Archive for capitalism
In doing some research on capitalism and racism lately, I have been rethinking Oliver C. Cox’s pioneering and excellent Caste, Class, & Race; A Study in Social Dynamics book, which was first published in the late 1940s. It is still very much worth reading and learning from. It is available for free in various pdf and ereader formats for the Monthly Review Press edition here. (I use the Kindle formatting in quotes below.)
Oliver Cox was one of the few early black sociologists in the United States, and received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1938. He was a student of Robert Ezra Park, yet provided some of the deepest and most insightful critiques of Park, the early Chicago school, and Gunnar Myrdal’s famous An American Dilemma in this book, Caste, Class & Race. I highly recommend his analysis, both for its penetrating assessments and importance in sociological history.
One of the key figures historically in the Black Radical tradition, Oliver Cox was probably the first to argue in some detail that racist framing and exploitation arose in the various stages of modern capitalism:
Racial antagonism is part and parcel of this class struggle, because it developed within the capitalist system as one of its fundamental traits. It may be demonstrated that racial antagonism, as we know it today, never existed in the world before about 1492; moreover, racial feeling developed concomitantly with the development of our modem social system. Probably one of the most persistent social illusions of modem times is that we have race prejudice against other people because they are physically different—that race prejudice is instinctive. (Kindle Locations 461-487)
Modern race prejudice and framing is not instinctive but develops in the material context of early capitalism. Cox added that
The interest behind racial antagonism is an exploitative interest— the peculiar type of economic exploitation characteristic of capitalist society. To be sure, [a white person] might say this cannot be, for one feels an almost irrepressible revulsion in the presence of colored people, especially Negroes, although one never had any need to exploit them. It is evidently the way they look, their physical difference, which is responsible for one’s attitude. . . . [However] the individual is born into it and accepts it unconsciously, like his language, without question.
Racist prejudice and framing are learned in the broad material context of racial exploitation, and is generally accepted by most whites without question, even those who see themselves as uninvolved in exploitation. In this negative white racial framing black Americans
must not be allowed to think of themselves as human beings having certain basic rights protected in the formal law. On the whole, they came to America as forced labor, and our slavocracy could not persist without a consistent set of social attitudes which justified the system naturally. Negroes had to be thought of as subsocial and subhuman. To treat a slave as if he were a full-fledged human being would not only be dangerous but also highly inconsistent with the social system. (Kindle Locations 461-487).
Once put into place in the U.S. case, this racial prejudice and broader racial framing spread globally:
Our hypothesis is that racial exploitation and race prejudice developed among Europeans with the rise of capitalism and nationalism, and that because of the world-wide ramifications of capitalism, all racial antagonisms can be traced to the policies and attitudes of the leading capitalist people, the white people of Europe and North America. (Kindle Locations 8327-8329).
Later on, he summarizes this way:
Race prejudice in the United States is the socio-attitudinal matrix supporting a calculated and determined effort of a white ruling class to keep some people or peoples of color and their resources exploitable. In a quite literal sense the white ruling class is the Negro’s burden; the saying that the white man will do anything for the Negro except get off his back puts the same idea graphically. It is the economic content of race prejudice which makes it a powerful and fearfully subduing force. . . . However, it is the human tendency, under capitalism, to break out of such a place, together with the determined counterpressure of exploiters, which produces essentially the lurid psychological complex called race prejudice. Thus race prejudice may be thought of as having its genesis in the propagandistic and legal contrivances of the white ruling class for securing mass support of its interest. (Kindle Locations 11973-11982).
. . . . [Whites] should not be distracted by the illusion of personal repugnance for a race. Whether, as individuals, [they] feel like or dislike for the colored person is not the crucial fact. What the ruling class requires of race prejudice is that it should uniformly produce racial antagonism; and its laws and propaganda are fashioned for this purpose. The attitude abhors a personal or sympathetic relationship. (Kindle Locations 11990-11997).
