Tiger Couple Gets It Wrong On Immigrant Success

[Shortened version of a review in The Boston Review (March 11, 2014)

Review of The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld

The tiger couple is chasing its own tail, which is to say, they are stuck in circular reasoning. In their new book, The Triple Package, Amy Chua, author of the best-selling Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and Jed Rubenfeld tackle the question of why certain groups are overrepresented in the pantheon of success. They postulate the reason for their success is that these groups are endowed with “the triple package”: a superiority complex, a sense of insecurity, and impulse control. The skeptic asks, “How do we know that?” To which they respond: “They’re successful, aren’t they?”

But Chua and Rubenfeld proffer no facts to show that their exemplars of ethnic success—Jewish Nobel Prize winners, Mormon business magnates, Cuban exiles, Indian and Chinese super-achievers—actually possess this triple package. Or that possessing these traits is what explains their disproportionate success. For that matter, they do not demonstrate that possessing the triple package is connected, through the mystical cord of history, to Jewish sages, Confucian precepts, or Mormon dogma. Perhaps, as critics of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism have contended, success came first and only later was wrapped in the cloth of religion. In other words, like elites throughout history, Chua and Rubenfeld’s exemplars enshroud their success in whatever system of cultural tropes was available, whether in the Talmud, Confucianism, Mormonism, or the idolatry of White Supremacy. The common thread that runs through these myths of success is that they provide indispensable legitimacy for social class hierarchy. . . .

Chua and Rubenfeld give us old wine in new bottles: they invoke the idea used the world over to justify entrenched systems of social stratification—that success comes to the culturally deserving. This was precisely the argument put forward by Thomas Sowell in his 1981 book Ethnic America. For Sowell, “Jews are the classic American success story—from rags to riches against all opposition.” For Chua and Rubenfeld,

the two million Eastern European Jews who immigrated to America in the early 1990s brought with them habits of heightened discipline, religious prohibition, and hard work that they not only practiced themselves but passed down to their children.

Furthermore, both books contrast Jewish success in overcoming persecution and poverty with a deeply ingrained “defeatism” among blacks who bear the scars of centuries of slavery and denigration. As Sowell writes:

Groups today plagued by absenteeism, tardiness, and a need for constant supervision at work or in school are typically descendants of people with the same habits a century or more ago. The cultural inheritance can be more important than biological inheritance, although the latter stirs more controversy.

There you have it: the problem is to be found, not in the genes, but rather in the cultural DNA, which is even “more important than biological inheritance.” Since 1981, however, anthropologists and sociologists have developed a large canon of work that dissects and discredits theories that reduce inequality to culture. This scholarship was reflected during their book tour when Chua and Rubenfeld were challenged with questions about the racist implications of their theory. Is their point that African Americans are culturally deficient? Are they using “culture” to blame the victim, and to deflect attention away from persistent racist barriers that limit opportunity? For that matter, what about the 99 percent of people in “successful groups” who do not reach the top 1 percent? Are they less Jewish, Asian, Cuban, Mormon than Jews, Asians, Cubans, and Mormons who have “made it”? Do they suffer from a paucity of the traits that make up the triple package? Chua and Rubenfeld invoke an idea that justifies entrenched systems of social stratification: that success comes to the culturally deserving.

If not culture, what does explain Jewish “success against all opposition?” As I argue in The Ethnic Myth (1981), Jewish success is chiefly the result of factors that go back to the condition of Jews in their countries of origin. The shtetls romanticized in Fiddler on the Roof were small towns, proximate to cities, where Jews carved out niches between rural and urban economies. Many were traders who purchased agricultural products, animal hides, and raw materials from peasants and sold them to factories in cities, eking out a small profit. By the end of the nineteenth century, there were large concentrations of Jews in cities, and they played a key role in the critical early phases of industrialization. A 1945 survey of “Jews in the Russian Economy,” assembled by a group of Russian-Jewish immigrants, reported the following:

By 1832 Jews owned 149 [textile] factories and plants out of the total 528 existing at the time in eight provinces. . . . From the 1870s until the First World War, the Jews played a major part in the development of the sugar industry. . . . Flour milling was quite widespread among Jews within the Pale of Settlement. . . . By the early years of the twentieth century Jews owned or leased 365 mills with an annual business of 20 million rubles. . . . The same can be said of tobacco production, which had long been concentrated in Jewish hands. . . . In the Russian leather industry Jews also played a substantial role. . . . In the woodworking industry, Jews were prominent chiefly in the sawmill business. . . . In the grain and timber trade, Jews . . . may be said to have brought Russia into the world market.

In short, Jews were on the forefront of commerce and industrialization in Eastern Europe, and Jewish immigrants to the United States arrived with previous industrial experience and a higher rate of literacy that gave them a decisive head start over other immigrants, most of whom came from peasant origins.

Jewish immigrants also had skills in a wide array of crafts. A study conducted by the U.S. Immigration Commission in 1911 found that Jews ranked first in thirty-six of forty-seven trades:

They constituted 80 percent of the hat and cap makers, 75 percent of the furriers, 68 percent of the tailors and bookbinders, 60 percent of the watchmakers and milliners, and 55 percent of the cigarmakers and tinsmiths. They totaled 30 to 50 percent of the immigrant classified as tanners, turners, undergarment makers, jewelers, painters, glaziers, dressmakers, photographers, saddlemakers, locksmiths, and metal workers in other than iron and steel. They ranked first among immigrant printers, bakers, carpenters, cigar-packer, blacksmiths, and building trades workmen.

These skills were in demand in the burgeoning economies of the cities where they settled. Many Jewish immigrants used their craft skills to establish small family businesses that allowed them to secure an occupational and economic foothold that served as a springboard of mobility for their children. Typically their sons went into the family business, and at the point that their grandchildren began streaming into college, there was a fortuitous expansion of American higher education, especially during the period after World War II. Jews were the right people in the right place and the right time, and this is why they were able to escape the poverty of the immigrant generation more rapidly than others.
None of this is to say that culture does not matter. The whole point is that culture does not exist in a vacuum, but rather is one factor within a large matrix of social and material factors.

