Work, a topic that comes up a lot. The US is a society obsessed with work as identity and as a way of life, not just as a means to an end. We idealize work ethic, the greatest praise being that an individual is hard-working and the harshest criticism being that someone is lazy.
We broaden it as an entire cultural ethos, the supposed Protestant work ethic, even though Catholic Americans seem just as obsessed with work. The traditionally Catholic Hispanics used to be stereotyped as lazy, but I doubt that was ever true. The stereotype is now changing and Hispanics are perceived as hard-working, which is their ticket into mainstream American society and their pathway to assimilation not just as Americans but also into potential whiteness.
Black Americans, of course, aren’t given the opportunity to assimilate into whiteness, no matter their real or perceived work ethic. It has been assumed by centuries of whites that blacks are inherently lazy, a justification for slavery and then later forms of prejudice and oppression, including the reinstatement of slavery through chain gangs. The reality, however, is that the whites who complain the most about others being lazy are probably projecting. This country was built with the labor of minorities, along with poor (often ethnic) whites, both supposedly being without the proper work ethic of upper class WASPs. I imagine many of those upper class WASPs wouldn’t know real work if they ever saw it.
There is endless weirdness, besides bigotry, around American notions of work and all that goes with it. In recent years, some have begun to worry about the end of work. It is through work that we have defined our society. The end of work sounds like the end of the world as we know it, which I suppose is true. If machines took over most human work, then what would we do? The fear is the lazy masses, without anyone forcing them to work for survival, would just laze about and do nothing productive at all. We better build work camps to keep the masses occupied or else they might start thinking about creating a free, democratic society.
Even many left-wingers can’t seem to imagine anything genuinely different. Labor has been the pillar of left-wing politics for long before Marx was born. We talking about the lower class as the working class. That is what they are. They are what they do, work. They have no inherent value beyond that. Organizing the masses inevitably means labor organizing or so it has meant in generations past.
I get the sense that there is something odd about all this. It’s not just the obsession with work, as identity and ethic. It’s one of those issues that seems to be about something else entirely. Most of the time when people talk about work I don’t think they’re actually talking about work. It’s maybe a symbolic conflation, like abortion, pointing toward something else. That something else has to do with the social order and social control.
To give this some contrast, consider hunter-gatherers. They don’t worry about work. In fact, they do as little as possible for survival and they probably never think of it as work. Almost everything hunter-gatherers do is a social activity. It’s the social part, not the work part, that defines who they are. Hunter-gatherers don’t have specialization, as everyone does a little bit of everything. Besides, most of their time is spent doing social things, as the most important part of being human in a tribal society is the fact that you belong to a tribe. That is who you are. Work is only important for what it accomplishes for the tribe and one’s place in the tribe, not as an end in and of itself.
What if modern society ends up back where we all started? Hunter-gatherers don’t work that much in order to maintain their lifestyles. What if in the future we too won’t work much to maintain our lifestyles? Would that be such a horrible thing, that like hunter-gatherers we spent more time with our families, friends, neighbors, and communities?
The hyper-focus on work is one of the most bizarre aspects of modern society. If you can’t imagine life beyond work, the problem is in your mind not in the world. Just because cars will eventually start driving themselves, civilization isn’t going to collapse nor will the moral fiber of humanity be rent asunder. Calm down. I’m sure humanity will somehow survive the end of work.
Americans will probably find other ways to work endlessly, such as mowing their lawns more often. That is the future of the US, Americans mowing their lawns everyday because robots took over their jobs. Sure, those future Americans could buy one of the new fancy robot mowers, but then they’d lose all meaning to their existence. To preoccupy themselves, Americans will have mowing contests to prove their human worth and to prove their being part of respectable society.
“Now to be clear, I do believe that every person should play a proactive role in their own success, health, and overall well-being. The part that bothers me is that many people seem to think that black people cannot do this and exercise our right as American citizens to express displeasure with policy and practices. I would argue that being civically engaged is apart of taking personal responsibility. However, according to many right wing pundits—and increasingly people within our own community—any black person who requests a government action is asking for “free stuff” or trying to keep from taking care of our own business.”
