A NEW ORLEANS TRIBUNE EDITORIAL:
Lately, much has been made of the powerful profile of Black women—from their central role as organizers and leaders behind the Black Lives Matters hashtag turned movement, to prominent positions of power in the political arena during a pivotal election year with three Black woman taking center stage at the Democratic National Convention as convention chair, interim Democratic National Committee chair and CEO of the convention.
And as the 2016 Summer Olympic Games progressed, the fact that Black women dominated—setting records and winning medals in everything from gymnastics to swimming to the shot put—has not gone unnoticed. Indeed, it has remained a trending topic across social, online and traditional media.
And it should be.
We think it’s great, and we know BlackGirlMagic is real. In fact, with a Black woman serving as publisher and executive editor and another serving as managing editor of this very publication, we are keenly aware of BlackGirlMagic. Actually, we know it as much more than a hash tag. Truth be told, we know it for what it is—work, really hard work. Yep, there is not much mystical charm or magic to it at all. Though it does not sound as catchy and probably would not trend #BlackGirlRelentlessEffortInTheFaceOfGreatOdds would be a far more accurate hash tag.
Here’s another secret. Black women rising to the top is not some new-fangled thing. Black women have not just now climbed to prowess or power, nor have they been ushered in by the largess of others. Black women have been making it, grinding hard and earning their positions of dominance since…well since forever. Just think Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Ida Wells Barnett, and of an endless list of phenomenal Black women in both history and current times.
Even as the DNC pats itself on the back for making history by nominating the first woman presidential candidate and for having Marcia Fudge, Donna Brazile and Leah Daughtry at the helm of the party and its recent convention, we are reminded of Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Jordan and Fannie Lou Hammer. To be candid, putting Black women front center at the party convention represents the very least the DNC could do considering that Black women represent a major voting bloc for the party, which has offered them very little in return for their allegiance. We will talk more about that later in this editorial.
To that end, we can’t help but look at this acute interest in the might and authority of Black women, especially as being demonstrated in mainstream and majority-owned media outlets that target Black people (yes, we are talking about theroot.com, and even Essence and Ebony and BET, none of which, need we remind you, are Black owned) with a jaded eye.
It is not that we don’t think it is right or warranted. To be sure, the work of Black women on various fronts in political, social justice, business, civic leadership and professional athletics has always been vital. Now that it is so fashionable to laud Black women, their clout and muscle, it is imperative to ensure that this constant barrage of messages about the superhero Black woman does not perform a disservice by lulling us into a false sense of arrival and acceptance or by diminishing the significance of Black men and our need to stand and work together for the overall betterment of our families and our communities. Now more than ever Black women and Black men need each other.
Quite frankly, we detest reiterating the historical context of the existence of Black people in America and how the intentional depravity of human chattel slavery and subsequent social constructs diminished the role of the Black man in Black families and communities—not because it isn’t true, but because we’re really tired of repeating it. But, we will again to make our point clear.
First, a disclaimer: None of this, of course, is offered as an excuse to exonerate the Black man from not stepping up for his woman, his family and the larger community, but merely as framework to delineate the intentional design that has created a society that seems all too ready to celebrate Black womanhood, while disregarding Black men.
Fatherless families and women as heads of households in Black families are not African phenomena, but purely a result of enslaving Black bodies. The advent of a matriarchal focus in Black families and communities was not accidental but born out of the practice of splitting families by selling men and older children away. In most slave states, Black men and women were barred from legally marrying. Black women led, protected and provided for their families (in as much as any enslaved or relegated woman could) because Black men were, as a rule, systematically removed from anything that resembled the family structure during slavery. Reinforcing the importance of enslaved Black women during this time served no purposes other than to weaken the role of Black men to little more than breeders and to increase the stock of slave holders. For example, the rule of the day was that condition of enslavement followed the mother, meaning that a free Black man could father children with an enslaved Black woman, but his children were enslaved—owned by another man. And in many cases, when slaves were allowed to “marry” and have families, it was not uncommon for the husband to be enslaved on one plantation while his wife and children were owned by another and enslaved on a nearby plantation. The enslaved Black man may have been given privileges to visit his family once or twice a week.
But if there is any doubt that family units were important to Black people even during slavery, it should be noted that after emancipation, newly freed Black men wandered the South in search of their families. For their trouble, many were arrested and essentially re-enslaved, forced into free labor as punishment for breaking contrived “vagrancy” laws passed after 1865. And research tells that after slavery ended Black men did everything from putting ads in newspapers to requesting help from the Freedman’s Bureau to search for a separated wife and children.
According to a journal article by Tristan Tolman titled “The Effects of Slavery and Emancipation on African-American Families and Family History Research”, a Union officer wrote his wife in 1865:
“I wish you could see this people as they step from slavery into freedom. Men are taking their wives and children, families which had been for a long time broken up are united and oh such happiness. I am glad I am here.”