Some 65 years ago, Cox vigorously argued that racial prejudice and framing are the results of concrete social and material contexts, not some psychological gremlins inherent in all human beings. And they destroy personal and empathetic relationships. These early classics are indeed well worth reading again today.
Capitalism’s emphasis on property rights has been historically fraught with peril since its inception as an economic force in the Western world. Capitalism is an economic system in which assets are privately owned and commodities and services are produced for profit in an otherwise global and competitive market place. But, as seen when the many bloody European revolutions transpired during the fall of feudalism, capitalism has routinely placed property rights over human rights.
American roots in capitalism run deep, beginning early during the Transatlantic slave trade when Africans were brought to the eastern shores of what is now North America. Stolen from their native lands and placed in chains for the voyage to America, Africans were exploited for their labor power, leaving their status among the ranks of humans to be determined by elite white men. Slavery built up the economic engine that propelled American capitalism, creating enormous wealth for white elites on the backs of Blacks. The history of African Americans and other race-based conflicts provided a blueprint for further economic-based exploits that stratified people on the basis of social class position, further advancing economic class divisions by deepening the gulf between the haves and have nots. Class matters because it provides individuals with access to society’s most valued resources like good paying jobs, stability and other financial rewards. The higher the class position the more resources afforded for individuals and families.
But not all people benefit equally and few actually move up in social class position in life, as we uncritically tend to believe. People of color and women disproportionately make up the bulk of the working class and working poor who are generally invisible and out of sight from the daily happenings of the shrinking middle class. Given our past development in maintaining cheap labor such as the utilization of “sweat shops” by our nation’s major corporations, the mounting pressure of increasing inflation and economic instability have cause the working class to take matters into their own hands. Fast food workers in 60 cities walked off their jobs en masse recently, protesting the economic injustice they have long endured before a greedy restaurant empire.
The fast food industry has long exploited the working class for cheap labor, maintaining a protracted policy of low wages that only benefits corporate elites. Currently, the minimum wage of $7.75 per hour is on the edge of the poverty line for an individual and certainly cannot support a family of four. The reluctance on the part of the government (Department of Labor) to mandate steady increases has contributed, in part, to the wage disparities currently under scrutiny. There is much evidence to show that paying living wages to sustain life above poverty is good for society and makes good business sense.
Research consistently shows that more unequal societies generally have higher levels of social problems, negative self-perceptions, poorer health status, and increased mental and emotional disorders than more equal societies. Conversely, there are also positive benefits to equal societies that translate into a better-educated citizenry and overall better general health, more innovation from within society, higher social mobility and greater levels of societal trust, which results in a lowered crime rate. Thus, when working class individuals are able to secure and maintain steady decent employment and compensation that allows them to rise above the poverty line, society benefits as a whole. As Dr. King so eloquently said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
The meager wages that fast food workers are paid in the United States compared to other parts of the Western world reveals much about where our national interests lie and the degree of pro-government involvement with the corporate world. This relationship has allowed many US corporations to flourish, at times creating extraordinary profits even during economic downturn. But capitalism comes at a high price for the oppressed, usually at the at the expense of the poor and disadvantaged. In this case, the proletariat is primarily women with children, who make up the bulk of low-wage fast food workers. This sort of labor requires no formal education and generally attracts people from the fringes of society who are trying to maintain a good living in our downwardly mobile economy.
Many Western European democracies consider the United States an unequal and stratified society, historically divided around skin tone, religious persuasion, sexuality, wealth and income inequality. Capitalism deepens this suffering as the very idea of a system designed to allow great economic success for one must come at the expense of another. This history is now being met with contemporary appeals by a growing economically disenfranchised populace who are left to fend for themselves in a class-based society where there is more rhetoric over the ability to move up the ladder than research actually shows.
