I wanted to get back to the exchange in the Ag Committee meeting from Tuesday. But I still don’t know how to wrap my head around it. There’s a lot going on here and all pieces seem important. I don’t know, though, how they fit together.
Agriculture in the South has revolved around a few labor-intensive crops. In Tennessee, the most profitable crop for a long time was tobacco. But, because of shifts in tobacco use and issues with the feds, folks are having to find other uses for their land. Many people have shifted to growing plants and trees for nurseries. And this is now an important stream of revenue for people in our state.
It also, is hard, labor-intensive work.
Never mind. This isn’t helpful.
Let me tell you this story again.
The Professor and I found ourselves in Coahoma County down in Mississippi a few years ago on the Stovall Plantation, which is, as you recall, the plantation where Muddy Waters worked. You may also recall that, after Emancipation, many black people were free in a technical sense, but still worked basically as indentured servants on the land they had previously provided slave labor on.
Things were different in important ways, but things were the same in important ways. You still needed to be closely associated with a white family (run, obviously, by a powerful white man) in order to have a somewhat safe place in society. You needed to have a white man to vouch for you, someone who could say “That’s one of mine.”
So, it’s hard for me to hear any white guy speaking to another white guy talking about non-white men using the term “mine.”
When Swafford says “I can’t speak for everybody but I know mine,” I think he means “I can’t speak for everybody’s experience with their Hispanics, but I know my Hispanics and can speak about my observations of them.” It could be that he means “I can’t speak for everybody who doesn’t go to the doctor, but I know the reasons my employees don’t go.”
But it’s hard for me to hear that second thing in what he said.
So, yes, anyway, the Professor and I are driving through the Stovall Plantation, trying to picture what it would have been like in the late 40s, when we pull up to the Stovall Plantation store to get a pop.
I run in. It’s empty except for a couple of white women who are obviously employees in the store. Before me are a few tables where folks might eat, some small rows of snacks and coolers with drinks.
I grab my Diet Dr Pepper and go to the counter to pay. And there, on the counter, are two piles of slips of paper, one in English and one in Spanish, both containing directions for how one should properly treat and address the women behind the counter.
To me, it seemed like evidence that one disenfranchised group with little power was slowly being replaced by another disenfranchised group with little power. There’s also something important there about the precarious position of the white women, who must be treated as if they have authority and are due respect, but only because, again, they have some white man to vouch for them.
That makes me wonder about Representative Bell’s comments about abortion, and how it’s that those 50 million aborted fetuses aren’t here that causes labor problems.
I’m not the only person to notice how deeply personally offended men who’ve never had any woman they know abort fetuses they’re responsible for helping to create get by the whole notion of abortion.
And I’m not the only person who’s noted how it seems to have more to do with controlling women than saving babies (since these are the same people who can turn around and cut funding for social services to babies, once they’re born).
But I wonder, then, if abortion is perceived as a threat to the white social order (we cannot overlook the ways in which the abortion controversy plays out much differently in different racial and ethnic communities). White women belong to their fathers and then to their husbands. A child is an indication that the husband has successfully taken claim of the wife.
There is room for “fallen” women. If you find yourself pregnant, you might be lucky enough to still have some man somewhat closely associate with you–maybe the baby’s father, maybe a man from your family, maybe some other man who’s taken pity on you. But you have some place in the hierarchy, even if it’s at the bottom.
And your child, or children, also have a place–at the bottom.
Because, ask yourself this. If Swafford can’t get “Americans” to work for him now, why does Bell assume that those “Americans” who’d been aborted would be willing to work for him?
Well, they would be willing to work for him if that were the best choice they had.
And why would that be the best choice they had?
Well, it would be if they accepted their place in the hierarchy.
Abortion, then, is not just a medical procedure. It’s not just ending a life. It’s a rejection of what’s supposed to happen to women who affiliate too closely with the wrong men.
