New Report Outlines State of Black Women

A new report by The National Urban League looks at issues within the African-American community through the eyes of women. Stephanie Jones, of the National Urban League's Policy Institute; Andrea Harris, of the North Carolina Institute for Minority Economic Development and Emory University graduate student Moya Bailey discuss the report.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Every year, the National Urban League releases a report assessing the state of black America. It usually hones in on some big policy issues and offers something called the Equality Index, analyzing the well-being of blacks in the U.S. relative to whites. This year, the nearly century old civil rights groups did that but with a twist. The group decided to focus on women, and this year's edition is written entirely by women except for the president's letter by Marc Morial.

Contributors comment on everything from election reform to the images of black women in media. This being Women's History Month, we were especially intrigued by the report. So we invited Stephanie Jones, executive director of the National Urban League's Policy Institute and the editor of the report to tell us more about it. Also with us are Andrea Harris, who wrote the chapter of the effect of the subprime mortgage crisis on black women. And Moya Bailey, who wrote about the images of black women in the media.

Welcome ladies. Thank you all for joining us.

Ms. STEPHANIE JONES (Executive Director, National Urban League's Policy Institute): Thank you.

Ms. ANDREA HARRIS (Contributing Writer, National Urban League Report on Black America): Thanks for having us.

Ms. MOYA BAILEY Contributing Writer, National Urban League Report on Black America): Thank you.

MARTIN: Stephanie, I'd like to start with you. Why the decision to focus on women and have the edition written entirely by women? Was that a decision, or did it just turn out that way?

Ms. JONES: Well, it was a specific decision that we made, but in a way, it did kind of turn out that way. Last year's State of Black America report focused on the black male. And we thought it would be a good idea to do a companion piece to follow up with that report by looking black women, because we found as in the aftermath of that report, in studying the numbers, and looking at the situation that the situation facing black men so deeply impacted our women. And - but we found that it didn't seem to fit as well to do it in the same way that we did last year's report, because the conditions and situations facing black women are very different in some ways that those facing black men.

For example, there's not - we don't really consider there to be a black female crisis. You know, the issues are different, so we thought we needed really look at it in a different way. And as we talked to Julianne Malveaux, who's the president of Bennett, who was our guest editor this year, which was wonderful. As we talked more about this, we realized a really good way to do this would be to focus on women through the eyes of women. And so, that's why we approached it that way.

MARTIN: I'm just wondering if that causes any feelings since some of the contributors to last year's report, focusing on black men, were women. And I'm just wondering if it causes any feelings, because there is this question of whether black men are lagging behind women in the academy and in education. And I just wondered if this reinforces that sense in a way.

Ms. JONES: No, I don't think so, because the issues are different. And because the concerns we have about black men in our society are something that we all need to address. So I don't think there really was a question that this was something that women should not be discussing or that we needed to approach this year's book differently.

MARTIN: There are some very interesting pieces in the report. I think some of these will be surprising to people. Andrea, for example, your piece about the subprime mortgage crisis makes the case that the crisis is particularly devastating to African-American women. Why would that be?

Ms. HARRIS: That would be simply because the subprime crisis will naturally have a disproportionate impact on communities of color, so it's going to drain about 213 billion dollars from communities of color to start with. And if over half the loans that African-Americans were received were subprime, and over half of the people receiving those loans were basically African-American women.

MARTIN: You state that African-American women and also Latina women have the highest rates of subprime lending compared to all other Americans. Why is that? Is it your view that women were specifically targeted for these loans?

Ms. HARRIS: Well, yes. Communities of color were specifically targeted for these loans. Communities of color were targeted largely for subprime loans, and it did not make a difference - the income. Most people would assume that it was just lower income communities or low-income women that were targeted. But what you find is that the highest percentage of subprime loans are among women and people who have the highest of incomes.

So you look at the African-American community, and you'll find that many of the homeowners, who have - at the higher end of the income scale, largely have subprime loans even though they qualified for eight paper loans. They were five times as likely to have subprime loans.

MARTIN: And this is particularly devastating in your view because - are women in minority communities are more likely to be heads of households, for example?

Ms. HARRIS: Oh, absolutely. You know, when you look at our population, 60 percent of the 34 million African-Americans are women. And 64 percent of us work outside the home, and about 45 percent of us heads a household. And, you know, I could back and say to you that if we look who is it that's always been able to maybe reach somewhere and pill out a dollar in times of crisis, you know, it's largely been African-American women.

