Low-income black and Asian women are paying the highest price for austerity. By 2020 they will have lost nearly double the amount of money poor white men have. You wouldn’t know any of this from the current discourse around austerity, poverty and Brexit Britain: women of colour are consistently written out of the picture.
Women, people of colour and in particular women of colour are suffering the most. And they will continue to suffer disproportionately until 2020, according to research from the Women’s Budget Group and the Runnymede Trust. If you dig down into their findings you see lone mothers are hit the hardest – and in this group it is once again women of colour who stand to lose out the most financially. This magnifies a trend that existed before austerity gripped the UK: even before the 2008 financial crash the poverty rates among minority ethnic communities were significantly higher than for the white population.
One of the most significant reasons why black and Asian women are disproportionately affected is that they’re more likely to be employed in the public sector; working tirelessly as nurses in the NHS, or as teaching assistants and teachers in our state schools. As these frontline services are cut to the bone, so too are the bank accounts of the people that staff them.
A significant number of women of colour are also in low-paid jobs and insecure work – and they experience higher levels of unemployment than other groups. Since the 1980s unemployment rates among women of colour have remained consistently higher than for white women. But state support, which is essential to top up criminally low pay or help people survive while they look for work, has been slashed.
Yet poverty isn’t produced in a vacuum – women of colour are in these positions because a combination of racism and sexism makes it difficult for them to find work. A report in 2012 found minority ethnic women face discrimination “at every stage of the recruitment process”. And importantly, this new research shows that when the effects of tax and benefit changes are analysed, black and Asian women at all levels of the economy are paying the highest price. This is the product of institutional racism and sexism that lurks under the surface of UK society.
As well as intersecting with class, the economy is gendered and it is racialised. But this has been ignored for too long. Never has this been more apparent than in recent months. The left characterised Brexit as “a working-class revolt”. Putting aside the large numbers of middle-class people who voted leave – people of colour make up a disproportionate number of the working class and they were far less likely to vote for Brexit. They were not significantly factored into the left’s analysis. As the left rushed to reduce everything down to economics, it failed to realise, as University of London researcher David Wearing has found, that social attitudes, not social class, played a large part in explaining the result.
This was done with relative ease because poverty among people of colour has long been normalised and working-class authenticity assumed to be synonymous with whiteness. According to academics Dr Akwugo Emejulu and Dr Leah Bassel, policy makers tend to engage with women of colour when they can be cast as passive victims – in relation to issues such as forced marriage or female genital mutilation – or as “enterprising actors” in social enterprises. This can simplify the problems women of colour face; asking them to work in and with a system that discriminates against them.
The near-erasure of women of colour from the austerity debate can be explained through what critical race scholar Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw calls intersectionality. This term, dismissed as too complex by some, explains the overlapping forms of discrimination people face because of their gender, race, class, sexuality, religion or disability. Crenshaw shows how women of colour are routinely treated as an afterthought, if they’re thought about at all.
Indeed, Emejulu and Bassel found that when women of colour take part in broad leftwing anti-austerity movements they’re often stifled or ignored. In a world that ranks white people above people of colour, and men above women, women of colour – in particular black women – are consistently disadvantaged and their experiences cast to one side. This is a reality that organisations such as Black Activists Rising against Cuts (BARAC) and Sisters Uncut have known for a long time.
Working-class women of colour experience triple discrimination along the lines of class, race and gender. Thanks to a toxic concoction of institutional racism and sexism, under austerity they are suffering the most. It is time for people to acknowledge that the system is broken in multiple, damaging ways.