Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is the last hurrah of summer, time to watch the US Open Tennis, and the start of the final days of the presidential election. It also celebrates a long tradition of American workers bettering their lives and the prospects of the nation. Beginning in the late 19th century, states adopted the holiday little by little.
A critical question in our day is whether there is a cause for celebration of labor in many sectors of our society. The economic gap between European American, Latino, and African American households is growing; educational disparities contribute mightily to this chasm. Only 17 percent of African American kids graduate from college, compared to 31 percent of white kids. Guess who has the leg up for good paying jobs?
In his recent book, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, Jim Wallis notes the persistent reality of the “black underclass.” The median white household is thirteen times wealthier than the median black household and ten times wealthier than the median Latino household. Differences in home ownership rates and unemployment rates are widening.
There are jobs that are so risky, so repetitive, and so demeaning, that we tend to consign black and brown bodies to do this work. Politicians position themselves with an eye to their own job prospects on issues of immigration, while turning a blind eye to the reality of how certain work gets done in this capitalist economy.
Contemporary author Ta-Nehesi Coates has written of the massive economic impact of slavery: “ . . . our bodies became this country’s second mortgage.” And the lingering effects of slavery are still with us; the “warehousing of black bodies is a jobs program” for those who buy into the dream that they are white, also a social construction, he contends. [See his remarkable book Between the World and Me.] White privilege discounts this disparity, thinking that slavery is long past, yet no area of relationship between black and white people in the US is free from the legacy of racism. Wallis writes: “For many young people of color, society has ceased to be a society for them, with very little ownership or sense of belonging.”
God labored to create humans, as the Genesis 2 story recounts. Stooping, forming, breathing, God fashions remarkable creatures who will be God’s own representatives in this lovely earth. God gave work to the humans, not as a curse, but as a way to express creativity, develop character and culture, and provide resources for the common good. This ideal picture suggests that human identity requires meaningful work to live into our divine birthright.
What will it take for all God’s human creatures to realize this destiny? It will require repentance on the part of majority culture; it will require renewal of educational systems; it will require just policing; it will require a transformation of what has caused the “New Jim Crow” of mass incarceration of black persons. In the words of Carrie Newcomer’s lyrical protest, “it will take a change of heart for this to mend” (If Not Now).
Molly T. Marshall
Central prepares leaders to work for the common good.