As I write in The Ethnic Myth:

If Jews set high goals, it is because they had a realistic chance of achieving them. If they worked hard, it is because they could see the fruits of their labor. If they were willing to forgo the pleasures of the moment, it is because they could realistically plan for the future, for their children if not for themselves. In short there was much in the everyday experience of Jewish immigrants to activate and sustain their highest aspirations. Without this reinforcement, their values would have been scaled down accordingly, and more successful outsiders would today be speculating about how much further Jews might have gone if only they had aimed higher.

The fatal flaw of The Triple Package is that its authors treat their magic trifecta as disembodied values, putatively rooted in ancient cultures. But they provide no evidence that their exemplars are actually immersed in these cultural systems. Rather, there are more mundane reasons why they might exhibit the magic trifecta, connected with their social class and circumstances. Chua’s parents were not just struggling immigrants—they were educated professionals with the social and material resources that allowed them to sustain their aspirations for their children. Rubenfeld was raised in upper-middle class affluence, which put him on a fast track to success. Their circumstances positioned the tiger parents to raise two achieving daughters, one bound for the Harvard (their parents’ alma mater), the other for Yale (their parents’ workshop). In other words mobility is not an individual achievement so much as it is a family project that occurs incrementally across generations. . . .

The demystification of the Jewish success story has implications for rendering a more truthful account of the success stories at the center of Chua and Rubenfeld’s book. In each case, pre-migration factors and selective migration go a long way to explaining group success:

• Nigerian immigrants at Harvard Business School are no success story whatsoever. They come from Nigeria’s educated and affluent elite. If anything, this is a case of a transfer of human capital from one nation to another. Or, to put it bluntly, a brain drain. The same can be seen in Iranian and Lebanese immigrants.
• A socialist revolution made refugees of Cuba’s political oligarchs and economic elites and sent them in flight to Miami. Recovery was not easy, but neither were they the “huddled masses” of yore. From the Small Business Administration and other government agencies, Cuban refugees received credit and loans whose purpose was to showcase the superiority of American capitalism over Cuban socialism. In contrast the Cubans who arrived in the 1980 “Mariel Boatlift” came from the poorest segments of the Cuban population. Unlike in 1966, there were no articles in Fortune Magazine entitled “Those Amazing Cuban Émigrés.”
• The first wave of Asian immigrants after the 1965 Immigration Act consisted mostly of professionals who sought more lucrative employment in the United States. Later these immigrants were able to send for their poorer relatives under the family reunification provision in immigration law. Like Jews, many Asians found a niche in the enclave economy and used their success as entrepreneurs as a springboard of mobility for their children.
• Chua and Rubenfeld have a field day with the statistic that Asians comprise nearly three quarters of the students at Stuyvesant, New York City’s elite high school. They claim that many of these students come from parents who are restaurant or factory workers, but they have no evidence on the actual class background of students who make the cut for Stuyvesant. Their source is a single local news story about a school in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where children, at great expense to their working-class parents, are enrolled for years in a test-prep program called “Horizons.” Nor is there mention of the cottage industry of test-prep programs in Chinatown, which are now cashing in by attracting non-Asians as well.
• The droves of foreign students in the nation’s colleges and universities who overstay their visas are another source of immigrant achievers. These students come mostly from middle-class or affluent families who can afford to enroll their children in American universities. Again, a case of selective migration, not a success story.
• As for the Caribbean students who succeed, whether in college admissions or in business, they rarely come from affluent families, but they still have class advantages that place them a rung higher on the ladder than African Americans, and they encounter less racism as a result. On the other hand, the Jamaican seasonal farm workers who harvest apples in upstate New York are no success story.
• Why Mormons, regarded fifty years ago as a fringe group, have made recent strides in the business world is mysterious, but one thing is certain: Mormon religion did not change. On the contrary, as was true of immigrant Jews, the Mormons who were catapulted to success probably had to break away from the strictures and doctrines of pre-modern religions in order to achieve the success they sought in the material world. Sure, like Mitt Romney and like the protagonist in Abraham Cahan’s 1917 novel, The Rise of David Levinsky—they look back nostalgically on their youthful allegiances, but the discontinuities are far more important than the continuities.

When the tiger couple appeared on Fareed Zakaria’s weekly show on CNN, Zakaria observed that the nations that supposedly embody the magic trifecta have, until recently, been “basket cases.” Without a moment’s hesitation, Rubenfeld averred that in their home countries, they had only two of the three requisite traits—an ingrained sense of superiority and impulse control. Only when they arrived on American shores did they develop the sense of vulnerability that allowed the trifecta to have its magical result. These are the absurd lengths that Rubenfeld must go to in order to save his pet theory from its glaring overstatements and fatal omissions. . . .

In their whirlwind interviews, Chua and Rubenfeld were often asked whether their theory has a racist flipside, and their prompt riposte was that blacks, too, could achieve success if only they cultivated the magic trifecta. It is worth pointing out, though, that most of the groups that Chua and Rubenfeld tout as exemplars of success would not be on American soil but for the 1965 Immigration Act that was passed on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement. Not only that, but thanks to the black protest movement, immigrants from Asia, Africa, and Latin America entered a nation with a far more favorable climate of tolerance than existed in times past. Finally, it is safe to assume that some of Chua and Rubenfeld’s exemplars reaped the advantage of affirmative action programs, which were developed in the cauldron of black protest and gutted by the Supreme Court.

There is bitter irony when the paragons in Chua and Rubenfeld’s narrative are used to make invidious comparisons to African Americans who, throughout American history, have been pushed further back from doors of opportunity by successive waves of immigrants. As Toni Morrison wrote years ago, their success comes “on the back of blacks,” whose struggles are similarly eclipsed in this facile and fallacious book.

