Combahee’s Legacy for Black Women Workers
Combahee’s Legacy for Black Women Workers
Over forty years ago, the 1977 Black feminist Combahee River Collective statement laid out a bold platform for anti-capitalist change. Black lesbian activist Barbara Smith and her co-authors argued “that all Black people’s oppression was rooted deeply in capitalism” and that it was important to use a “Marxist analysis…and an understanding of class relationships that takes into account the specific class position of Black women who are generally marginal in the labor force.” Staking out a socialist position, the Combahee Collective noted that, “Work must be organized for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products, and not for the profit of the bosses. Material resources must be equally distributed among those who create these resources… A socialist revolution that is not also a feminist and anti-racist revolution will not guarantee our liberation.”
As workers around the world observe May Day, Combahee’s vision still resonates for Black women workers facing a bleak economic landscape. Black women have the lowest proportion of household wealth in the U.S., possessing only pennies to the dollar of white families.
As workers around the world observe May Day, Combahee’s vision still resonates for Black women workers facing a bleak economic landscape. Black women have the lowest proportion of household wealth in the U.S., possessing only pennies to the dollar of white families. In a 2017 Forbes magazine article entitled “Black, Female and Broke”, Maya Rockeymoore noted, “Single Black women, for example, own only $200 in median wealth compared to $15,640 for single white women. Those with children have a median wealth of $0 compared to $14,600 for single white women.” Even more damningly, although Black women have the highest workforce participation and college-going rates among women in the U.S., these factors have not contributed to commensurate increases in wealth. For example, according to a 2017 study by the Samuel DuBois Cook Center, “Single white women without a degree have $3000 more in wealth than single Black women with a degree”. Single white women with bachelor’s degrees have seven times the wealth of single Black women with bachelor’s degrees. Not surprisingly, these disparities increase with marriage. Married Black women with bachelor’s degrees have five times less wealth than married white women with bachelor’s degrees. And although Black women are more likely to start small businesses than Black men and women of other ethnicities (in 2018, the number of Black women-owned businesses grew by a whopping 164%), they are typically shut out of lending, mentoring and pipelining opportunities that help small businesses get a foothold in their industries.
Thus, on every demographic indicator, Black women fare significantly worse than white women in wealth accumulation. Age, educational level, and marital status did not equalize their access to wealth relative to white women. Wealth accumulation is strongly influenced by residential and housing patterns. Because Black women of all classes live in disproportionately segregated communities with high levels of poverty and transience they have less access to the home equity that constitutes the primary source of American wealth. As a result, white women’s across the board advantages vis-à-vis Black women is rooted in the intersectional privilege of race and class. White women have historically had the advantage of “intergenerational transfers like financing a college education, providing help with the down payment on a house and other gifts to seed asset accumulation (that) are central sources of wealth building.”
Compounding these issues is the impact of last year’s Supreme Court ruling on the Janus vs. AFSCME case, which undermined public sector unions’ ability to collect dues and organize workers. Janus is especially harmful for Black women workers due to their greater levels of public sector union involvement and reliance upon the ever-shrinking defined benefit plans provided by government employers.
All of this comes as there is a supposed “reckoning” with the failures of capitalism among the robber baron one percent, who whine about their concern for income inequality in think pieces and conferences for the mega-rich. At the same time, mainstream outlets like MSNBC lament Americans’ notoriously low savings rates (the “average” household has approximately $12k in savings) but omit the racial and gender disparities that give white households a significant generational advantage in wealth accumulation. Doubling down on white supremacist patriarchy, Stephen Moore, the Trump administration’s pick for Federal Reserve chief, recently remarked that men’s declining salaries should be the primary concern for U.S. economic growth. Moore’s sexist claims were similar to other comments he’s made promoting gender discrimination in sports. But they are also symptomatic of the widespread view that women’s wages matter less to families, communities, and the American workforce than men’s do.
In addition, national assessments about the graying of the American workforce typically marginalize the staggering impact aging has on the livelihood of women of color workers.According to the AARP, age discrimination-related EEO complaints filed by African Americans have dramatically increased since the 1990s. Once Black women hit their fifties, they are at greater risk for job insecurity, career stagnation, unemployment, health challenges, bankruptcy, eviction, and homelessness. Older Black women who have spent most of their lives as sole or primary breadwinners (an estimated 80% according to the Economic Policy Institute) are also more likely to be saddled with caring for multiple generations, making retirement an elusive fantasy.
At recent presidential candidate forums for women of color voters and labor activists, some Democratic hopefuls outlined economic reform agendas advocating for more affordable and supportive housing, public sector union protection from pernicious Right to Work laws, Medicare expansion, universal child care, and reparations. The social democratic agendas of Bernie Sanders (who was jeered at the recent She the People voter forum over his failure to articulate specific proposals for Black women) and New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have forced these candidates to step up their rhetoric on incorporating racial and gender justice into their platforms. But for Black women workers, campaign promises trumpeting a laundry list of “reforms” will not redress the fundamental wealth divide that informs white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.
Lasting systemic change must include increasing taxes on corporations and the super elite, boosting capital investment in large scale supportive, subsidized housing that’s connected to wraparound mental health, wellness and educational services, daycare, and after school programming, instituting a guaranteed living wage as well as Swedish-style paid family leave. The gauntlet that Combahee threw down is still a revolutionary promise for Black women in an apartheid economy. As radical-progressive voices continue to hold corporate Democrats’ feet to the fire, Black women workers will be critical to turning the neo-fascist tide.
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