In another case, a Freedmen’s Bureau officer recounted that family members searched for lost family members “with an ardor and faithfulness sufficient to vindicate the fidelity and affection of any race, the excited joys of the re-gathering being equaled only by the previous sorrows and pains of separation.”
Tolman’s research also sheds additional light on the post-emancipation lives of Black men and women, telling that “thousands of Black husbands and wives legally validated their marriages after 1865. By 1870, a large majority of Blacks lived in two-parent households. After emancipation, most Black mothers quit working in the fields and became full-time homemakers. Some White planters lamented this loss in the labor force, and one planter even appealed to the head of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Georgia for measures to require Black women to return to the fields. Nevertheless, Black women almost universally withdrew from field labor, sending a clear message that their families came first. Unfortunately, the opportunity for Black women to remain at home was often short-lived. The dire poverty of most Black families made it necessary for fathers and mothers to contribute to the family income.”
We Must Stand Together
By 1964, only 52 short years ago, the rate of out-of-wedlock births in Black families was only 24.5 percent. In other words, more than 75 percent of Black children born in America by 1964 were born into married, two-parent households—astonishing for a race of people who were for the most part not allowed to legally marry or even legally recognized as human beings just 100 years earlier. Yet by 2008, the rate of out-of-wedlock births nearly tripled to 72.4 percent. Arguably, the image and reality of the absent Black man and father has been perpetuated by social welfare policies that de-incentivize a two-parent family structure by reducing benefits based on family income or policies that force poor women to identify the child’s father so that the government can get reimbursed for public assistance payments. These policies are exacerbated by other socio-economic disparities such as high unemployment and low wages among Black men. Some have argued that the message all of this has sent to Black men is that their presence and contribution to their communities and families are unnecessary. Nothing could be further from the truth. As one statistic tells, married or cohabitation Black households have a median wealth of $31,500, while single African-American women have a median wealth of $100 and single Black women with children have a median wealth of $0. If for no other reason than wealth building and economic growth, we need to stand together.
But there are other reasons. At The New Orleans Tribune, we have made clear that in our assessment there is an escalating war against Black people in general—and Black men, specifically. An examination of statistics that detail the state of Black men in America as it relates to everything from criminal justice to employment and economic opportunity, and education bears this out.
In the area of education, only 45 percent of Black males graduate from high school. Thirty-two percent of all students suspended from school are Black (most of them are male).
In unemployment and economics, at comparable education levels, Black men earn 67 percent of what White men make; and White males with a high school diploma are just as likely to have a job and tend to earn just as much as Black males with college degrees. Nationally, unemployment among Black men aged 20 and older is nearly three times that of White men, at 18.9 percent and 7.5 percent, respectively, for the second quarter of the year. Meanwhile, more than 53 percent of Black men aged 25-34 are either unemployed or earn too little to lift a family of four from poverty.
In incarceration and crime, Blacks, who comprise 12 percent of the population and 13 percent of drug users, constitute 35 percent of all arrests for drug possession, 55 percent of all convictions on drug charges and 74 percent of all those sentenced to prison for possession. This can be traced directly to the draconian laws set in place some 25 years ago that have resulted in the mass incarceration of several generations of Black men. Six percent of all Black men are currently serving time in prison or jail compared to two percent of all White men. Approximately 34 percent of all Black men are ex-offenders compared to 12 percent of White men. More than 1.46 million Black men out of a total voting population of 10.4 million have lost their right to vote because of felony convictions. It has turned our communities upside down, taking fathers out of homes, depleting the pool of marriageable Black men and creating impossible situations for many Black men who return to society unable to secure decent housing or jobs to provide for themselves or the families because of felony convictions.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice estimates that one out of every 21 Black men can expect to be murdered. A young Black male in American is more likely to die from gunfire than was any soldier in Vietnam.
And while the statistics are sobering, it’s deeper than that. As excitedly as the mainstream media and other power structures seem to enthusiastically highlight success among Black women, there is a marked disregard and sometimes pointed effort to disparage and denigrate leadership and power when exhibited by Black men. And in political arenas, strides are often taken to paint Black leadership, especially among men, as “inept” and “corrupt” especially when his efforts and guidance appears to strengthen or even aid the Black community. A Black judge in Kentucky recently came under fire and was suspended for his vocal objection to all-White juries in cases where defendants were Black. Judge Olu Stevens approved motions for two new juries in cases of Black defendants who received all-White juries and was subsequently removed from the bench for about week for doing nothing more than attempting to ensure fairness in the criminal justice process. And there are local examples. Whatever his crimes were, the power structures in New Orleans only seemed hell-bent to go after former Mayor Ray Nagin after he made clear his intention to not exclude the city’s Black residents from returning on the heels of Hurricane Katrina.