The degree of American discontent over the uncertainty of the economy and the class-based society that defines us as a nation, divided not only by race but by social class position, is our legacy to bear and hopefully undue as it is a matter of public policy for the common good. Like other forms of white-imposed oppression, class-based injustice presents a growing threat to our national security, image and standing in the world as well as our well being as a nation. But it does not have to be this way. American understandings of work, which has notoriously placed property at the center of analysis, can reverse course by beginning to legislate and implement sound policies. To improve our society, these policies must include greater attention to wages and benefits that have the potential to economically empower its most valuable commodity, its citizens.
Dr. Darron Smith is an assistant professor in the Department of Physician Assistant Studies at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. Follow him on twitter @drdarronsmith.
Henry A. Giroux, in a recent post entitled, “Lil Wayne’s Lyrical Fascism,” alleges “We have come a long way from the struggles that launched the civil rights movement over fifty years ago.”
After reading the actual article, due to the esteemed Dr. Giroux’s critique on the rapper Lil Wayne, it would seem “We” definitely have not arrived. Giroux examines not only the deplorable lines within Lil Wayne’s contribution to the remix of “Karate Chop” (Yes, it actually called this), where he declares he will “beat the pussy up like Emmett Till,” but more importantly Giroux lends a spotlight to the underlying condition that allows for racist, sexist, and historical mockery to take place within the 21st century.
Giroux goes on to call into question the economic drive that fosters the media’s atmosphere consisting of poisonous and destructive attributes. These elements thusly seep through the “sleazemonger” which occupies our airwaves, satellites, and print. He also calls our society to the proverbial mat due to our collective lack of resistance to said subject. Importantly, Giroux comments on the existence of “a deeper order of racist ideology and commodification that is pushed to the margins of discourse in the neoliberal age of colorblindness.”
Those who follow his scholarship are aware Giroux has argued over the years that fundamentalist neoliberals who reject democratic idealism while praying to the gods of free market have gained the necessary financial momentum and social vigor to heavily influence the political and economic domains around the world like never before observed in history. In fact, they not only influence policy and political directions of those we elect to represent our interests, but they also seek to weaken those non-commodified areas within our communal space which serve as sources of conflicting critical discourse. Indeed, the mainstream media have become a brilliant source for accomplishing this charge. Due to their unwavering compulsion to gain profit, these free market fundamentalists hold almost no empathy in regard to their actions, which may create inequality, mortal anguish, and subjugation. Overall, the collective soul of a people and their democratic footing in this world is simply collateral damage to those seeking the all might “Dolla Bill Ya!”
I agree with Giroux in terms of the current state of neoliberalism and the erosion of democratic practices that is facilitated by use of the media. Malcolm X was right when he said, “The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.”
But at the same time when taking into consideration Giroux’s take on the neoliberal methodology in regard to using the media to gain profits through the use of racist and misogynistic messages (which are easily swallowed by the zombies that surround us), I strongly argue, simply, they are playing an old tune we as a world have been dancing to since the beginning. Remember, Joe Feagin contends racism and oppression are still viewed as normal parts of society due to the enmeshment of the White racial dogma embedded in the foundations of U.S. society. In addition, his concept, the white racial frame, spotlights a created set of organized “racialized” ideas and stereotypes that have the power to induce strong emotions. It is important to know these actions are based off of the U.S. historical enshrinement of a frame of thinking which at the center, is composed of a pro-white sub-frame (which takes notice of the superiority of Whites) and a demonizing anti-black sub-frame. In fact, institutional racism relies on the presence and mechanism of anti-Black attitudes and practices that are displayed overtly and covertly.
