Cultural Considerations to Enhance the Power of Black Women Best
This excerpt is from the Black Women Best (BWB) congressional report produced by LibGen and the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls (CCBWG). It was written by Azza Altiraifi, Kendra Bozarth, Rejane Frederick, and Anne Price with Jessica Fulton, Aisha Nyandoro, Marokey Sawo, and Tiffany Younger, as listed in the Acknowledgments section.
Black Women Best is more than a policy and political framework — it’s a values statement, an organizing praxis, and a call to action. BWB compels us to move beyond restrictive white supremacist and capitalist modes of being, relating with one another, and studying the world around us. Those in power have long presented the inequity, instability, and violence we collectively navigate as inevitable and even necessary. We are told that in capitalism there must always be winners and losers, forcing us to labor under conditions that crush our bodies and spirits to access life-sustaining resources that are increasingly captured by corporations and rationed by the state. BWB is a point of departure, challenging us to craft narratives that break free of the discursive parameters set by racial capitalism and transform our understanding of wealth, health, and freedom.
While the next section of the report will examine the policy applications of BWB more specifically, here we explore the narrative and cultural context needed to understand the framework fully. Using wealth as an example, we probe the provocations that BWB activates, call for an expansive vision of wealth, and lift up the narratives that will help us tell our economic story anew.
Expanding the Definition of Wealth and Reassessing How We Measure It
Policymakers committed to redressing economic oppression have rightly focused on the need to build wealth for Black women. But first, society as a whole must broaden its understanding of what that means and what it requires. Wealth is typically presented in terms of capital, but BWB is more interested in what wealth confers — such as agency and security — than in material wealth accumulation as an end in and of itself. When we look past material wealth, we see everything that wealth provides: the wealth of autonomy, of agency, of a legacy, of time. What if we leaned into radical imagination in our considerations of Black women’s wealth? What if we allowed Black women to define wealth for themselves, creating an entry point from which the conversation can be built on over time?
BWB centers ensuring economic prosperity for Black women, our families, our communities, and our society. While this includes eliminating the barriers to traditional forms of wealth-building that Black women face, it also means investing in community-based systems and formations that support people and their wellbeing.
As a financial asset, wealth provides a buffer against the unpredictability of life, but it also functions as an emotional and physical asset. People use wealth to build intergenerational security and resiliency, investing in education, entrepreneurship, home ownership, and more. They also use it to navigate unexpected circumstances, such as job loss or illness, and to secure literal safety, leaving an abusive relationship, for example.
When we expand the definition of wealth, we see how much our current systems and institutions cost Black women — and us all. Rather than being at the whim of an economy that drastically shifts expectations and compounds pressures, we need an economy that is human-centered, offering self-determination and opportunity while affirming our interdependence.
Quantitatively, BWB requires clear and concise measures of the many facets of Black women’s wealth. Our government has failed to prioritize intersectional analyses that would convey the “official” snapshot of Black women’s assets. This failure to accurately measure and make public the current state of Black women’s wealth points to a devaluing of the problem and an unwillingness — even an adversity — to provide adequate solutions.
The distributional financial accounts provide estimates of wealth distribution by race, gender, age, generation, education, and income, but they do not provide intersectional data. These data would allow policymakers to better understand not just the level of material wealth held by Black women across all of our identities but also the share of aggregate wealth held by Black women households. The St. Louis Federal Reserve provides a detailed analysis of the gender and racial wealth gaps, but it does not provide an analysis at their intersection.
We can’t fix a problem if we don’t know the extent of its devastation. Scholars have supplemented the federal government’s lacking analyses with thoughtful evaluations and valuable insights. These findings reveal a grim reality for Black women’s wealth, but we cannot overcome this reality without an intentional, in-depth exploration of its magnitude. When we better understand the state of Black women’s wealth and its numerous dimensions, we can better implement a BWB legislative agenda in ways that will allow us to reclaim not just financial resources but everything else that access to wealth confers, including our time, energy, and agency.
We Are the Protagonists: Shifting the Narrative
Achieving Black women’s economic wellbeing will take more than strong policy change — it demands an intentional, long-term narrative shift. From our country’s inception, US politicians and society at large have cultivated, adopted, and perpetuated harmful myths about Black women.
These narratives — our shared cultural understandings, frames of reference, and mental models — play an integral role in both policymaking and public response. Thus, BWB cannot be fully understood nor successfully applied without uprooting the violent worldviews that serve to justify oppressive systems and then building liberatory narratives in their stead.
