Capitalism Is Built on the Backs of Black Women

By consigning Black women to low-paid care work, a new report shows, racialized capitalism is continuing the legacy of slavery.

Sarah Lazare June 14, 2017

Members of "We Dream in Black" participating in the Women's March in January. (Photo courtesy of National Domestic Workers' Alliance)

We, as Black women and peo­ple, under­stand the sys­tem is some­thing put in place to make us work hard,” says Joan Lewis, a home health­care work­er who lives in Atlanta and orga­nizes as a mem­ber leader with the social-move­ment group Nation­al Domes­tic Work­ers Alliance (NDWA). It’s the truth that we get exploit­ed,” she tells In These Times. It’s the truth that we get exploit­ed, espe­cial­ly domes­tic work­ers, because we’re doing a job that nobody values.”

“You are using one set of people to sustain you, but you are not giving anything to them to sustain them.”

Just how true this is is made clear in a new report released by the NDWA in part­ner­ship with the Insti­tute for Women’s Pol­i­cy Research. The study finds that Black women in the Unit­ed States are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly seg­re­gat­ed into low-wage ser­vice and care indus­try jobs. Black women par­tic­i­pate in the work­force at a greater rate than white women, but are sig­ni­fant­ly more like­ly to live in pover­ty. In fact, despite rel­a­tive­ly high employ­ment lev­els, with six in 10 Black women work­ing, Black women suf­fer a greater pover­ty rate than women of all oth­er eth­nic groups save Indige­nous women. One in four Black women in the Unit­ed States lives in pover­ty, with Black women who work full-time, all-year earn­ing just 64 cents to the white man’s dollar.

Report authors Asha DuMon­thi­er, Chan­dra Childers and Jes­si­ca Mil­li draw on numer­ous data sources to pro­duce a state-by-state analy­sis of the Sta­tus of Black Women.” They point to occu­pa­tion­al seg­re­ga­tion” as a key cul­prit behind the exploita­tion and dis­pos­ses­sion of this demographic.

Black women are more like­ly to work in ser­vice occu­pa­tions than any oth­er broad occu­pa­tion­al group,” the report states. Ser­vice occu­pa­tions — which include per­son­al care aides, maids and house­keep­ing clean­ers, nurs­ing assis­tants, cooks, and food-ser­vice staff — tend to have the jobs with the low­est pay.” Rough­ly 28 per­cent of Black women work in jobs that fall under this sec­tor, com­pared to 18 per­cent of white women. Mean­while, those pro­vid­ing key ser­vices are large­ly unable to afford care for their chil­dren: In 48 states, child-care costs sur­pass 20 per­cent of Black women’s medi­an annu­al earnings.

We take care of the chil­dren so you can go to work, start a busi­ness and go to school, yet we are not able to do that for our­selves and our fam­i­lies, because our pay is not yet ade­quate,” says Toni John­son, an NDWA mem­ber and domes­tic work­er based in New York. You are using one set of peo­ple to sus­tain you, but you are not giv­ing any­thing to them to sus­tain them.”

Eco­nom­ic dis­par­i­ties appear to be wors­en­ing. The Great Reces­sion dra­mat­i­cal­ly widened gulf along race lines, with a 2014 Pew Research Cen­ter poll con­clud­ing that the cur­rent gap between blacks and whites has reached its high­est point since 1989.” And the NDWA report deter­mines that Black women’s real medi­an year­ly earn­ings dropped by 5 per­cent between 2004 and 2014.

This is no his­tor­i­cal acci­dent. Domes­tic work is root­ed in the lega­cy of slav­ery,” writes Ali­cia Garza, spe­cial projects direc­tor for NDWA and co-founder of Black Lives Mat­ter, in the report’s fore­word. Enslaved Black women were forced to pro­vide unpaid labor under bru­tal con­di­tions for white landowners.

Car­ing for the fam­i­lies of oth­ers often meant that enslaved Black women lacked agency and access to care­giv­ing for their own fam­i­lies,” Garza con­tin­ues. Under slav­ery, Black women were not empow­ered to care for or make deci­sions for their own fam­i­lies, at the same time that they were forced to care for the fam­i­lies of their enslavers. Black women’s chil­dren were sold from their arms.”

This his­tor­i­cal dis­grace set the foun­da­tions for today’s racial­ized econ­o­my,” Garza argues. The oppres­sion of Black women, mean­while, extends beyond the work­place into key U.S. insti­tu­tions. From pub­lic school sys­tems to New York’s stop-and-frisk polic­ing, Black women are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly pun­ished and pro­filed, the report deter­mines. While Black women had the high­est vot­ing rate of all demo­graph­ic group­ings — both men and women — dur­ing the last two pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, they remain under­rep­re­sent­ed at every lev­el of fed­er­al and state polit­i­cal office in the Unit­ed States,” the authors note.

The oppres­sion they face is man­i­fold: Black women are also twice as like­ly as white women to be incar­cer­at­ed, the report notes. A sep­a­rate study released by Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton researchers in 2015 found that in 2006, 44 per­cent of Black women report­ed hav­ing a fam­i­ly mem­ber in prison, com­pared to 12 per­cent of white women and 6 per­cent of white men. Women are more like­ly to shoul­der the finan­cial and psy­cho­log­i­cal bur­den of hav­ing a fam­i­ly mem­ber locked up. Black women — espe­cial­ly trans­gen­der women and gen­der-non­con­form­ing peo­ple — dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly face lethal gen­der-based vio­lence. Mean­while, Black immi­grants, over­all, are more like­ly to come into con­tact with the prison-indus­tri­al com­plex and depor­ta­tion authorities. 

Celeste Fai­son is an orga­niz­er with the NDWA’s We Dream in Black” pro­gram, which was first con­ceived in 2013 to build Black domes­tic work­ers’ pow­er and now has chap­ters or affil­i­ates in six cities. She tells In These Times that the report’s find­ings expose the bru­tal real­i­ties of the eco­nom­ic sys­tem. We know that cap­i­tal­ism always requires there to be a cheap labor force,” she says, and we know that racism is the insti­tu­tion that jus­ti­fies that cheap labor force existing.”

Black women and gen­der-non­con­form­ing peo­ple are at the fore­front of orga­niz­ing efforts to resist this sys­tem and improve con­di­tions for every­one, from the fight for a liv­ing wage to the Move­ment for Black Lives. I see what hap­pens when we group our­selves togeth­er, band togeth­er,” says Lewis, who is work­ing to expand her Atlanta chap­ter of We Dream in Black. We know this is not right. I would like oth­er Black domes­tic work­ers, domes­tic work­ers and women to know that this is not life, it’s sur­vival. We want not just to sur­vive, but to have a bet­ter life.”

This arti­cle is part of the Resister’s Digest series, aimed at ampli­fy­ing the sto­ries of front-line com­mu­ni­ties orga­niz­ing in the era of Trump. 

Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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