For BIPOC communities, the overwhelming feeling for many in this year’s general election has been that the only option we have is to settle for something better than Trump. However, there have been many small glimpses of hope to be found amongst all of this chaos. Though they’ve spoken very little on it, President-elect Joe Biden and the Democratic Party have put forward a plan for universal preschool. Whether the Democrats will actually follow through on this plan still remains to be seen. However, the burgeoning struggle on the ground in the U.S. for universal preschool is promising, and nowhere more so than in Portland, Oregon. Multnomah County, where Portland is located, just voted in what is arguably the most progressive universal preschool measure in the country, Measure 26-214 or Preschool for All, in Tuesday’s general election. In what is often referred to as the whitest city in America, the success of Measure 26-214 means historically significant gains for Black women in an election cycle marked by stress, repression, and fear.
Measure 26-214 will tax Multnomah County’s high-income earners 1.5%, raising $133 million dollars a year to roll out a universal, tuition-free preschool system available to all three- and four-year-olds in the county. This is certainly a feminist issue, and the thrust of the campaign’s communication has been that this feminist fight stands to benefit working mothers and families of color. Equally as remarkable is what this measure will do for all workers who provide care for children under five, including preschool teachers. The history of these workers is deeply rooted in slavery, the legacy of which is directly reflected in the state of child care today.
Measure 26-214 will raise the average wage of preschool teachers in Multnomah County from $15 dollars an hour to $19.91 an hour. Lead teachers in preschool classrooms will receive pay parity with Kindergarten teachers. This pay increase speaks to a breaking down of the divide between child care workers and secondary school educators, which is heavily class-based. Child care workers are generally paid below $20 an hour, if not much lower. Compare that to secondary school teachers who, while not highly-paid either, are typically salaried, making about $20,000 more a year than child care workers, and often receiving better benefits. Simultaneously, in over half of the U.S., sending a child to preschool or infant or toddler care—regardless of the quality—costs more than sending a child to college. Child care workers experience intense class stratification from the families they are providing care for, and where there is deep class stratification, there is racial stratification. This dynamic is rooted in slavery, where the work of maintaining the white household and the welfare of the white family was seen as the work of Black women and girls.
I am a Black child care worker in the aggressively white city of Portland, Oregon. I spend my time and financially support myself through caring for white children. Day in and day out, the historical significance of this is not lost on me. In fact, I hold an inherent discomfort with it that weighs heavily on me. Black women cannot neutrally care for white children. We have historically been physically, and then financially, forced to lift up the white family at the expense of our own families. Black women are so often not seen as tender or caring, and yet caring for white families has throughout the history of this country been deemed as our economic function in society. I have seen this play out not only in the makeup of the child care workers, but in how the Black women I worked with were treated day-to-day in the predominately white child care centers I worked at, who generally served middle to high-income families. In these environments, my Black women coworkers were chronically used as disciplinarians for the children who were difficult to deal with. At the same time, these women were continually denied leadership roles in classrooms.
This legacy born out of slavery has unwaveringly persisted for centuries. Black women have consistently been more likely to work in low-wage service jobs and domestic work where they perform reproductive labor, or skills which most consider a part of “home making”—such as cooking, cleaning and caring for children—compared to white counterparts. Racial discrimination by employers forced many Black women to have few choices other than performing domestic work until the beginning of the latter half of the 20th century, when more and more white women began to enter the work force, causing this type of labor to move more so out of the household and into the job market.
Measure 26-214 will start to address this fraught history by beginning to close the pay gap between care work, disproportionately done by women of color, and those who are seen as “real” educators teaching in secondary school. On top of this, the implementation plan for Measure 26-214 prioritizes providing care in Black and brown communities. Not only will child care workers be paid living wages, but Black members of this work force will be given far more opportunities to serve children who are a part of their communities without suffering from lower wages due to working in schools that may have less funding. Additionally, more children of color will be able to experience preschool, as this new preschool system would be tuition-free, diversifying the group families that child care workers are serving.
Despite the chaos of the current election and of U.S. politics in general, we must stay focused on the wins we’ve had for our communities. While a win by Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is certainly consequential, it doesn’t have the power to single handedly determine the future of our communities. Preschool for All started out as a grassroots campaign, heavily underlined by queer and BIPOC organizers in the Universal Preschool Now coalition. Today, despite the seemingly unending violence of the Trump regime, grassroots efforts have allowed for this measure to win, now holding the power to significantly benefit the quality of life for Black and brown people in Portland. The current conditions under the Trump regime are not an anomaly, but a symptom of racial capitalism, with a history stretching centuries back that still affects us to this day. This reality is daunting, but when we understand it clearly, we can remember that there is still so much to fight against, and so much to win.