You Better Work

How is the historical institution of slavery connected to the workforce patterns of 2019? That was the question Richmond’s Valentine Museum posed Jan. 8 at the latest program in its “Controversy/History” series, “Race & Labor.” The free event challenged about 90 attendees to consider whether past conceptions about people and work have carried forward to the present day.

Visitors toured the 1812 Wickham House – a National Historic Landmark formerly home to prominent Richmond lawyer John Wickham, his family, and 15 enslaved people – with an eye toward the nature and status of labor symbolized in each room. Then the program transitioned to a discussion of modern workforce challenges with Dr. Ravi Perry, who chairs Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Political Science, and Valaryee Mitchell, who leads Richmond’s recently-formed Office of Community Wealth Building, an employment support agency.

The Valentine – whose mission is to collect, preserve, and interpret Richmond’s 400-year history – launched “Controversy/History” in 2017, aiming to connect the city’s live controversies to their historic roots. Tuesday’s program was the third of five scheduled for this season, which started with the topic of continuing segregation in education. Programs on health and city identity are still to come. The events are facilitated by museum staff and community leaders, but they’re framed as interactive discussions where attendees – who may be intimately familiar with local controversies – can also learn from each other.

On Tuesday evening, guest hosts Kelli Lemon of Coffee with Strangers RVA and Matt Freeman of Dialectix Consulting kicked off the program with short rounds of instant polling and small-group discussion. Some results: More than half the attendees lived inside Richmond city limits, with another 30 percent coming in from Chesterfield and Henrico. But only a quarter were originally from greater Richmond, and over half were born in another state.

In small groups, an emerging theme was that, even among many African-American attendees, education about slavery had been confined to sanitized school curricula that didn’t meaningfully grapple with the legacy of this country’s original sin.

Work patterns, then and now

The Wickham House, likely constructed with slave labor, was once home to 31 people, most of whom were responsible for administrating the household. The women and enslaved people were charged with raising the children, cooking, cleaning, maintaining the home, and serving the family and their frequent guests. These jobs, tour guides noted, were neither chosen freely by those who performed them nor compensated in wages. Unlike John Wickham, who matched his personal skill set to an esteemed profession, women and people of color had limited occupational options regardless of their skills, potential, or interests. Although we might now describe Mrs. Wickham as a “stay-at-home mom,” that contemporary term is an awkward fit for someone who had few other choices.

On one hand, it’s striking from the vantage point of 2019 how much more egalitarian values about work have become. To illustrate most Wickham House residents’ lack of bargaining power, museum tour guides highlighted the absence of basic labor standards that many modern workers take for granted: minimum wage levels, “overtime” hours, protections against discrimination, work breaks, and the ability to leave one’s workplace and go home. And the most pernicious justifications proffered for funneling women and African-Americans toward certain types of labor in the 19th century are anathema to widely-shared 21st century American values.

But on the other hand, as Dr. Perry explained, ostensible advances for historically disadvantaged groups have been surprisingly ineffective at breaking down class barriers, especially related to labor. Despite legally-protected access to education, housing, employment, and health care, indicators of black Americans’ bottom-line well-being – e.g. relative unemployment, home ownership, life expectancy – have barely budged since the 1960s. Nationally, average black wealth is only 5 percent of average white wealth. (A recent study indicated that Americans drastically underestimate the wealth gap: The average guess was that the disparity is only 15 points instead of 95.)

Richmond’s black population, now on a downswing, currently hovers just under 50 percent of the city’s total. Ms. Mitchell of the OCWB observed that, despite a thriving economy and low unemployment rate, almost a full quarter of city residents live in poverty (compared to about 10 percent statewide). The national black unemployment rate tends to be about twice the rate for white workers; in Richmond, the difference is more than 3 to 1.

Undervaluing people, undervaluing their work

Why, in a nation struggling broadly with income inequality, do African-Americans face uniquely grim statistical prospects? One answer suggested by the discussion at The Valentine is that, just as in the era of slavery, the more unpleasant a job is, the more likely it is to be performed by people with little power to negotiate fair wages for it, to demand better working conditions, to make the case for the job’s value and status, or to simply pursue a more satisfying occupation. As this reality persists, inequitable labor patterns are entrenched by post-hoc justifications that may sound neutral but operate to protect the status quo.

For example, during John Wickham’s antebellum life, slaveholders argued that Africans should be the ones to work the fields because they were physically better suited to tolerate the summer heat. Under basic market principles, a valued skill should increase earning power – unless the skilled person has no viable option to withhold her labor. Enslaved people lacked this option not only because of physical and legal coercion, but also because people of color were maligned as inherently unintelligent, lazy, and uncivilized, i.e., unable to add value elsewhere and actually burdening society even if they were freed.

