My grandparents were born in Alabama and moved to Ohio after my grandfather served in World War II. When living in Alabama, they were poor. They were very poor. I recall my grandmother “Gigi” talking to me about traveling around as a child to pick vegetables all day. In the 1950s, like many American families, they moved North and into the cities to work at an auto plant. My grandparents - with little formal education - were beneficiaries of the labor movement and union protections. My dad and many of his siblings have advanced degrees and are economically secure. The cycle of generational poverty was broken for so many families because of the labor movement!
They are the typical American family, right?
Typical for white American families. African Americans were often excluded from the unions, prevented from living in specific neighborhoods, and harassed and marginalized if they desired to travel to a new community. I have heard multiple people talk about their parents or grandparents after WWII. The main factor that determined the economic fate of their descendants is race.
It all began 400 years ago.
400 years ago, the first slave ship landed in what would become Virginia and sold slaves. The slave trade lasted for hundreds of years and the institution of slavery lasted even longer. Why did our ancestors allow such an abhorrent system to last for that long?
Slavery did not begin with the notion that people with darker skin tones are inherently less than those with lighter skin tones. That came later. It began as a way for European colonists to have a free labor force to dig for gold and grow cash crops to make the wealthy aristocracy even richer in Europe.
But to maintain the system, beliefs and values were formed around ‘race’ to create a moral justification of this economic system of oppression. The Church liked making money too, so we accepted it. Imagine if the indentured white servants who couldn’t earn enough to be freed from their ‘sponsor’ united politically with African Americans who were in permanent servitude. The entire economic system of have’s and have nots would have been quickly destroyed.
Even after slavery ended, a political compromise ended the Reconstruction era and ushered in a hundred years of Jim Crow laws that intentionally segregated blacks and whites throughout the country. Why? Because America continued to need a cheap labor force. The use of debt, criminal justice systems, and wages kept many whites poor, but most blacks even poorer.
My own lineage was dirt poor, but had to compete for farm jobs against even cheaper labor of African Americans. My ancestors accepted their economic oppression because ‘at least they weren’t black.’ They had a false sense of dignity because of their perceived race.
This false sense of dignity continues to rot away the foundations of the American economy, psyche and public policies. And if we don’t all correct it, the rot will cause the entire house of America to collapse. In Amos 7, the prophet tells of a dream where God drops a plum line and the foundation is crooked.
America’s foundation remains crooked because it was built on the backs of people forced into captivity and had their God given dignity denied. Without addressing the foundation of this nations labor system, we will remain broken.
As we celebrate the labor movement this weekend we remember the advances it has provided for many of us while remembering those who were intentionally left behind. A re-ignited labor movement will be fully inclusive of race, gender and creed and address the historic and centuries long exploitation of labor of our neighbors.