A Class-Only Approach Will Fail Women of Color

June 1, 2017

Last week President Trump released a budget that would gut public programs that lift up millions of American women and families. Contrary to its title, “A New Foundation for American Greatness,” the budget is a roadmap to a place where women and their families would be less safe, less healthy, and less economically secure. As we argue in a new report published by the Roosevelt Institute and the Ms. Foundation for Women, women, and particularly women of color, are at greatest risk from the President’s latest proposal.

Among all social groups in the United States, women of color experience some of the starkest disparities and inequities across nearly every social and economic indicator: Compared to white women, they have higher levels of unemployment and poverty; they have significantly less wealth; they are more likely to be targeted by and come in contact with the criminal justice system; they are at a much higher risk, regardless of their income or education, of dying as a result of pregnancy and of losing their children in infancy; they are less likely to own a home and more likely to have high-risk mortgages when they do own a home; and they are less likely to attend college and, when they do, tend to carry heavier student debt burdens. They are caught in a web of injustices.

In the wake of the 2016 election some progressives have called for the abandonment of so-called “identity politics” in an effort to attract Obama-turned-Trump voters. This echoes the assertion from some progressive leaders in recent years that improving economic conditions for women—by increasing the minimum wage, instituting paid family leave and paid sick leave, and expanding affordable childcare—will create the rising tide that will lift all boats. It’s true that these issues are critically important to all low-income women, and particularly to women of color, who are disproportionately represented among low-wage workers. However, for women of color, social justice will not be an inevitable byproduct of economic progress given the racism and sexism baked into our social and economic systems.

Our report argues that future policy agendas must be both deeper and broader than those we have seen in the past. Deeper in the sense that we must account for the role not only of wages and workplace policies, but also of the striking racial and gender gaps in wealth and how wealth disparities are driving factors in economic inequality more broadly. And broader in the sense that we must acknowledge how the interlocking violations of women’s safety and health—including domestic violence and sexual harassment, the overreach of the criminal justice system, the threat of deportation, attacks on health coverage and reproductive health access, high rates of maternal and infant mortality, and the toxic stress of racism and sexism—hinder economic opportunities and limit the impact of those economic opportunities when they are accessed. In other words, racism and sexism are systemically codified into our country’s institutions. While women, and women of color in particular, should be able to seek redress from our government, too often it is our government itself that perpetrates, reinforces, and reproduces systems and practices of oppression.

The women- and women of color-led organizations featured in the report, many of which the Ms. Foundation funds, have always known this. They explicitly work at the intersections of women’s identities, understanding that there is no path to justice for all without first improving conditions for women who are oppressed in multiple ways.

Explicitly addressing the injustices experienced by women of color would improve the health, safety, and economic security of those women, their families, and their entire communities. And we also know that doing so would have broader, positive impacts on our economy and society. After all, the deep inequities experienced by women of color are, to borrow from Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres, a miner’s canary, pointing to underlying social and economic problems that are toxic for our broader communities and the nation as whole. There is no better time than the current political moment to look to the work of women of color leaders who have long modeled the importance of simultaneously tackling economic, racial, and gender inequities.