Bridging Black and women’s history months: why “Black Women Best” can deliver liberation for all

March 5, 2021 Ms. Magazine

It’s the end of Black History Month and the start of Women’s History Month, but you know what never ends? The crucial need for our society to center women of color—in everything, especially the economy.

This is what “Black Women Best” is all about. Coined by Janelle Jones, the Black Women Best framework contends that when Black women—arguably the most structurally marginalized group in America—are centered in U.S. policymaking and politics, then we can produce better economic outcomes and a stronger society for everyone.

Jones is the former managing director of research and policy at the Groundwork Collaborative and now serves as (the first Black woman!) chief economist at the Department of Labor (DOL); as positioned in Vox, Jones and her Black Women Best framework could be essential in pushing the Biden administration to be brave and go big when it comes to the COVID-19 recession and our nation’s long-standing inequality crisis.

Let’s talk about that.

‘Black Women Best’ Is Inclusive of People Who Have Been Historically Excluded

Some argue that Black Women Best is exclusive. “The specifics of Black women best I think [are] hard for some people,” notes Jones. “Some of the early pushback was, ‘Black women will have all the money, and then everyone else will be poor.’ And that’s not the way the economy works.”

As it stands, it’s America’s economic system that is woefully unequal and unshared. Black Women Best is about dismantling that inequity and building a table that everyone can have a seat at.

Notably, as I wrote in my report with Jones and Grace Western:

“Centering Black women also means centering other marginalized identities, all of which intersect with race and gender and are identities that Black women hold and live. It means centering trans and queer people; incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people; people with disabilities; and immigrants, documented and undocumented. Centering Black women in policymaking, and all the intersecting identities Black women hold, ensures that Black women can build economic security.”

The truth is we’ve been doing (Rich) White Men Best since at least 1776. And that implicit framework

  1. has produced an economy that is only working for the very few, and
  2. has built systems and institutions that exclude, exploit and extract from everyone else.

The COVID-19 pandemic did not unleash inequality in the U.S.; it exposed it.

Recent statistics from the DOL include:

  • Black women experienced a 9.5 percent drop in employment, from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to January of this year;
  • Since January 2020, nearly 500,000 Black women have been pushed out of the labor market;
  • Black women comprise nearly 25 percent of public sector workers and approximately 13 percent of leisure and hospitality workers, two industries hardest hit by shutdowns and austerity measures (austerity is an implicitly racist policy choice, as outlined by Jhumpa Bhattacharya of the Insight Center);
  • Despite having the highest labor participation rate among all adult working women, the rate for Black women fell 4 percentage points in 2020 (in contrast to 2.8 for Latina women and 1.7 for white women).

These statistics amplify ongoing trends throughout U.S. history, both in times of recession and not, that have disproportionately held back Black women and other people of color for generations. As Jones explains, “The latest data isn’t unusual. The economics of Black Americans have always been worse than what the average statistics suggest. In fact, in every economic recession of the last 50 years, Black women have had higher unemployment rates than white men—and the recovery rates of Black men and women have been slower than that of the white labor force.”

Black Women Best is inclusive, not only in regards to who will benefit from its impact but also in the ways that it can help undo deep-rooted racism, sexism, xenophobia, queerphobia and ableism that pervade our society—and that define our nation’s priorities and the potential of its people.

“Over the past year … we’ve seen righteous fights for student debt cancellation or a $15 minimum wage be derailed by arbitrary ‘cost concerns—despite the fact that these efforts would help us overcome income and wealth inequality,” writes Bozarth. Pictured: A fast food worker strike organized by the Fight for $15 in Milwaukee in May 2014. (Joe Brusky / Flickr)

COVID-19 Recovery and So Much More

Time and again, it is Black women and other structurally marginalized groups who are left out of policy debates and left behind in policy decisions. Over the past year, we’ve witnessed policymakers, academics and the broader public celebrate the decline or growth in headline measures like unemployment or GDP, respectively, without asking, “Who does this serve?” We’ve seen righteous fights for student debt cancellation or a $15 minimum wage be derailed by arbitrary “cost” concerns, despite the fact that these efforts would help us overcome income and wealth inequality.

That’s why a growing chorus of folks are demanding that we redefine how we measure economic health by prioritizing the health of our people, across all issues and in all places. Always but especially now, our government’s central focus can and must be lifting up those who’ve endured and continue to withstand the most, so that we are raising the floor for everyone now and for generations to come.

This is how Black Women Best delivers: It’s about centering those who are most disadvantaged and whose livelihoods—and lives—are most at risk from systemic injustice, so that none of us are restrained by these harms. So that, through Black Women Best, we can all finally be free.

Read on Ms. Magazine.