Women on the Front Lines
May Jobs Report: A Case Study in Pervasive Racism and Sexism
Equity, Jobs Report, TIME'S UP Impact Lab, Women on the Front Lines
Amid widespread protests against the rampant police brutality of Black people, the May jobs report is just one more example of the injustice and racism that Black Americans have faced for centuries. While the overall unemployment rate inched downward by 1.4 percentage points in May, unemployment for Black women actually rose by 0.1 percentage points and for Black Americans 16 to 19 years of age, it skyrocketed by 6.9 points.
It is therefore not enough to simply note that the COVID-19 crisis is having a “disproportionate impact” on Black Americans in the labor market. After all, the very roots of the American labor market can be traced back 400 years to chattel slavery and the forced labor of Black people.
As the effects of the Covid-19 crisis continue to play out, this becomes more evident than ever. As Dr. Lauren Powell of TIME’S UP Healthcare powerfully wrote, “COVID-19 continues to unearth the racist and unjust cracks in our society.”
The deep racial and gendered inequities we see in the labor market are symptoms of all the ways our economy and society are stacked against Black communities.
The headline jobs numbers this month were better than expected; however, one month does not make a trend. While the country gained back 2.5 million jobs, that was only a fraction of the 21.2 million total jobs lost in March and April, and the unemployment rate is still higher than it ever was during the 2008 Recession. And these gains are largely benefiting white workers: Less than half of all Black people are currently employed.
Recessions tend to hit communities of color – especially Black communities — harder because of labor market disparities rooted in structural racism: discrimination, occupational segregation, racial wealth disparities, among other factors. And while Black women bear the brunt of these forces, their stories are often rendered invisible, as women’s labor is undervalued and overlooked.
While the May jobs report shows modest improvement in the unemployment rate overall, women of color are still falling behind.
As the COVID-19 crisis has deepened, unemployment rates for Black and Hispanic/Latinx women – which are consistently higher than rates for white women, even in times of economic prosperity – have been rising at much faster rates.
In fact, while the unemployment rate for Hispanic or Latinx women remains higher overall, the unemployment rate for Black women ages 20 and older increased this month, as did the overall Black unemployment rate. This is the highest Black unemployment rate since 2010, following the 2008 financial crisis.
We must also consider who is left out of the unemployment rate calculation and how that erases the struggles of communities of color around the country.
The long-term unemployed: Because of the way it is calculated, the unemployment rate only captures unemployed Americans who have looked for work in the last four weeks, erasing the struggles of those who have been out of the labor market in the long-term. This is particularly significant for Black communities and other communities of color who saw persistently high unemployment rates following the 2008 recession, especially among those who had been unemployed for six months or longer.
The incarcerated population: The unemployment rate and other labor statistics only include individuals that are “noninstitutional,” effectively ignoring the incarcerated population – and the unpaid labor they are forced to do while incarcerated — in tracking economic health. Black men and women experience disproportionately high rates of incarceration, with Black men facing an imprisonment rate over five times that of white men, and Black women almost double that of white women. These records follow incarcerated individuals throughout their lives, imposing setbacks in job searches and pushing Black women into low paying, insecure jobs. Black women who aren’t incarcerated still bear the burdens of incarceration through secondary channels, whether by being saddled with fines and fees for incarcerated family members or in having fewer supports at home with domestic and childcare responsibilities, significantly limiting their freedom of choice in labor market decisions.
Those providing unpaid care labor: The child and elder care burden that so many women take on is amplified for Black women – and none of that labor is captured in the official labor statistics. Because Black women are overrepresented in low-paying, precarious work, the lack of quality, affordable childcare disproportionately limits their options. Black women are less likely to be able to pay for outside care and have less control over and less flexibility over their work hours.
The COVID-19 crisis is amplifying longstanding racial and gendered inequalities.
We see this in the stories of George Floyd, who was unemployed as a result of the coronavirus, and Breonna Taylor whose plans to become a nurse were unjustly thwarted by her murder. These economic impacts mount on top of generational trauma, disinvestments in community supports such as education, entrepreneurship, and housing, and the legacy of state-sanctioned racist violence that keep Black communities marginalized, no matter the gains being made elsewhere in our economy.
Women of color face disadvantages in the labor market to begin with – but economic fluctuations exacerbate these difficulties. Even as we are collectively facing a massive economic shock, Black and brown women are consistently putting their health at risk on the frontlines. Faced with constraints at both ends, Black women and other women of color are forced to make impossible choices between severely limited options.
We must provide the crucial labor market supports that women – and particularly women of color – have long been calling for, including quality, affordable childcare, paid family and medical leave, and a livable wage. But it also means that we need to grapple with the root causes of the inequities facing Black women in the labor market.
As Tina Tchen, TIME’S UP’s president and CEO shared this weekend, “only when we dismantle the entwined power structures of patriarchy and white supremacy will every person be able to live safely, free from the fear of violence, and with the true opportunity to reach their full potential.”
We can no longer look away.