Black women deserve and need more than representation
I felt joy and trepidation in equal measure when the United States elected its first Black president – and I feel the same mixture of emotions over the historic nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson, who if confirmed will be our first Black female Supreme Court Justice. It’s taken over 233 years for the Supreme Court to finally begin to look like the country it serves. With the nomination of Jackson, a Harvard graduate, an accomplished lawyer, and a distinguished jurist to the bench, Black girls everywhere can finally see themselves in the people adorned in black robes and presiding over the highest court in America.
Representation does matter. But just as we learned quickly that systemic racism built over the course of 400 years couldn’t be dismantled in eight years of the Obama presidency, I know that having one Black female justice on a majority conservative court will not be enough to bring about the fundamental change that Black women immediately need and desperately deserve. Just as we were told that with the election of President Barack Obama we had achieved a colorblind society, all too soon the lie in that story became apparent.
Although Jackson’s appointment is a giant step in the right direction, our nation is just at the start of a marathon. Representation alone isn’t enough to address the issues affecting Black women and our families. We need Congress to work together to address our priorities. The issues that we face aren’t ours alone; they are America’s. When Black women do well, America does well.
For far too long, Black women have been ignored and left behind. Even on the heels of Biden’s SCOTUS announcement, one senator said “Black women are what, 6 percent of the U.S. population?” Not only does that comment ignore the convenient fact that the racial makeup of the Supreme Court has never, ever represented the demographics of our county, but it was a dig meant to further diminish us, to remind us of our place in the world. We don’t need reminding — it seems like every day there’s some sort of cruel reminder about the fact that America’s institutions and systems weren’t made for us.
Yes, Black women are only 6 percent of the population, but we play an outsized role in our families and communities: 80 percent of Black women are the breadwinners of our families. When we benefit, the people and places around us do, too. But America does not invest in us. We are still underpaid earning just 64 cents to every $1 a white man makes. At the same time, we are being pushed to the breaking point with a childcare crisis that leaves many of us unable to afford the skyrocketing costs: Nearly half of Black kids are raised by single mothers, which is why affordable and accessible child care is so important to us. And those costs have only risen during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The global pandemic laid bare how much our economy needs a robust childcare system, a system that relies heavily on the low-paid labor of women who look like me: 38 percent of childcare workers are Black or Latino. Other frontline jobs and industries that were so critical during the pandemic also rely on women of color, including 24.3 percent of food and accommodations workers and 30.3 percent of health and social assistance workers. So Black women might not be the biggest demographic group in America, but we play an important role and should be valued.
So, what do Black women really need? We are by no means a monolith, but we are aligned on issues facing our community and the solutions we need from Congress. What is good for women of color, who have long been sidelined, ultimately lifts all women. In my organization’s latest survey, YWomen Vote 2022, we learned that Black women support equal pay for equal work, increased access to affordable childcare and paid family medical leave.
As if the list of inequities that Black women face isn’t enough, we also live in constant fear that we or someone they love will have a tragic encounter with a police officer. We found 83 percent of Black women support legislation to end racial and religious profiling as their top policy priority, and 79 percent of women supported the passage of George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. Everyone wants to feel safe — but that feeling is often out of reach for my community. Whether it’s going for a run, at home, or in a car, we just want to live freely and without the threat of violence breathing down our necks. Some people can avoid the threat of police violence by turning off the TV or closing social media, but for us, it is a daily reality that cannot be ignored or escaped, and something we are begging lawmakers to address.
In spite of all of these issues, we continue to rise. Despite 233 years, 17 chief justices and 104 associate justices, we stand to welcome the first Black woman justice on the Supreme Court. And yet, while Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination is inspiring, consequential and overdue, it does not roll back the injustices we currently face. One Black woman cannot be expected to change everything, as has been expected from so many of us over the years.
The hope once sparked by former Obama’s election has long been tempered with the political reality he faced during his presidency. As we begin to feel hopeful yet again, we must be realistic with our optimism. Black women appreciate and deserve representation but what we really need is change.
Margaret Mitchell is CEO of YWCA USA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating racism, empowering women, as well as promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all.
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