COVID-19 and the “Strong Black Woman”
By Evelyn M. Simien | June 9, 2020
Evelyn M. Simien is Professor of Political Science at the University of Connecticut, Storrs.
Early data has shown that COVID-19 is adversely impacting areas marked by high-density living spaces where residents cannot buy healthy food and “sheltering in place” is not an option. Poor Black women are among the hardest hit and least able to rebound from the impacts of this pandemic. At the same time, Black women figure prominently in accounts of ongoing health disparities that dub them agents of contagion, a demographic group with a particularly high infection rate of the coronavirus.
Structurally relegated to many of the most menial jobs, low-income Black women claim with reverence an identity that revolves around strength—the strong Black woman. Enduring ongoing shifts of paid work, childcare responsibilities, and social distancing, many women have come to accept the expectation that they neglect themselves to support others as a compliment. But the belief that Black women are tireless, deeply caring, and invulnerable has arguably helped maintain exploitive hierarchal arrangements at home and in the workplace, while contributing to negative health outcomes.
The belief that Black women are tireless, deeply caring, and invulnerable has arguably helped maintain exploitive hierarchal arrangements at home and in the workplace, while contributing to negative health outcomes.
In a seminal 2006 article, Barbara Ransby explored how the rhetoric surrounding poverty and race in the U.S. set up Black women to be blamed for their own misfortunes following Hurricane Katrina. Today, the COVID-19 pandemic similarly exploits the myth of the strong Black woman to perpetuate inequality, demanding a policy response that recognizes and challenges interlocking systems of oppression.
Black Women Face Interlocking Risks
Black women are among the front-line workers who are exposed to the virus daily—grocery store clerks, public transit drivers, personal care aids, postal employees, and medical support workers—and who also suffer from pre-existing health conditions that make the virus more deadly. The intersections of race, gender, and class have meant that Black women are overrepresented in the ranks of the poor and working class. The often-cited statistic that women generally make 80 percent of what men earn fails to capture the larger injustice experienced by Black women, who make 62 cents on every dollar earned by white men. Black women are either the sole provider or the main provider for 80 percent of Black families, a statistic that brings into sharper focus the economic hardship experienced by their communities. Black women make up 25 percent of the poor, a greater share than Black men, who are 18 percent.
Black women’s experiences are framed by a public discourse that casts them as members of the undeserving poor—unworthy of public assistance and sympathy—but on whom we can rely to overcome adversity with strength. In reality, Black women experience early health deterioration as a consequence of the cumulative impact of their persistent, high-effort coping with acute and chronic stressors. Black women are especially vulnerable to chronic psychological stress, a result of suppressing pain and anger while striving to put others at ease and counteract negative stereotypes of themselves as lazy.
Black women are especially vulnerable to chronic psychological stress, a result of suppressing pain and anger while striving to put others at ease and counteract negative stereotypes of themselves as lazy.
They experience poor health at earlier ages than do their white counterparts, a racial inequality that accumulates over time and increases with age. Compared to white women, Black women suffer significantly higher rates of diabetes and mortality from coronary artery disease, stroke, and hypertension. The COVID-19 pandemic gives dramatic visibility to such “weathering” and aging patterns that compromise the lives of poor, low-income Black women who are front-line victims, as they are front-line essential workers.
Addressing Underlying Conditions
While Black women are more likely to be poor, the effects of this pandemic are not the consequence of their demographics alone. Neither can the suffering caused by COVID-19 be attributed solely to the Trump administration’s inability to address the widely predicted shortages of personal protective equipment, ventilators, hospital beds, and testing supplies in real-time. Like Hurricane Katrina, the stage was set long before the pandemic hit the United States. As such, meaningful supports to Black women during and after the pandemic will require addressing the underlying conditions of oppression.
Long-ignored communities deserve to be a focus of federal policymaking and medical research that will contribute to better health outcomes and inform public policy. Progress will require targeted research and policy interventions that not only enhance our understanding of COVID-19’s disparate impacts on different groups, but also increase awareness of how the myth of the strong Black woman exacts a physical toll.
Progress will require targeted research and policy interventions that not only enhance our understanding of COVID-19’s disparate impacts on different groups, but also increase awareness of how the myth of the strong Black woman exacts a physical toll.
While Black women’s health is influenced by a variety of factors—employment, health insurance, family responsibilities, education, transportation, cost, available services, and medical providers—there must also be a shift in what their employers, co-workers, partners, and families expect from them, particularly during a pandemic.
Due to the new reliance on telehealth and distance learning, the pandemic should ignite meaningful solution-focused collaborations that would aid Black women and their families—for example, local community leaders and government officials could find ways to support broad access to computers and free internet service. Employers could provide paid sick and quarantine leave. Policymakers could put money toward providing either free or discounted food delivery to low-income communities to reduce food insecurity. The public could donate to local food banks. The federal government writ large should continue to support the Affordable Care Act, Family and Medical Leave Act, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan. Policymakers can expand the American Disabilities Act, and resist administration policies that would reduce public housing assistance, Medicaid and Medicare coverage, and any Social Security benefits.
The vulnerability of Black women during COVID-19 reveals the inadequacy of federal, state, and local governments to reduce the social inequalities and systemic racism that form the basis of racial health disparities in the United States. Far too many Black women know all too well the question put before them is not whether inherent problems exist in the social order, but whether they can endure yet another hardship.
Evelyn M. Simien is Professor of Political Science at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. She is the author of Historic Firsts: How Symbolic Empowerment Changes U.S. Politics (Oxford University Press, 2015), Gender and Lynching: The Politics of Memory (Palgrave/Macmillan Press, 2011), and Black Feminist Voices in Politics (State University of New York Press, 2006).
Photo: iStock.com/Drazen Zigic