President Obama’s passionate testimony to the contributions of black women to “every great movement in American history” during a speech Saturday night was applauded by African-American feminists, who were equally glad to hear him acknowledge that black females face unique economic and social challenges.
In his speech at the Congressional Black Caucus awards dinner, Obama described the “real and persistent challenges” faced by black women and girls, including lower incomes, higher rates of serious illness and more exposure to violence. But he offered no specific effort to address those challenges, as he did a year-and-ahalf ago when he launched My Brother’s Keeper for at-risk boys and men of color.
Instead, the president pointed to policies, programs and legislation that his administration already is pursuing, including job training and encouraging girls to study STEM fields, urging Congress to pass bills for equal pay and paid leave, and promising to work with black lawmakers to pass criminal justice reforms.
Kimberle Crenshaw, a feminist scholar who along with other activists has called on the White House to expand My Brother’s Keeper to include women and girls of color, praised the president for acknowledging that race affects the economic and social chances for women and girls.
“First, we have to say how significant it is that he has finally acknowledged that black women and girls are not doing just fine,” Crenshaw said in a telephone interview Sunday. “That has been one of the inferences that many people have drawn after nearly two years of exclusive focus on men and boys of color and to the extent this speech actually helps to correct this incorrect assumption, [it] is enormously important.”
During the speech, Obama, who as an Illinois senator was a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, was interrupted several times by applause as he talked about how “all of us are beneficiaries of a long line of strong black women who helped carry this country forward.”
And he drew delighted laughter when, referring to his wife, daughters and mother-in-law, he noted: “Of course, they’re also a majority of my household. So I care deeply about how they’re doing.”
The president said that in recent years the number of black women-owned businesses “has skyrocketed” and that high school and college graduation rates for girls and women of color are up, indicating progress despite continued racial and gender discrimination.
Still, he added, “there’s no denying that black women and girls still face real and persistent challenges.” He cited high unemployment for black women, who are often relegated to low-paying jobs. “It makes a mockery of our economy when black women make 30 fewer cents for every dollar a white man earns,” he said.
Obama referenced his initiative aimed at improving the life changes of boys and young men of color when talking about how criminal justice issues disproportionately affect black girls and women.
“Although in these discussions a lot of my focus has been on African American men and the work we’re doing with My Brother’s Keeper, we can’t forget the impact that the system has on women, as well,” he said.
The president noted that the incarceration rate for black women is twice as high as for white women and that girls of color are suspended from school at higher rates than other girls and white boys.
“So we’re focusing on boys, but we’re also investing in ways to change the odds for at-risk girls -- to make sure that they are loved and valued, to give them a chance,” Obama said.
Crenshaw, who did not attend the dinner, said that the administration needed to focus on women and girls of color in the same targeted way it has done with boys.
“You can’t have a one-size-fits all approach to black women and girls, no more than you can have a one-size-fits-all approach for men and boys,” she said. “You have to have an intersectional awareness that race makes some women more vulnerable.”
She said Obama's acknowledgment was "a good first step. Step two is action -- specific targeted action to the needs of women and girls of color."
Crenshaw is a founder of the African American Policy Forum, a think tank that urges taking into account race, gender and class in addressing injustice issues.
In addition to lobbying the White House to include women and girls in the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, she also is a leader of the #SayHerName movement, which urges Black Lives Matter activists and public officials to acknowledge that women and girls that have been killed during encounters with law enforcement.
As part of the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, the White House directed Cabinet agencies to document the problems faced by boys and young men of color and propose solutions; the chairman of the initiative is a member of the president’s Cabinet. My Brother’s Keeper, which focuses on mentoring, tutoring, job-training and other efforts to help at-risk youth, also has garnered hundreds of millions in support from private businesses and corporations.
Valerie Jarrett, a senior Obama adviser and chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls, tweeted quotes and statistics from the president’s speech Saturday night. Her council is often cited in response to concerns about the exclusion of women and girls from the My Brother’s Keeper initiative.
Melanie L. Campbell, convenor of the Black Women's Roundtable, did attend Saturday night’s dinner. She said via text message that she was “pleased to hear President Obama lift up the leadership role Black women have always played in the Civil Rights, women's rights and social justice movements.”
Earlier this year, the Roundtable issued a report citing many of the disparities that Obama noted in his speech. And on Wednesday the group, along with Essence, a popular black women’s magazine, released a survey that found affordable healthcare and college and higher wages were the three top issues among African-American women going into the 2016 election.
“We look forward to continuing to work with President Obama in the 4th quarter of his administration to address the unique challenges black women face from economic justice, criminal justice, equal pay, violence and more,” Campbell wrote.