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Race and Economy

Why centering Black women in the economy could benefit everyone

Maria Hollenhorst and Kai Ryssdal Sep 1, 2020
Heard on:
Black women are typically one of the hardest hit groups in recessions and the last to benefit in recoveries. What would happen if economic policy was centered around helping them succeed? FG Trade/Getty Images
Race and Economy

Why centering Black women in the economy could benefit everyone

Maria Hollenhorst and Kai Ryssdal Sep 1, 2020
Heard on:
Black women are typically one of the hardest hit groups in recessions and the last to benefit in recoveries. What would happen if economic policy was centered around helping them succeed? FG Trade/Getty Images

This Friday, we’ll get the next monthly snapshot of the labor market from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While we don’t yet know exactly what the August unemployment rate will be, one thing’s certain: the Black unemployment rate is going to be higher — a lot higher — than the white unemployment rate. It’s been that way as long as we’ve been measuring it. Last month it was 9.2% for white workers and 14.6% for Black workers. 

As part of an hourlong Marketplace special called, “The Economy, Reset,” Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal spoke with Janelle Jones, the managing director of policy and research at the Groundwork Collaborative, and Michelle Holder, an assistant professor of economics at John Jay College at the City University of New York, about why centering the economy around workers who are typically left behind — specifically, Black women — could help make the economy work better for everyone.

Janelle Jones: You know, a lot of the way I experienced the economy, how I came to study economics, how I came to think that policy work in economics is a way to change people’s lives is rooted in my journey as a Black woman, in, you know, seeing my mom and my aunts and my grandmothers, and how their experience with the economy really had effects that rippled through our family, through our community, through our society.

Kai Ryssdal: That is Janelle Jones. She’s the managing director of policy and research at the Groundwork Collaborative.

She’s joined today to talk about why the way that Black women are treated in the economy matters for all of us by professor Michelle Holder at John Jay College at the City University of New York. 

Michelle Holder: Please call me Michelle, only my students have to call me professor Holder.

Ryssdal: Noted. But having a Michelle, and a Janelle in one radio story gets tricky in a hurry, so we’re gonna stick with professor Holder.

Holder: Ah, OK.

Ryssdal: Thanks for understanding.

Holder: Sure.

Ryssdal: These two women know each other, by the way. In fact, they recently published a paper together on Black women and COVID-19.

But how Black women get by in this economy isn’t just something these two study, it’s something they live.

Holder: I’m a Black woman. I’m a Black woman, and I actually did face a wage gap issue.

Ryssdal: Professor Holder was working at a nonprofit, years ago.

Holder: And had a white male colleague and a white female colleague, and I noticed that I was being paid five to ten thousand dollars less.

Ryssdal: She negotiated a raise and did wind up staying at the company for a while, but she also knows she’s not the only Black woman with a story about making less than her white male colleagues.

In 2019, Black women earned around 62 cents on the dollar compared to white men, Holder said, because of the kinds of jobs Black women tend to do, and the education they tend to have …

Holder: And then there’s a third element, which really boils down to discrimination and bias.

In recessions, Black women have been among the hardest hit, and the last to benefit when the recovery starts.

Right now their unemployment rate is 13.5%. Black women are also far more likely to be the main breadwinners in their families when compared to other groups of women.

Janelle Jones at the Groundwork Collaborative, sees those economic realities Black women face as an opportunity …

Jones: … for making better, more inclusive economic policy that I think really will make everyone else better off.

Ryssdal: And she’s got these three little words, this catchphrase that she’s been saying for a while now to sum it up.

Jones: Black Women Best.

Ryssdal: Black Women Best.

Jones: Black Women Best is a framework and ideology that says we should shift the economic worldview to center and elevate Black women in ways that will benefit the rest of us.

Ryssdal: In other words, if we set up the economy in a way that makes sure Black women are doing well, the rest of us benefit.

Jones: The pushback I often get is, oh, well, you just want Black women to do well, while everyone else lives in poverty. And it’s like, no, that’s, that’s not true at all, the idea of Black Women Best is incredibly inclusionary because it means listening to folks who have ideas for solutions, who think about the economy differently, who experience it differently, who also, because of the makeup of our society are often breadwinners, who often are leading households. Centering this group of workers is important at any moment, but particularly now as we think about ways to rebuild the economy in a way that is more fair and equitable and inclusive given our current economic recession.

