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Against All Odds: Economic Inequities for Black Women Cripple Communities

Job Fair Held For Education Positions

Job seekers line up to enter a job fair at the Alameda County Office of Education on April 24, 2013 in Hayward, California. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

The nation’s unemployment rate is at a seven-year low but many economists agree that Black America’s recovery has not yet begun, and worse still, studies show Black women have been disproportionately impacted by the Great Recession.

“I was told…go to school and you’ll be fine for the rest of your life. But obviously that’s a lie,” said Yolanda Spivey.

Spivey has a bachelor’s degree in English and more than a decade of experience in the insurance industry, but still can’t find work.

In 2011, fearing name discrimination, she created a separate online profile under the name Bianca White. This led to more interviews but she still couldn’t get a job.

Yolanda Spivey
Yolanda Spivey

Black unemployment in America is nearly twice the national average. But in 2014 African-American women had the highest unemployment rate among women (10.5 percent) compared to white women (5.2 percent), according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

The June labor report showed unemployment among Black women was down to 7.9 percent compared to the 4.2 percent average for white women.

And unemployment is only half the story.

Barriers to upward mobility for black women – including name discrimination; high rates of underemployment; wage discrimination, the unfair use of criminal background checks; and workplace discrimination –have profound impacts on their communities.

“A white woman makes 77 cents and a black woman makes 69 cents of that dollar. And that sort of inequity is something that not only shows up in the paycheck but it shows up in the wealth accumulation,” said Janai Nelson, co-counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund

“It shows up in the ability of black women to expose their children and their families to different experiences and opportunities in life,” she said.

Job Seekers Attend NYC Career Fair
Hundreds of people line up to attend a job fair on April 18, 2013 at the Holiday Inn in Midtown in New York City. John Moore / Getty Images

The denial of fair wages for Black women and the stress that practice causes may also have serious health consequences.

“Chronic pain, migraines, exacerbations of autoimmune disorders or they’ve neglected health issues because they’re afraid to become unstable at work,” said psychologist Lisa Orbe-Austin.

“It is important for Black women to know their worth in the workplace, to value it and to be able to articulate their worth in salary,” she said.

But the structural and systemic economic discrimination of Black women has been exacerbated by the worst recession since the great depression, making it seemingly impossible for them to achieve economic stability or parity.

Black Mothers Bear the Burdens of Their Communities

With few employment prospects Spivey has started her own insurance brokerage firm -- but it’s not enough to support her and her son.

“My home is about to be foreclosed on. I might have to file for bankruptcy,” Spivey said. “I did everything that I thought I should do in order to compete in this workforce.”

Mary Frances Berry, civil rights activist and University of Pennsylvania history professor, notes studies showing Black women are among those most negatively impacted by the recession. That includes the housing crisis and cuts in the education and civil service sectors where black women were overrepresented.

“Black women losing their houses who were middle class…are downsized to jobs where they don’t make any money,” Berry said.

One-in-10 African-American homeowners who took out mortgages at the height of the housing boom ultimately lost their homes to foreclosure, according to a report from the Congressional Black Caucus.

“I’m highly educated. I am an entrepreneur. And yet I’m one of those women with a $5 net worth."

When African-American mothers — more than half of whom are raising their children on their own — can’t financially support their families, the consequences often have long-lasting and devastating implications for their communities.

“If Black children are in poverty, they’re almost certain to stay there for three or four generations,” said University of California Santa Barbara professor George Lipsitz.

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Berry, a former chairwoman of the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights, notes the ripple effect of financial insecurity among black mothers on the discrimination faced by young Black boys and men in the U.S.

“The boys that Obama keeps talking about…are in those same families,” Berry said. “It’s so narrow minded not to see the whole thing.”

Experts say the economic marginality of Black women not only negatively impacts their earning potential but that of Black men in their communities as well.

“The precarious economic state is often hidden because of the overemphasis on the problems of the black community being problems of black men,” Lipsitz said.

Running But Never Catching Up

Equally alarming is the fast rate at which Black middle-class women are being disappearing.

Mutale Nkonde spent three years studying in the neurology department at Leeds Metropolitan University in the UK, before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in sociology.

A recent layoff also inspired her to start her own company, Nkonde & Associates, which focuses on diversifying STEM Industries through Black female entrepreneurship.

Unbeknownst to many, the 30-something-year-old spent much of 2014 on and off food stamps and unemployment.

“I’m highly educated. I am an entrepreneur. And yet I’m one of those women with a $5 net worth,” Nkonde said.

Mutale Nkonde
Mutale Nkonde spent much of 2014 on and off food stamps and unemployment.

She likens the $5 in median wealth that most Black American women possess to joining a race long after everyone else has started.

“I don’t have a family that gave me a house, which is the reality of a lot of my white friends that I went to high school and college with,” she said. “I wasn’t grandfathered into a network of business contacts.”

And while the narrative of educated black women out-earning Black men in college degrees persists, the reality is education isn’t translating into financial stability for most Black women. According to the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, Black women take home the lowest earnings among college degree holders.

Few Choices, Fewer Protections

If the economic outlook for educated Black women is devastating, there are far fewer protections for blue-collar and low-income Black female workers.

Deborah Sweeney has been working as a driver for Newark Public Schools in New Jersey since 1982. Sweeney said she has been the victim of verbal, physical and sexual abuse and on more than one occasion and was even forced to have sex with her bosses or face termination.

“They were all in it together. All the men that worked in custodial services, that worked in security,” she said. “If you don’t tell on me I don’t tell on you.”

Deborah Sweeney
Deborah Sweeney and her 8-year-old granddaughter, Shainetta Monica Sweeney.

Because she was the first female truck driver for the school system, the Newark native said most of the men she worked with, Black and white, tried to make her working experience a living hell.

The 56-year-old said she has always felt forced to keep her job because she is the breadwinner for her home, where she raised her deaf son, a deaf granddaughter and two other grandchildren.

Countless blue collar and low income Black women share similar experiences.

“Domestic centrality, that is despite their low wages and lack of support black women are asked to do more in terms of raising children, sheltering them, feeding them, clothing them, nurturing them,” Lipsitz said.

Sweeney said she is certain of one thing.

“If it would have been a white woman all hell would have broke through.”