It not only is a way for women to “cheat,” to get out of having evidence of their shameful behavior. But it’s a bigger cheat because it deprives powerful white men of desperate white people they can exploit.
It seems to me that both of these men are talking around the same underlying problem. There’s a lot of work in our state that, though it doesn’t take even a high school diploma to do, needs to be done by fairly smart people. You can’t be stupid and be a successful farmer. You have to pay attention to the plants and be able to understand what’s going on with them and what you can do to help them grow better. You can’t be stupid and work in construction.
In the past, not all smart people had options. “Clever” slaves still had no choice but to tend cattle or pick cotton or build walls. Smart poor whites still had no choice but to work in the coal mines. And so on.
So, there were smart people with no other options to work back-breaking jobs for little or no pay. Our country is built on the labor of those people.
Well, guess what?
That work sucks.
And so people don’t want to do it if they don’t have to.
They won’t do it if they don’t have to.
So, our state has a real dilemma. We need illegal immigrant labor. And we need those laborers to continue to be illegal so that they can’t organize, can’t leave jobs for better jobs, can’t complain about working conditions, can’t demand justice, can’t leverage their experience for better pay. Our economy depends on smart people with no other options but to take the shitty jobs we have for them.
And groups that we could previously count on to supply us with smart, desperate laborers have ceased to provide us that labor in the numbers we need.
But we have real hostility towards the illegal labor we’re now dependent on (and, in the past have had real hostility towards the other laborers we’ve been dependent on) and have, seemingly, not only just swapped them in for other populations of laborers, but gone ahead and attached the stereotypes we used to attach to those other laborers on them so that we don’t have to feel too ill at ease about treating such labor like shit.
So, if everyone hates the illegal labor and wants them out of the state, where are we going to get smart people with no other options to fill those jobs?
I don’t think Bell could have been any more obvious: we must force women to give birth to babies we will provide no other options for.
It’s not a contradiction that the very pro-life politicians who advocate against abortions are the same ones who stand opposed to state funding for pre-k and spreading lottery money around to more poor people.
We must force women to give birth to babies we will provide no other options for, no support for, nothing at all for, so that those babies–some of whom will be smart (but not so smart, because we’ve malnourished them and blamed it on their mothers)–will have no other options but to take the shit jobs we have for them.
One reason, then, that illegal immigrants are such a great hot-button issue is that their presence is a continued reminder of the failing patriarchy, which can no longer crush enough people in our own country to provide labor for the shitty jobs upon which their wealth is derived.
At some point, we’re going to have to ask ourselves whether we want to continue a system so dependent on the exploitation of people–legal or not.
But I think we all know that day won’t be today.
Aunt B, thank you for writing this. I read bits out loud, the better to be stunned by the obvious hideousness of the argument you defined so clearly. Wonderful clarification.
[Still blinking in a sort of naive astonishment that I should be over by now]
Also, I think I failed to articulate why I think it’s so crucial for “the Patriarcy”–for lack of a better term–to develope (this time around, anyway) a poor white labor pool upon which to draw.
And I think that reason is that the sexual exploitation of women is too dramatic evidence of the economic exploitation of all the exploited people.
In order to force people into doing things they’d rather not do, you have to go to immoral lengths. In order for most “good” people to do immoral things, you can’t have the evidence of your immorality looking you in the face in a way you can’t deny.
With enslaved black women giving birth to lighter skinned babies, that sexual exploitation meant that white people had to work very hard to deny that there was exploitation of all sorts happening.
Playing up racist fears in these rural communities of a brown menace is part of ensuring that the exploited labor force becomes white. White bosses exploiting white people with no other choices will be easier to ignore than previous methods of exploitation because the children won’t be obvious evidence of it.
this is an amazing piece of writing and thinking. thank you.
Right on, Aunt B. One bit of hyperbole that I like to throw down whenever race/class issues pop up is that the real genius of N. American racism isn’t that it effectively keeps non-white people down (that’s the obvious part), but that it encourages so many white people to enslave themselves.
Case in point: the Civil War. Never mind the dog whistles of “states’ rights” and “Northern aggression” (which were somewhat accurate in a purely technical sense). So many thousands of dirt-poor people went to war to defend a ‘way of life’ that kept most of them dirt-poor in order to preserve the largely illusory– or at least practically marginal– benefits of not being Negroes.* And so it has gone since.
But I digress. The genius of your analysis, B., is how you explain this dynamic’s link to the anti-choice movement. It is all about giving people the tools with which to delegate themselves into exploitation, and finding ways to demonize those who refuse to follow the program.
*Hence the power of ‘Lost Cause’ mythology; it channels the sense of betrayal that working-class and poor whites may have justifiably felt at the failure of the Civil War to significantly alter their status. The blame for the betrayal is thus shifted away from the wealthy Southern planter class and onto avaricious Northern carpetbaggers and their uppity negro minions.
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IMHO, there will always be illegal immigration as long as there is work that nobody else will do. When it pays better to be a resident who collects welfare, there is no motivation to get dirty…at least for the folks born in the USA.
People will be happy to get dirty if they’re being paid a livable wage that includes health care and some sort of insurance (should the back-breaking work actually break their back). The problem isn’t unglamorous work; the problem is work with inadequate compensation and lack of worker protection.
No kidding — I used to do physical labor for a living. I still have the scars on to prove it. Like most of my coworkers, I preferred it to, say, clerical work. The challenge of extreme feats of hand-eye coordination was a lot less boring than paper-shuffling, and at the end of a long, discouraging night when my legs ached so badly it would be hours before I could sleep, I could at least walk out on the loading dock and look at pallet upon pallet of what I had made that night.
There’s no shortage of people who would happily do plain hard work for fair treatment and decent compensation.
If you want a “liveable wage” with benefits, you’ll have to crack down on the employers. Agricultural jobs won’t ever provide either. Retail is notorious for NOT providing either. Retail employers would rather hire a bunch of part time people and give them 39-1/2 hours a week, so they don’t have to give them benefits. And most folks who work retail can fill your ears with plenty of war stories.
Cleaning up the messes of others will always draw people willing to work for less. It’s hard, backbreaking, dirty, messy work, and people want it at the lowest price they can get. Again, for those in the welfare system, why work at a minimum-or-less paying job with no benefits (or benefits too expensive to afford!) when you can collect that check each month, AND get medical, dental and prescriptions from the State?
If the employers cannot get cheap labor here in the States, they’ll move to countries where they don’t have to worry about OSHA, benefits, or “a living wage.”
Ultimately the US consumer decides who gets paid, and how much!
Endless circle, huh?
Well, a way to crack down on employers is to allow workers the same bargaining power a corporation has, but mentioning the very idea of unions in a “right to work” state is enough to be shown the door (though always for “something else” other than talking about organizing).
We are faced with a crisis; illegal immigration has become a rampant problem especially for southwestern states like California. The paradox of our immigration issues however is that historically one of America’s strengths has been our immigrants who bring with them fresh ideas and minds as well as willing and hard working hands. It is with this in mind that I propose a two step program, first securing the borders and preventing further illegal immigration, and then implementing a path to citizenship which would include learning English, civics, and US History, for illegal immigrants already inside the United States. This would allow the immigrant work force already in America to continue to thrive as legal citizens of our great nation, while strongly enforcing our immigration laws.
Are we going to require our native-born citizens to also learn US history? I’m a college history prof and I’m here to testify that almost none of my incoming (middle class suburban white) freshmen come out of high school with the basic history/civics knowledge needed to pass the test that immigrants must pass to become citizens. Sad but true. I have nothing to add about the rest of your plan, just merely observing that we’re doing a lousy job in general with teaching US history or even how to think historically. If we want to start our bootstrap education program with currently illegal immigrants, that’s as good a place to start as any.