How American politics constantly neglects black women

Many women have said it better, but it's time for men to join them, too. This is a problem for the entire country

Published December 5, 2013 6:41PM (EST)

             (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
(AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Our political system is neglecting black women -- and we can change it. No one is making this argument better than black women themselves. Women like Roxane GayBrittney Cooper and countless others have written powerfully and eloquently about the unique experience of being a black woman in America, and I would like to add my voice in solidarity. Because it's important that black men publicly voice our support on these issues - not just in order to stand alongside our mothers, sisters, daughters, and friends, but because it is the best thing for our nation.

A new report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) entitled, “The State of African-American Women in the United States” highlights that the intersection of racial and gender disparities meets at the experience of black women. Despite this, in the last presidential election, they had the highest voter participation rate of any comparable group in the country.

Black women experience socioeconomic inequity more than anyone else, yet they vote more than all others (and almost always in favor of the Democratic candidate). There are two important implications in this reality. First, their policy concerns have gone largely unaddressed. Second, despite the evidence of the black electorate bellwether, there is little real effort by candidates to work hard for those votes. The Republican Party assumes it is unobtainable. The Democratic Party knows it can rely on overwhelming support from the black community because of precedent and, quite honestly, lack of a viable alternative.

These lead to the political alienation of black women. Their votes are taken for granted, and their most pressing socioeconomic concerns are unaddressed. This is not cool.

A Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll from 2011 found the issues that black women worry about most include employment/personal finances, healthcare, and crime. Exit polls from last month’s Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections show the same concerns. These issues presumably influence how and for whom black women vote. Yet, voting has not reaped the results they – indeed, the nation writ large – deserve.

The CAP report states that 1 in 4 black women are uninsured. This is a primary contributor to them facing such issues as higher cancer mortality rates, the highest incidence of hypertension, and black babies dying at 2.5 times the rate of white babies. Though a fully implemented Affordable Care Act will help black women get insurance, the increasing doctor shortage will still disproportionately complicate their ability to receive care.

In education, black women are underrepresented in college degrees, have the slowest increase in graduation rates among all women, and are the most severely underrepresented in technical fields. Recent government cutbacks and student loan eligibility changes have left black students scrambling. This has contributed to a financial crunch in many historically black colleges and universities, a primary grantor of college degrees. Black women are hit especially hard since they comprise 66 percent of African Americans graduating with bachelor’s degrees, 71 percent of master’s, and 65 percent of doctorates.

On the economic front, black women have a higher rate of unemployment than white women – a rate that actually rose in 2013. Black women’s income is less than all men and white women, and their poverty rate is the highest in the nation. The national response? Cutbacks on funding for social safety nets, elimination of national programs that could help close economic gaps, and policies that exacerbate income inequality.

With all this evidence that black women are being ignored, they have plenty with which to be displeased. But square in the face of the despicable "angry black woman" trope, the Washington-Kaiser poll reveals quite the opposite. Nearly 3 in 4 black women felt it was a good time to be a black woman in America, and 85 percent report that they are satisfied with their lives as a whole.

Perhaps most interesting, black female entrepreneurs are the fastest growing segment of the women-owned business market. They are starting up at six times the national average, grew in number by 258 percent over the last 15 years, and generated nearly $45 billion of revenue this year.

So why hasn’t political alienation suppressed their vote? A Harvard Journal of African American Policy paper titled, “Political Cynicism and the Black Vote,” suggests a notable difference in black voting behavior. The authors argue that unlike other races, when black voters have high cynical attitudes – specifically the feeling of political alienation – they turn out in higher numbers. This might help explain why black women voting rates continue to rise despite the political alienation they experience.

This symbiotic relationship of cynicism and turnout, coupled with an uninterested Republican Party, leads to a continuation of a devalued vote and unaddressed concerns. This is the complex cycle that must be broken.

The only way to stop alienating black women is to have a targeted goal of reducing the inequity they experience. There are no shortcuts. There are no speeches or appearances at churches, conventions, or HBCUs that alone will allay concerns. The hard work of effecting real change must be done.

Black women have clearly made their most pressing concerns known: among other things, they need health insurance and more access to doctors, reduction of violent crime, equal access and opportunity to quality education, and a paycheck that does not discriminate against them for being black and female.

Not only is this not too much to ask, it’s the very least the country can do.

If there are doubters that think an effort to specifically boost black women is unfair in some way, there is a straightforward response to this concern, founded in three truisms. First, there is little more unfair than the disparities black women face across the socioeconomic spectrum. Though they are not the most marginalized in every instance – for example, Hispanic women have lower incomes on average – the confluence of all the factors makes their American experience especially imbalanced.

Second, an effort must be specific to black women (in addition to those for black Americans in general), because when considering the number of registered voters and participation rate, the political voice of black women is extraordinarily strong: In the 2012 presidential election, the voting rate of black women was almost 10 percent higher than that of black men.

Third, when black and white men and women were asked whether they identify more with their race or gender, the results were clear. Nine out of ten white men and women identified with gender first, not race. Black women, however, identified with race over gender at the highest rate, even 25 percent more than black men.

These three points taken together mean that when black women speak, they show up in numbers, they highlight issues of national importance, and they pinpoint a unique perspective of inequity that, if addressed, will close the gaps for all Americans. Long overdue, treating black women fairly is the right thing on its own merits, and also the best thing for the nation.

The political alienation of black women may prove beneficial to the winners who are swept into office from their high turnout, but the failure to adequately address the disparities they experience dooms any attempt at sound social policy. The nation would do well to ensure this alienation does not continue, but instead, as Toni Morrison once declared, go on and ensure the necessary work gets done.

By Theodore R. Johnson

Theodore R. Johnson is a freelance writer, and served as a military professor at the Naval War College and as a 2011-12 White House Fellow. His views do not reflect those of the Defense Department.

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African Americans Black Women Crime Democracy Health Care U.s. Politics Unemployment Voting Women