Working Hard, But For What?

There has been a lot of debate and discussion about what Bill Cosby has said about blacks. One thing he argues for is the need for hard work. The thing that he doesn’t understand is most blacks believe in hard work as much as most whites. But being a hardworking poor minority doesn’t get you very far in this country without all the privileges of race and class.

The cook at McDonalds making minimum wage, the self-taught unlicensed car mechanic working in an alley, the people doing yardwork for cash, the prostitute, and the drug dealer are all working hard. But they are working hard in a society that is working against them when they are poor minorities.

Those are some of the hardest jobs in the world. And some of the people working them are the among the most brilliant and talented around. The guy who works his way up from a high school drop out to the head of a gang is more hard working and innovative than the average manager you’ll find in other careers. I’m often reminded of the drug dealer who was intelligent and was well informed about economics (Social Environment & Human Potential):

“In the project, Venkatesh finds men and women who easily flit back and forth between the legal and illegal economies (depending, usually, on which pays more at any given moment). Drug dealers aspire to buy small businesses, and their subordinates move between legitimate jobs and the hustle of drug dealing and prostitution. What Venkatesh is able to develop, through the view J.T. grants him, is a new way of thinking about the ghetto and ghetto crime, as the consequences that come when morality is uncoupled from the law.

“J.T. is a good tutor. He is a learned and steady bureaucrat of the drug trade, a man with some college and management experience behind him. Most of his life is spent dealing with, somewhat endearingly, the small headaches of petit bourgeois career life—managing less-than-competent subordinates, handling the objections of Taylor Homes residents, and trying to restrict police access to the project.”

These people believe in the American Dream and try to live it best they can, under almost impossible conditions. They aren’t asking for handouts. They are solving their own problems, even when those problems are forced on them by the larger society.

Take gangs, for example. Most gangs are what white people would call militias. When the police fail in their job, gangs do the job for them. If you are a black who is targeted by the police and everyone you know is targeted by the police, you’ll organize in order to protect yourself, your family, your friends, and your neighborhood.

That is how community forms when all of the outside world is against you, when life is difficult and desperate, where daily living is a fight for survival. When there are no jobs available, poor minorities make their own jobs. When there are no police to protect them, poor minorities police themselves. When the larger society is against them, they make their own communities.

They do this all under the hardest conditions in America. It is quite impressive what humans are capable of. Imagine what poor minorities could accomplish if the larger society supported them instead of trying to destroy their lives?

If hard work mattered in this country, black communities would be among the wealthiest. If there was a way to measure it, I wouldn’t be surprised if the results showed the average black is more hardworking than the average white.

Cosby isn’t wrong in saying hardwork is generally a good thing. But it misses the entire point.

It seems to me that most Americans love to work, even in our off time when no one is paying us. If Americans have a problem, it is that we work too much and work so hard that we work ourselves into an early grave.

In a just and fair world, we would work less for more. But neoliberal capitalism tells us our only worth is our time spent in labor and our worth is measured by our pay check. That seems effed up to me. There is or should be more to life than work, especially the drudgery work most Americans have to do just to get by.

We live at a time when there are more people looking for work than there are jobs. With mechanization and computerization, those jobs aren’t coming back and even more jobs will be disappearing. The advice of working harder is cruel and ignorant, especially when directed at the most poor and disadvantaged, those least likely to be able to find a job no matter how hard they work or how much education they get.

That said, if we must speak of hard work, let’s talk about working hard to build stronger communities, to build more social capital, to build better schools, to build much needed infrastructure, to build housing for the homeless, to build more parks, to build a stronger labor movement, and to build an actually functioning democracy.

Why not use our hard work for things that matter and make the world a better place? Why not use all the hard work we are already doing in order to achieve great things in our communities and our country?

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15 thoughts on “Working Hard, But For What?

  1. I am in complete agreement with you. I’m getting tired of hearing “he’s a hard worker, too” as if this is the ultimate benchmark. The technical gadgets that have made life easier have produced a glut of low-paying service jobs to serve the people who seize every freed up moment to spend their wealth on outlandish activities and high-ticket items. They’ve priced themselves into high-end private schools for their children while the growing masses are being corralled into massive schools that dispense education like a Ford industrial line. No fault of the teachers, look no further than the school boards that are stacked with pro-business conservative leaders whose main objective is to save money…supposedly.

    • Yep, I hear ya. I often hear “he’s a hard worker” line.

      Even liberals will use it in making their arguments, especially here in the Midwest. Zach Wahls argued for gay marriage based on the idea that his family (with two mothers) were hardworking family, just like everyone else. Midwesterners can be accepting about many things, but not laziness.

