The Value of Work -- Reflections on Building an Interracial Political Coalition

Last Sunday, January 17, in a sermon, "Prophecy and Politics," for Martin Luther King Day at Prospect Park United Methodist Church about my experiences as a young man in the civil rights movement, I addressed prejudices against working class whites.
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Last Sunday, January 17, in a sermon, "Prophecy and Politics," for Martin Luther King Day at Prospect Park United Methodist Church about my experiences as a young man in the civil rights movement, I addressed prejudices against working class whites.

My experiences in the civil rights movement made me conscious of such prejudices, especially among progressive professionals.

Martin Luther King, for whom I worked as a young man in the movement, was also aware of them -- and also deeply political in the older sense of politics, engaging the interests and perspectives of one's opponents. This led to understanding white prison guards whom many liberals saw simply as racist. As he put it in the "Drum Major Instinct" in 1968,

"When we were in jail in Birmingham the other day, the white wardens [came to] the cell to talk about the race problem. And when those brothers told me what they were earning, I said, 'Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us. You're just as poor as Negroes! The same forces that oppress Negroes oppress poor white people.'"

Politics like King's were at the heart of the grassroots "organizing" parts of the movement. When King assigned me to do community organizing among poor whites, I took these lessons about politics from King and others into the white mill village of East Durham.

Certainly I saw racial prejudice, which I also knew from my extended working class southern family. I also saw people like Basie Hicks, the community leader in East Durham who battled racial prejudice her whole life. She chased away the Klu Klux Klan when they came after me.

I also saw capacity for generosity. After people experienced collective power, when we were able to get action from the city on dirt streets, the neighborhood made connections with the black community across the tracks. I realized that narrow prejudices among poor whites often are rooted in powerlessness.

Perhaps most important, I saw the dignity and value of hard work, and also the invisibility and even contempt liberal professionals had for such work.

This was a community of mill workers and hair dressers, secretaries and police. People's identities drew from their sense that they made contribution to their families and also to their communities and the society. We got a glimpse of such grit and spirit on 9-11, when police and firefighters rushed into the collapsing buildings.

But more generally, blue collar work is devalued, and along with it blue collar workers. This was true in my experiences in organizing. Teachers across the street from Edgemont, the mill community, were very condescending toward "mill kids." At Duke, when I described the people in East Durham, faculty would ask, "Why in the world are you working with racist rednecks?"

Work, itself, especially manual work, has become even more an object of prejudice today. In Getting the Left Right, the political scientist Thomas Spragens shows how respect for work and working people among progressives in America has declined since the 1930s, replaced with pity for the poor. In a similar vein, Mike Rose in The Mind at Work shows the hidden intelligence and creativity at play in many different kinds of blue collar labor, from waitresses and hairdressers to plumbers and welders. He also shows the invisibility and devaluation of such labor across the popular culture.

Such devaluation has large cultural, psychological and political effects. Barbara Ehrenreich observes in the Nation that while blacks face harsh discrimination, they sometimes fare better in the popular culture:

"At least in the entertainment world, working-class whites are now regularly portrayed as moronic, while blacks are often hyper-articulate, street-smart, and sometimes as wealthy as Kanye West."

Last year Anne Case and Angus Deaton won the Nobel Prize in economics through research that discovered working class white men 45- to 54-years old are the only group in America with declining life spans.

Declining respect as well as stagnating wages and loss of many blue collar jobs are the discontents which demagogues play upon with their divide and conquer strategies. Timothy Egan in his New York Times column, "Giving Obama His Due," last Saturday showed how liberals contribute through their stereotypes. He describes supporters of Trump as "xenophobers, defeatists and alarmists, the Eeyore Party with a Snarl." Not a hint of the idea that they may have legitimate grievances.

Though they may be objects of solicitude from professionals and in the mass culture, blacks, as well as working class whites, experience such devaluation.

There may well be grounds here for a new interracial political coalition that reaffirms the dignity and the value of work and working people.

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