Skip to main content

Justice Doesn’t Trickle Down: How Racialized and Gender Rules are Holding Women Back

Racism and sexism, like many other forms of discrimination, have been baked into our social and economic systems and will not simply fall away as a fairer economy emerges.

, Ann Nguyen

Executive Summary

Among all social groups in the United States, women of color experience some of the starkest disparities, inequities, and injustices across nearly every social and economic indicator.  Compared with white women, women of color have higher levels of unemployment and poverty; they have significantly less wealth; they are more likely to be targeted by and come in contact with the criminal justice system; they are at a much higher risk, regardless of their income or
education, of dying as a result of pregnancy and of losing their children in infancy; they are less likely to own a home and more likely to have high-risk mortgages when they do own a home; they are less likely to attend college and, when they do, tend to carry heavier student debt burdens.  Women of color are also at the greatest risk in the current political environment, in which conservatives are threatening a range of public services from health coverage to education access to financial regulations, while some on the left wish to abandon "identity politics" in favor of a singular focus on class and economic issues. The inequities we describe throughout this paper make clear what women of color have to lose in this era of increasingly right-wing conservatism, and also illustrate why a class-only approach will obscure and exacerbate the inequities experienced by women of color.

In recent years, some progressive political leaders have suggested that improving economic conditions for women-by increasing the minimum wage, instituting paid family leave and paid sick leave, and expanding affordable childcare-will create the rising tide that will lift all boats. These issues are indeed critically important to all low-income women, and particularly to women of color, who are disproportionately represented among low-wage workers. But throughout this paper we illustrate why addressing these issues alone will not be sufficient to improve opportunities and outcomes for women, and particularly for women of color. We describe how vast wealth inequities and numerous violations of women's safety and health-which exist largely because of the location of women of color at the intersection of numerous systemic barriers-hinder economic opportunities and limit the impact of those economic opportunities when they are accessed. Racism and sexism, like many other forms of discrimination, have been baked into our social and economic systems and will not simply fall away as a fairer economy emerges.

We describe in detail a wide range of disparities and inequities experienced by women of color across the domains of economics, safety, and health. We explain that these outcomes are not the result of individual ambition or aptitudes, as conservatives often suggest, but rather an outgrowth of a web of racialized and gendered rules-policies, institutions, and practices-that have emerged from the United States' long history of racism and sexism.

In light of these disparities and inequities, this paper makes the following key arguments:

Previous progressive, woman-focused economic agendas have focused too narrowly on wage and workplace issues, and do not sufficiently address the obstacles facing women of color. Future policy agendas must be broader and deeper, including the racial and gender wealth gap as well as inequities in safety and health.  For women of color, social justice will not be an inevitable byproduct of economic
progress given the racism and sexism baked into our social and economic systems.

Progressive policymakers should reject the recent calls to abandon identity politics in favor of a race- and gender-neutral approach that would simply exacerbate race and gender inequities and injustices.

The end goal of economic security is not financial stability in and of itself, but rather the ability to lead a life of freedom and dignity. Creating the conditions that will enable women of color to achieve equity will require not only a broader approach, but a deeper one that uncovers and ultimately rewrites the "rules"-the policies, regulatory and legal frameworks, institutions, and common practices-that structure our society and economy and drive inequities and injustices.

Inequality is not inevitable and it is not the fault of the individual actions and choices of those most marginalized. Inequality in all its forms is a choice made by the most powerful and privileged among us, who write the rules in ways that specifically benefit themselves at the expense of the majority.

It is time for policymakers to learn from grassroots leaders like those featured in this report, who center women of color and have long called for a deep and intersectional approach to fulfilling the human rights of women of color and their families.  To abandon all other identity markers to focus exclusively on class is to perpetuate structural racism and sexism, and this strategy simply cannot win. Moreover, the deep inequities experienced by women of color are, to borrow from Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres, a miner's canary, pointing to underlying social and economic problems that are toxic for our broader communities and the nation as a whole.

If we want to prevent this cycle from continuing, we must look to the work of women of color leaders who have long demonstrated the importance of simultaneously tackling economic, race and gender inequities.

Download the full report here


Andrea Flynn is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, where she researches and writes about issues that impact women and families. Andrea is a co-author of the forthcoming book The Hidden Rules of Race: Building an Inclusive American Economy  (Cambridge University Press). Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Republic, Cosmopolitan, Salon, The Hill, and Women's eNews. Andrea received her MPA and MPH from Columbia University.   You can follow Andrea on Twitter @dreaflynn.



The Ms. Foundation for Women is a nonprofit public foundation created to deliver funding and other strategic resources to organizations that elevate women's and girls' voices and solutions across race and class in communities nationwide. Since 1972, the Ms. Foundation has been working to identify and support emerging and established groups poised to act when and where change is needed. Our grants-paired with capacity building, networking and other strategic opportunities-enable organizations to advance grassroots solutions and build social movements within and across three areas: Economic Justice, Reproductive Justice and Safety.  Our work is guided by our vision of a world where power and possibility are not limited by gender, race, class, sexual orientation, disability or age. We believe that equity and inclusion are the cornerstones of a true democracy in which the worth and dignity of every person are valued.


Until economic and social rules work for all, they're not working. Inspired by the legacy of Franklin and Eleanor, the Roosevelt Institute reimagines America as it should be: a place where hard work is rewarded, everyone participates, and everyone enjoys a fair share of our collective prosperity.  We believe that when the rules work against this vision, it's our responsibility to recreate them. We bring together thousands of thinkers and doers - from a new generation of leaders in every state to Nobel laureate economists - working to redefine the rules that guide our social and economic realities. We rethink and reshape everything from local policy to federal legislation, orienting toward a new economic and political system: one built by many for the good of all