Throughout modern history, and across the globe, one group has consistently borne more violence, abuse, and the trauma than they inflict: Black women. And we continue to receive the short end of the stick when it comes to governmental support and reparation. As a young Black woman working in policy, I am acutely aware of these histories and patterns, and know well the difference between action that materially benefits us and action which casts projections of us in a performance for someone else’s gain.
I spend a lot of time on social media, watching the news, and in organizing or advocacy circles. I notice a lot of gestures, nice words, and even catchy hashtags that have made their rounds last year as a way to show care, few of which survive even casual critical scrutiny. A recent iteration of these trends, one touted by notable figures like rappers, actors, and politicians, is the viral hashtag #ProtectBlackWomen. And yet, very limited strategic decision-making or concrete policy change to actually protect Black women is actually being taken along that line. They’re just words.
These vapid performances are perhaps even more frustrating after last year’s presidential election, one of the most anticipated elections in the nation’s history, and in which Black women played an utterly pivotal role.
These vapid performances are perhaps even more frustrating after last year’s presidential election, one of the most anticipated elections in the nation’s history, and in which Black women played an utterly pivotal role. The election included a few surprises, including flips (from Trump to Biden) in Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin. After an intense four years, we witnessed an election that could go either way and ended with the election of Joe Biden. A quick flip among CNN, NBC, Fox, and other networks, and the exit poll results were clear—the group that was by far the most likely to vote for the Democratic party was Black women, pulling in 90 percent of its vote for Biden, the largest in any demographic. This trend holds true across age, race, financial situation, and marital status.
So, once a victory was, finally, declared, Black women—a group who disproportionately showed up for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris—appropriately got considerable credit for that victory. A large round of thank yous to Black women made their way through social and news media, and impactful national conversations were had about the impact of Black women’s influence.
As a Black woman who had to endure a lot to cast my absentee ballot in Mississippi, the thank you was, at first, appreciated. Then, I realized that what I would have preferred was for that energy to be placed in enacting policy that actually supports and protects Black women.
Similar to painting “Black Lives Matter” in the street without enacting reforms that protect Black lives, extending a shallow thank you to Black women on a television show or on Twitter without acknowledging the pain we have endured throughout 2020, and long before, and without prioritizing paying us the reparations we are due, is unacceptable. We want, need, and deserve substantive changes to oppressive institutional practices and policies that impact us.
Here are some recommendations for policy changes that truly protect Black women.
Enact the Protect Black Women Act.
Congresswoman Robin Kelly (D-IL)’s Protect Black Women Act “establishes an Interagency Task Force to examine the conditions and experiences of Black women and girls.” The task force’s primary job would be to 1) gather data and information on the experiences of Black women and girls in education, economic development, health care, justice and civil rights, and housing; and 2) submit recommendations at specified intervals to Congress, the president, and state and local governments on policies, practices, programs, and incentives that should be adopted to improve outcomes for Black women, as well as how existing policies that disproportionately harm them should be changed.
Improve the quality and accessibility of health care services for Black women.
Black women’s difficulties in, and resulting mistrust of, U.S. health care systems has been a trending topic, with celebrities like Serena Williams and Beyoncé bringing the subject front and center. This distrust must be taken seriously, and responded to with the enactment of health care policy that decreases the maternal mortality rate. Many activists and organizations are ready with solutions. For example, Community Catalyst, an organization that advocates for transforming the American health care system, calls for the following:
- Create state maternal mortality review boards,
- extend Medicaid coverage for pregnant women to up to a year postpartum, and
- provide Medicaid coverage for doulas for low-income women.
Make schools safe for Black girls.
There is a serious dearth of education policy that addresses the racial and gender bias Black girls endure at school, including troubling discipline disparities. In schools, there should be an annual evaluation of discipline practices, with school boards being required to report their findings. The extreme over-disciplining Black girls experience is a topic Black women discuss and mourn at great lengths. Recently, Britney L. Jones, a Black woman and a doctoral student at the University of Connecticut, decided to research and advise the federal government on how to implement such an evaluation. In her research, she advised the federal government to require that schools doing the following:
- Provide a clear and accurate definition of racism for students, teachers, school leaders and community leaders. Oftentimes when discussing racism, there tends to be a difference of opinion on what it encompasses. We should clearly define every part of overt, covert, subliminal, institutional, and systemic racism.
- Devise a plan for policy dissemination. In other words, after you create the policy, be clear and concise with how you will distribute and enforce the policy. Oftentimes policies are created and the very simple step of amplification is missed, causing confusion and enfractions.
- Appoint an anti-racist committee or point person. Now that we know what the policy is and when everyone will receive it, there should be one clear individual or body of individuals tasked with reviewing, renewing, and enforcing anti-racist policies.
- Couple equity/anti-racist policy with other school or district-wide policies. Racism is not a single issue and does not exist in a silo. It’s in restroom policies, curriculum decisions and discipline practices.
- Partner with external organizations. While we know a lot of things, we don’t know everything. Organizations like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund have entire education funds and research departments dedicated to ensuring equity in schools. If school leaders partner with organizations who have been putting in the time and effort to understand the impact of racism, they will better understand their policies and its impact on kids.
An example of the above would be creating a school-wide racial slur zero tolerance policy. The school should clearly define racial slurs and distribute the policy alongside the list of slurs to the student body. The school would task their vice principal with overseeing this policy and ensure that it is enacted in the curricula, including literature that may include slurs. In the event of confusion, external civil rights groups’ research should be prioritized. There must be a clear and concise plan to address the issues Black girls face. Focusing on clear definitions, leadership, and partnerships will create a safeguard, making it impossible to get around fighting racism in a meaningful way.
Provide student debt forgiveness to low-income Black women.
Black women finish their postsecondary degrees with more debt than other women, a trend which swells even further the Black–White wealth gap. To address this widening wealth gap, the federal government should provide student loan forgiveness for anyone qualifying as low-income for longer than seven years. While this policy would not directly target Black women, given the wealth gap, Black women would disproportionately benefit from it.
Support women working in the child care industry.
A large percentage of the labor force in the child care industry is Black women, a fact which was true before the beginning of the current pandemic and which prevails today. Thus far, pandemic relief packages have failed to provide adequate funds for the hard-hit child care industry; that must change, and Black women stand to benefit tremendously from those changes. One policy idea that shows promise, put forth by researchers at the Center for American Progress, is a subsidy reimbursement rate based on actual operating costs, which would support access to affordable child care for working families and alleviate some of stress experienced by workers of color. If child care facilities are receiving the support they need, they won’t have to compromise the employment of Black women and the families relying on their child care.
I can’t help but wonder: What would the world look like if Black women stopped showing up?
Black women need these policy changes, from the Protect Black Women Act all the way through to the aforementioned labor support. And in general, we need the focus to shift from words to action. There are so many things by which Black women are disproportionately impacted; yet, as the election demonstrated, we continue to show up for others. I can’t help but wonder: What would the world look like if Black women stopped showing up?