Essential Worker Does Not Equal Valued Worker

It took the pandemic for many of us to broaden our definition of essential worker and to see that those we tout as “essential” to the functioning backbone of our country are not financially valued. We compensate many essential workers poorly. They are paid minimum wage, not a livable wage. Today an employee working 40 hours a week making the federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour earns $15,080 in a year. Last year the National Low Income Housing Coalition reported that minimum wage workers couldn’t rent a two-bedroom apartment, at market rate, in any state in the United States. That’s a harsh reality and it’s daily life for many Americans. According to the Economic Policy Institute, perhaps not surprisingly, workers of color are more likely than white workers to earn what they label poverty wages.

The fact that things change but stay the same was driven home to me last month when I took a tour in Colonial Williamsburg.

Like many historical spots in our country, Colonial Williamsburg is trying to better incorporate the lived experience of enslaved people into their representations. So, I was looking forward to a tour titled ‘Freedom’s Paradox’ focused on the institution of slavery in a fledgling nation fighting for freedom. I moved along with the group from one site to another, listening intently to the guides. My ears perked up when the guide portraying one of the landed gentry discussed the provision of food. “Enslaved people in Williamsburg were given two pounds of cornmeal and ½ lb. of meat a week even though they burned about 5000 calories a day working,” he told us. I had to do a quick Google search to learn this amount of food equaled about 4500 calories a week for people burning about 30,000 in a typical six-day workweek. A guide portraying an enslaved person continued: “Slaves caught stealing food for themselves or their children were punished severely. Sometimes by a public beating or even by death dependent on how egregious the theft was deemed.” That part of the tour concluded by noting that the House of Burgesses, the governing body of the Colony of Virginia, had set the standard of what amount of food should be provided… at a minimum.

Minimum wages.

That’s when it struck me: essential workers in the colonial era and those today, were and still are paid, in terms of what’s needed to exist, to barely survive, certainly not to thrive.  Those setting the standards, those governing, then and now, seem to have only nominal regard for people essential to their economic survival. And just as those enslaved in colonial times suffered from malnutrition, poverty wages continue to have long-term impact. Food deprivation and the reliance on cheap unhealthy foods have consequences even today, generations later, on the health status of African Americans. Similarly, the inability of many, then and now, to earn a livable wage — in money or in food — leads to a wage theft system with deleterious effects.

While we pay many who provide essential services minimum wage, most of those who shape the country’s laws and policies are entirely out of touch with that reality.  This was made crystal clear in 1992 when then-President George H. W. Bush, on national television, failed to know the cost of milk during a presidential debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. That incident spotlighted a disconnect, one that still exists between those living ordinary lives and many governing our country. Thirty years later, the nation debates the pros and cons of raising the federal minimum wage to $15/hour, as many local and state jurisdictions have done, while failing to recognize or acknowledge the impact of poverty wages on our society… on our country.

I wonder what ‘essential’ means to many of our leaders. Not just in government, in commerce too. When I hear the leaders of Fortune 500 companies proclaim ‘Black Lives Matter,’ I look to see if they have supported greater benefits for their workers, many of whom are African American, or a $15/hour minimum wage. Rarely do I find that level of commitment. Their bottom line—their profits—not racial equity, is their motivation. Many are “talking the talk,” but not “walking the walk.” So, while nominally celebrated in media posts, too many essential workers of today are viewed as having minimal value by today’s leaders just as the enslaved people were in the 1700s in Colonial America. Check it out when the next elected official or business leader announces support for racial equity.  Minimum wage, minimum value.  Let’s all support a livable wage, a wage for “essential workers” and all workers to thrive, not just survive.

 

20/20

It’s over. My 2020 calendar is literally and figuratively in the trash. Whew.

I was just about to do a happy dance and celebrate the new year when I recalled my mother’s voice: “Look for the good in anything bad that happens.” So, I stopped and reflected on a year that seemed to brim with ‘bad.’ And I’m glad I did. Without that, I might not have realized all the good that has come from the past year’s tragedies.

If it hadn’t been for the COVID-19 quarantine and the quiet of self-isolation, would the world have watched, been absorbed by, and responded to the horror of the murder of George Floyd? And if not for George Floyd’s murder (and far too many others), would racial reckonings have emerged across the country?

