The roots of our child care crisis are in the legacy of slavery

Prescylia Mae raises her fist in the air during a Juneteenth re-enactment celebration in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 2021.

Much overdue attention has been centered on the exodus of working women from the workforce over the past year, driven in part by the mass closure of public schools and a lack of access to affordable, high-quality child care brought on by the pandemic. What this conversation risks obscuring, however, is that child care workers themselves are simultaneously among the most valuable and undervalued workers in our society, yet they receive poverty wages for holding up our economy by enabling parents to work and ensuring children receive high-quality early learning experiences.  

One in five child care providers is a Black woman, and the erasure of their labor from public life and public conversations has historical roots dating back to chattel slavery. As we mark Juneteenth and commemorate the end of legalized slavery in the United States, we have the opportunity to learn from this history and chart a course towards valuing child care as the backbone of our entire society. 

First, let’s be clear — everyone and anyone is touched by the need for child care. Even if you are without children, behind many of your coworkers, nurses, cashiers, Uber drivers, and government workers is the underpaid labor of child care workers and unpaid labor of families and friends strung together to make a child care routine. Those lucky enough to afford a child care center or home-based provider are still relying on workers who receive an average of $11.69 per hour with minimal benefits or stability. 

The invisibility of child care workers today can be connected directly to the invisibility of Black women who provided care both as coerced labor and underpaid workers before and after the Civil War in conditions that made it difficult to also care for their own children. While white womanhood in the Antebellum South was depicted as embodying grace and leisure, the labor of Black women they relied upon, from domestic chores to feeding white infants at their own breast, was rarely noted nor mentioned. Even contemporary depictions of slavery — including Oscar winners “Django Unchained” and “12 Years A Slave” — continue this trend, rarely focusing on the role of enslaved people in raising and caring for white children to the benefit of white families.

After the Civil War, many white families still relied upon the unpaid or underpaid service of Black domestic servants for their most valued treasures, a status quo many white families worked to further invisibilize through the proliferation of the “mammy” stereotype. Usually portrayed as a rotund and joyful Black woman, the “mammy” existed to frame the fair compensation for the labor of Black women as in tension with the close personal bond white families were depicted as having with their servants. Child care wasn’t business, the mammy suggested, just personal.   

So devoted to the “mammy” mythology, the Daughters of the Confederacy successfully lobbied the U.S. Senate to authorize a (never built) statue on the National Mall “in memory of the faithful slave mammies of the South,” whitewashing the exploitation at the heart of much domestic labor. This narrative is precisely what fueled the exclusion of domestic workers, including child care providers, from many of the labor protections enacted through the New Deal — even as child care providers proved all the more vital for women filling homefront jobs left empty by drafted male soldiers sent abroad.  

Even in an era of deep expansion of rights brought by Black civil rights activists, the stories of the largely Black women who sought to change the longstanding devaluing of child care, waging the fight for an equitable and publicly funded child care system are rarely told. Leaders like Dorothy Bolden, Shirley Chisholm, Marian Wright Edelman and Evelyn Moore led campaigns that brought us the Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971, promoting child care workers as “middle-class experts” deserving of fair wages for the service they provide working families. Buoyed by support from labor unions, it passed both houses of Congress with bipartisan majorities. 

The structure of the child care system the bill proposed would have put control of publicly-funded child care centers in local hands which, in much of the South, meant subverting white state governments in favor of local Black control. Hoping to keep their hold on segregation, conservative activists lobbied heavily against the bill, portraying it as a Communist plot to destroy the nuclear family. It was on these grounds Nixon vetoed the CCDA, ending the last major Congressional push for a fair and just universal child care system.

It would be 50 years until Congress passed a package for child care workers that even came close to that investment; the American Rescue Plan, passed last March, included $39 billion for child care stabilization after the pandemic forced many to shrink their staffs, serve fewer families and even close permanently.  

As many Americans increasingly view the pandemic from the rear-view mirror, we have a brief but vital moment to reconsider the “normal” we want to create. This includes the material deficits endured by women workers across the economy, ranging from persistent wage gaps to a lack of paid leave and affordable child care. But progress for some working women cannot come at the continual expense of Black women and reliance upon cheap Black labor. Tolerance of that racial dynamic further perpetuates the historical view of Black women existing solely for the benefit of others. 

A universal child care system that benefits all Americans is one that does right by the workers in its employ, providing for livable wages while lifting up the economy as a whole. Recognizing the historical roots of this system — and its many iterations in our daily lives — can help us avoid replicating the mistakes of previous generations forced to settle for moderate progress for some and an unjust status quo for others. With a robust public investment in this work, we can begin to reverse this pattern and truly value child care and the women who provide it. 

Fatima Goss Graves has spent her career fighting to advance opportunities for women and girls. For the last decade, she has served in numerous roles at the National Women’s Law Center. Prior to becoming President, Goss Graves served as the Center’s Senior Vice President for Program, where she led the organization’s broad program agenda to advance progress and eliminate barriers in employment, education, health and reproductive rights and lift women and families out of poverty. Goss Graves is among the co-founders of the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund which enables individuals to come forward and be connected with lawyers — regardless of industry, rank or role.