For instance, our social safety net policies over the past five decades have been driven by President Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” narrative campaign, an inaccurate trope targeted at Black women as a way to justify the decimation of welfare benefits. This narrative has successfully reinforced a toxic ideology that places the onus of poverty solely on the individual, rather than examining and acknowledging the societal and political decisions that force a person into poverty in the first place.
“The welfare queen has deep historical roots and is one of the most enduring, racist, and sexist stereotypes that has slithered its way to permanency and perceived truth within the American consciousness. It says that Black women are cheats, lazy, promiscuous, inept, and need to be tamed in order to get work out of them, and therefore don’t deserve help or concern.”
Black women today are still seen as “cheats” and are scapegoated as the main (undeserving) beneficiaries of government aid, despite the fact that white Americans have always comprised the largest share of welfare recipients.
Reagan is merely one stop in a long — and bipartisan — tradition of policymakers casting Black women as criminals out to scam the system while intentionally ignoring the inequitable systems that hold Black women back from maintaining economic security and building wealth.
Black women’s progress in the professional world is stymied by the stereotype of the “angry Black woman,” a concept stemming from chattel slavery that is still prominent today. This belief that Black women are louder, more challenging, and overall ill-tempered has been proven to hold Black women back in the workplace, with researchers finding that when a Black woman expresses anger, many are more likely to view it as a personality flaw rather than the result of a precipitating event.
As Dorothy E. Roberts has investigated, this discrimination extends to parenting as well, with Black women seen as “bad parents” and more likely to display criminal behavior compared to their peers of other races. This narrative drives inequities in the child welfare system, with most white children who enter the system allowed to stay with their families while most Black children are removed from theirs. According to PBS, “Once removed from their homes, [B]lack children remain in foster care longer, are moved more often, receive fewer services, and are less likely to be either returned home or adopted than any other children.”
We can see this play out today in everything from the abysmal income and material wealth gaps Black women face to the constant challenges to their credibility — even when they’ve reached the top of their professions. Most recently, backlash quickly emerged to President Joe Biden’s decision to nominate the first Black woman to the Supreme Court (SCOTUS), including that of a professor’s public assertion that any Black woman would be “lesser” to a man.
As of the writing of this report, the SCOTUS debate is ongoing, but we know that the nomination process will be rife with unfair and unjust critiques that are borne from racist and sexist narratives. Dr. Lisa Cook experienced similar attacks during the selection proceedings for her to serve on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, despite being eminently qualified.
The BWB framework requires Black women to be decision-makers and power-holders as we remake our economy. The Black women most harmed by past and current policy choices should be the ones rewriting them, and we must also ensure that more Black women, who are accountable to directly impacted communities, serve in high-level policy roles. This includes legislators, court justices, and heads of agencies. The Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls (CCBWG) co-led by Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, Rep. Robin Kelly, and Rep. Yvette Clarke is the first congressional caucus that focuses specifically on the unique needs of Black women and girls; Rep. Maxine Waters is the first Black person and woman to chair the House Financial Services Committee, and she’s driving transformational policies; Sandra Thompson was nominated to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency and would be the first Black woman to lead there, if confirmed; and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Marcia L. Fudge is incorporating intersectionality in her push for affordable housing. Having Black women leaders, with demonstrated commitments to equity, at the helm of these institutions will drive inclusive growth, ensuring that the whole of the nation is lifted.
False narratives hurt Black women’s economic wellbeing and limit their political power. To achieve an economy, democracy, and society that fosters the success of Black women — and of us all — we must rewrite these narratives, leading with radical and righteous truths.
BWB requires policymakers to remove barriers to wealth building — and to dismantle systems of wealth extraction — for Black women through the myriad policy proposals outlined in the next section of this report. It also requires that we abandon antiquated narratives based on scarcity and scapegoating and instead operate in abundance and truth — creating resources and providing support to help Black women, and everyone, thrive.
The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting recession — and our government’s failure to provide a targeted response — laid bare the ways that structural racism and white supremacist capitalist cisheternormative patriarchy hurt Black women, people of color, and our society as a whole. We know that inequality is never an outcome of individual behavior; it is always the result of policy and cultural choices. By centering Black women in our economic decisions and rewriting our stories, we can uproot systemic injustice and build toward necessary structural change for everyone. If we make the road by walking it, guaranteed income is one of the clearest policy pathways we have for demonstrating the collective strength of a Black Women Best legislative agenda.