Race, Nationality, & Fertility: The Transnational Value of Whiteness

Surrogacy (the act of a woman carrying a fetus to term for another person) has been a controversial topic for many years now. From a critical race perspective, Dorothy Roberts and others have pointed out how surrogacy and other fertility techniques have been used by mostly wealthy whites to produce blond, blue-eyed white babies while employing black, brown, or yellow women to take the time and effort to have them.

Indeed, surrogacy has gotten so expensive in the U.S. (and elsewhere) that many Americans have sought out surrogates in India, creating “baby factories” and “surrogacy tourists.” Roberts notes how nonwhite surrogates can be used by single, wealthy white men to retain their wealth (as well as genetic) inheritance. Further, affluent women (regardless of race) can avoid the health dangers and inconveniences associated with pregnancy and childbirth, yet still have their own biological children.

In more recent years, however, the use of surrogacy to increase the “lily white” has expanded to affluent nonwhites employing white women. In China, for example, surrogacy is growing in popularity for the upper-class, due to a variety of factors including infertility, China’s one-child policy, and desire to obtain U.S. citizenship for both themselves and their children.

While many couples use their own eggs and sperm, a growing number are accepting egg donations for their surrogates. In fact, some seek tall, blond (i.e., white) donors to produce a Eurasian looking child, whom many clients claim to look smarter and more attractive. Meanwhile, a recent expose of a clinic in Ghana claims to produce “half-caste” babies in order to create a “half-caste world.” The founder of the clinic claims that Africa needs more biracial individuals, while claiming to provide his clients children with “mental and physical beauty.” Additionally, he purports that such biracial individuals would help to improve Africa’s future. Gametes from countries including the U.K. and U.S. are reportedly proffered for $3,000 USD.

While most people think helping people have children is a good thing, there are a number of tricky issues related to this phenomenon. While many of us may wish to ignore this issue and hope it goes away, surrogacy is on the rise in the world. Furthermore, the exploitation of poor women of color is on full display, using them as little more than incubators to produce offspring for mostly affluent white people. Why do some Chinese (as well as other Asians) prefer individuals who have fairer skin and “white” looking features? Why would Africans come to view the continent as too Black? The cases of wealthy Chinese, Ghanaian, or other nonwhites who seek “half-caste” children presents another issue: the effects of white supremacy exported abroad, producing symbolic violence.

The Craziest Person in the Room: Reflections on How a Mediocre White Guy Can Try to Be Useful

[Edited version of a talk at the National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education in New Orleans on June 1, 2013.]

I recognize that the title for this presentation—“The Craziest Person in the Room: Reflections on How a Mediocre White Guy Can Try to Be Useful”—is not particularly elegant or enticing, maybe not very clear or even coherent. So, let me begin by explaining what I mean by some of these terms.

First, the “white guy”: For some years now, I’ve begun talks on injustice and inequality by acknowledging my status: White, male, educated, comfortably middle class, and born in the United States—in short, a privileged citizen of a predatory imperial nation-state within a pathological capitalist economic system. Borrowing a line from a friend with the same profile, I observe that, “If I had been born good-looking, I would have had it all.” That approach communicates to people in this room who don’t occupy these categories that I recognize my unearned privilege and the unjust systems and structures of power from which that privilege flows. (It also indicates that I am not afraid to look in a mirror.)

But today I won’t offer much more of that reflexive white liberal/progressive/radical genuflecting, which while appropriate in many situations increasing feels to me like a highly choreographed dance that happens in what we might call “social-justice spaces.” In rooms such as this, such a performance feels like that—just a performance. So, yes, there are some things I don’t know and can’t know because I’m a white guy, and that demands real humility, a recognition that people on the other end of those hierarchies have different, and typically deeper, insights than mine. But after 25 years of work to understand the world in which I live, there are some things I am confident that I do know and that are more vitally important than ever.

This confidence flows from an awareness that I am mediocre. About “mediocre”: Don’t worry, I don’t have a self-esteem problem. I am a tenured full professor at a major state research university, a job that I work hard at with some success. This is not false modesty; I believe I’m an above-average teacher who is particularly good at expressing serious ideas in plain language. I describe myself as mediocre because I think that, whatever skills I have developed, I’m pretty ordinary and I think that most of us ordinary people are pretty mediocre—good enough to get by, but nothing special. If we put some effort into our work and catch a few breaks (and I’ve had more than my share of lucky breaks), we’ll do ok. Too many bad breaks, and things fall apart quickly. I think this is an honest, and healthy, way to understand ourselves.

So, for me, “coming out” as mediocre is a way of reminding myself of my limits, to help me use whatever abilities I do have as effectively as possible. I’ve spent a quarter-century in academic and political life, during which time I’ve met some really smart people, and I can tell the difference between them and me. I have never broken new theoretical ground in any field, and I never will. I probably have never had a truly original idea. I’m a competent, hard-working second-tier intellectual and organizer.

As a result, I’ve focused on trying to get clear about basic issues: Why is it so difficult for U.S. society to transcend the white-supremacist ideas of its founding, even decades after the end of the country’s formal apartheid system? Why do patriarchal ideas dominate everywhere, even in the face of the compelling arguments of feminists? Why do we continue to describe the United States as a democratic society when most ordinary people feel shut out of politics and the country operates on the world stage as a rogue state outside of international law? Why do we celebrate capitalism when it produces a world of unspeakable deprivation alongside indefensible affluence? And why, in the face of multiple cascading ecological crises, do we collectively pretend that prosperity is just around the corner when what seems more likely to be around the corner is the cliff that we are about to go over? Those are some really heavy questions, but people don’t have to pretend to be something special to deal with these challenges. We can be ordinary, average—mediocre, in the sense I mean it—and still do useful things to confront all this. Instead of trying to prove how special and smart we are, it’s fine to dig in and do the ordinary work of the world. But people like me—those of us with identities that come with all that unearned privilege—do have one opportunity to do at least one thing that can be special: We don’t have to pretend to be the smartest, but we can strive to be the craziest person in the room.

