I just read The Help by Kathryn Stockett, a book about relationships between white women and their black domestic “help” in 1950’s Mississippi. http://www.kathrynstockett.com/. The book is an excellent read, thought-provoking and compelling. I was appalled anew by the casual injustices, the ignorance, the segregation, and the day-to-day racism prevalent in that culture. And then I discovered that the black woman who cleans my apartment eats her lunch in my coat closet.
In The Help, the black employees don’t sit down to eat with their employers in order to preserve the social hierarchy and avoid creating even the illusion of equality or friendship. They don’t use the same bathrooms, ostensibly because of white fear of contamination from black cooties, but also as one more means of reinforcing the message that blacks are inferior servants in whites’ homes. At first the book reads like a missive from a long-ago though still poignant time, a shameful history that thousands and thousands of people have worked hard to put behind us. But it’s closer than we like to think.
Nearly every person who has ever been paid to clean my home, starting from my childhood, was a black woman (the others were immigrant women). Right now I use a service that sends Amanda (not her real name) to my apartment every other week to spend a day cleaning my bathtub, emptying my garbage, changing the sheets on my bed. My white guilt has kept me uncomfortable with the relationship and its reminder of Jim Crow and “domestics” who tended to white women’s houses all day. But I treat her with dignity and pay her well, and since I was always away at work when she was at my apartment, I wasn’t often confronted with the unpleasantly familiar dynamic.
Now I work from home, which is how I found Amanda eating her lunch in the coat closet. Feeling a little sick to my stomach, I asked her if she wouldn’t prefer to eat at the dining room table. She said she wouldn’t because she just cleaned it and she didn’t want to dirty it up again. I told her she could eat at the desk, on the couch, anywhere she was comfortable, but I have a bad feeling that she is most comfortable in that closet with the door closed, where she doesn’t have to confront us and vice versa.
My employment relationship with Amanda is a common one in my neighborhood. On a weekday there are gobs of strollers on the sidewalks carrying white children pushed by dark-skinned women. Many of them likely have their own children whom they have left alone or in the care of a family member or friend so they could get paid to watch white people’s children. The sheer number of these mismatched stroller duos is unsettling.
It’s no big news that although we have a black president, racism and economic inequalities persist. It’s another thing to realize that each of us contributes to them. I don’t know what to do about it on an individual level: it won’t help anybody for me not to employ Amanda or for my neighbors to fire their black or Hispanic nannies. But as long as these economic relationships continue, the ghosts of Jim Crow walk among us. They bring new meaning to the phrase “service economy”: the less privileged serve the more privileged and the colors of each remind us that poverty disproportionately afflicts minorities, while whites monopolize the best-paying jobs.
The persistence of these patterns is disturbing, but it helps to remember that they are patterns and not universal rules – many blacks are successful professionals. Nevertheless, blacks are still clustered on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder.
When Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, he was turning his focus from civil rights to economic rights, particularly the Poor People’s Campaign. He was in Memphis to boost the sanitation workers’ strike and to raise awareness of the link between racial oppression and economic oppression, about the impossibility of eradicating one while the other remained. Our failure to recognize or act on that truth is the reason blacks remain disproportionately poor.
The next step is to pick up where Dr. King left off and fight for economic justice. Get it on the national radar, remember it in the voting booths. The minimum wage is nowhere near a living wage, not even half of it, so many people are struggling to hold down two minimum-wage jobs in a doomed effort to support their families. The jobs in which minorities are concentrated, like childcare, tend to pay less than living wages and thus perpetuate black poverty and the old racial relationships without the need for anything as overt as Jim Crow laws and separate bathrooms. It is time for Americans to ease up on the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mythology and accept the reality that it takes a whole society to eradicate poverty. And if that is what we really want, we can do it.