Therefore, what we are seeing today with the likes of Lil Wayne is nothing new. In terms of people of color attaching their own psychological chains to their advancement, this is nothing new as well. The power of racism and the allure of the white racial frame have the ability to ensnare those targeted for oppression into unconsciously adhering to their own demise. The historical and powerful speech by Malcolm X, “The House Negro and Field Negro,” although forceful, seems fitting:
There was two kind of slaves. There was the house negro and the field negro. The house negro, they lived in the house, with master. They dressed pretty good. They ate good, cause they ate his food, what he left. They lived in the attic or the basement, but still they lived near their master, and they loved their master, more than their master loved himself…If the master got sick, the house negro would say “What’s the matter, boss, we sick?” We sick! He identified himself with his master, more than the master identified with himself. And if you came to the house negro and said “Let’s run away, Let’s escape, Let’s separate” the house negro would look at you and say “Man, you crazy. What you mean separate? Where is there a better house than this? Where can I wear better clothes than this? Where can I eat better food than this?” There was that house negro. In those days, he was called a house nigger. And that’s what we call him today, because we still got some house niggers runnin around here…
If Malcolm were alive today, would he feel this is applicable to rappers like Jay-Z who has made million along his musical path calling women bitches?
Fascinating, due to having a baby daughter in 2012, he declared to never use the word again. Thank you Jay-Z. How about Lil Wayne and music mogul Russell Simons who hasve defiantly defended the current status and messages of hip/hop? Are they men under the illusion that they are in control and their pursuits? Are they purely focused on money and simply representing a faction of the neoliberal camp? But are they in reality the all encompassing “House Negros” affected blindly by the messages of subjugation.
Therefore. Dr. Giroux, the only difference I see today, beyond the democratic erosion of our society due to neoliberalism, is the advancement and use of technology in facilitating an old message that attempts to keep a white foot on the neck of people of color.
Those of us who study racial and ethnic relations in the United States recognize that race is a social construction. What race means, the characteristics and features that we attach to it and the classifications within it (whether Black, White, Asian, and the like), is not static or primordial, but dynamic and changeable. The meaning of race, then, is conditioned on and by an always shifting, societal context. For example, at the turn of the previous century, race was constructed as biological. Distinct racial classifications were understood as reflecting genetic and morphological differences, observable by phenotype. Racial disparities and inequities were explained in biological terms linked to ideas of racial inferiority and superiority.
The notion of race as rooted in biology, with consequent outcomes linked to ascribed deficiencies, or racism, is understood today as an attempt by the dominant (white) group to protect their material interests, like Southern plantation owners who relied on slave labor to maximize their profits during the pre-industrial era. In this way, the social construction of race as “biological” — in the absence of any hard proof or genetic evidence — emerged as a social fact to reproduce racial inequality.
Today we are much less likely to associate racial group membership with genetic endowments. At the same time, the concept and category of race as a distinct social group persists in the contemporary period. An individual’s racial group membership or identity is still conditioned in part, on phenotype. What this means is that racial classification is both self-defined and externally-imposed. How an individual racially identifies and how he or she is racially identified by others, both matter. Moreover, an individual’s own, personal racial identity “choice” is often but not always, consistent with that which is assigned to him or her by the outside world. For example, although Tiger Woods identifies racially as Cablinasian (Caucasian, Black, Indian and Asian), most Americans racially identify him as Black only.
Why race as a social construction matters for ethnicity
The dialectical fluidity of race — between self-definition and other-definition, between an individual’s chosen racial identity versus society’s imposed racial identity — facilitates an understanding of race as a social construction. After all, if Tiger Wood’s racial identity does not match that ascribed by the vast majority of American society, then racial identity (although a social fact), is crap beyond the meaning that is attached to it by an individual on the one hand and society on the other. The racial identity mismatch observed in the case of Tiger Woods encourages us to understand race as a less salient, “made up” category of identity, especially when compared against ethnicity, which is self-defined only.
For example, if I was walking down a public street, most Americans would identify me racially as “Latina” but would be less likely to identify me as Mexican-origin. My ethnicity, whether of Mexican, Salvadoran, Puerto Rican, or other Latin American-origin, is indeterminate; they’d have to ask. Additionally, because ethnicity is self-defined, it presumably has meaning for the person identifying with a particular ethnic group. From this perspective, ethnic self-identity matters for individuals and society in a way that racial self-identity doesn’t.