~ Black People and The Burden Of “Personal Responsibility”, carrefourblog
We need to move past this false dichotomy.
More importantly, we need to move beyond the false accusation against poor minorities. I suspect that the average poor minority works harder and is forced to take more personal responsibility than is the average white, especially the average middle-to-upper class white who tends to make these kinds of judgments from the position of white privilege.
Also, minorities promoting social justice are among the most hardworking people around. That is no easy struggle to be involved in. Black leaders and black parents embrace the ideals of personal responsibility and hard work. They talk about it in speeches and sermons, but the best of them understand this in the context of a centuries-old structural racism. That latter part gets lost in translation when the more privileged take up this judgment, including blacks in privileged positions like Cosby.
Blacks worker harder to accomplish less than whites on a daily basis. If such ideals could solve the problems of structural racism in how it impacts individuals, structural racism would have ended a long time ago. We all need to take both personal and shared responsibility for the problems of structural racism. It can’t be solved alone by the victims of racial oppression and prejudice. However, working together, we can all be part of the solution.
In saying this, I am not trying to deny or gloss over the fact that a lot of Black people are into some bad shit. Youth are killing each other, and people desperate to survive are preying on each other. Too many Black men are into the male supremacy that is rife in this society, and too many Black women combine U.S. society’s “look out for #1” ethos with accepting its outlook on women’s place. Black people do need to get out of all this shit. They need to move from being victimized by this system to fighting to get rid of this system. They, along with basic masses of all nationalities and people from other backgrounds too, need to come forward as emancipators of humanity.
But lectures about personal responsibility won’t help make that happen. This will stand in the way of people getting what’s the real source of the problems they face, and what’s the real way to get out from under them. People don’t see any way out and can begin to think it’s because they’re fucked up. And it is a fact: Black people, as a people, are not going to “make it” under this system. The only real hope for the masses in their millions is carving out a radically different future thru revolution and changing themselves as they fight to bring a whole new world into being.
There is scant empirical evidence that demonstrates a lack of work ethic among black men. To be officially counted as unemployed, onehas to be actively pursuing a job. The black maleunemployment rate is typically about twice thewhite unemployment rate. In 2007, 9.1 percent ofblack males were officially unemployed; yet, only4.2 percent of white males were unemployed. Onecan be certain that thereare many more black mendesiring work than arecurrently employed in thisjob market.
“It’s funny, the American dream is sort of steeped in this myth of work hard, be self-sufficient and push yourself forward, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, that kind of thing. But much of the wealth in this country was not built on that, in no way, fashion or form,” Williams says.
“The foundation of American White supremacy sits tenuously on a rickety base of lies and deceptions about how Whites gained their wealth and status. A century and a half after slavery the median wealth of White families is $100,000; for Black families, it’s $5,000. The belief that Whites achieved this 20-1 wealth advantage by HARD WORK is an absurd and a historical fantasy.”
Indeed, a wave of research over the last 20 years has documented the lingering effects of slavery in the United States and South America alike. For example, counties in America that had a higher proportion of slaves in 1860 are still more unequal today, according to a scholarly paper published in 2010. The authors called this a “persistent effect of slavery.”
One reason seems to be that areas with slave labor were ruled for the benefit of elite plantation owners. Public schools, libraries and legal institutions lagged, holding back working-class whites as well as blacks.
Whites often don’t realize that slavery didn’t truly end until long after the Civil War. Douglas Blackmon won a Pulitzer Prize for his devastating history, “Slavery by Another Name,” that recounted how U.S. Steel and other American corporations used black slave labor well into the 20th century, through “convict leasing.” Blacks would be arrested for made-up offenses such as “vagrancy” and then would be leased to companies as slave laborers.
[ . . . . ]
WE all stand on the shoulders of our ancestors. We’re in a relay race, relying on the financial and human capital of our parents and grandparents. Blacks were shackled for the early part of that relay race, and although many of the fetters have come off, whites have developed a huge lead. Do we ignore this long head start — a facet of white privilege — and pretend that the competition is now fair?