Third, and final, clarification, about “crazy”: In this context, I mean crazy not in a pejorative but in an aspirational sense. I want to be as crazy as I can, in the sense of being unafraid of the radical implications of the radical analysis necessary to understand the world. When such analysis is honest, the implications are challenging, even frightening. It is helpful to be a bit crazy, in this sense, to help us accept the responsibility of pushing as far and as hard as is possible and productive, in every space.

I take that to be my job, to leverage that unearned privilege to create as much space as possible for the most radical analysis possible, precisely because in some settings I am taken more seriously than those without that status. If it’s true that white people tend to take me more seriously than a non-white person when talking about race, then I should be pushing those white folk. If I can get away with talking not just about the need for diversity but also about the enduring reality of racism—and in the process, explain why the United States remains a white-supremacist society—then I should talk “crazy” in that way, to make sure that analysis is part of the conversation, and to make it easier for non-white people to push in whatever direction they choose. Once I’ve used the term “white supremacy,” it’s on the table for others who might be dismissed as “angry” if they had introduced it into the conversation.

If it’s true that men tend to take me more seriously than a woman when talking about gender, then I should be pushing the envelope. If I can get away with talking not just about the importance of respecting women but also about the enduring reality of sexism, then I should talk “crazy” about how rape is not deviant but normalized in a patriarchal culture, about how the buying and selling of women’s bodies for the sexual pleasure of men in prostitution, pornography, and stripping is a predictable consequence of the eroticizing of domination and subordination.

I should talk about the violent reality of imperialism, not just questioning the wisdom of a particular war but critiquing the sick structure of U.S. militarism. I should talk not just about the destructive nature of the worst corporations but also about the fundamental depravity of capitalism itself.

As someone with status and protection, I should always be thinking: What is the most radical formulation of the relevant analysis that will be effective in a particular time and place? Then I should probably take a chance and push it a half-step past that. I should do all this without resorting to jargon, either from the diversity world or the dogmatic left. I should say it as clearly as possible, even when that clarity makes people—including me—uncomfortable. This isn’t always as difficult or risky as it seems. Outside of overtly reactionary political spaces, most people’s philosophical and theological systems are rooted in basic concepts of fairness, equality, and the inherent dignity of all people. Most of us endorse values that—if we took them seriously—should lead to an ethics and politics that reject the violence, exploitation, and oppression that defines the modern world. If only a small percentage of people in any given society are truly sociopaths—incapable of empathy, those who for some reason enjoy cruel and oppressive behavior—then a radical analysis should make sense to lots of people.

But it is not, of course, that easy, because of the rewards available to us when we are willing to subordinate our stated principles in service of oppressive systems. I think that process works something like this:

–The systems and structures in which we live are hierarchical.
–Hierarchical systems and structures deliver to those in the dominant class certain privileges, pleasures, and material benefits, and some limited number of people in subordinated classes will be allowed access to most of those same rewards.
–People are typically hesitant to give up privileges, pleasures, and benefits that make us feel good.
–But, those benefits clearly come at the expense of the vast majority of those in the subordinated classes.
–Given the widespread acceptance of basic notions of equality and human rights, the existence of hierarchy has to be justified in some way other than crass self-interest.
–One of the most persuasive arguments for systems of domination and subordination is that they are “natural” and therefore inevitable, immutable. There’s no point getting all worked up about this—it’s just the way things are.

If this analysis is accurate, that’s actually good news. I would rather believe that people take pains to rationalize a situation they understand to be morally problematic than to celebrate injustice. When people know they have to rationalize, it means they at least understand the problems of the systems, even if they won’t confront them.

So, our task is to take seriously that claim: Is this domination/subordination dynamic natural? Yes and no. Everything humans do is “natural,” in the tautological sense that since we do it, human nature obviously includes those particular characteristics. In that sense, a pacifist intentional community based on the collective good and a slave society based on exploitation are both natural. We all know from our own experience that our individual nature includes varied capacities; we are capable of greedy, self-interested behavior, and we also can act out of solidarity and compassion. We make choices—sometimes consciously, though more often without much deliberation—within systems that encourage some aspects of our nature and suppress other parts.

Maybe there is a pecking order to these various aspects of human beings—a ranking of the relative strength of these various parts of our nature—but if that is the case, we know virtually nothing about it, and aren’t likely to know anytime soon, given the limits of our ability to understand our own psychology. What we do understand is that the aspect of our nature that emerges as primary depends on the nature of the systems in which we live. Our focus should be on collective decisions we make about social structure, which is why it’s crucial to never let out of our sights the systems that do so much damage: white supremacy, patriarchy, imperialism, capitalism. There are serious implications to that statement. For example, I do not think that meaningful social justice is possible within capitalism. My employer, the University of Texas at Austin, doesn’t agree. In fact, some units of the university—most notably the departments of business, advertising, and economics—are dedicated to entrenching capitalism. That means I will always be in a state of tension with my employer, if I’m true to my own stated beliefs.

Education and organizing efforts that stray too far from this focus will never be able to do more than smooth the rough edges off of systems that will continue to produce violence, exploitation, and oppression—because that’s what those systems are designed to do. If we are serious about resisting injustice, that list of systems we must challenge is daunting enough. But it is incomplete, and perhaps irrelevant, if we don’t confront what in some ways is the ultimate hierarchy, the central domination/subordination dynamic: the human belief in our right to control the planet.

Let me put this in plain terms: We live in a dead world. Not a world that is dying, but a world that is dead—beyond repair, beyond reclamation, perhaps beyond redemption. The modern industrial high-energy/high-technology world is dead. I do not know how long life-as-we-know-it in the First World can continue, but the future of our so-called “lifestyle” likely will be measured in decades not centuries. Whatever the time frame for collapse, the contraction has begun. I was born in 1958 and grew up in a world that promised endless expansion of everything—of energy and material goods, of democracy and freedom. That bounty was never equitably distributed, of course, and those promises were mostly rhetorical cover for power. The good old days were never as good as we imagined, and they are now gone for good.