Would Black Lives Matter Plaza have been born in Washington DC, offering a visual counterpoint to remarks and policies coming from the White House right across the street?

Would monuments that devalue human life have come down, not just in the United States, but around the world?

Would the symbol of the Confederacy on the Mississippi state flag have finally been replaced?

Would racist team names have been removed from the pro sports teams of Cleveland, Ohio, and Washington, DC?

Would recognizing the need to repurpose police funds, moving from militarization to mental health support, have gained the traction it has?

Would books on invisible racism and the need for racial equity have topped reader’s lists as more and more Americans, particularly White Americans, seek to understand—and address—the truth of America?

Would we have understood the fragility of our country’s democracy and the massive efforts to suppress voters? And without that, would we have voted in record numbers moving away from the toxicity of fascism toward a healthier democratic America?

I grieve the tragedies of 2020, but just as my mother wisely told me, from the bad has come good. The foundation laid last year is what we will build a more positive future upon.

Happy New Year.

Maybe the Robert E. Lee statue should remain … Just a thought

I live in Washington, DC, but Richmond is my home. I don’t get there often, but I was there a week or so ago and drove down Monument Avenue for the first time since the removal of the statues of Confederate icons and soldiers. It was a sultry Sunday afternoon in July. Summertime in Richmond. Few cars. Few people.

IJefferson Davis. pedestal stopped at the pedestal that once held the statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. It surprised me. I felt nothing. When a Richmond friend texted me early in July that the Stonewall Jackson statue was coming down—now, right then—I immediately started surfing the channels. For hours, I streamed reports from a Richmond TV station, watching transfixed as something I couldn’t imagine ever happening, happened. So, when I stopped at that pedestal, I expected to feel some emotion—joy, relief, happiness — something. But I stood in front of it and felt nothing.

I drove on to the statue of Robert E. Lee. It was always the centerpiece that loomed over Monument Avenue. And there it was. Still standing, but oh so different. Instead of the cold solemnity and haughty arrogance I remembered, there was a vibrancy, an energy I could feel even before I got out of my car. There were a few vendors at a respectful distance, and some people walked around the monument, with reverence, for what had become a memorial for lives lost to police brutality. I felt the power of the entire tableau.

The Robert E. Lee statue was still there, but no longer proud and majestic. The dignity of that plaza now rested solely in the messages written vibrantly and boldly across the pedestal—a rainbow of reds, blues, yellows, greens. Before my eyes could read any words, my spirit took in the colors, so alive, blending from one into another. Then, as I focused, the first word that registered was “TAMIR” in huge block letters, honoring 12-Robert E lee statue. TAMIRyear-old Tamir Rice. Slowly, I circled the statue. Some messages were profane—F_ _ _ the police—but most were profound, with BLM or Black Lives Matter appearing multiple times as I rounded the pedestal.

History is written upon that statue now—a far more complete history than it ever offered before. Huey Newton’s name is there. Marcus David Peters is memorialized there along with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Philando Castille, and so many more. The words “2nd place” appear several times, possibly noting that this general was not the winner of that war. There’s also: “No justice, no peace.” When I look back on pictures of this statue from just a few weeks ago, I see the messages have multiplied. The anger—bottled up for decades, centuries—has spilled out in many of the words and phrases and organic thoughts reflecting what the community feels must be said: “Black Transwomen,” and “Whose schools?” and “Whose streets?” Statements, more than questions.

Yes, Robert E. Lee is still there, but what made his society then and what makes ours today is now clear. Written in the bursts of words and names and painted with the stark explosion of colors.

Lee doesn’t only represent the Confederacy. He represents white supremacy, not just a hundred and fifty years ago but in the predominance of white leaders in statehouses, in media, in businesses today. He represents a narrative that was seeded, nurtured, and has blossomed in America for 400 years. And this is not just about individuals who shout hateful words and wave the flag of those defeated in a long-ago war. It is about a culture and a way of life that has only recently started to become acknowledged: a way of life that advantages white people and disadvantages Black people and other people of color.

I am glad that the effigies to the Confederacy on Monument Avenue are being removed. Maybe that is why I was surprised by the unexpected profundity of seeing Lee at Marcus David Peters/BLM plaza. Raw and confrontational. Keeping the statue there—with its modern-day messages—provokes different thinking. It juxtaposes a white historical marker against today’s racial reality. Maybe we learn more by seeing what’s been changed but is still there—that collocation of past and present—than simply the vacancy of something that had been.

Context is important. Just a thought.

 

 

 

Confederate statues and the day of reckoning … from symbolism to substance

Earlier this month, in Richmond, cce3a16c-4ae1-46ae-b447-003f2caaa949Virginia, the statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, was toppled. It had stood on Monument Avenue since 1907. Virginia’s governor had already announced he would remove the 60-foot tall statue of Robert E. Lee, the figurative centerpiece of this avenue dedicated to Confederate leaders. But as evidenced by the messages written on that statue over the last few weeks, the Governor’s announcement was too little, too late for those protesting the brutal murder of George Floyd and championing what is beginning to be fully understood: Black Lives Matter.

Any child of the South, as I am, knows the statues weren’t only to celebrate the leadership of the Confederacy. The statues were to celebrate white supremacy. Most of these icons were erected between the late 1800s and the early 1900s. They were intended to underscore that the South may have lost the war, but in other ways, they had won. The sentiments of the South—the true belief of most white leaders across America at the time — was that white supremacy/leadership would not be threatened by the mere act of ending slavery. That message was delivered powerfully through legislation and actions — Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and the prominence of the Ku Klux Klan — along with the construction of these massive statues.

Now, roughly a century after that period in history, citizens are calling for a reckoning. The Jim Crow laws, lynchings and prominence of white supremacy have been largely camouflaged in modern times, as Michelle Alexander revealed in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Policies and practices to maintain the predominance of white rule, white privilege, white supremacy have been prettied up, as my Dad used to say. Look carefully though, and you can see where and how institutions and systems routinely give white people advantages over black people.

Map of the Confederate Statues in America. Southern Poverty Law Center, 2019
Map of Confederate statues in US, Southern Poverty Law Center, 2019

But you don’t have to delve deeply for symbols of the Confederacy. Confederate statues are abundant. Confederate flags are flown proudly across the country, even included in the Mississippi state flag. The image is displayed on bumper stickers and incorporated into clothing.  The statues and Confederate memorabilia were/are intended as a reminder of the underpinnings of the Old South and that the South — at least its philosophy on race — could rise again.  But, today, in many quarters, even that iconography is beginning to be relegated to the past.

In 1945, after World War II, the Allies banned all symbols of the Nazi regime. Flags were destroyed. Statues were taken down. Displaying the swastika was declared a crime. Nazis deemed criminals were sought, arrested and tried at Nuremberg. Everything that celebrated Hitler and his thinking disappeared from Germany. There was clarity. The philosophy of white Aryan superiority might continue to live in the psyches of some Germans. But, there would be no public venues created to celebrate what the government saw as the most shameful time in its nation’s history.

When an end to apartheid came to South Africa, there were trials—truth and reconciliation. The oppressed and the oppressor were brought together to acknowledge the pain and try to move the country to heal.

In the (re)United States, not only were there no real punishments* for the South after the war, the sentiments of the South seemed to shape the post-war values of the entire country. The government of America has never addressed the racial core of the Civil War. That’s the crux of the issue:  America has never come to terms with slavery as this country’s original sin nor has it recognized the ongoing subjugation of black people.

Maybe until now.

Today, we, the people, are proclaiming it is time for that day of reckoning. The tearing down of these statues is a beginning, moving the country from the symbolic dismantling of the Confederacy to substance: an examination and re-calibration of all the elements of America: health care, education, housing laws and practices, banking and business, the judicial system, and so much more. All that underpins how America operates and ensures the advantaging of one race over another must change.

The dictionary says that the day of reckoning is “the time when one is called on to account for one’s actions, to pay one’s debts, or to fulfill one’s promises or obligations.” That sounds right to me.

 

*Note: The forty acres promised to formerly enslaved people to start their new lives was to come from 400,000 acres confiscated from Southern landowners by the federal government. That would have constituted a punishment, maybe even the beginning of reparations, but that land was ultimately returned to the original owners.