I was born to a Latin-American father and an African-American mother. (For perspective, her birth certificate identified her as ‘negro.’). Racism does affect everyone, even between minority groups in the melting pot that is the D.C. area. Even as a child, I was told by some Latino classmates that I didn’t count among them. In my adolescence, I was getting into heavy metal and the black kids would chastise me for listening to “white people music.” One afternoon, I hung out at a white friend’s house and his mother rushed several of us out of the house. It was because her prejudiced husband had come home early and they had to maintain the illusion in his presence. I’ve been profiled and dealt with discrimination on a few jobs (even working in the place nicknamed “Chocolate City”).
Currently, I’m somewhat settled and established here in Indianapolis, where I stranded myself nearly four years ago . That being said, I’ve experienced life from the perspective of Obama’s D.C., compared to the decaying infrastructure that is Mike Pence’s Indiana (potholes so horrendous, they make Hampton Roads look maintained). There is a more casual racism here than in my hometown, though some of it is genuinely rural humor. Still, I’ve faced real discrimination at work several times and they’ve all but completely killed the unions out here. I’ve walked into interviews south of Indianapolis and seen managers backpedaling on scheduled interviews two minutes after walking through the door. I’ve worked jobs where fraternizing is all but fully encouraged among the “good ol’ boys.”
I voted for Obama twice but I still saw the holes in the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (LLFPA). Congress overrode the act and added a paycheck-accrual rule for Title VII pay discrimination cases. The intent behind that legislation was to extend the statute of limitations in these cases. Brian O’Neill (2010) argues that this legislation isn’t doing enough to address pay discrimination, and calls for transformative legal intervention, enabling Title VII for all cases of pay discrimination.
Many of us have worked at places where employees aren’t allowed to discuss their wages. I never agreed with this policy because employees can’t determine their relative compensation within the company. In my personal experience, “at-will employment” and contracts against wage disclosure are just the systemic means to keep people in working poverty. Pay secrecy is a restrictive means to keep workers ignorant of being underpaid in the first place. One key obstacle is the social norm of pay secrecy among businesses. If one can’t see what others make, one doesn’t realize whether or not they’re being discriminated against in their pay.
In summary, the LLFPA has too narrow a scope and needs to be expanded. Businesses that stress pay secrecy in their policies could also technically be considered as infringing upon the First Amendment rights of workers. It’s because of this that we need to completely do away with wage secrecy and make it a worker’s right to disclose or check wages. Once, my wife filed a complaint with the EEOC once. They called the establishment in question, the little that was said was denial before hanging up. Upon leaving virtually empty-handed, the EEOC dismissed her case. Ideally, employers should not discriminate in the first place. Nevertheless, it helps to actually go through the motions of at least maintaining the illusion of workplace equality by properly addressing the issues immediately as they arise.
Another obstacle I’ve experienced while working in one of these at-will states is that larger employer contract work out through staffing agencies. The agencies promise employment with a company after a 90-day probationary period. What they leave out is that the turnover rate is high; most employees don’t make the 90 days for whatever obscure reasons a manager can make up. There’s one factory in an Indiana town called Shelbyville, which is notorious for such practices. We all knew the only women who stayed were the ones who let the evening-shift production manager grope them. There is a reason we need to fortify and enforce the regulations of fair and ethical business practices in these regions. However, the damage doesn’t end there. Maintaining the current practices of staffing agencies, as an arbitrary barrier to secure employment, stagnates union dues collection through this engineered turnover. In short, these larger businesses are attempting to starve out the unions as a means to eliminate the one entity meant to protect the Lilly Ledbetters of this country.
That being said, Indiana has more jobs than people out here. What they don’t tell you is how nearly none of the jobs out here are well-paying, and nearly every business offers the same crappy health insurance that doesn’t begin to help until your medical debt exceeds $5,000.
Worse still, minorities who live out here have to put up with rural, nativist attitudes in these industrial companies. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) has raided a few Mexican restaurants in this state, leading to notable locations being shut down. The pro-authoritarian stance out here responds with, “they shouldn’t have come here illegally.” Nevertheless, we shouldn’t subject non-violent productive people to a broken and carcerative process, where families are separated without legal representation and thousands of children gone missing.
When my wife was younger, my father-in-law told her not to marry or get pregnant from anyone outside of her race. He explained that life is harder on biracial kids, who grow up confused by cultural conflict. (That is still the logic out here in certain households.) His views changed with the times, however. My mother-in-law told me once about her memories of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement in comparison to the cultural disconnect we have now:
“The problem is that you have [some of] the black kids’ parents telling them on one side that white people are the cause of their problems, and the white parents telling their kids how slavery and segregation was years ago; they don’t owe anything….”
More accurately, her take is that Dr. King died, but his lesson was somewhat lost on the next generations. She also said that we should strive more than we’ve been to meet halfway. The truth is that both of them are at least half right; our cultures (predominantly as ‘white vs. non-white’) are in conflict. To a lesser extent, the divisions amongst different minorities weaken the community as a whole. The concept of race, however, is merely a social construct based on the 0.5% of the entire human genome which determine the features we define as race (Levy, 2007). The construct is slowly dying (Of course, the white kids have nothing to do with slavery and segregation.). But the systemic machine built around that construct is still running most of us over through working poverty, decaying infrastructure, and mass incarceration.
In sum, all of us must meet halfway and recognize that we – the middle class, working class and working poor – are dividing ourselves over nothing. We cannot afford to understand social problems on the basis of archaic tribal fears because, at some point in our existence as a species, we were all one tribe. Now is the time we should come together and strive to progressively change the system as the table of brotherhood Dr. King dreamed of; one based on the content of our character.
Levy, S. (2007). The diploid genome sequence of an individual human. PLoS Biology, 5(10), 2113–2144. Retrieved from http://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.0050254
O’Neill, B. P. (2010). Pay confidentiality: A remaining obstacle to equal pay after ledbetter. Seton Hall Law Review, 40(3), pp. 1217-1256. Retrieved from http://scholarship.shu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1067&context=shlr