If that seems crazy, let me try again: The central illusion of the industrial world’s extractive economy—propped up by a technological fundamentalism that is as irrational as all fundamentalisms—is that we can maintain indefinitely a large-scale human presence on the earth at something like current First-World levels of consumption. The task for those with critical sensibilities is not just to resist oppressive social arrangements, but to speak a simple truth that almost no one wants to acknowledge: This high-energy/high-technology life of affluent societies is a dead end. We can’t predict with precision how resource competition and ecological degradation will play out in the coming decades, but it is ecocidal to treat the planet as nothing more than a mine from which we extract and a landfill into which we dump. We cannot know for sure what time the party will end, but the party’s over.

Does that still sound crazy? Look at any crucial measure of the health of the ecosphere in which we live—groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, chemical contamination, increased toxicity in our own bodies, the number and size of dead zones in the oceans, accelerating extinction of species, and reduction of biodiversity—and ask a simple question: Where are we heading?

Remember also that we live in an oil-based world that is rapidly depleting the cheap and easily accessible oil, which means we face a major reconfiguration of the infrastructure that undergirds daily life. Meanwhile, the desperation to avoid that reconfiguration has brought us to the era of “extreme energy,” using more dangerous and destructive technologies (hydrofracturing, deep-water drilling, mountaintop coal removal, tar sands extraction). Instead of gently putting our foot on the brakes and powering down, we are slamming into overdrive.

And there is the undeniable trajectory of global warming/global weirding, climate change/climate disruption—the end of a stable planet.

Scientists these days are talking about tipping points (June 7, 2012, issue of Nature) and planetary boundaries (September 23, 2009, issue of Nature), about how human activity is pushing Earth beyond its limits. Recently 22 top scientists warned that humans likely are forcing a planetary-scale critical transition “with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience,” which means that “the biological resources we take for granted at present may be subject to rapid and unpredictable transformations within a few human generations.” (Anthony Barnosky, et al, “Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere,” Nature, June 7, 2012).

That conclusion is the product of science and common sense, not supernatural beliefs or conspiracy theories. The political/social implications are clear: There are no solutions to our problems if we insist on maintaining the high-energy/high-technology existence lived in much of the industrialized world (and desired by many currently excluded from it). Many tough-minded folk who are willing to challenge other oppressive systems hold on tightly to this lifestyle. The critic Fredric Jameson wrote that, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism,” but that’s only part of the problem—for some, it may be easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of air conditioning.

I’m not moving into rapture talk, but we do live in end-times, of a sort. Not the end of the world—the planet will carry on with or without us—but the end of the human systems that structure our politics, economics, and social life.

All this matters for anyone concerned not only about the larger living world but also the state of the human family. Ecological sustainability and social justice are not separate projects. One obvious reason is that ecological crises do not affect everyone equally—as those in the environmental justice movement say, the poor and oppressed of the planet tend to be hit “first and worst, hardest and longest” by ecological degradation. These ecological realities also affect the landscape on which we organize, and progressive and radical movements on the whole have not spent enough time thinking about this.

First, let me be clear, even though there is no guarantee we can change the disastrous course of contemporary society, we should affirm the value of our work for justice and sustainability. We take on projects that we realize may fail because it’s the right thing to do, and by doing so we create new possibilities for ourselves and the world. Just as we all know that someday we will die and yet still get out of bed every day, an honest account of planetary reality need not paralyze us.

Then let’s abandon worn-out clichés such as, “The American people will do the right thing if they know the truth,” or “Past social movements prove the impossible can happen.” There is no evidence that awareness of injustice will automatically lead U.S. citizens, or anyone else, to correct it. When people believe injustice is necessary to maintain their material comfort, some accept those conditions without complaint.

Social movements around race, gender, and sexuality have been successful in changing oppressive laws and practices, and to a lesser degree in shifting deeply held beliefs. But the movements we most often celebrate, such as the post-World War II civil rights struggle, operated in a culture that assumed continuing economic expansion. We now live in a time of permanent contraction—there will be less, not more, of everything. Pressuring a dominant group to surrender some privileges when there is an expectation of endless bounty is a very different project than when there is intensified competition for increasingly scarce resources. That doesn’t mean nothing can be done to advance justice and sustainability, only that we should not be glib about the inevitability of it.

If all this seems like more than one can bear, it’s because it is. We are facing new, more expansive challenges. Never in human history have potential catastrophes been so global; never have social and ecological crises of this scale threatened at the same time; never have we had so much information about the threats we must come to terms with.

It’s easy to cover up our inability to face this by projecting it onto others. When someone tells me “I agree with your assessment, but people can’t handle it,” I assume what that person really means is, “I can’t handle it.” But handling it is, in the end, the only sensible choice. To handle it is to be a moral agent, responsible for oneself and one’s place in a community.

Mainstream politicians will continue to protect existing systems of power, corporate executives will continue to maximize profit without concern, and the majority of people will continue to avoid these questions. It’s the job of people with critical sensibilities—those who consistently speak out for justice and sustainability, even when it’s difficult—not to back away just because the world has grown more ominous.

Facing this doesn’t demand that we separate from mainstream society or give up ongoing projects that seek a more just world within existing systems. I am a professor at a university that does not share my values or analysis, yet I continue to teach. In my community, I am part of a group that helps people create worker-cooperatives that will operate within a capitalist system that I believe to be a dead end. I belong to a congregation that struggles to radicalize Christianity while remaining part of a cautious, often cowardly, denomination. We do what we can, where we can, based on our best assessment of what will move us forward.

That may not be compelling to everyone. So, just in case I have dug myself in a hole with some people, I’ll deploy a strategy well known to white people talking about social justice: When you get in trouble, quote an icon from the civil-rights movement. In this case, I’ll choose James Baldwin, from a 1962 essay about the struggles of artists to help a society, such as white-supremacist America, face the depth of its pathology.