Historically, violence and terror were used to weaken and even kill successful Black men who led successful Black communities. The racially-motivated attacks on the Black community of Greenwood in Tulsa, Okla., in 1921, that destroyed the community known as Black Wall Street—then the wealthiest Black community in the nation filled with Black-owned businesses, churches, homes—is just one example. To be sure, Black men who owned land and businesses were prime targets of lynching in America.
As The New Orleans Tribune detailed in an article about two years ago, titled “Black Man Down”, the very image of the Black man has been assaulted and twisted to fit a the narrative needed to justify the nation’s treatment of Black men. In that issue we, wrote:
“From images as docile, ignorant, almost child-like during slavery to the post-slavery depiction of the Black brute to today’s images of Black men as dangerous criminals and thugs, an all-out assault on the Black man’s image in America was waged with the first slave ship that arrived on America’s shores. Those concocted images were needed as justification. If the Black man was meek, unenlightened and dependent, he needed to be enslaved so that his master could care for him. But the free Black man needed to be seen as an aggressive beast…to lend credence to the invented notion that the newly freed Blacks, especially Black men, were a danger and a threat…The fabrication of the Black brute justified the lynching of Black people and validated the Ku Klux Klan and the establishment of Jim Crow. To be sure, the proliferation of the Black man’s image as monstrous, animalistic and hostile was so powerful that it helped to create the conditions that made America a place where more than 3,400 Black people (mostly men) could be lynched from 1882 to 1951.”
Indeed, today’s scenes of Black bodies being cutdown by police and White vigilantes—often with impunity—remind us of that time.
Yes, Magic: Smoke and Mirrors
Even as 2016 shapes up to be the supposed “Year of the Black Woman,” we move cautiously, remembering how in 2008 after the election of Barack Obama there were those who insisted that America was post-racial. We knew better then, that not even the election of a Black man as president signaled an end to systemic racism—constructs and structures designed to marginalize and disenfranchise. The arrival of one Black man did not change that.
And, we know better now. The celebrated successes of some Black women do not change the plight of the collective.
Black women make up about a little less than 7.4 percent of the total U.S. population and 13 percent of the total female population in America while accounting for 52 percent of all Black people in America. That is to suggest that the well-being of Black women in America is far more tied to racial identity than gender. And as the Center for American progress notes, while Black women have made noteworthy gains in a number of areas, the racial and ethnic disparities they face are as wide and striking as ever.
Just consider a few statistics in health, educational attainment, economic security and political leadership.
African-American women have the highest rates of premature births and are more likely to have infants with low and very low birthrates.
Black women are four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes such as embolism and pregnancy-related hypertension, than any other racial group
Black women have higher overall mortality rates from breast cancer.
According to Census data, White women make more than African-American women among full-time, year-round workers regardless of the degrees they have attained.
African American women held 8.58 percent of bachelor’s degrees held by women in 2012 though they constituted nearly 13 percent of the female population.
Only two percent of African-American women are represented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, fields, while women in total make up 24 percent of the STEM workforce.
Black women earn only 64 cents to the dollar while White, non-Hispanic women earned 78 cents to the same dollar, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Between 2007 and 2012, Black women doubled their share of workers earning minimum wage or less.
The unemployment rate of Black women ages 20 and older was almost twice that of white women in the second quarter of 2016. Black women 20 and older had an unemployment rate of 6.8 percent for the second quarter of the year, compared to 3.8 percent for White women.
Black women are still about three times more likely to be incarcerated than White women, which disproportionately hurts Black children as Black women are often the primary caregivers for their families.
The poverty rate for African-American women is 28.6 percent. In comparison, the poverty rate of White, non-Hispanic women is 10.8 percent.
The highest poverty rate in America (roughly 46 percent) is still for Black families with children which are headed by Black women.
Carol Mosely Braun, who served from 1993 to 1999, is as of right now the only Black woman to ever have served in the U.S. Senate. If Kamala Harris edges out her Latino, female opponent in California’s U.S. Senate race in November, she would only be the second Black woman elected to the U.S. Senate in the 227-year history of the body.
While Shirley Chisholm made history as the first Black woman elected to serve in the U.S. Congress in 1968, in the nearly 50 years since her historic election only 37 other Black women have served in Congress. Twenty-one are Black women are serving now, representing less than four percent of all members of the U.S. Congress.
In fact, Congress is still overwhelmingly White and overwhelmingly male, which suggests that many of the policy changes and initiatives that are needed to improve the lives of all Black women in America will be slow to come. Nonetheless, we share these grim statistics not to dismiss the successes and gains that ought to be celebrated, but to remind that the only group of people more marginalized in America than Black women are, well, Black men.
As the imagery of Black men being shot down in our communities—their bodies sometimes left lying on the pavement—plays out in our minds, we can find little time to rejoice.
And we cannot afford to allow anything to divide us.
That is why we must stand together.
Their struggle is ours.