Janelle Jones, courtesy of The Groundwork Collaborative
Janelle Jones (Courtesy of the Groundwork Collaborative)

Ryssdal: Well, say more about what happens if Black women are prioritized? What happens in the rest of the economy?

Jones: Yeah. So something I’ve been saying is that, in the history of this country, it is impossible for Black women to be doing well when everyone else is not doing well. When we say that our economy is not recovered until Black workers have full employment, what that means is that a ton of other demographic groups have already gotten there, because Black unemployment has been so high. And I think centering Black women is a perfect way to do that because they are at the intersection of systemic racism and misogyny that really flows through and is embedded through our economy in a ton of ways and that different groups definitely experience, but it’s, you know, it’s that intersection that really does matter.

Ryssdal: That intersection where racial bias meets the gender bias that Janelle Jones is talking about? It’s not just anecdotal. It’s something that economists study and something that Michelle Holder has quantified.

Holder: It’s pretty enormous.

Ryssdal: Just how enormous? After a quick break.

Ryssdal: We were talking a minute ago … about the obstacles Black women face in this economy. Specifically, the place where racial bias meets gender bias.

Holder: I’ve written about this topic, and I call it the double gap.

Ryssdal: That’s professor Michelle Holder again at John Jay College at the City University of New York.

Holder: Black women not only face the gender wage gap, as [do] most women in the American economy, but Black women also face a racial wage gap.

Ryssdal: One that, remember, she’s experienced first hand.

Holder: I noticed that I was being paid $5,000-$10,000 less.

Ryssdal: But she wanted a way to look at all of those experiences Black women have, all those stories they tell about making less than their white male colleagues make, in the aggregate.

Michelle Holder, courtesy of Michelle Holder
Michelle Holder (Courtesy of Michelle Holder)

Holder: So I quantified it. And the estimate that I came up with — and I have to say, it’s a conservative estimate — is about $50 billion a year.

Ryssdal: $50 billion.

That’s how much income Black women are losing every single year compared to white men with the same level of education doing the same kinds of jobs.

Holder: One should bear in mind that this is a reoccurring, involuntary loss not just to Black women, but the Black community writ large in the United States.

Ryssdal: But that money, the $50 billion a year, it isn’t just about the Black community.

Jones: There is this idea that, like, a rising tide lifts all boats.

Ryssdal: Janelle Jones again from the Groundwork Collaborative.

Jones: The rising tide of, I guess, capitalism? Which I think, you know, there’s some evidence to say, not quite. But there is a lot of evidence that shows that when we center workers who are usually left behind, those who are usually last to recover from recession, that it means that everyone else does well. It’s a little bit like the minimum wage debate in that, you know, when you raise the minimum wage to $7.25, the folks who are making $7.50, $8, $8.50 also receive an increase. It kind of like spills up the effects. And I think that’s the same thing that we see with Black Women Best.

Ryssdal: You know, it’s interesting, you say “center” and I said “prioritize” and obviously yours is much more useful and germain to what needs to happen, but —

Jones: Yeah, well, you know, the idea with “prioritizing” is that there’s always something else that happens. [In] the current world that we live in, we have a million priorities at this point, right? We have a global pandemic, we have an upcoming election, we have an economic recession, we have racial uprisings. Like, the idea that there’s some priority that’s bigger than the other one? I don’t know. I think that “centering” for me makes sense because it’s like keeping that thing core as all this other stuff rages around.

Ryssdal: What do you suppose, what actually has to happen though, like policywise, for Black women to be “centered” in this economy. What is that?

Jones: That is a great question that I honestly think people are afraid to answer because it’s not easy. The system of, like, systemic racism and just embedded discrimination in our economy is, it is multifacited, it is, like, self-reinforcing. I imagine that if somehow we could break it down it would, like, re-create itself. It’s so many things at once. You know, often when people ask that they want, they want me to say one thing, it’s like, oh, well, if we close the racial income gap, and Black women make as much as white men, it will be perfect. And I don’t think that’s true, because we have a huge racial wealth gap, we know that Black women are less likely to get hired, they’re less likely to get promoted. It’s all of these interacting things, which means that there’s not a silver bullet, and that means that it’s real work.

Ryssdal: But Janelle Jones says that ultimately …

Jones: It really does have to be a true conversation about power. I think it’s a lot of people who are holding positions of power really just like being willing to share that, being willing to share that.

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