On this question of dealing honestly with hard truths, Baldwin reminds us,

Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” In that essay, titled “As Much Truth as One Can Bear,” Baldwin suggested that a great writer attempts “to tell as much of the truth as one can bear, and then a little more. (James Baldwin, “As Much Truth As One Can Bear,” in Randall Kenan, ed., The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (New York: Pantheon, 2010), pp. 28-34.)

He was speaking about the struggle for justice within the human family, but if we extend that spirit to the state of the larger living world, the necessary formulation today would be “to tell as much of the truth as one can bear, and then all the rest of the truth, whether we can bear it or not.”

By avoiding the stark reality of our moment in history we don’t make ourselves safe. All we do is undermine the potential of struggles for justice and sustainability and guarantee the end of the human evolutionary experiment will be ugly beyond our imagination. We must remember, as Baldwin said, “that life is the only touchstone and that life is dangerous, and that without the joyful acceptance of this danger, there can never be any safety for anyone, ever, anywhere.”

———————————–
Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. His latest books are Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue, and We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out (on Kindle)

Jensen is also the author of All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, (Soft Skull Press, 2009); Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Lights, 2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights, 2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang, 2002). Jensen is also co-producer of the documentary film “Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing” (Media Education Foundation, 2009), which chronicles the life and philosophy of the longtime radical activist. An extended interview Jensen conducted with Osheroff is online Jensen can be reached at rjensen@austin.utexas.edu and his articles can be found online. To join an email list to receive articles by Jensen, go to here. Twitter: @jensenrobertw.

“White Party” Demonstrates White Racial Framing?

Cord Jefferson has an interesting title and short article at gawker on “House Republicans Meet at a Former Slave Plantation to Practice Talking to Black People.” The House Republicans are meeting for a winter retreat in the old colonial and slavery oriented town of Williamsburg, Virginia. To talk about guns, the debt, and government spending. He notes that irony indeed of meeting in a room named for a place of racial oppression — for a session about reaching to minorities and women, and more:

And what better place to talk about making inroads with oppressed groups than in a room named after a famous Williamsburg plantation, located in the tony Kingsmill Resort, which itself is on the site of another plantation? The GOP has heard your complaints, blacks and Latinos and women, and they’re going to try to suss it out while sitting atop dead slave bones.

Yet more evidence that the Republican Party is now substantially, and often unreflectively, the “white party” of the United States?

Walking the Tightrope of Race: Social and Emotional Effects of Being the First

Thinking not only of the reaction to President Obama’s recent debate performances, but also of the manner in which he has been graded and depicted by political pundits, so called newscasters, and the general public on idiot blogs over the past four years, reminds me of a conversation my mother and I had when I was in the seventh grade. It occurred after I was publicly humiliated at school once my name and others were called, announcing our honor roll placement for the semester over the school PA system. I told her of my feelings associated with the backhanded compliments from unsupportive white peers and ridicule from a segment of my own racial group. I felt isolated and alone.

This especially held true because I was one of just two Blacks announced. This alone carried many issues and concerns. Nevertheless, my mother simply said, “Sometimes being a person of color is like walking a tight rope above folks waiting to see the blood spew from your fall.” She told me that on one side, non-Blacks will think you are still beneath them and cannot wait for your fall. On the other side were some of my own who hate that I was in a position they are not. For those reasons, they will at times subconsciously wish for your demise. This introduced me to the idea of division among Black America–a subject discussed at great lengths within Cool Pose: The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in America, by Richard Majors and Janet Mancini Billson. Today, we can witness an increasing division among Blacks due to socioeconomic status.

Regardless, to me, the jeering and division seems to become louder and wider as one begins to occupy spaces that have traditionally been denied due to skin tone. When one is seen as a rarity, “the oddity,” the air of subjugation, fear, and at times hatred becomes thicker and forces the lungs to work harder in order to endure. Many times the pressure is so unbearable, that psychological stressors can occur and affect the emotional and physical statuses of individuals. It can create strife within the formation of an identity.

I have witnessed how the president has been depicted. I have seen in print and within the context of news stories within the 24-hour news cycle that have painted him as “too Black.” On the other hand, was it that he has forgotten Blacks and their plight? People who I admire, such as Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, have been seen trailing this particular bandwagon. I have seen others note that the president is not aggressive enough and not acting like a “stereotypical scary black man.” During the second presidential debate, I received an automatic shock to my brain every time someone coined his approach to his political appointment as, “angry.” Whites have often deemed him as an illegal alien, monkey, Hitler, and other derogatory figures.

In the end, I feel we as a nation have for four years viciously watched in excitement a political tragedy. The essence of racism, as seen during Jackie Robinson’s rise, is still prevalent as the president continues to move along the racial tightrope. The effects on race are truly boundless. The Kool-Aid has been drunk by not only by those seen as oppressors, but also by those seen as oppressed. In fact, the thought that race within this presidential election is absent, is credulous at best.

US Workers Invented “May Day”

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.

The End of Civil Rights Revolution: Dr. King’s Assassination



April 4, 1968, about 6:01pm. We should always remember that time. It has now been 44 years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. He was moving conceptually and in his actions in a more radical direction combining antiracist, broader anticlass, and antiwar efforts—which efforts likely had much to do with his assassination.King (Photo: Wiki-images)

I remember the day vividly, like it was yesterday, and can still remember the time of day when one of my students at the University of California called me to tell of the terrible event, and I can still remember well my and his distressed emotions as we talked about the shooting. (We did not know Dr. King had died at that time.) He was one of the few African American students then at that university and as one would expect was devastated by the event, as I was too

In some ways, King’s assassination marked the apparent end of much of the black civil rights movement in the 1960s, not necessarily a coincidence. One does not have to be a conspiracy theorist to wonder about this historical timing — or to wonder where this country would be if thinker/leaders like Dr. King and Malcolm X had lived to lead an ever renewed rights and racism-change movement.

The events leading up to Dr. King’s assassination need to be taught everywhere. In late March 1968 Dr. King and other civil rights leaders participated in and supported the local Memphis sanitary works employees, black and white, who were striking for better wages and working condition.