Of course not. If we whites are ahead in the relay race of life, shouldn’t we acknowledge that we got this lead in part by generations of oppression? Aren’t we big enough to make amends by trying to spread opportunity, by providing disadvantaged black kids an education as good as the one afforded privileged white kids?
Can’t we at least acknowledge that in the case of race, William Faulkner was right: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Yeah, he’s black. Now, don’t get me wrong — I don’t think anybody wants to suppress the story of an undersize, pudgy engineering nerd who made himself into a gritty, overachieving captain on a Big Ten champion team and who is also black. I bet the national media would love a story like that. I suspect they just don’t see it.
The gulf in physical talent between Novak and other players was glaring. Now, look at Morgan, with his gigantic biceps. If you don’t know him and you are using a simple heuristic, you probably think he’s a pretty good athletic talent, even if if is a little short. You don’t think about the fact that he gained that muscle after intense weight training. (Announcers never mention it.) And so one player is surrounded by a narrative of hustle, smarts, and toughness, and another player with the exact same qualities is not.
The situation is far better than it was three or four decades ago, when announcers would liken the skills of black players to animals. Today, they have some awareness of racial stereotyping. What’s left, I think, is far more characteristic of how racial bias typically works. Bad intent does not come into play. White people simply have certain preconceptions, and preconceptions make you see the things you expect to see and miss the things you don’t.
The fact is that I can travel through east Baltimore or any urban inner city (BLACK) neighborhood for under 10 minutes and introduce you to the hardest-working Americans in our country. I know a guy that guts houses for $50 a day, a rack of uncertified tax preparers, too many single moms with triple jobs, some freelance freelancers, infinite party promoters, squeegee kids, basement caterers, back-alley auto mechanics, dudes of all ages selling bottled water and a collection of Mr. Fix Its, all living in a two-block radius. We are all American dream chasing, all trying to start our own business, all working our asses off.
Legal or illegal, the inner cities of America are our nation’s hotbed of side hustles. Even people like me with college degrees need multiple streams of revenue to survive, and I gained that work ethic from living in the inner city. Seeing my grandma work 10-hour shifts showed me I could do the same.
There are a million grinding grandmas like mine, and Darnell Baylor isn’t the only person who gets paid for 40 hours a week but works 80. Every person I know is on his schedule and gained that work ethic from the inner city. If Duncan were exposed to a different way of life, he’d probably be running a Fortune 500 company.
Lenny and Loraine didn’t beg for drugs, they performed for them. And Lenny continued to work hard years after his crack addiction faded. The Candy and Cigarette lady should be celebrated for her innovation. And I’d bet that even if the cops rushed and ended her industry, work ethic and creativity would lead to her creating a new one.
She still works hard but will be only judged for not following traditional rules, which is unfortunate because there are so many hardworking people like us who are forced to create our own industries as a direct result of being isolated by society. To me that poses a bigger question. Why employment inequality for African-Americans is always identified as laziness?
But even if we ignore the unfairness of racial profiling, not to mention its blatantly unconstitutional nature given that whole Equal Protection Clause thing, sitting smack dab in the middle of the 14th Amendment — and even if we momentarily put aside the evidence that profiling is not justified by crime data, and can actually be counterproductive — several points have been overlooked by those who think they have either the moral or factual basis to lecture black folks about so-called pathologies in the black community. And they are points worth noting, because they indicate that not only are the Negrophobic critics of black America largely wrong about black folks (few of whom they actually know) and black communities (few of which they have ever actually spent time in), but even more interestingly, they appear to be ignoring a number of data points suggesting serious cultural rot in the white community, to which they might wish to turn their attention. Especially seeing as how they love to inveigh about “personal responsibility.” What better way for white people to take personal responsibility, after all, than to stop hectoring blacks and perhaps begin to clean up our own behavioral back yards?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying black folks shouldn’t take “personal responsibility” whatever that means, I’m saying black folks aren’t the ONLY ones who need to take some “personal” responsibility. And we certainly don’t have to be told the same thing over and over again like we are stoopid or children, or both. I don’t condone what Reverend Jesse Jackson was caught on tape saying about President Obama talking down to black folks but I understand.
