent higher than that of white women in 2013. While the nation’s unemployment rate hit a seven-year low earlier this year – declining to 5.5 percent – black women’s unemployment rate increased, hitting 8.9 percent.
That has put them in a uniquely debilitating economic situation. Among all women, one in seven lives in poverty, but for black women, it’s one in four. And nearly half of households headed by black women exist below the poverty line. Some root causes of this poverty are long-term limited employment options, unequal pay, and that most black women include among their dependents both immediate and extended family members.
African American women have benefited least from the economic recovery despite being among the most affected by recession. The foreclosure crisis hit them especially hard; black female borrowers were 256 percent more likely to receive a risky subprime loan than white men. And that’s not a result of their income status: Black women in upper income brackets are five times more likely than white men to have high-cost mortgages. Never mind that roughly one quarter of all black and Latino borrowers have lost their homes to foreclosure, with black women disproportionately represented among them.
Obama took care of Wall Street and largely forgot about our streets. The landmark fine against predatory lending outfits like Bank of America is a step in the right direction, but at this point for many who are now homeless it’s too little, too late. At a bare minimum, his administration should have mandated that all bailed-out lending institutions had to swiftly renegotiate mortgage contracts to keep families in their homes.
Black women’s disadvantages start in childhood. Black children are more likely to be suspended from school than white children for the same behaviors, but that racial discrimination affects girls more than boys. While black boys are suspended three times more often than white boys, black girls are suspended six times more frequently than white girls. Black girls are now the fastest growing population in the juvenile justice system.
Still, in the growing national conversation about the racial prejudice in our criminal justice system, the experiences of black girls and women has been severely overlooked.
This summer, Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit a federal prison, sitting down with six prisoners to discuss his concerns with how the rising rate of incarceration and length of sentences is affecting American families. The prisoners he spoke to were all men. The only women in the documentary about Obama’s prison visit were the wives and mothers of male inmates.
But the incarceration of men for nonviolent drug offenses are not the only way our courts and prisons are unjustly ravaging black families. Too often, black girls and women are being separated from their parents and children for nonviolent convictions or even for being victims of abuse.
“Sexual abuse is one of the primary predictors of girls’ entry into the juvenile justice system,” Malika Saada Saar, executive director of The Human Rights Project for Girls, said in a press conference this summer. “The most egregious example of the sexual abuse to prison pipeline is how girls who are trafficked for sex are arrested for prostitution.”
The severe effects of the racial prejudice in the criminal justice system are evident: Just one in every 118 white women will be imprisoned in their lifetimes. For black women, the rate is one in 18.
There was hope that these egregious disparities would finally be addressed with Loretta Lynch’s appointment this year. Groups of black women mobilized, prayed, and stormed congressional offices to help get her confirmed — but now we can’t even get the first black woman attorney general to spearhead an independent investigation into how a young black woman in the prime of her life could end up hanging dead in a Texas jail, where she had been held for three days for allegedly failing to signal a lane change.
The current hands-off approach that the Justice Department is taking toward the investigation into Sandra Bland’s death, and that of other black women found dead in prison cells, is troubling, but indicative of a pattern in the Obama administration.
That should be enough to turn off Obama’s most ardent supporters, which would be a real problem for the Democrats in 2016. If black women voters decide to sit out that election, the Democrat’s top candidate could be the one left out in cold—whether it’s Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, who has been on shaky ground with black voters, in part, over his responses to Black Lives Matter activists.
It’s time for Black women to reexamine their commitment to the Democratic Party. Perhaps we need to follow the former Democratic U.S. Representative from Georgia turned Green Party Candidate, Cynthia McKinney. Mckinney, the first African-American to serve in the Georgia House of Representatives became disillusioned after being unseated in her bid for a seventh term and went on to become the Green Party’s presidential candidate in 2008.
Current Green Party candidate Jill Stein is worth considering. Stein’s “Green New Deal” would use investments in the environment to arrest climate change and create jobs. Stein also opposed the bailout of Fannie Mae especially since it continued to hound everyday people for the same mistakes that the government “bailed them out for.” Stein wants to end police brutality and mass incarceration and expand women’s right and access to education. Moreover, her power “Power to the People Plan” comes a lot closer to directly addressing black women’s needs particularly her call for single-payer public health insurance for all and a $15 per hour federal minimum wage.
During his speech to the Congressional Black Caucus, President Obama said that his administration is “focusing on boys, but we’re also investing in ways to change the odds for at-risk girls.” Really? How exactly is this administration investing in at-risk girls? What’s the policy? When can we expect concrete answers rather than vague platitudes?
These are the questions we need Obama – and all candidates expecting black women to help them get into the Oval Office – to answer. Unfortunately, one of the few viable politicians who seems to get it is not in the race. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) recently delivered a speech at the Edward M. Kennedy Center that was honest, bold, and clear in its commitment to making black lives matter. But in talking about “black lives,” she did not eclipse the plight of black women. When she named a few of the recent victims of racist police violence, “Sandra Bland” first among them.
We should demand that every candidate speak directly to black women’s issues and provide a blueprint for how they will address our needs. The issues that affect us – income equality, police brutality, criminal justice, racial profiling, domestic violence, reproductive justice, affordable housing, and access to quality education – often affect black men or white women as well, but rarely in the same way or as severely. We need a president who not only understands that, but addresses it.
The first candidate to stand up for black women and outline some real policies for improvement may just get enough votes to be elected president.
Kali Nicole Gross is an associate professor and associate chair of African and African Diaspora Studies at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Washington Post.
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