The headline on the Second Annual Report on the Status of Women of Color in New York City from NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service released several weeks ago is about soaring rates of unemployment, imprisonment, and HIV. The analysis, drawn from census and other data, is a damning critique of several decades of government policy, the ineffectiveness of the civil rights establishment in seeking remedies for intertwined epidemics, and the failure of feminist organizations to advocate for women in need. The City Council held a hearing last month to air the specifics of the report. But even a cursory look at the figures for poverty, unemployment, education, incarceration, and mortality for Asians, blacks, Latinas, and Native Americans (census terms for the ethnic groups) provides a 10-year to-do list for social policy change or grounds for an old-fashioned multiple issue mass movement.
“It is important to look at these findings because we, as policy makers and citizens of this city, must be doing something wrong,” said Councilmember Tracy Boyland, chair of the Committee on Women’s Issues. “The current system isn’t working. Too many people are suffering disproportionately, and we need to take a look at why and how we can begin to change this situation. As New York City enters a period of rebuilding and restructuring, we should remember these women. They deserve to be seen in policy decisions.”
As is readily evident on the street, New York City has one of the most diverse populations in the country. Nearly two-thirds of all the women in the city are people of color, and although they became the dominant group of women more than a decade ago, the implication of this shift to a majority in greater need of jobs, educational tools, accessible health care, child care, and affordable housing went unacknowledged.
These women, a very young population, are taking the brunt of the AIDS epidemic, with African American and Puerto Rican women accounting now for 80 percent of AIDS and HIV-related deaths. They are taking the brunt of domestic violence and other assaults. Black women make up nearly 50 percent of deaths from assault; black and Hispanic women represent more than three-quarters of female homicide victims.
In 2000, black and Hispanic women were 85 percent of all women arrested. And the downturn in the economy, along with welfare “reform,” have certainly hit hard a population in which the proportion of women ages 16-24 incarcerated for prostitution jumped from 25 percent in 1995 to 42 percent in 2001. The arrest rate for black women also increased in that time span and is now higher than the rate for white men.
“Educational resources were not targeted to the growing number of young women of color; health care programs ignored the different needs of the increasingly diverse cultural groups; and school planners often remained oblivious to the changing birth and fertility rates,” said Dr. Walter Stafford, principal author of the study. “Closer attention to the demographic trends could have—with accompanying political will—diverted greater resources to address many of the treatable health and social conditions.”
As of 2000, 81 percent of women living in poverty were women of color, again mostly blacks and Latinas. In the 1990s black women and Latinas had the highest unemployment rates. More than a third of Latinas and Native American women now live in poverty, as do nearly a third of black women and 20 percent of Asian women. Post-9-11 numbers are not likely to be better.
While almost a third of Asian women have 13 or more years of education, another third did not complete high school. As for completing four or more years of college, only 20 percent of African American women, 14 percent of Native American women, 13 percent of Asians, and 8 percent of Hispanic women had done so as of 2000. Sixty-five percent of all the women with professional or graduate degrees were white.
Clearly education has to be a priority in a city where 76 percent of all women under the age of 15 now are Latina, African American, Asian American, or Native American. And among women of color there are still many young unemployed mothers. The infant mortality rate among blacks and Latinas, though in decline, continues to exceed the national average. Black infant mortality has been twice the national rate and in 2000 was still nearly double the national figure.
Councilman Bill Perkins, who has been working on the infant mortality issue for a number of years, plans to hold a series of hearings in Harlem with Boyland to meet with community people. He said the council will likely also hold a series of hearings to address individually the numerous areas of concern highlighted by the report.
“Obviously, from my point of view the objective is to create and sustain a base of support so that when we go through this budget process it doesn’t get cut,” said Perkins. “This is not a project for one budgetary season. The objective is to find what is manageable in the short term and raise the public awareness of the disparity.” With regard to infant mortality, he said, “This has to be outed as a major issue that is emblematic of access to health care. We have to make it a national issue.”
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.
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.”