Conditions in Memphis, as elsewhere, were very oppressive for workers, in both racial and class terms, as this wikipedia summary makes clear:

In one incident, black street repairmen received pay for two hours when they were sent home because of bad weather, but white employees were paid for the full day.

King gave his last (“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”) speech at a rally for the workers at the Mason Temple in Memphis.
This is the famous section near the end of his prophetic speech, where he reflects on death threats he had often received:

We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.

Let us remember him well, and especially his prophetic antiracist, anti-capitalistic, and antiwar messages, on this day, April 4, 2012.

Assessing Black Progress: Has Ellis Cose Bought into the White Framing of Post-Racism?



Ellis Cose’s latest book, The End of Anger: A New Generation’s Take on Race & Rage (2011)investigates why Blacks today feel so optimistic about their place within the United States.

Optimistic? I myself did not get that memo. I was unaware of my generation and those younger than me were a part of what Cose’s calls the “rising generations” of Blacks who see no barriers to their economic and social progress within the U.S.

Now before I begin, I must note that I have always been a fan of Cose’s work. From his articles in Newsweek to The Envy of the World: On Being a Black Man in America (2003), I have followed his writings. I enjoyed his critical and controversial exploration into the domains of race, class, and gender.

But it is apparent from simply reading the introduction that Cose’s ideologies in regards to race have a bit shifted. While reading the book I began to reflect on said generation—my generation. Usually within any writings, songs, or films that claim to depict or expose me (ex. race, class, gender, generation) or my struggles, I find myself looking for that “Ah-Ha” moment where I identify with the sentiment or messages being sent.

Reading The End of Anger, that moment escaped me. Specifically, in terms of his elaborations of interviews with academically acclaimed Black males and their positive feelings that the power of racism was withering and dying—I could not identify. When he talked of the power of education as a silver bullet to killing the monster that for generations has guarded the walls of endless possibilities—I could not identify. In fact, I could not identify with any major themes within his book.

As I am writing my second book on the perspective of Black males on race and social control in public and higher education, I have completed a number of interviews and roundtable discussion with Black males within my generation. Within the narratives and sentiments of not only educated, but also high school dropouts, the power of their words indicate that race is as powerful today as it was for their parents. In fact, they have indicated the increasing struggle that is particular for Black males. Regardless of their socioeconomic status, education background, and sexual orientation, the one thing that they share is not optimism, but pessimism.

Reading this book caused my little red pen to go dry from underlining and asking “why” after Cose’s sections that made me crazy. He begins by discussing the social and psychological ramifications of President Barrack Obama being elected as the first Black president of the United States. He asserts that the election symbolized a changing of the guard. Simply put, color has become “less and less of a burden” and that America is a generation away from true racial equality. I am not sure as to why the achievement gap within public education, the low graduation rates of Latino and Black males, and the ever-increasing population of inmates at correctional facilities across the country were not taken into account when devising his overall thesis. Regardless, he specifically plots the change within the overall Black perspective on racial barriers through dividing generations and discussing their significance to this change.

First, “Generation I,” know as the Fighters were born between 1925 and 1945. Those individuals shared a sense of “lost possibilities and unfulfilled potential” due to the barriers of Jim Crow. “Generation II,” The Dreamers, were born between 1945 and 1969. They in turn were the children of the riots and first generation allowed into places normally only occupied by Whites (universities, companies, and etc.). Finally, “Generation III,” The Believers were born between 1970 and 1995. They have faith in the power to overcome any obstacle prejudice might set. Further, the average Black today sees individual traits as the cause of social issues facing people of color instead of looking to systems like education, government, and the criminal justice system as points of obstruction. An interviewee noted

the biggest challenge is to adapt yourself to the norm. If you’re willing to talk like a white guy, if you’re willing to completely assimilate, you will be successful (p. 131).

I ask, at what cost? Also, wasn’t this strategy used by many in the past only in the end to be facing the door of discrimination or racism?

Throughout the book he refers heavily to the words of the supposed “believers.” He touts the interviews of famous middle class, wealthy, and politically powerful Blacks as evidence of the coming of racial utopia. The discrimination, bigotry, and systems of oppression that affected my parents, and their parents before them are simply a smudge placed upon the pages of history. Through his interviews and surveys with high-powered and well-educated Blacks, he states that educational attainments have become the great equalizer in the area of employment and future employment attainment. My generation and those that are coming will encounter no racial barriers as long as they are educated and “work hard enough.” The lack of scientific investigation used to decipher the 500 surveys and countless discussions is evident. In fact, he discusses that he is no social scientist.

But regardless, Cose’s strongly stands his ground while declaring that his examination gives credit to the notion that race within the 21st century has almost become completely translucent and irrelevant. Interestingly, he did not critically investigate the sense of optimism among those less educated or among those who have had encounters with the criminal justice system to the degree he performed with well off Blacks. Overall, those he did give reference to noted the same sense of euphoria that was seen among educated Blacks. Through this section, Cose shoddily attempted to make the argument that regardless of class and education the positive optimism was universal.

Overall, I feel that Cose missed an opportunity to discuss a major point that is very disturbing—the growing Black divide. Throughout his book he illustrated very well that there exists a different perspective on the effects of race and class between middle to upper class Blacks and lower socioeconomic Blacks. Instead of stressing that there is an overall end of anger, Cose should have focused on a true investigation to see if this was prevalent among those not so rich or educated. But it is apparent that the race-neutral Kool-Aid many drank after the inauguration of President Obama was also given to Cose. And during his loss with reality in terms of the power of race and class, he produced The End of Anger: A New Generation’s Take on Race & Rage.

As a Black man looking to one day help bring children into this world, I am more on the cautious side in regards to the status of race. While working in the academy or public education, I bear witness to the power and fortitude of racism and oppression. I wish I could identify with the vision of the country that Cose feels is coming. I truly do. But the evidence that engulfs me everyday tells me otherwise.