Ironically, this idea is related to a counterintuitive conception of ethnicity that characterizes it as more fluid than race, because one’s ethnicity is always “optional” (Waters 1990). Here the idea is simply that ethnicity is dynamic, fluid and self-defined; as such, anyone can assert any ethnic identity they choose to. And yet, the ethnic identity that they choose, because they choose it, must matter.
The salience of ethnicity when compared to race is also highlighted in the work of some racial and ethnic scholars who refer to race as a “secondary” category of identity, whereas ethnicity is referred to as an “anchoring” or “primary identity” (Itzigsohn and Dore-Cabral 2000; McDermott and Samson 2005). Moreover, the “maintenance” of ethnicity is thought to foster immigrant group cohesion, which may offer some material protection against a negative societal reception context. In contrast, racial identity formation may take place during a process of assimilation, as immigrants and their descendants “lose” their ethnicity, and with it, close-knit ties and sociocultural support. The characterization of ethnicity as a primary, anchoring identity, the maintenance of which offers protection to group members (whereas racial identity does not), underscores the greater importance and salience that American scholars of race relations place on ethnicity.
The perception of ethnicity as a more salient feature of identity is related to its conception as a socially constructed, self-defined identity. Because there is no other option but the option that is chosen by the individual, whether the option makes (common)sense or not, the option selected is accepted without comment. On the other hand, racial identity may be self-defined but is also other-defined. The person who racially identifies one way may or may not be racially identified that way by everyone else.
The problem with this construction of ethnicity is that it tends to reinforce the idea that ethnicity is somehow more “real” (if more fluid) than race. And if ethnicity is more real than race, then for some scholars, it becomes inherent, primordial. This is the slippery slope of ethnic identity formation and why at times, we may forget that ethnicity is as socially constructed as race.
Remember, ethnicity is a social construction too
I started thinking of the relationship between ethnic self-identification and the tendency to interpret ethnicity as more “real” than race when, as part of a new research project, I read a transcribed interview of a self-identified Mexican-origin entrepreneur. This entrepreneur was born in Mexico by immigrant Lebanese parents, she went to boarding school in France, eventually moved back to Mexico for a short time, then moved to the United States where she has been ever since, and where she married a White American man. Her self-defined ethnicity is Mexican, although she speaks Arabic, Spanish and French. Her racial identity is White, and claims that she doesn’t “feel Hispanic,” even though she has applied for and won awards for being a successful “Hispanic” entrepreneur.
In other words, her racial identity is White (she mentions that “No one considers [me] Hispanic”), although she has on occasion identified as Hispanic for instrumental reasons. Either way, the social construction of race is apparent here. Her ethnicity, on the other hand, was confusing to me. Although she self-identifies as Mexican, her parents are Lebanese, she maintains cultural features that are Mexican and Lebanese, she spent a lot of time outside of Mexico when she was growing up, and she racially identifies as non-Hispanic White.
When I finished reading the interview, I wondered about my easy acceptance of her White or Hispanic racial identity, depending, and my confusion and even discomfort about her ethnic self-identity. Why didn’t I readily accept her as ethnically Mexican, when she said she was? At that point I reached out to some colleague-friends and asked them to weigh in on her ethnic identity. Every one of them said she was Mexican; basically, because she said so. Yet, couldn’t we argue that she is also Lebanese? Why didn’t we stop to consider whether she was “more Lebanese” than Mexican, or both? Then again, since ethnicity is socially constructed as self-identified, why shouldn’t she be classified as Mexican if she says so? The point here is that ethnicity as a category of identity is arguably as messy as the category of race is, and yet, we often take ethnic identity at face value. Regarding this entrepreneur, my colleagues were willing to accept her as Mexican because she said so. This belies a salience not to ethnicity, per se, but rather, to the salience of self-identification.
