Sunday, February 23, 2014

Remember Black labor history

Black History Month is not widely viewed as labor's biggest commemoration, with all that implies.  Right or wrong, there is clearly a profound wrong embedded in it.  We always say labor built this country, but that foundation of labor is significantly slave labor, and slaves in North America have been -- not all but -- almost all of African descent.  And when I say "significantly," consider this:

  • The North American economy was primarily agriculturally based for centuries (increasingly dominated by slave system until abolition).
  • Shipbuilding and other industries based in non-slave states also largely served the slave-based economy, through the "Triangular Trade" that brought sugar to New England from the Caribbean, rum and other New England goods to Africa, and slaves to the Caribbean.
  • This was the foundation upon which every later economic development was built, as surely as any business that begins with blood money or stolen money is founded upon and profits from that startup money, and continued to be significant enough to shed blood over right up through and including the Texan War of Independence, 1830's, the US-Mexican War to expand slave territory, 1846-48, and the most deadly single war ever fought in North America, 1861-1865.
When trying to make the connection we troublesome persons often refer to what Martin Luther King was doing in Memphis when he was assassinated, supporting a workers' strike.  But ten years later there was another connection, at Greensboro NC, where Klansmen and Neo-Nazis fired upon an anti-racist rally that was part of a local industrial workers' organizing drive, killing five.  Though the murders were captured on film by area TV cameras -- I actually saw it on TV at the time, and I remember being shocked that people who are shot don't act the way actors on TV portray death by shooting: they often just drop dead and it's over -- no one was ever convicted.  The juries were all-white.  Later, a civil suit found the local police and the Klan liable for some money, but only one victim was ever paid.

Not that this is the latest example of racist craziness by far.  From Amadou Diallo to Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis there's plenty of reason to keep educating ourselves and our peeps on "black history," and not just the long ago variety.  Black history, like other histories, is living history.  There's the white fireman who refused CPR to a black woman, who died as a result, and then the investigator revealed that his family kept a lamp made from the skin of a lynched black man.  There's the restaurant in Oklahoma that makes no bones about its bigotry.  And this one raises an excellent point: Are prejudices or discriminatory laws and policies against "welfare" recipients or "felons" coded racism?  Sometimes they clearly are, sometimes maybe not.  It only matters because society has swung round at long last, after embattled decades, to the conclusion that, as the bumper sticker says, "Racism is a social disease."  Even the Klan now denies being racist, saying they are opposed to "reverse racism" [sic].

Now official EEO policies in employment law and elsewhere discuss "protected classes": racial or ethnic minorities, women, the disabled, and a few others.  The unfortunate corollary, however,  seems to be: "Other bigotries need not apply."  So David Duke fails to become the governor of Louisiana, but the same year with the same platform and very similar ideas, but without the hood, Kirk Fordice became the first Republican governor of Mississippi since Reconstruction. So we get the Willie Horton ads.  So the US Supreme Court can strike down key provisions of the 1965 Civil Rights Act because, while manifestly unfair and clearly devastating to a number of politically marginalized groups, the results will (allegedly) not be obviously racially discriminatory in nature.  Have we all forgotten that most Jim Crow laws didn't come out and say "no blacks allowed."  They didn't have to.  They imposed literacy tests, with full knowledge that millions of African Americans - and poor whites - would never pass.  They passed laws that you couldn't live on a certain street unless most of the people already living there were people you could marry (interracial marriage being illegal, you see).  They said blacks and whites would be separated in schools and water fountains other public accommodations, knowing full well the result.  Some smart people even say there is a new Jim Crow system in criminal justice.

But what does all this have to do with labor?  Just as lynching and Jim Crow laws were always viewed as a means of keeping African Americans "in their place" (and what was that place, but cheap, compliant labor?) the "new Jim Crow" ultimately has the same goal, or at least that same function.  Why cut welfare or refuse to extend unemployment?  So people, black and white, will have little choice but to accept the worst jobs at the worst wages under the worst conditions.  Why fight unions?  Because in unions, all members are equal and fight together for the same improvements (related to why polls show African Americans favor unions in greater numbers than whites).  Why "get tough on crime"?  Well, not just because the crackdowns are so overwhelmingly biased and African Americans are disproportionately represented in jails and prisons, although all that is true, but more importantly (1) the fear of crime is highly racialized with supporters of tougher law enforcement tending to be white and tending to see the likely targets as black, so the rhetoric mobilizes a certain part of the electorate and sews division among working people, and (2) crackdowns spread fear in communities of the working poor and keep potential activists and organizers out of key positions in government, in low-paying jobs, struggling to make ends meet or on the run, and has the effect of pacifying certain risk categories of potential upstarts who might help upset the economic pecking order.

So not only is Black history important, and important to all working people, black or white, but it is not so much looking back to understand what happened in the past as to understand what is happening now.

No comments: