[Editor’s Note: This column reflects the opinion of the writer. It is not to be interpreted as the editorial position of CandysDirt.com]
The recent brouhaha surrounding Confederate monuments is a furtherance of the elimination of the Confederate flag that has gained steam in reaction to the white-supremacist leanings of our president and his supporters. It’s a pretty easy series of events to break down, made easier when our sitting president has David Duke stumping for him. Ahh, David Duke, whose Wikipedia page opens with, “David Ernest Duke is an American white nationalist, politician, anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist, Holocaust denier, convicted felon, and former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.”
(Every parent’s dream.)
Prior to a few months ago, when you didn’t think about Confederate monuments at all, you may have thought these statues were the last remnants of a bygone and painful era never to be repeated again. You’d be wrong. Humanity habitually repeats history by changing the lyrics to the same tune.
The Confederacy is intertwined with slavery, torture and death by Caucasians who stole the work and life of other races to build fortunes. From the Great Pyramids and the Great Wall to the Holocaust, the concept of forced labor for the enrichment of others is hardly limited to the Old South. Likewise, the justification of such actions are equally old. The technique of dehumanization, the setting-up of a group as “other” based on random criteria, enables the inhumane to be justified without remorse. Throughout history a grab bag of excuses for cruelty have been variously burnished into public consciousness, including religion, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, and political affiliation. These justifications are either ideological or genetic. I think ethnicity remains the most pernicious simply because you can see it coming.
What’s also interesting is that proximity matters. The closer we are to injustice, the more bothered we are by it. Sometimes this relates to the “I could be next” phenomenon and sometimes it’s because personal relationships with victims break the cycle of “other,” returning them to human status. Mistreatment occurring hundreds or thousands of miles away and/or to people you don’t know is easier to stomach. In newspaper speak, it’s below the fold.
Don’t believe me? At the same time Harvey pounded Houston, over 1,200 died in monsoon-related flooding in India, Bangladesh, and Nepal. The BBC reports that US coverage of these disasters is less than one percent of Harvey’s.
Even without broaching the issue of human trafficking, there’s plenty of ongoing slavery. Replace plantation holders with shareholders and you’ll see where this is going. For decades, first world business has exploited the lower wages and lax safety regulations of the third world. Today, instead of flotillas of slave ships bringing labor here, we setup factories, call centers, and mining operations, returning the goods not the people. This modern slavery keeps deplorable working conditions and wages far enough away, in countries where governments trade citizens’ lives for economic growth.
Think the life-and-death allusion is a little strong? Remember electronics supplier Foxconn who installed suicide nets skirting their facilities to stop overworked, underpaid staff from jumping off the roof? The story of those suicidal 60-hour work weeks and $350 monthly salaries reached a fever pitch in 2011. Then in 2014 the BBC program Panorama (think 60 Minutes) aired “Apple’s Broken Promises,” detailing the working conditions for the entire supply chain, from children mining raw materials to continuing factory labor issues. Certainly, Apple was held up because their global brand recognition guarantees press coverage, so it’s important to understand that sweatshop working conditions proliferate in many parts of the developing world whether it’s electronics or fashion.
Speaking of fashion, remember the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh that killed 1,134 sweatshop workers and injured 2,500 more? A year after the collapse, the $40 million fund to benefit victims had only received $15 million. The first payouts were $645 per person. None of the 15 international brands, including Walmart, Mango, Benetton, and the Children’s Place, whose products were being made at the factory, contributed a penny. Seems there’s a shelf life to our indignity.
The media, knowing its audience’s attention span and the advertising mileage of a story, only bring us the most horrific stories. They choose to leave the everyday issues of slave wages and unsafe working conditions unsaid. It’s a lot like livestock processing. We hear enough about factory farming to know what goes on, but not enough to do anything about it or (gasp) give up meat.
We know $15 blouses or shoes aren’t being made by well-treated, well-paid workers. But the physical and philosophical distance from the problem lessens our outrage in a way it wouldn’t if it was happening in our town, to our neighbors, in a society that thinks it’s better than that. And besides, did you see the new 10.1 megapixel camera? It’s soooo much better than the 10 megapixel in last year’s model. Truly slaves to fashion from the labor of slaves.
This isn’t to say that slave labor doesn’t exist at home. Southern slaves were provided room, board, and basic medical care (a type of wage more akin to maintenance). But what can we call jobs today that pay so little that workers can barely feed and house themselves, let alone seek medical treatment?
But even here, physical and intellectual distance makes the situation more palatable, especially from those who benefit from the system. We rationalize that they’ve done something to deserve their fate, or more self-congratulatory, that we made better decisions (on where to be born, usually).
Once the bedrock of community formation, mixed economic neighborhoods began dying decades ago around the time redlining was outlawed. Housing developments popped up with signs touting “Homes from the $250s to the $260s” so everyone knew exactly who was moving nextdoor in these tract Stepfords. Existing neighborhoods either retreated upmarket with teardowns or deteriorated.
When you live surrounded by a single income, race, or philosophy, you distrust the unfamiliar. You see them as less than. Humanity has always needed someone to look down upon. And it’s this looking down, this dehumanization, that opens the door to institutional abuse.
What I find particularly hysterical about this country’s white supremacist twaddle is their feeling that Caucasians are being disenfranchised. What doesn’t seem to permeate their ideology is the fact that any real or perceived disenfranchisement rests almost entirely on the shoulders of wealthy Caucasians. I can’t think of a single employment sector that has ever been controlled by a minority, and yet minority labor, not Caucasian business owners, gets the blame. It’s so much fog on a mirror they refuse to see themselves in.
In the end, solving the issue of slavery is impossible so long as the recipients of their labors are unwilling to earn less profit, do without, or pay more. Snapping selfies next to a toppled statue to soothe your ginned-up outrage isn’t a long-term fix in the way not buying the next infinitesimally better gadget or cheap one-season skirt is.
Just something to think about on Labor Day as we forget the factory farm that produced our hamburger.
Remember: High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement. If you’re interested in hosting a Candysdirt.com Staff Meeting event, I’m your guy. In 2016 and 2017, the National Association of Real Estate Editors has recognized my writing with two Bronze (2016, 2017) and two Silver (2016, 2017) awards. Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make? Shoot me an email firstname.lastname@example.org.