January 22, 2017

This is Selma

Chris Arnade, The Guardian:

For 10 hours they removed bricks from piles mixed with wood and metal, chipping each recovered brick free of mortar, and then stacked them. The bricks were handmade in the 1870s, and a foreman was paying them between $10 and $20 in cash for a pile of 500.

It was hard work. A pile took about half the day to gather, and most quit from fatigue after one go. An older man watched them: “Everyone heard about this job, but few want to do it, because it pays nothing, and lots of people been hurt doing it. But there are no jobs here in Selma. Especially if you got a record, and almost everyone in Selma has a record.” Nobody knew who owned the old warehouse, although most reckoned it was a white man: “They own everything around here.”

A brick buyer from a construction firm came to look at the pile. “Handmade bricks, especially historical ones like this, are in demand. They often sell for over a dollar per brick.”

(Emphasis, as usual, mine.)

Share-cropping became the primary work of southern black men and women in the years following the failure of Reconstruction. Long days spent picking cotton, tobacco, and other cash crops went unpaid until the harvest was complete. Months would roll by, bills accumulate; rent on workers’ homes, owned by the land owner, mounted. When settlement day came workers were often compensated with a few dollars after the cost of seed, rent, and other expenses were subtracted. Often the landowner re-figured his ledger until the balance came out even: no money changed hands.

In this way slavery, illegal in the wake of the 13th amendment to the Constitution of the United States, became a legacy of willing servitude. White land owners profited off the backs of black workers who, more often than not, were left with nothing more than they began the season with. Relief came only for those hardy enough to join the Great Migration out of the South.

The story of Selma today resembles nothing so much as that Jim Crow South: pennies paid for hard work that yields dollars for the one paying.

This is the town visited every year commemorating the beating of Freedom Marchers on what’s called America’s Bloody Sunday, in 1965. Visitors walk across the Edmund Pettus bridge, give a few speeches, and leave.

It is said that irony is, in this age of extremes, dead. It is not. It has become so ugly and hypocritical that no-one willingly sees it.

It’s 2017, nearly 52 years after Bloody Sunday. A half-century has passed. Selma is a shambles, the civil rights era has passed, we’ve had a black man elected and serve twice as president. We’ve had a poor white boy from Arkansas eventually become another two-term president. Yet life has become so difficult for enough people that they were willing to roll the dice on a megalomaniac like Donald Trump.

It’s not enough to say, “pull yourself up.” There’s nothing going on in Selma, or elsewhere, to pull up to.

Poor white people know this, too. When my parents retired from New York to live in eastern North Carolina they came face-to-face with what my mom called “the working poor.” Working two or three jobs each, these citizens were just getting by. At least they had a job. It seems Selma is worse-off.

Mr. Trump talks about bringing back jobs. He means well-paying work that can be had on a high school diploma, the kind of jobs once plentiful in places like Detroit, Pittsburgh, Gary. The kind of jobs that can be had in one’s home town, that can be worked for a full life and retired from on a pension.

“The jobs” aren’t coming back. Off-shoring of employment has morphed into work handled here by robotic automation. Workers tending the equipment have specialized training, and those designing, building and programming it have college degrees. All of that is out of the reach of the people of Selma.

It’s for these reasons I’m convinced of Chris Arnade’s argument that the dividing line is less employment, or even race. It’s education. From knowledge comes power. From one educated generation comes an exponential growth not only in knowledge and power, but also a basic requirement for it just to get along in the next.

Education and, to a great degree, employment often require a willingness to leave home and home town to live where schooling and, hopefully, jobs are available. Past generations of Americans picked up and left when life became impossible where they’d been.

One repeating meme heard from “back row” people is that of remaining in their home town even as jobs and opportunity dried up.

The future does not belong to the meek. The future belongs to those with the means to succeed. Those means begin with a four-year college degree. It hardly matter in what - the degree is the ticket that opens the door.

When you’re into your forties or fifties or sixties and possess a criminal record, education isn’t in the cards. You can’t afford it, there’s nowhere to get it, and few will take a chance on you even if you manage to acquire it. Moving only hauls your problems along with you. Poor decisions compound.

I don’t believe our new president has these people or their education in mind. I do believe Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton did, and do, and yet these people still suffer.

Who in our polity is pitting those who work hard, but lack a post-high school education (the “back row” kids) against those with specialized knowledge, education, training, and lofty goals (the “front row” kids)? Who denies facts, ignores and disparages science and learning, and creates a self-serving fictional America?

How do we bring along those of Selma, and elsewhere, who lack means while carrying the burdens of addiction, criminal conviction, and poverty?

I don’t know. Do you? Do you think the man inaugurated and the Congress recently seated have any idea?

#culture #economy #politics #trump #obama #clinton #selma #poverty #arnade #jimcrow #sharecropping #slavery #legacy

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