The acceptance of self-identification as real deserves explicit acknowledgement, because it is the reason why we accept ethnic self-identity choices or options without question. Ethnicity could be just as messy as racial identity, if we constructed it as such. But we didn’t, so it isn’t. In fact, we don’t really care about racial self-identity at all, because whether it converges with society’s externally-imposed identity or not doesn’t really matter. A racial mismatch between an individual’s self-identity and society’s is acceptable, while an ethnic mismatch is not. In the end, the only ethnic identity that matters is the one the individual ascribes to. And yet, this doesn’t mean it is more important or anchoring or inherent than racial identity, just that it is socially constructed as self-identified, so it is perceived as such.
 Although this conception also continues to persist. For example, the neoconservative argument that affirmative action is “reverse racism” highlights the undeserved, merit-less, advantages of “less-qualified” racial minorities who benefit from “unfair government” “set-asides” in education and the labor market. More recently, however, observed racial inequality is commonly explained using a “color blind” framework, which is an attempt to explain racial inequality through non-racial means. In other words, to blame “anything but racism” for persistent racial inequality (see Bonilla Silva 2009).
 With the exception of critical race scholars, who, in contrast to traditional or mainstream approaches (i.e., the research on assimilation or immigrant incorporation), tend to emphasize race as a systemic or structural force (see the works of Feagin 2006, Moore 2007, and Bonilla-Silva 1997).
Zulema Valdez is associate professor of sociology at Texas A&M University. She is author of the book, The New Entrepreneurs: Race, Class, and Gender in American Enterprise.
As a byproduct of the recent presidential campaign, a troubling and explicit depiction of China as the primary source of America’s recessionary loss of jobs and economic woes reached a new level. A video presented by in stark black and white tones by the Citizens against Government Waste (CAGW), a fiscally conservative non-profit organization, creates a sense of impending doom by portraying America’s future failure to China’s economic insurgency. Set in Beijing in 2030 A.D., this politically-based video is in Chinese with English subtitles and shows a meeting of Chinese citizens held in Beijing led by a Machiavellian-like Chinese leader. The sinister-looking leader attributes America’s failure to spending and taxing itself out of a great recession through enormous “stimulus” spending, massive changes to healthcare and crushing debt. He derisively declares, “Now they work for us,” while the Chinese audience laughs appreciatively and gleefully.
This explicit calling out of China as the principal reason for America’s economic woes occurred on several fronts during the campaign and was bipartisan in nature. As Zachary Karabell, president of River Twice Research, points out in his article, “Don’t blame China for America’s decline”, the Obama administration has intensified pressure on Chinese trade and investments that have made it difficult for some American companies such as solar panel installers to compete. And in the town hall debates, Mitt Romney declared emphatically,
On day one, I will label China a currency manipulator which will allow me as President to be able to put in place if necessary tariffs where I believe they are taking unfair advantage of our manufacturers. So we are going to make sure the people that we trade with around the rules are playing by the rules.
Karabell points out also that this trend has occurred in other presidential campaigns: in 1992, Bill Clinton accused President George H.W. Bush of coddling Chinese dictators, while in 2004 John Kerry called corporate leaders “Benedict Arnold CEOs” for shipping jobs to China.
What is worrisome about this anti-Asian virulence is the possible return to historical animosity toward Americans of Asian descent that expressed itself in Anti-Asian legislation and actions over more than a century. Recall the so-called “yellow peril” ascribed to the influx of Asian immigrant labor to the West coast in the 19th century and the resulting Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that that sprang up in response and was not repealed until 1943. Or the wholesale internment of 100,000 Japanese Americans in camps during World War II.
