By Sikivu Hutchinson
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton rode a wave of feminist zeal. Touted by Gloria Steinem and other marquee white feminists as the antidote to “the patriarchy”, Clinton strode onto the national stage with her women’ s rights bona fides largely unquestioned. Flash forward and the adulation has waned. As evidenced by last night’s debate, Bernie Sanders’ left flank challenge has exposed Clinton’s corporate/centrist/imperialist underbelly and made her scramble for the populist street cred she lacks. Cautiously rebranding herself as a “practical” progressive, Clinton touted family friendly policies, an end to mass incarceration (motivated by the challenge she’s gotten from Black Lives Matters activists), subsidized college tuition, universal pre-K and defense of women’s health as bread and butter issues she’d fight for. In a nod to her traditional base, she attacked the GOP theocracy’s cowardly assault on Planned Parenthood.
Yet, as the economic climate worsens for communities of color, generalized white feminist shibboleths on women’s rights won’t cut it for women of color. For example, the Democrats’ narrow focus on income inequality and equal pay for equal work (a half step that would exclude women who work in low-paid historically female jobs) ignores the massive race/gender wealth gap which separates white women and women of color. While Clinton and Sanders blasted the big banks and the disaster of deregulation, there was no mention of the devastating impact of predatory and subprime lending on communities of color—policies that disproportionately affected black women and have decimated black wealth.
Over the past decade, the wealth gap between black women and virtually everyone else in the U.S. has widened to epic levels. According to the NAACP, in 2012, “Wealth for black women under age 65 was $100, amounting to a penny of wealth for every dollar of wealth owned by single black men and a fraction of a penny for every dollar of wealth owned by single white women or men.” Because African American women bear a greater child care burden, this disparity is not mitigated by the larger numbers of women of color in higher education relative to men (a factor which conservatives and others cite as an example of how sexist discrimination is nonexistent). As Nia Hamm writes about a recent Congressional Black Caucus economic report, “When African-American mothers — more than half of whom are raising their children on their own — can’t financially support their families, the consequences often have long-lasting and devastating implications for their communities.” Further, women of color are less likely to work in jobs that have wealth-generating fringe benefits such as defined benefit retirement plans or paid sick leave.
The nexus between poverty, wealth and opportunity is also reflected in the criminalization of black girls and women. Nationwide, African American girls are 14% of the youth population but constitute 34% of the juvenile incarcerated population. When white girls attend America’s schools they don’t have to fear being pounced on by school police or local law enforcement for not conforming to gender norms. As the African American Policy Institute has noted, black girls are subject to pernicious double standards about their race/gender identities. And they are systematically funneled through what the Human Rights for Girls organization identifies as the “sexual abuse to prison pipeline”. While prison pipelining ensnares youth of color of all genders, girls of color who are sexually abused are more likely to wind up in juvenile jails and experience a cycle of re-victimization that may result in commercial sexual exploitation. Nationwide, black girls have some of the highest rates of domestic sex trafficking victimization.
But when it comes to the status of black women in the U.S., the intersection of sexual violence, economic inequality and mass incarceration is seldom addressed in national policy forums. From the wealth gap to sex abuse prison pipelining, white women and girls actively benefit from black female criminalization. When white girls are perceived as brainy and/or non-threatening in schools with zero tolerance policies they automatically benefit from the wages of whiteness. When campaigns against sex trafficking minimize or don’t focus on the epidemic of sexualized violence against black girls and women, white girls and women are the default victims of choice.
Both Clinton and her right wing evil twin Carly Fiorina illustrate the perils of white role model feminism and the optics of empowerment. Rounding out her self-portrait in last night’s closing statements, Clinton extolled her “blessed” status as one who came from a humble background yet was able to seize the rugged individualist promise of American capitalist opportunity. Missing was a nod to the civil rights and social justice legacies—most notably affirmative action, which white women have been the biggest beneficiaries of—that facilitated her success and helped consolidate white middle class postwar wealth. But of course, Clinton’s narratives of progressive sisterhood only extend so far.