Mississippi Governor’s Remarks Reveal Much about White Racism

Haley Barbour, Mississippi’s governor, is interviewed in the conservative Weekly Standard and his remarks there reveal much about how white racism operates.  The profile and interview with Barbour is long, and there’s a lot to take objection to in there.

Perhaps the one thing that people are pulling out as most offensive is Barbour’s defense of the segregationist era Conservative Citizens’ Council (the CCC instead of the KKK, get it?) and his description of how it operated in his hometown of Yazoo City, MS.  Here’s the passage that’s lighting up the blogosophere and the mainstream news outlets:

…Yazoo City was perhaps the only municipality in Mississippi that managed to integrate the schools without violence. I asked Haley Barbour why he thought that was so.

“Because the business community wouldn’t stand for it,” he said. “You heard of the Citizens’ Councils? Up north they think it was like the KKK. Where I come from it was an organization of town leaders. In Yazoo City they passed a resolution that said anybody who started a chapter of the Klan would get their ass run out of town. If you had a job, you’d lose it. If you had a store, they’d see nobody shopped there. We didn’t have a problem with the Klan in Yazoo City.”

Most of the reactions from bloggers calls out Barbour for defending white supremacists (e.g., the CCC) and they’re right.  But, this analysis of Barbour’s remarks misses part of how white racism works.  In fact, the Citizens’ Council did see themselves as ‘better than’ the KKK.  While Barbour’s absolutely wrong that the Citizens’ Council was just “an organization of town leaders,” in fact, they were as committed to racial inequality as any robe-wearing Klansman.   What’s true is that there were divisions among whites during the civil rights struggle.   Barbour reveals more here about his class standing that perhaps he intends to, but it the Citizens’ Council was the refuge of upper-middle class racists while the KKK drew more from the working class.   This move – distinguishing the ‘good (supposedly) non-racist whites’ from the ‘bad (obviously) racist ones’ is always the way that upper-middle class whites let themselves off the hook when it comes to racism.  It was true in 1954, and it’s true today.    (This good whites vs. bad whites game is something sociologist Matthew Hughey has documented in his research and written about here.)

The fact that upper-middle class whites like Barbour thought the KKK was unseemly in their overt displays of racism doesn’t mean that the Citizens’ Council embraced the end of segregation.  This is clear in another part of the Weekly Standard profile.   When recalling a visit to Yazoo City by Dr. Martin Luther King, Barbour offers this account:

“I remember Martin Luther King came to town, in ’62. He spoke out at the old fairground and it was full of people, black and white.” [...]  I don’t really remember. The truth is, we couldn’t hear very well. We were sort of out there on the periphery. “We just sat on our cars, watching the girls, talking, doing what boys do.  We paid more attention to the girls than to King,” he added.

Barbour gives us another textbook example of how white racism works.  First, it’s clear from this anecdote that Barbour didn’t see the speech by King as any that was interesting or relevant to his life.  And, second, there’s the positive view of himself in the rear view mirror.  Barbour’s patting himself on the back here for even attending this speech, while at the same time minimizing the importance of King, his words, and the civil rights movement as a whole.  And, you know, throwing in a little gratuitous sexism just for fun.  This sort of positive, retrospective labeling of white involvement in the civil rights movement is a key feature of the white racial frame in the post-civil rights era.  For a glimpse of this in popular culture, take a look at the Gene Hackman and Wilem Dafoe roles of white FBI agents in the Hollywood film, “Mississippi Burning.”   Uhm, it didn’t happen like that (e.g., SL Brinson, “The Myth of White Superiority in Mississippi Burning,” Southern Communication Journal, 1995).  When whites – especially upper middle class whites – look back on the civil rights era (or, slavery, or the Holocaust) they like to imagine themselves as the hero in that story.  I’m sorry white people, but you just do not look good in the story of the civil rights movement, or lynching, or slavery, no matter how much you try to re-imagine history.  That goes for you, too, Haley Barbour.

Barbour offers us yet another lesson on how white racism works.  When recalling the atrocities of white people do all you can to minimize.   Here’s Barbour on how he recalls the civil rights struggle in Yazoo City:

“I just don’t remember it as being that bad.”

Yeah, well, you wouldn’t.  This is classic white racism.   Horrible years of grueling oppression?  Ah, get over it. One of the white supremacist sites I looked at in Cyber Racism makes a similar argument about slavery – a supposedly ‘humane institution’ that slaves ‘loved and wanted to return to’ after emancipation.

This would be comical (on a par with Privilege Denying Dude) if it weren’t for the fact that Barbour is a governor with aspirations for high office.  We don’t need someone like this leading the country, but he does offer a good object lesson in white racism, upper-middle class flavored.

April 4, 1968 — A Time to Remember



April 4, 1968, about 6:01pm. We should always remember that time. It has now been 42 years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. He was moving conceptually and in his actions in a more radical direction combining antiracist, broader anticlass, and antiwar efforts—which efforts likely had much to do with his assassination.King (Photo: Wiki-images)

I remember the day vividly, like it was yesterday, and can still remember the time of day when one of my students at the University of California called me to tell of the terrible event, and I can still remember well my and his distressed emotions as we talked about the shooting. (We did not know Dr. King had died at that time.) He was one of the few African American students then at that university and as one would expect was devastated by the event, as I was too.

The events leading up to Dr. King’s assassination need to be taught everywhere. In late March 1968 Dr. King and other civil rights leaders participated in and supported the local Memphis sanitary works employees, black and white, who were striking for better wages and working condition.

Conditions in Memphis, as elsewhere, were very oppressive for workers, in both racial and class terms, as this wikipedia summary makes clear:

In one incident, black street repairmen received pay for two hours when they were sent home because of bad weather, but white employees were paid for the full day.

King gave his last (“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”) speech at a rally for the workers at the Mason Temple in Memphis.
This is the famous section near the end of his prophetic speech, where he reflects on death threats he had often received:

We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.

Let us remember him well, and especially his prophetic antiracist, anti-capitalistic, and antiwar messages, on this Easter day, 2010.