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Posts from May 2002

Government and the pink-collar ghetto

Pretty much every time Wendy McElroy writes a column, you can expect three things.

  1. Insightful and provocative analysis of the ways in which male-dominated, top-down patriarchal government hurts women
  2. Lack of understanding of ways in which non-governmental power and hierarchy hurts women
  3. Uncalled-for swipes at other feminists and failure to differentiate feminism from the male Left

Her column on Unlocking the Potential of America’s Pink Collar Workers is a classic example. Based in part around a response to Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, McElroy analyzes how the government works to create and shore up the walls around the pink collar ghetto by preventing women from getting ahead through legally imposed barriers to work and individual initiative. She has a lot of good points.

On the negative side, she also just ignores the degree to which historical power and hierarchy outside of government also constrains low-income women. Her flippant dismissal of sexual harassment law is an obvious example—yes, investing economic resources into creating a workplace more free of sexual harassment does cost money and work that could be otherwise spent. But that doesn’t mean that if you stopped spending that money, women would suddenly flood into the workplace. The new jobs that were created would predominantly be filled by men—since sexual harassment is most prevalent in workplaces where most of the workers are men—and women would be driven out and kept out of these workplaces because of the fact that, well, sexual harassment is rampant in the workplace.

Similarly, although McElroy appreciates that Ehrenreich is in touch with the realities facing working-class women, she accuses her of allowing moral squeamishness to get in the way of seeing real solutions. For example, McElroy writes:

And, yet, after working as a cleaning woman for her book, Ehrenreich, in an article in Harper’s magazine, asked readers not to hire maids. Almost everyone complains about violent video games, but paid housecleaning has the same consequence-abolishing effect. … A servant economy breeds callousness, she wrote.

So to protect the moral sensibilities of the middle class, Ehrenreich wants people to unemploy poor women who are working to feed their children. Instead of honest work she would offer these women a more humane welfare system.

But wait, that’s not what Ehrenreich said. She doesn’t want women who are working in domestic labor to be unemployed and put on welfare. She’s saying that there’s a real, pernicious, political cause and effect in the employment of low-income women as domestic servants, and the callousness and dehumanization of women in poverty that it breeds in the rich (in Nickel and Dimed, she details how bosses made sure to rotate employees at each house and minimize contact between clients and workers, so that individuals never emerge as sympathetic persons in the eyes of clients, and how workers would be on the point of passing out because of company rules that no food or water pass a maid’s mouth while she was in a client’s house).

McElroy should understand that Ehrenreich is calling here for a reinvestment of economic energies: so that the upper-class people do their own cleaning, and invest their money into other enterprises, and open up opportunities to work for lower-income women other than cleaning up after the rich while having most of your labor going to pay the salary of a shitty, exploitative boss.

McElroy also accuses middle-class feminists of pushing for laws which constrain women from entering the workplace as employees or entrepreneurs. She claims that Most feminist policies harm the very women they should be protecting — pink-collar workers — and the solutions they offer to poor women are part of what is creating their poverty. But this just ain’t true. It’s true of the male Left, which has long favored so-called protective labor legislation which simply cuts women out of numerous sectors of the workforce which the male-dominated AFL-line labor movment thought was too dangerous (and too lucrative) for women. But second-wave feminists fought these restrictions, often at great cost to their former alliances with the labor movement. They’ve fought to decriminalize prostitution, so that women are not thrown in prison for doing what they need to do in order to survive. McElroy asserts that feminists never seem to call for less government regulation, especially in the workplace. But in fact, although feminists have fought for many rules on workplace standards, just as often they have fought against sexist legislation which cuts women out of economic opportunities in order to protect them.

Where McElroy’s column is at its best, however, and Ehrenreich’s book is at its weakest, is on the issue of barriers which constrain women’s initiative to the boss-dominated world of the Pink Collar ghetto labor marketplace. Ludicrous government-imposed barriers against so much as starting a hair-braiding business out of your own home (or selling garden vegetables out of your truck) establish a system in which you either rent your labor out to a (usually male) boss, or else you starve. Is it any surprise that when the victims of this economic ghettoization don’t have other options, bosses can afford to pay them so little?

So what must we do? It is way, way past time to get the government out of centralized command-and-control which restricts capital to those who are already economically and politically well-connected.

  • Abolish business licensing fees. $100 makes no difference to Starbucks, but a lot more to someone just starting a new food co-op or taxi service.

