I was heading back to Raleigh, North Carolina, from a meeting with funders when a reporter’s email popped up. She was interested in speaking with me about the fragility of the middle class and the idea that our nation’s “social contract” began breaking down as women and minorities entered the mainstream workforce.
The inquiry got me thinking about the philosophy of social contracts. I mulled over America’s history of collective agreements, the laws and the political orders established to create morals and normalize behaviors, mostly for the benefit of White men.
Then I thought about all the ways women and communities of color were forced to abandon or compromise certain rights under these agreements or social contracts in order to survive and maintain our general welfare. We were bought and sold. We were objectified and demonized. We were systematically ignored and silenced. America has never signed its social contract with us.
In the Trump era, it seems as though America’s social contracts have given way to corporate interests, attacks on immigrants and attacks on women. The truth is, these agreements were designed to maintain the power and wealth of White males and the moneyed few.
Because America’s exclusionary social contracts have stifled Black women’s social and economic mobility and well-being, we must use our powerful voices to ensure we enact new more inclusive social contracts that advance our rights and finally level the playing field.
For generations, our nation has removed Black women from well-intended policies and practices aimed at closing gaps in social and economic disparities. Meanwhile, White women have had the privilege to seek educational, professional and civic opportunities free of the oppressive weight of racism. Without a collective voice, the pay gap between White women and Black women is now the fastest-growing income inequality. We still bear the heaviest burdens of low wages and underemployment despite attaining the highest levels of education and high workforce participation.
Racism undergirds our nation’s social contracts, enabling White self-preservation at the expense of Black women’s physical and mental health. We’ve seen Black and Brown workers historically unvalued. We nourished and cared for your children, and served your families while losing our own. We were your means of labor, doling out care in loving doses even as we suffered our losses in silence. Today, we die at higher rates of preventable and treatable diseases, such as cervical and breast cancer. Access to equitable health care is so limited that the rates for heart disease, diabetes and stroke are almost twice as lethal (if not more) for Black women than any other demographic. And when we’re ready to have children, we suffer higher rates of maternal mortality.
Worse, our physical presence and well-being and constantly denigrated. Painful experiences with sexual harassment, sexual assault and sexual violence and abuse are overlooked or belittled as a result of a longstanding sexual objectification. According to the Centers for Disease Control, women of color experience higher rates of sexual violence, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that lower income women experience some of the highest rates of sexual violence. Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement launched in 2006, noted that Black women have been screaming about famous alleged sexual predators such as Clarence Thomas and R. Kelly for years, but those cries often fell on deaf ears.
The Civil Rights Movement gave us a model for changing bad social contracts. It demonstrated the power of base building, of coalition building. It exposed the hateful nature of segregation and shamed apathetic bystanders for their inaction against the brutality and injustice our community faced. It moved the populace, and more importantly, it moved policies and political structures, though reluctantly, to change.
Fast-forward nearly 60 years to present-day America. A new wave of unapologetic feminism is blazing a path toward new, women-centered social contracts across race, class, industries political affiliations and industries. More women are leaving water cooler whispers for bullhorns in the street to shift backwards, patriarchal and political ideology.
Remember the March for Black Women last fall? Remember how we stood with White House Correspondent April Ryan? Those were just the start, and for all the risks, any new social contracts with America requires the voices of Black women.
Black women have the power to confront the systems that oppress us. We have the power to organize against exploitation and to raise the standards of respect for Black womanhood. An inclusive social contract that includes Black women must give us space for healing, acknowledge our contributions and compensate us for our sacrifices.
It’s time to dismantle the White supremacist models of social contracts that attack women, and leave Black women and our communities behind.
Tanya Wallace-Gobern is the executive director for the National Black Worker Center Project (NBWCP).