Why are black folks the only ones being told they need to “take personal responsibility” for their actions? Black folks aren’t responsible for creating the current mess we find our country in. Why are black folks the only ones told they “need to stop making excuses and blaming others for their problems”. I don’t hear anyone telling democrats to stop making excuses for being whimps. I don’t hear anyone telling republicans to stop making excuses for being obstructionist. I don’t hear anyone (well almost) telling President Obama to stop making excuses.
Yet Obama had the gall to attempt selling these Morehouse men the following economic snake-oil. “You’re graduating into an improving job market,” he claimed. “You’re living in a time when advances in technology and communication put the world at your fingertips. Your generation is uniquely poised for success unlike any generation of African Americans that came before it.” Many of these African men do not have control over events within the labor market. There are entrenched racist, gendered and class-related employment barriers that are resistant to personal effort and responsibility on the part of these prospective racialized, despised and stereotyped jobseekers.
I look forward to the day when Obama will tell it like it is to ruling-class white men, that there’s no longer time for excuses for their promotion of institutional white supremacy (and other forms of oppression). Furthermore, I would like to see the display of intestinal fortitude on the part of the president in declaring to largely white graduating classes that they should not blame immigrants for taking away “their” jobs, social assistance or welfare recipients as the reason for high taxes or the capital gains tax as an impediment to job creation.
“His commencement address would have been more helpful if he affirmed those young leaders and then challenged them to use their skills to become vigorous and relentless fighters against racism, classism, sexism, economic and political exploitation. The dirty little ‘secret’ of his very own presidency is that he is the ultimate example of how constrained Black achievement really can be, if it is not accompanied by a vigorous fight against structural and institutional racism. . . .”
“Either that President Obama thinks black grads at one of the nation’s best colleges really need to be lectured about such matters; or, alternately, that White America is so desirous of exculpation for the history of racial discrimination that we need him to say such things, and he knows it, thereby leading him to feed us the moral scolding of black men we so desperately desire, and which he must know will be transmitted to us by way of media coverage of his talk.”
“But when the president speaks to the black community, there’s often a dive into the politics of personal responsibility,” he continued. “I cringe at that, as if effort and excuses have been the problem.”
“No,” Touré asserted. “It’s been structural racism.”
“The accumulated impact of historic discrimination and the advantages of white privilege and the systems perpetuate all that,” he continued. “Going into personal responsibility suggests you can make it if you try, and he knows it’s more complex than that.”
“I want our president this president, to tell America to tear down the American Berlin Wall that keeps black men separated from opportunity,” Touré concluded. “That sort of big brother-in-chief would get us closer to the mountain top.”
Leola Johnson, an associate professor and chair of the Media and Cultural Studies Department at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., said the Obamas’ speeches “are actually not aimed at black people.”
“They’re actually for white people, liberals especially,” she said. Liberal bloggers were brimming with praise for Obama after the Morehouse speech. “It’s the legacy of Daniel Patrick Moynihan and that whole group of white liberals who want to say it’s not just about structural problems that black people aren’t doing well, it’s about their own values.”
Kevin Powell, an activist based in New York who travels the country encouraging black men to take responsibility for their lives, said he has no problem with Obama challenging the black community, but . . .
“You also have to challenge the system, just as you challenge the people. It’s not an either/or,” said Powell, president and founder of BK Nation, an organization focused on education and civic engagement.
I was thinking about the American work ethnic. The economically well off like to blame the poor for not working hard enough. They seem to be suggesting that any person willing to work can do just as well as they did. The implication is that, therefore, all poor people are inferior and deserve what they get (or don’t get).
If the poor person can’t find a job, it’s there fault that so many jobs have disappeared in this country. If they are working several jobs just to pay the bills, it’s there fault for not getting a college education to get a better job. If they get a college education and still are unemployed but now also in debt, it’s because kids are lazy these days and they should have gotten a practical skill like plumbing. And on and on.
