NYC's Forsaken Future

An Alarming Report on the State of New York's Women of Color

One of the most important factors in the situation of women of color is a decline inincome. Passage of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, which eliminated welfare entitlements to five years over a lifetime, definitely hit New York's poorest women with great force. Between 1990 and 2000 the median family incomes for Asians and blacks decreased.

The average Asian family income in 2000 was $42,199, and for black families the average was $35,409. Income rose for Hispanics, the group with the lowest family incomes, but by amounts under $2000. The average Hispanic family income in New York was $27,748 in 1990 and $28,949 in 2000. White family income varies widely throughout the five boroughs, with the lowest average—$54,493—in the Bronx. White income also rose over the decade before 2000, most strikingly in Manhattan, where it climbed 21.4 percent. Ah, the boom years.

Since the 1990 census white women have obtained employment in a diverse range of jobs, and have moved up in their fields, while women of color have remained confined in certain industries and at lower levels of pay and responsibility. Sustained poverty is the obvious result when numbers for education, incarceration, and unemployment are all so negative, and yet the report also shows that educated women of color continue to have difficulty rising to top administrative and management positions in the public and private sectors.

Young women at a mall in Queens
photo: Tara Engberg
Young women at a mall in Queens

If you step into a bank, hospital, or city agency, to get your driver's license renewed, for instance, you might think black women run the city. The report cites that 21 percent of the city government workforce were black women in 2000, second only to white males, but only four percent were top administrators. Nearly half of all employed black women in the last census worked in health services, banks, and business services. A third of them are in health services. Nearly 40 percent of all employed Latinas work in health services, banks, and business services too. A quarter of Latinas were working in health services that year.

In the city government most black women are clerical workers in the lowest-paying jobs. While white women used to hold many jobs in social work, more than half of the social workers are now black women, and white women represent a major share of the city's lawyers.

The police and fire departments are another story. White males still had 90 percent of the positions in the NYFD in 2000, and 43 percent of police officers were white males. While 13 percent of the NYPD were black women, they were concentrated in clerical and guard jobs with the departments of Social Services and Administration for Children's Services, agencies with a high proportion of lower-paid employees.

Though the report emphasizes the invisibility of women of color, for those of us who deal with the daily insults when we are seen but not acknowledged, invisibility seems willed, and our visibility is stereotyped. Like men of color, we are not buzzed into locked doors because we are seen. We are the women permanently perceived as maids, or as salesgirls in stores we shop in, the enraged women depicted in shoddy sitcoms as creatures who provide the livelihood for four or five other people, but are still hoochie mamas or unattractive, sad blues singers everyone is scared to cross. The real women are simply offstage. The sweet mother in August Wilson's play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, whose memory sears the heart because she was raped by eight men who knew her to have no rights, is never seen or heard.

To paraphrase Fannie Lou Hamer, the special plight and role of women of color "is not something that just happened three years ago. We've had a special plight for 350 years." As Perkins rightfully pointed out, "How we treat our women and what happens to our children is an indictment of the society."

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