Note also in the present-day example the lack of accountability ascribed to American corporations who have chosen to outsource work overseas, in search of cheap labor and greater profitability. While clearly the Chinese Communist government represents the antithesis of American democratic practices toward its people, the “rise of the rest” as Fareed Zakaria puts it in The Post-American World means that globalization is creating a new and highly competitive economic playing field. Tom Friedman in his famous book, The World is Flat notes that the current phase of globalization will be driven by a diverse group of individuals likely to be non-Western and nonwhite. In Bridging the Diversity Divide: Globalization and Reciprocal Empowerment in Higher Education, Alvin Evans and I describe globalization as a catalyst and mandate for remedying underrepresentation and achieving greater inclusion in our American institutions.
In Karabell’s view, American prosperity “will not be determined by decisions made in Beijing” but by “how American approaches the global economy of the 21st century.” He concludes:
If the U.S. focuses on nurturing the optimism, drive and skills that yield . . . results in the 20th century, it will thrive; if Americans obsess about looming threats from the East, it may indeed enter the economic twilight. The choice is ours.
In this era of globalization, the strength of our demographically diverse nation lies in our ability to rise above the distinctions of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and disability to achieve success. When mischaracterizations and exaggerations occupy our mindsets and airwaves, then we are less able to draw upon the strength of our representative democracy, the capabilities of our diverse citizenry, and our capacity for innovation.
Happy May Day, the workers of the world day!
In the past (for example, 2010) we have had major marches on this day in support of undocumented workers, and today we have had numerous marches in support of the “Occupy” causes by an array of workers, students, and others, as well as many other marches in support of unions and workers’ rights and causes.
The Industrial Workers of the World’s website points out that the country that founded May Day (May 1) seems to have forgotten it:
Most people living in the United States know little about the International Workers’ Day of May Day. For many others there is an assumption that it is a holiday celebrated in state communist countries like Cuba or the former Soviet Union.
Most Americans don’t realize that May Day has its origins here in this country and is as “American” as baseball and apple pie, and stemmed from the pre-Christian holiday of Beltane, a celebration of rebirth and fertility.
In the late nineteenth century, the working class was in constant struggle to gain the 8-hour work day. Working conditions were severe and it was quite common to work 10 to 16 hour days in unsafe conditions. Death and injury were commonplace at many work places and inspired such books as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Jack London’s The Iron Heel. As early as the 1860′s, working people agitated to shorten the workday without a cut in pay, but it wasn’t until the late 1880′s that organized labor was able to garner enough strength to declare the 8-hour workday. This proclamation was without consent of employers, yet demanded by many of the working class.
Unions and other worker organizations have brought much in the way of better lives for many Americans and others across the globe. And most of the world’s workers are workers of color–-often working ultimately for white-controlled western corporations. They still need much new organization to end various types of class and racial oppression that they face. Many of these workers of color turned out today to protest for better working conditions.
Coming decades will doubtless see important and organized worker challenges to the domination of the mostly white-run corporations (executives) that increasingly control larger workplaces in a great many countries, if only because their most workers (of color) do not share their high-profit interests and often western racialized interests. The US intellectual and critical thinker Noam Chomsky has an interesting recent commentary on the relationship of democratic reforms to more extensive democratic revolutions–which sometimes come from sustained workers movements.
“We are the 99 percent” – a message powerful in its simplicity and its call for renewed social justice. The Occupy movement took on new dimensions on Wednesday as protesters moved beyond marches and rallies to attempt to disrupt port operations in the nation’s fifth busiest port, while 100 military veterans marched in uniform in front of the New York Stock Exchange to express support for Scott Olsen, an Iraq war veteran injured in the Oakland protests.
The message of Occupy Wall Street that gave rise to this movement refers to the overwhelming majority of ordinary Americans who have lost economic ground in the recession while corporate profits have reached their highest point since 1950. In this regard, the Congressional Budget Office reports that between 1979 and 2007, income grew by 275 percent for the top one percent of households and just 18 percent for the bottom 20 percent. In fact, the United States now has the highest poverty rate among developed countries with 46 million people living in poverty. The stories of lost ground are real, anguishing, and personal: stories of foreclosure, people in debt without health insurance, those who cannot afford to heat their homes, college graduates with student loan debt who cannot find work, and many others whose photos and stories can be found at here. We wonder if this is a new America.