Well, we may not be able to do that now because of just the whole state of economy. And most of the equity that we have in our community has largely been in our homes. So, you know, whether it's come to how we - what we turn, we want to send our children to school. When we need to take care of medical expenses, or anything else, we view that equity in our homes as that kind of last resort to help us through.

I say it's a particularly important, so when you look at that in terms of what's happening to women, also look at the fact that the vast majority of young people who are enrolled in college are, in our community, are African-American women, more so than African-American men. And you look at the fact that the vast majority of them will have about enough debt, 26,000 dollars worth debt, so they'll be paying on their student loans until they're in their 50's.

And you look at the fact that many of our communities right now basically have absolutely no net worth. No net worth, so...

MARTIN: So you're making the point that this is not just about housing. This really tears at the social fabric of the community in ways that perhaps people might not have anticipated. It's a very interesting piece.

Moya, I want to turn to you. You write a very different kind of piece in the report. As I mentioned, a lot of these are kind of heavy-duty policy pieces. But you're writing a kind of a commentary in which you talk about how popular images of black women in the media, and I just want to remind people that they probably know about you even if they don't know you, because you were part of a group of women at Spelman College, where you took your undergraduate degree, that raised the issue of degrading lyrics and images in popular music when Nelly was scheduled to come to the campus.

So we're happy to have you with us. How did you decide that this was an issue that you could frame and had to speak up about?

Ms. BAILEY: Well, it was definitely something that I came to as a result of my women's studies classes. I think being in women's studies at Spelman really opened my eyes to a lot of things that were happening in the media that I hadn't really thought about critically before. So once you kind of get that lens to look at your world, it just becomes really apparent the ways in which African-American women are portrayed in the media and how those media representations inform how black women are treated in the world.

MARTIN: You don't just talk about music in your essay. You talk about films, even films that some people consider positive, like Will Smith's "The Pursuit of Happyness." You make an interesting point that, and I'll just quote you, "in the process of creating these alternative positive representations of black male characters, stereotypes about black women are reinscribed." What did you mean by that? And why do you think that is?

Ms. BAILEY: Yeah, I also talk about Tyler Perry's films as well. And I think that these films are really examples of what we've kind of imagined as being the crucial link or the thing that will, quote-unquote, "fix the black community." So if we can just somehow show the black family as being, you know, this model that we've kind of internalized, that black men as the head of household, black people going to church, black people kind of being upwardly mobile. You know, being doctors, lawyers, et cetera, that those are going to be solutions to what's happening in our community.

And for me, that seems to miss some of the other underlying things that are informing and forming the way black people are able to move through this country's structural systems of oppressions, like racism, sexism, those things that are kind of intangible and are larger than just than what we just imagine might be fixed by having men as the head of the households.

And so, I'm really interested in kind of critiquing the ways these images show black women kind of being subservient to black men. And the way that this kind of comes about in these films is by black men kind of reasserting themselves, and often violently, as we see in some of Tyler Perry's films - reasserting themselves as the heads of households in these films.

MARTIN: It's an idealized image, but you're saying that shouldn't necessarily be the ideal.

Ms. BAILEY: Exactly. I think that we really need to challenge what we imagine to be the ideal.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. And I'm speaking with editor, Stephanie Jones, and contributors, Andrea Harris and Moya Bailey about the National Urban League's 2008 State of Black America report.

Stephanie, in reports like this, as I mentioned, we so often see kind of policy analysis. I'm just interested why you were interested in including Moya's essay about the images of women in the media.

Ms. JONES: Well, you're right. The State of Black America report is really divided up into three sections. It starts with the equality index, which is our statistical measurement of the conditions of blacks in America. And then we have a series of scholarly essays that take deep looks at policy in a number of different areas. But then we also always have a commentary section because there are issues that come up that relate to us that we want to offer a perspective on that don't necessarily fall within the strict policy area. And Moya's piece is a perfect example of that. And she brings such interesting perspective as a young African-American woman who has actually been dealing with these issues. We also have a piece by Susan Taylor on relationships. We've got another piece on political engagement by young African-American women. And finally, Julianne Malveaux did an excellent piece on women in the global environment. Because those pieces don't necessarily lend themselves always to really strict policy analysis, but they need to be there to fill in, to provide perspective, to bring our voice even stronger on to these issues.

MARTIN: You're so immersed in these issues, I'm guessing, that most things probably don't surprise you at this point. But were there any analyses in the report that kind of made you sit up and take notice?

