Opportunity Denied: Limiting Black Women to Devalued Work

Opportunity Denied: Limiting Black Women to Devalued Work

Opportunity Denied: Limiting Black Women to Devalued Work

Opportunity Denied: Limiting Black Women to Devalued Work

Synopsis

Blacks and Whites. Men and Women. Historically, each group has held very different types of jobs. The divide between these jobs was stark--clean or dirty, steady or inconsistent, skilled or unskilled. In such a rigidly segregated occupational landscape, race and gender radically limited labor opportunities, relegating Black women to the least desirable jobs. Opportunity Denied is the first comprehensive look at changes in race, gender, and women's work across time, comparing the labor force experiences of Black women to White women, Black men and White men. Enobong Hannah Branch merges empirical data with rich historical detail, offering an original overview of the evolution of Black women's work.

From free Black women in 1860 to Black women in 2008, the experience of discrimination in seeking and keeping a job has been determinedly constant. Branch focuses on occupational segregation before 1970 and situates the findings of contemporary studies in a broad historical context, illustrating how inequality can grow and become entrenched over time through the institution of work.

Excerpt

From 1860 TO 1960, Black women’s work and the experience of discrimination in seeking and keeping work was doggedly constant. The common phrase “you are what you do” was particularly true during this 100-year period when there was near-perfect matching of devalued jobs to devalued workers. Not only did Blacks and Whites, men and women, hold very different jobs, but the divide between the types of jobs they held was stark—clean or dirty, steady or inconsistent, skilled or unskilled. In this rigidly divided occupational landscape, the hierarchical dynamics of race and gender intersected to significantly limit labor opportunities for Black women.

Black women were restricted to devalued and dying occupations— farm labor, domestic service, and jobs on the industrial fringe—that other groups fled at the first opportunity. But Black women could not leave. During wartime or labor shortages they briefly gained access to more desirable opportunities, but they were repeatedly forced to reenter devalued occupations once these periods ended. It was not until the dual sources of their oppression, race and gender, were attacked by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that Black women were able to participate on more equitable footing in the American labor market. Prior to this, the opportunity structure was closed and upward mobility was routinely denied.

Why does this matter? Why should we care? After all, progress has been made, discrimination is illegal, and Black women have increasingly gained access to more desirable occupational opportunities. The danger is that our failure to recognize the severity of the discrimination experienced by Black women historically leads to mistaken conclusions about the fate of Black women today. Contemporary discussions of the . . .

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