Does race still matter?

The following article was originally published in the Walla Walla Union Bulletin (UB). The information in this article was primarily compiled from YWCA materials and written by AMZS.


When you see the YWCA Walla Walla logo, have you ever wondered why it includes “Eliminate  racism”? Aren’t we living in post-racial America where overt racism no longer exists?

A look at the history of the YWCA tells the story of how racial equity became such an important part of the YWCA mission that it remains a prominent part of our identity today.

A sisterhood of shared values

YWCA branches across the country were founded by groups of progressive White Protestant women, much like our own Mary Shipman Penrose and the other charter members of YWCA Walla Walla. The core values that brought these women together were their religious beliefs­–their conviction that as followers of Jesus Christ, they should actively engage in current social issues and concerns.

They observed young recent immigrant women, moving into American towns and cities and working low-wage jobs while struggling to find safe, affordable housing and settle in to their new communities.

YWCA gave these young women a safe foundation and a way to learn about their communities and connect with mentors and peers. In 1920, YWCA adopted a national platform with the potential to benefit not only working women, but men and children as well. It called for a minimum wage, a living wage, a limited work week, collective bargaining, and retirement provisions.

Reaching out to other women across lines of difference—across social lines like age, class, wealth, and increasingly race—to bring about a more just society prepared these women to open up their organization to more women.

In fact, they began to believe that their love of God required breaking down the walls that divide people. While the first members were required to be associated with a Protestant congregation, they changed the rule so members of any denomination could join by simple profession of faith. Still later, non-Christians who supported the YWCA mission were welcomed to join but not allowed to vote. Finally, in the interest of complete inclusiveness, women who were Jewish, Muslim, Orthodox, followers of Eastern religions, and nonbelievers alike were welcomed into full membership.

A new shared value: social justice for all

FIGURE 1: By 2050, the majority of women in the US will be women of color, SOURCE: Statistic from Center for American progress

With a membership that believed in the barrier-breaking love of God, it wasn’t a stretch for the predominantly White organization to become multiracial as well as multifaith. The core shared value that united these members was no longer a particular religious belief, but social justice–a belief in the equitable treatment of all people.  When Booker T. Washington came to Walla Walla in 1913, he stayed with the Penrose family at Baker House during a time when hotels might have turned away a traveler with dark skin. In fact, one of the Whitman faculty wives refused an invitation to dinner with the Penroses’ guest because of his skin color, though she did attend his lecture at the White Temple Baptist Church along with 1,300 other Walla Wallans.

Women of color were welcomed early in the Association’s history. The first African American branch opened in Dayton, Ohio, in 1889, a student chapter for Native American women opened in Oklahoma in 1890, and before the turn of the century, seven college chapters opened at historically Black colleges. In 1910 57 branches were opened to assist immigrant women, and a year later YWCA began offering bilingual instruction to these families. During World War II, the YWCA provided services to Japanese American women in detention camps.

By 1946, the national Association was proudly multiracial, creating a department of Racial Justice and appointing an African American director at its head. YWCA lunch counters and dining rooms were already integrated in the 1940s, well before required by Civil Rights legislation. The work continued to desegregate the organization at all levels.

Our multiracial American future

FIGURE 2: Pay gaps by gender and race, SOURCE: Based on AAUW report, The Simple Truth about the Gender Pay Gap

Women of color will make up the majority of all U.S. women by 2050. (See Figure 1.) And here’s what current research tells us about women of color:  They are overly represented in low-wage sectors with few benefits or opportunities for professional growth. They earn less money than both their White female counterparts and men of color. They need twice as much education to get the same job as White men or White women. Due to historical wealth inequities, their communities are affected the most during economic downturns and are the last to feel any relief during economic recovery. (See Figure 2.)

The Great Recession. While unemployment rates for all groups increased during the 2008 recession, most of the gains in the recovery went to men. And negative impact on net worth was greatest in households of color. After the recovery, the median worth of white households was 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of government data from 2009.

These lopsided wealth ratios are the largest since the government began publishing such data a quarter century ago and roughly twice the size of the ratios that had prevailed between these three groups for the two decades prior to the Great Recession that ended in 2009. (See Figure 3.)

FIGURE 3: Median net worth of households, 2009, SOURCE: Based on data from Pew Research Center

Mothers’ concerns and race. Jaime Grant, Director of the Global Transgender Research and Advocacy Project, uses a short quiz to help reveal some of the impact that race and racism have on our lives. Its questions for women include:  Do you worry that your children will be stopped and harassed by law enforcement officers? Did underage drinking or marijuana smoking led to jail time in your youth?  Did your parents own a post-World War II home that grew 10 times in value leading to some financial security?  Were your parents able to fund an education or help you start a business? Do your children have access to excellent schools?

While the questions are subjective, troubling patterns emerged when researchers compared the answers of White and non-White mothers.  Their children received different consequences for similar behavior and were exposed to different opportunities.

What does the wealth and opportunity gap between Whites and non-Whites mean for the future of America? When non-Whites become the majority, their success will be America’s success. Non-whites currently make up 37 percent of the working-age population, but they are projected to grow to 46 percent by 2030 and 55 percent by 2050.

A  Dec.11, 2013, Atlantic article, “Making the Business Case for Racial Equity,” speculated about what America could look like if we were to take steps to address racial disparity. The estimates don’t take into account the cost of addressing the gap, but the potential for economic growth is enormous. “Closing the earnings gap by 2030 would increase GDP by 16 percent, or more than $5 trillion a year,” the article reports. “Federal tax revenues would increase by over $1 trillion and corporate profits would increase by $450 billion.” When non-Whites actually make up the majority of Americans in 2050, a closed (or narrower) racial gap would have an even greater impact on our success as a nation.

Imagine in 2050 that the majority of our citizens suffer from inequitable education, poor health, poor job opportunities, higher incarceration rates, and a need for government assistance. If none of the current racial inequities change, America’s future will be costly indeed.  This is not the future YWCA dreams of. Racial equity is not only the right thing to do, it’s the financially smart thing to do.

For all women and families of the future, it is critical that we continue working across lines of difference to transform our society—just as our founders did back in 1917.

Source: A Persimmon Paper on the YWCA USA Mission to Eliminate Racism


For more information about the YWCA and the their stance against racism, you can attend the panel at the YWCA on April 27th. 

Listen &  learn: YWCA Stand Against Racism

Thursday, April 27, at 7 p.m.

We’ll meet in the YWCA Reception Room for some early birthday cake and a panel discussion featuring community people of color about what racial justice looks like in Walla Walla.