Ms. JONES: You know, there wasn't any one thing that did, but looking at the whole report in its entirety, really, I think, brings an interesting perspective to all of these issues because you can see patterns. We see very specific patterns in how African-American women are doing. That many of us are doing very well in this society. Alexis Herman has a piece on "The Tale of Two Cities." And how there are some African-American women who are doing very well in this country, but then others who are lagging behind. Maudine Cooper, who's the president of our Washington Urban League, has a beautiful piece on invisible women based on the Banita Jacks case.

MARTIN: Something we talked about on this program. For those who don't remember of aren't aware, she was a woman in Washington who was discovered to have killed her four children and kept them hidden in the house for months. And it's a terrible story that's really shocked the community, about how could some one be in such distress, and people seemingly not know.

Ms. JONES: Exactly. And that's why we did the piece because we realized that there are women in our midst who we just don't see, and society is missing. And we only see them when something bad happens. So in looking at all these pieces in a whole, they weave a fabric for us to get a much clearer picture of African-American women in this country. We see the diversity. We see the varying issues, and we see that the state of African-American women is not just one condition. There are many different conditions. And I think the book helps us see that.

MARTIN: Andrea, what about you? What's your take on, just overall, when you think about the state of black America, particularly through the lens of African-American women and yourself. How do you see it? And I know it's always a simplistic question, but glass half full, glass half empty. How do you assess this question?

Ms. HARRIS: I have to see it as glass half full. I have to - I think that African-American women, that part of us that keeps us hopeful and keeps our spirits up. If I were to just look at pure data and pure numbers then I say that, I don't know if we are. If the word crisis is the right word, or if there's something stronger than crisis. I'm not sure that I know that there's a time we've been in the current economic situation that we are now, where we, against, whether it's subprime, whether it's the student loans and the terms on student loans, and because of our circumstances - you know, you can read the student loan documents today. And you know, we have mandatory arbitration. And you know, that's when you're just kind of giving up your right to be represented by your own council or participate in the third party law suit or any class action suits. It's almost like an un-American kind of clause that leaves you out there, strips you of all your rights...

MARTIN: On the other hand, though, the report does make clear that there are ways in which the disparities between African-Americans and others is narrowing.

Ms. HARRIS: It does. The report does suggest that there are areas in which the disparity is narrowing. There can be a narrowing in disparity in income, for example. There can be a narrowing of disparity in where we are in terms of various positions. But where there is not a narrowing is in net worth, in the net assets. So when you talk about really what's happening, what we see. We could have said, maybe 20 years ago the African-American community had an average net worth of four or five thousand dollars, which was 10 percent still of what white America had. And that was the same 10 years later. And then today we're saying, well no, it's not even 10 percent. We may have one 14th of what white America has today. So when you take that into consideration, and you couple that with the subprime crisis, and you couple that with the fact the HBCU's have a special financing program that also has terms that are predatory, you say, my God, you know, what I have to celebrate are the young women out here.

I have to celebrate the work that the Urban League is doing. I have to celebrate all of the courage that the students at Spelman had and other places because I do see that we are more conscious and aware. And what we are doing today more than at any other time is acting on the information that we have.

MARTIN: OK Moya, can I hear from you? We have about a minute left. How do you see the state of black America. In a minute.

Ms. BAILEY: Right. I'd say that I see, I do see potential. I do see promise. I think that one of the things - what I really liked about being involved in this is, kind of, putting women's issues back on the table in the black community. I think that that's something that is so important if we want to see ourselves move forward. I think that kind of putting women's issues or issues of the LGBT community that exist among black people needs to really come to the forefront if we're going to make changes and see our community prosper.

MARTIN: Moya Bailey is a graduate student at Emory University. She joined us from WCLK in Atlanta. We were also joined by Andrea Harris. She's the president and co-founder of the North Carolina Institute of Minority Economic Development. She joined us from WNCU in Durham, North Carolina. They were both contributors to this year's State of Black America 2008 in the Black Woman's Voice. That book was edited by Stephanie Jones. She's executive director of the National Urban League's Policy Institute. And she was here with us also in our Washington studio. Ladies, thank you all so much for joining us.

Ms. JONES: Thanks, Michel.

Ms. HARRIS: Thank you.

Ms. BAILEY: Thank you.

MARTIN: You can read more about the State of Black America Report by going to our website, npr.org/tellmemore.

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