  • Ditch the arcane, massive, and hyper-bureaucratic zoning laws which favor sprawled-out cities with big centralized stores, and which criminalize working out of your own home

  • Loosen the government-supported stranglehold of big banks on capital. Loosen the regulatory reins on credit unions and microfinance institutions, so that affordable, worker-friendly banking is available to more people in more communities

  • Finally, drop the current welfare-to-work welfare deform program. We no longer have a welfare system, but rather a government-sponsored temp agency for shitty dead-end labor which won’t pay the rent. Government-controlled welfare should ultimately be abolished in favor of a voluntary system of mutual aid in the community. However, in the meantime, we can give people on welfare some breathing room.

    The system should not penalize people for choosing to spend time going to college or University (currently, this is not counted as work and so it counts against you).

    Also, it needs to stop monomaniacally focusing on shipping unemployed women off into available low-income jobs, After they are dumped into a minimum wage job and taken off the rolls, the state gets a fat credit from the federal government, but the woman still can’t pay the rent. Instead, it should provide help with finding jobs and also provide help and resources for starting your own small individual or co-operative businesses and wisely choosing how to invest your money, avoid debt, and generally provide resources for women to make themselves self-sufficient, rather than job-dependent.

For further reading:

Where The Money Is In the Queer Community

Discussions about economic class and sexual orientation have often operated on the assumption – supposedly with a statistical basis – that gay people are at least as affluent, or more affluent, than straight people. However, an article on "The truth about GLBT income" by Grant Lukenbill [Gay.com] sets the record straight: the studies are based on flawed sampling and manipulation of data.

Here’s what actually happens: statistically, on average, gay male couples have more income than heterosexual couples. This much of the newspaper reports are true.

But just a cotton-pickin’ minute. Of course gay male couples make more money. Men make more money than women. So of course a household with two men makes more money than a household with a woman and a man. And, in turn, lesbian couples make even less than heterosexual couples. The issue here has nothing much to do with sexuality in the first place, and everything to do with the sexual politics of the job market. Many other similar errors disclose themselves; for example, gay male couples make more than heterosexual couples, but heterosexual people are more likely to live in couples than are gay men.

On full consideration of the data, Lukenbill argues,

The wealthiest proportion of gay Americans is a minority of older, dual income-earning, white-male households in the country’s largest urban areas. These men are an important minority within a minority, no doubt, but one that represents only a fraction of the overall gay and lesbian population.

Anyone who thinks–or reports–otherwise doesn’t know what the numbers really say.

For further reading:

  • GT 2/16/2002 Alabama Lags Nation in Pay Equity, and the wage gap map of the U.S.

Here We Go Again – Frat Racism at Syracuse

You know, you’d think that after blackface party costumes at an Auburn fraternity became a scandal in the national newsmedia, frat boys would learn that blackface is not all that good of an idea as a prank costume.

If you did, you thought wrong. In what seems to have been a conscious decision to further shatter my faith in the basic human capacity to learn from past experience, Aaron Levine, a member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, went on his fraternity bar-hopping party dressed in blackface [Syracuse Daily Orange], in what he claims was a Tiger Woods costume.

After student protests, the case was referred to the Office of Judicial Affairs. Levine faces possible expulsion from the school for violation of the Code of Student Conduct and the fraternity faces possible suspension.

The protesting students also demanded structural changes to school policy to improve the institutional racial environment, including new policies for reporting and punishing similar incidents, diversity training for students and employees, and reinstatement of the Black Student Union Building and Black Panhellenic House.

Meanwhile, Levine has said the following in his defense:

  • The my one black friend thought it was O.K. excuse — According to Levine, he asked a Black fraternity brother (SAE is predominantly white) whether the costume was offensive, and he said it was not. Whenever there’s a scandal over a blackface costume I see this same excuse and I still can’t figure out why anyone even bothers offering it. So your one Black friend thought it was O.K. Fine — but your one Black friend does not think or speak for all Black people in the world. This is mind-numbingly obvious and yet they go on using this excuse as if it meant something. I have to wonder whether it’s really just a way of saying Hey, man, some of my best friends are black rather than actually responding to the person offended.

  • The you’re taking this way too far excuseEverything’s being blown out of proportion, Levine said. It’s hard to please the mob. I’ll talk to any individual. This excuse is useful to Levine — it lets him pretend that he is the martyr of an irrational mob rather than actually personally engaging with the people who are confronting him. Well, look, I understand the feeling that this has gone way further than you ever meant it to go. But that’s the nature of the beast. When you offend someone, you don’t get to choose just how much s/he is supposed to be offended. If you’ve offended someone, your job is to take accountability for what you’ve done, to personally engage with them and understand where they are coming from.

