Commentary

NC Council for Women: Let’s get to work tackling systemic racism

Members of the NC Council for Women Advisory Board

Long before COVID-19 ravaged the state, systemic racism exacted a destructive toll on health and safety, education, and economic security for North Carolina’s communities of color, and particularly for Black Americans.

For women, the dual and intersecting streams of racism and sexism render them doubly disadvantaged by structures and institutions that award power and opportunity on the basis of a white, male status quo.

We see the impacts of these systemic inequities in our work all the time. Our research has shown that in our state, maternal mortality is three times higher for Black women than for white women, and our infant mortality rate is one of the highest in the nation. In the economy, Black and Native women earn 62 cents for every dollar white men make; Latinx women earn just 49 cents for every dollar white men make. And that was before the pandemic.

Black North Carolinians make up 22% of our state’s population but account for 30% and 33% of the virus’s cases and deaths, respectively. Latinx individuals account for only 10% of our population but comprise 39% of COVID cases in the state.

So, too, has the pandemic exacerbated gender inequality. Domestic violence rates are on the rise as women are trapped at home with abusers. Compared with male parents, women have been disproportionately saddled with childcare during school closures — and it’s harder still for single moms.

“This virus exploits inequities,” said Gov. Cooper when he established the Andrea Harris Task Force to address the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color. As a member, the North Carolina Council for Women will address this by centering women, particularly Black women, in our intersectional analysis, focusing on recommendations we know will be transformative in reducing both racial and gender inequality, rendering our state a better place to live and do business for all North Carolinians.

We have an opportunity to build our systems back better than before. Our counterparts in other states, as well as some women in Congress, are calling for a response to the coronavirus that centers women in all their diversity and is informed by those who are on the front lines of this pandemic: nurses, teachers, caregivers, and domestic violence practitioners.

They recommend paying essential workers — who are disproportionately women and people of color — a living wage, and supporting native populations, incarcerated women, domestic violence prevention and paid leave.

North Carolina should follow their lead. When the pandemic hits during a 13% uninsured rate due to job losses, we know we must expand Medicaid to achieve an immediate reduction of that gap. When the pandemic closes schools and summer camps, we must provide paid family and medical leave. When care burdens are more likely to remove women from the workforce, universal pre-K, elder care, and disability care services are a must. And lack of resources must never be the reason a survivor of abuse can’t seek protection from violence.

We also know that we need to learn more about how this pandemic has impacted women, particularly Black, Latinx and Native women across the state. We will actively engage traditionally underrepresented women who are seeing firsthand the devastation in our communities, inviting them to inform our recommendations to state leaders.

In order for North Carolina to recover from the COVID-19 public health and economic crisis, we must confront and begin to dismantle institutionalized racism and sexism that is present in every level of every system.

The Council for Women is ready to get to work.

Jenny Black is the chair of the NC Council for Women and she wrote this essay on behalf of the entire council.

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