In The Global Auction: The Broken Promises of Education, Jobs, and Incomes (2011), Brown, Lauder and Ashton tell us that emerging economies have leapfrogged decades of industrial development and created a highly skilled, low wage workforce that provides cut-priced brain power. This “reverse auction” for jobs has weakened the trading position of American professionals in the effort to attain a comfortable standard of living. In support of their thesis, the unemployment rate for U.S. college graduates over the past year is 9.6 percent, while for high school graduates, the average is 21.6 percent. And corporations have unquestionably contributed to this reverse demand by outsourcing American jobs overseas. A Wall Street Journal study published on April 19, 2011, U.S. multinational corporations employed 21.1 million at home in 2009 and 10.3 million abroad, with increasing numbers of highly-skilled foreign employees.
The recession has unquestionably deepened the racial economic divide to the extent that some are even calling it a “race-cession.” A Pew Research Center analysis based on 2009 data reveals that the median wealth of white households is now 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households. The report documents the differential impact of the recession upon minority families, with a decline in median wealth of 66% among Hispanic households and 53% among black households, compared with 16 % among white households. Nearly one quarter of black and Hispanic households had no assets other than a vehicle, compared to 6% among white households. And foreclosures have a disproportionate impact on minority borrowers in 2007-2009, with 8% percent of Hispanics and Blacks losing their homes to foreclosures compared to 4.5% of whites.
The statistics for minority unemployment are sobering. Black unemployment has been at 16% or above for several months, the highest level since 1984, with Hispanic unemployment at 11.3% and white unemployment at 8%. The underemployment rate is at least double the official employment rate, including those working part-time who want full-time work, those who work at minimum wage but seek higher wages, and those discouraged workers who have given up looking for work due to the job shortage. Furthermore, the duration of unemployment for minorities has exceeded the average duration of 40.5 weeks or more than nine months. For some minority groups, such as Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and some Asian American groups, at least one third are either unemployed or underemployed. As a case in point, take the startling report, “Only One in Four Young Black Men in New York City Has a Job” published by the Community Service Society that documents the disproportionately high rates of unemployment among young black men ages 16-24.
Given these stark employment realities, will troubled white workers begin to target minority workers more than they do now as the recession deepens? We have seen minority workers blamed for difficult economic times when white farmers and workers reacted to the large numbers of freed blacks during and after Reconstruction, or with the more recent backlash against migrant Mexican workers taking jobs in America even though Mexican immigration has actually declined over the last few years and few many Americans are not willing to work under the abysmal working conditions associated with the agricultural and non-agricultural jobs held by migrant workers.
As the base for the Occupy Wall Street movement expands, it promises to be a movement that returns us to our democratic ideals and unite us in the cause of social justice across the divides of race, gender, age, and class. A recent press release by Ben Jealous, President of the NAACP articulates this unity of purpose:
We are encouraged by the broad national support and by the great diversity of Americans who have been participating in the Occupy Wall Street campaign. The movement and the peaceful protesters who are a part of the campaign share many of the same goals as the NAACP.”
The NAACP shares the protesters’ concerns about the growing disparity in the access to wealth in America, and the decline of economic opportunity for poor and middle class Americans. For over 102 years we have supported the policies which create, preserve and expand living wage jobs, increase economic opportunity and protect the right of every American to build and retain wealth and equity.
And in poetic terms, Archibald MacLeish captures the importance of this new movement in his description of our living democracy:
Democracy is never a thing done. Democracy is always something that a nation must be doing. What is necessary now is one thing and one thing only that democracy become again democracy in action, not democracy accomplished and piled up in goods and gold.