    This seems to come from a general misunderstanding of what it means when a person’s speech or actions are offensive. Now, people can certainly be intentionally offensive–think of the average grade school bully. But most of life is not like this. If it was only what people intended that could be offensive, then a lot fewer people would be offended, because most of the time people don’t intend to piss each other off. But most of the time, what’s offensive has nothing to do with what the person intended; it has to do with what s/he was willing to ignore. In dressing up in blackface for shits and giggles, Levine surely didn’t intend to piss everyone off, but he was ignoring a long and bloody history of brutal racism behind blackface. And that is offensive, not just to people of color, but to anyone with a sense of history and a hope for racial justice. Which brings us to…

  • The I am too stupid to take responsibility for my actions excuseLevine said he had no knowledge of the history of blackface. Well, I guess that’s obvious. But rather than getting defensive and protesting his innocence, Levine ought to take this as an opportunity to educate himself about why the hell people are so pissed off at him. There is a history to these images. They are not just obsolete ephemera flashing across a History Channel documentary. For more on blackface humor and the history of white supremacy behind it, I recommend Bryan Thomas’s column Bamboozled: A True Story [Bryan Thomas. Talk.], and Spike Lee’s spectacular film Bamboozled.

How much longer is it going to take before Universities start getting serious about promoting diversity and undermining institutional racism in their campus culture? We shouldn’t have to wait for scandalous incidents like this one to realize that, in a culture where white privilege deeply shapes the composition and direction of most campus cultures, we need to take some serious steps to open up the University as a space in which students of color can participate. Students of color need spaces such as multicultural center buildings, where they can come together to build their voice and strength for participation in the campus community. Administrators and faculty need to prioritize programs which educate students about the history of race in American culture and politics, and which facilitate greater understanding and openness across racial/ethnic lines. Given the relationship between race and economic class, they also need to talk seriously about making college more affordable and a better experience for low-income students. Administrators need to get serious in holding the organizations and individuals responsible for hate images responsible, but what’s far more important than that is that they also work towards creating and maintaining a campus environment in which people actually understand something about race and white students don’t just think that throwing around casual racism is O.K.

(In related news, Auburn may be faltering or even failing in this regard, despite the bold promises administration made after our own blackface scandal hit the national airwaves. But that is another story entirely; watch this space for the upcoming story on developments in Auburn.)

And for God’s sake, how much longer is it going to take historically white fraternities to realize how much it hurts them, as people and as an organization, to allow this kind of institutionalized racism to fester in their houses? Every few months another incident like this happens. It hits the news, people yell, the frat boys get punished, and then it happens again at another frat house somewhere else in the country. Or it even happens again at another frat house on the same campus, as if no-one in the historically white Greek system had ever figured out that this might just not be cool with other people. I mean, Christ, even amoebas can learn through operant conditioning. Can’t we expect at least that much cognitive functioning from frat boys?

For further reading:

  • GT 11/14/2001 Auburn chapter of Delta Sigma Phi dissolved, and how anti-Southern prejudice undermines the struggle for change in the North and South
  • GT 11/14/2001 Auburn chapter of Beta Theta Pi dissolved, and commentary on the moral crippling of laid-back liberalism
  • GT 11/9/01 the broader context of racism in Auburn
  • GT 11/6/2001, the original report on the Halloween blackface incident

There’s Hope for Alabama Yet

Roy Moore, C.J.

Roy Moore, Chief Justice, Alabama Supreme Court

Well, the polls have closed at Vote.com, and the results are mixed.

Two months ago, I reported on Vote.com’s recent online referendum on whether Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore should be removed from office. Our beloved Chief Justice was under fire for his virulently homophobic tirade, in which he used a concurring opinion as a platform to announce that the State would be acting within its moral and legal prerogatives to imprison and slaughter queer people. Despite the nature of his statements, when I first found the poll, 66% of the voters supported him and only 34% voted for removal.

However, supporters of gay liberation stepped up to the plate and fought to make their voices heard.

The bad news is that when the poll was closed, it was still 55% in support of Moore (3,116 votes) to 45% opposed (2,522 votes).

But here’s far better news. Those of us in Alabama, who have to live with the nutbar, came out against Roy Moore by pretty much the same margin (54% voted he should be removed, 46% voted he should not).

Now, online referenda are not scientific. Not even remotely. But, for one, these messages are going to Alabama lawmakers, and lawmakers care about the volume of letters coming from their own constituents. What’s even more important is that were enough of us in Alabama to turn the vote around like that. It’s heartening to see that a lot of people in Alabama are sick to death of Roy Moore, and it’s heartening to see that the Internet can put us in touch to make our organized voices heard.

Roy Moore comes up for re-election in 2006. The next task is to build on what we have accomplished, so that this online poll can be translated into victory at the ballot box.

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