Breonna Taylor and Atatiana Jefferson were both killed by the police while inside their homes for the crime of being a black woman in America. Police officers in Oakland, Calif. chose to storm into a home with riot gear and guns drawn where unhoused black mothers from Moms4Housing were providing shelter for their children in the cold winter months.
While there is less national attention paid to black women, police brutality and state-sponsored violence against black women is long-standing and pervasive.
Why do government decision-makers and police officers respond to black women with violence and indifference? Because the ever-pervasive welfare queen myth has taught us to devalue the lives and humanity of black women, making them expendable and not fully human. The term, introduced in the 1970s by Ronald Reagan, refers to women who allegedly misuse or collect excessive welfare payments. Thanks to decades of dog-whistle politics, the term has become synonymous with being black and female in America. That is the uncomfortable truth we have to grapple with.
Along with fueling ever growing inequality on racial and gender lines, the welfare queen myth is literally killing black women at the hands of our nation’s government.
Not since the work of the National Welfare Rights Organization—a movement of thousands of poor women of color that demanded a basic income floor and justice for their families—have we seen a large-scale effort to intentionally shift the narrative around black women.
But now it’s time. Way past time, actually.
We see the harrowing statistics—median wealth for single black women is $200; about 60 percent of families that are unhoused are single-mother households—half being black single mothers; black women are more than twice as likely to die in childbirth than any other race—and shrug our shoulders because, in the back of our minds, we see black women and automatically think, “Welfare Queen—she deserves what she gets because of the poor decisions she’s made.” The welfare queen has permanently altered our perception of black women, dehumanizing them to the point where their lives don’t matter.
The welfare queen has deep historical roots and is one of the most enduring, racist, and sexist stereotypes that has slithered its way to permanency and perceived truth within the American consciousness. It says that black women are cheats, lazy, promiscuous, inept, and need to be tamed in order to get work out of them, and therefore don’t deserve help or concern.
At its core, the welfare queen myth shapes who we believe is deserving and fully human, and who is not. It reinforces toxic ideology that places the onus of poverty solely on an individual, rather than examining and acknowledging the societal and political decisions that force a person into poverty in the first place. It gives us permission to continue to blame black women for their circumstances, pushing the belief that they must be controlled and taught how to act right. It absolves our collective guilt and responsibility to implement changes to systems and policies.
The myth has shifted over time to meet specific political uses but has two interrelated threads. On one hand, there is a long-standing belief that black women are solely workers, and nothing else. Ironically, we push black women into low-wage work like service and care work, but our policy-makers continue to enact policies that divorce black women from being mothers and caretakers—tearing away their full humanity.
On the other hand, the welfare queen myth denounces poor black mothers as irresponsible and dysfunctional parents, which puts them at risk of becoming entangled in the criminal legal system—a system that treats black women as disposable. Research shows that policing of black women is largely predicated on a stereotype of black mothers as negligent parents. This thinking has been used strategically by politicians on the left and right to stoke white resentment and cut and demonize public assistance programs—despite the fact that white Americans are, and always have been, the biggest beneficiaries of welfare programs. Such stereotypes also play a role in the increase in the rate of incarceration for black millennial women.
Now, in the throes of a global health crisis when a thriving public assistance system is needed most, we are left with a crumbling, shame-inducing, paternalistic social safety net. Meanwhile, our politicians in Washington are unable to pass any meaningful Covid-19 relief policy that reaches our most marginalized. We don’t have to look much further than the welfare queen myth to understand why.
We’ve permanently cemented shame into the idea of needing help—particularly when it’s about needing help from the government—because we’ve made the face of poverty the welfare queen. We choose to amplify and buy into this narrative because, quite frankly, it’s convenient and maintains the status quo.
Black women never recovered from the Great Recession, and if we don’t change course and embark on a campaign to eradicate this narrative, the aftermath of the pandemic will be far worse. If we truly want to build an economic and political system in which black life is valued, we must finally delete the welfare queen out of existence.