The end of legal slavery did little to mitigate these negative stereotypes, which persist today with reinforcement from the fact that, generations after civil rights reforms, African-Americans still lag behind other demographic groups as to educational outcomes and, of course, labor and income patterns. These stereotypes have intertwined with evolving values about work in America, as reflected by Iowa Rep. Steve King’s recent linkage (later denied) of “white supremacy” to the prosperity of Western economies.

As our nation’s “more perfect” exceptionalist mythology goes, a free economy gives most people the opportunity to succeed through hard work, whether physical or cognitive. This belief easily morphs into the dual propositions that (1) successful people generally have fairly earned their economic comfort by their own sacrifices and ingenuity; and (2) poverty is often the natural result of not contributing one’s fair share of work to society. This worldview implies that net worth reflects personal worth, and it absolves successful people of moral or political imperatives to support tax-funded “handouts.” It also fails spectacularly to account for essential work that has historically been rendered for no pay, such as child and elder care and homemaking.

At The Valentine, Dr. Perry cited research showing how these flawed but entrenched values can interact with race in unfortunate ways, particularly in the American South. People tend to picture an individual in poverty as black, he said, even though the vast majority of poor people are white. Similarly, Ms. Mitchell saw evidence that businesses are, ironically, less inclined to interview applicants – very well-qualified ones – who they know have received public job-skills services from her agency. Her discussions with local employers suggest that when they picture their ideal worker, that person is not black – even in a city where African-Americans have been the majority of the population.

The idiosyncrasies of American values around work are particularly harsh as applied to black mothers. While care of home and family has traditionally been framed as virtuous and necessary work for married white mothers, that work is revealed as a privilege when black women pursue it. As enslaved people, black women’s duties to care for the homes and children of white families took priority over their own children’s well-being. Long after slavery ended, economic necessity pushed black mothers away from their own homes to work for white families as “the help.” It’s hard to escape the impression that the continuing cultural handwringing about children in daycare is more directed at white women than black women. Ms. Mitchell said it’s still common for black mothers to be “demonized” as lazy and irresponsible when they choose child care over outside employment.

For many families, though, taking paid employment and outsourcing child care simply makes no economic sense. Care costs for two or more children (in addition to other costs of working like transportation and appropriate attire) can effectively erase job earnings while burdening the family in other ways. Under those circumstances, taking the outside job is a net loss for the household, regardless of what government services are available. But public policy tends to assume that outside work is the solution to most economic problems, even though many jobs don’t pay a living wage. This short-sightedness can lead to what Ms. Mitchell called a “cliff” effect, where people who would otherwise want to work don’t do so because the wages are too low to offset the loss of essential government services. She said that the most effective and practical policy solutions would mitigate that “cliff” for low-wage workers.

But poverty wages remain a difficult problem. While low pay may seem like a reflection on the subjective value of the work, it has more to do with labor supply and bargaining power. The inability to negotiate better wages may result from your lack of certain skills, experience, or personality traits. But even if you’re well-qualified, you may just have few or no viable outside options that give you the leverage of walking away from a low-paying job offer. Race – and its historic connection to slavery – may be implicated in both scenarios.

Based on her job coaching work, Ms. Mitchell pointed out that “soft skills” – how to keep a job once you have it – are an under-appreciated benefit that many people naturally acquire through their family and social connections: Watching how their parents manage work, for example. But the scope and quality of that training varies widely. So the effects of historical discrimination may ripple through generations to affect the types of work training that people have absorbed by adulthood, as well as to limit the outside options for black workers on a systemic basis. Ms. Mitchell said she supported living-wage policy proposals, which aim to mitigate these bargaining disparities. She also lauded Richmond’s certification for businesses that pay their workers enough to cover basic life expenses.

The Valentine’s Tuesday event ended with a powerful final question from an audience member, a woman of color who described herself as a broke 30-year-old with two degrees. She thanked the presenters for taking the time to speak to the group, but said: “I know all of this. I’ve lived it. What can I do?” Dr. Perry’s answer: Big policy changes actually are possible within this country’s political system. Consider that current federal law includes the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Social Security Act, the Equal Pay Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family & Medical Leave Act. These successes weren’t the result of one persons’s efforts; the political system is not designed to be responsive to individuals. Change usually happens only when people combine their voices and organize effectively.



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