God forbid we look at larger environmental causes that are putting many Americans in impossible positions.
Just work harder. That is just the worst thing to tell most people. The one thing Americans don’t lack is a love of work. I see homeless guys working harder than the average employed person. They walk around non-stop all day, every day collecting cans or looking for stuff thrown out in dumpsters that can be sold at consignment store. Even the guy standing with a sign asking for money for endless hours year round, rain or shine, cold or hot, hardly can be called lazy.
Maybe we should ask why there are so many unemployed. Maybe we should ask why the permanently unemployed aren’t counted as part of the unemployment rates. Maybe we should ask why there are so many poor and homeless in a country with so much wealth, land, resources, and housing.
I had another thought about what we should be asking. With the war on drugs, the war on gangs, the war on prostitution, the war on the poor, we have created a large criminalized underclass that works in a massive black market. Many of the people called unemployed and those never even counted are actually working jobs, but it isn’t official taxed employment.
In some countries, the black market might be larger than the legal market. Realizing the significance of the black market, a few countries have begun to include the black market in their calculations of GDP. It’s an interesting thing to do. Everyone knows the black market exists, but it is something one isn’t supposed to talk about in polite company, especially not in mainstream media and politics.
To talk about the black market would mean we would also have to talk about all the problems related to the black market. That is where the resistance comes in. That is what someone like Bill Cosby can’t mention when speaking of blacks needing to work harder. My guess is that as jobs in the legal market have disappeared jobs in the black market have increased. Whole markets such as for drugs have grown into profitable businesses because of illegalization. Even the police stations have been raking in the money through confiscations because of the illegal drug business.
The government knows about all this, either choosing to do nothing about it or lacking the political will to take action. Another example is that of illegal gun sales, which shows how the legal markets overlap with the illegal markets. In some cases, the government knows which gun dealers are selling guns illegally, but the government doesn’t at present have the regulatory power to enforce the law.
It’s not just the ghettos where the black market operates. The majority white rural communities have become major markets for the manufacture and use of meth. In poverty-stricken Appalachia, along with meth labs, marijuana crops are one of the major sources of income of the mostly white residents. Heck, it isn’t even just poor people. Lot of big businesses and big banks are involved in illegal activities that are rarely investigated or prosecuted.
The black market is massive beyond imagination and it is global. There probably is no way to separate the legal and illegal markets for how closely they are intertwined. There are many business owners who simultaneously operate legal and illegal businesses. That is how the Mafia operated.
The problem obviously isn’t a lack of people working, not in any simple sense. Yes, there are some people genuinely unemployed, either they can’t find work or they choose to not do illegal work. What if your only choice was to sell drugs, be a prostitute, work for an organized crime group, or not work at all? Sometimes refusing to work can be a stance of moral principle. As legal jobs disappear, this maybe a decision more Americans have to make.
Should we respect someone for working hard, no matter what kind of work they are doing? What is it that we want to value and promote as a society? Just hard work at any cost for any purpose?
The complaint someone like Bill Cosby has about poor blacks isn’t really that they aren’t working hard, but that they aren’t working hard in the way and for the purpose he thinks they should. But what other choice do they have? Not every poor black guy can become the next wealthy Cosby. Our entire system is built on the necessity of there being a vast impoverished underclass of surplus labor. Working harder doesn’t change that. Working harder doesn’t make racism and classism go away.
So, whose work counts? What kind of work counts? Why? And to what end?
To ask which work we are to count is related to asking which people we will count. It is related as well to those who don’t get counted, i.e., those who don’t count, those who don’t matter. Who we value is inseparable from what we value, and what we value determines how we treat others.
Whose country is this? Is it the country of all citizens or only some? It is interesting to note that the Americans that often don’t get counted also get targeted by the criminal system and, as ex-cons, they also don’t get to vote. Talk about not being counted, not even politically as a citizen. When a large part of the population is economically and politically disenfranchized, when we criminalize so much of daily life, why are we surprised that social problems arise among the people most negatively impacted by such an oppressive system?
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?