      I was recently down in Kentucky. Speaking to people, I never heard that come up. Instead, what I heard was that “he’s a good Christian”. I never hear anyone referred to as a “good Christian” here in Iowa, despite their being plenty of Christians. Hard work is the moral justification among Midwesterners, at least.

      These regional cultures, though, matter less than they once did. With national media, the ethic of hard work has truly become a national ethic. The arguments for everything are put into economic terms. For instance, undocumented workers either are taking away jobs from hardworking Americans or bringing more money into the economy with their willingness to do the hard work Americans won’t do. The argument for inherent moral worth has less traction in American politics.

      It’s interesting times. If work does disappear for most Americans, what will we do as a society? Will we create massive ghettos to store all the surplus labor? Will we build even more prisons to warehouse the extraneous citizens who keep getting in the way of ‘progress’?

      • It’s a bit of a struggle for me to give up on the human race entirely. I spent some time today debating with a quasi tea-party, Christian sportsman. Yep, that’s his identifier. Presently, he serves in a church, but his goal is to have some kind of Christian sportsman group. His poor wife was an innocent bystander to the event. Suffice to say that we all ended the debate with a hug, but the conversation was all over the place. We actually had some common ground, One being that he disagrees with his tea-party card carrying church members who stand staunchly against amnesty (that ugly word). He said he’d worked with many Guatemalans and Mexicans and found them to be honest and good workers. For the life of me I don’t understand why his understanding doesn’t extend to the Black community. He said they’d been given the same opportunities as everyone else. That just blows me away. The window of opportunity was open for a very short time before the last recession slammed them again. I reminded him that today’s generation had been robbed of generations of people to set an example for them. In essence, they are teenagers who have just been handed the keys to the car.

        • Excluding the fringe extremists, most Americans share large areas of common ground. I saw an article about how Americans across the political spectrum agree that corporations should be taxed more. It isn’t the average liberal and the average conservative who disagrees. It is the political elites and activists who disagree, doing so loudly and with great influence. Surveys show that Americans agree about most major political issues, and yet those who rule this country keep pushing these false debates to distract everyone. Meanwhile, the meaningful disagreements that exist don’t get much attention.

          • I just read that an amendment to Citizen United is being considered. This will be a big step in the right direction.

  2. “Take gangs, for example. Most gangs are what white people would call militias. When the police fail in their job, gangs do the job for them. If you are a black who is targeted by the police and everyone you know is targeted by the police, you’ll organize in order to protect yourself, your family, your friends, and your neighborhood. That is how community forms when all of the outside world is against you, when life is difficult and desperate, where daily living is a fight for survival. When there are no jobs available, poor minorities make their own jobs. When there are no police to protect them, poor minorities police themselves. When the larger society is against them, they make their own communities.”

    So black youth join gangs because “police fail in their job” and they need to “protect themselves, family, friends, and neighborhood”….??

    All I got to say is LOL.. or WTF?

    And those black youth – while they are living in their nearly all black inner-city neighborhoods – think the outside world is against them? Why should the outside world matter to them when their entire world growing up is in those black inner-city neighborhoods? I grew up very poor in a small town. Should I have got a bunch of other poor youth in small town to form a gang because the outside world is against poor small town boys?? What a ridiculous argument. Young men don’t become criminals/hoodlums because some theoretical that may or may not exist outside their little closed world… And talking about lack of food is ridiculous. Youths white or black don’t commit crime because of lack of food. They often commit crime for simple reasons like – they think it’s cool to break or steal stuff, cooler older guys are doing it so they should too, girls like rebels and they want to do it with girls, they like to do drugs, they can get money and having more money is awesome.. etc. etc.

    • I realize you’re strongly attached to your ignorant bigotry. But maybe one day you’ll find it a sad way to live.

      It sucks to be poor, whether black or white. Most violent crime is committed by whites and against whites. In fact, most gang violence is also committed by whites. And you can’t blame it all on Hispanic whites. Hispanic whites actually have lower than average crime rates.

      The same kind of pattern can be seen in white majority areas such in Appalachia. It isn’t just poverty. More important, it is where there is poverty that is both severe and concentrated. Throw economic inequality on top of it and the problems are even worse.

      https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2015/07/12/are-white-appalachians-a-special-case/

      If you look at many of the posts I pointed to in my other response, you’ll see that my concern is as much about poor whites:

      https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2014/11/28/structural-racism-and-personal-responsibility/comment-page-1/#comment-19510

      It’s just that poverty disproportionately harms minorities. Still, it is fair to point out that most poor people are white and most welfare recipients are white. Even in terms of percentages, more whites than blacks receive welfare. Whites are the welfare queens, an inconvenient fact for white supremacists and bigots.

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