Thursday, August 18, 2011

Thinking about "The Help"

The movie The Help is out and stimulating discussions of issues of race and class.  Harold Pollack remembers a painful event from his childhood:

"....our family was close to our neighbors. Their children were cared for by a young black woman whose name I’m embarrassed to say I’ve forgotten. She slept in their basement. My dad did a lot of work around the house, and happened to have some extra moveable partitions. He gave one to her, so that she could have some extra privacy.

That night, the neighbors stormed over. They informed my parents that if they had wanted her to have a partition, they would have bought her one, and that my father had made an inexcusable intrusion into their home. There were some harsh words. Our families maintained polite but frosty relations from that moment forward."
 Things have certainly changed.  But in many ways, they have not.  Millions of people still work for poverty wages.  And taken broadly as a class of worker, there are distinct disadvantages they face that are not entirely dissimilar to what was so starkly a racial matter a few decades ago.  In fact, I wonder as I type this, whether the racial differences are still as stark.  We took a vacation up the California coast this summer and witnessed many fieldworkers who were all Hispanic, as far as I could tell, and likely undocumented.  We're used to the lowest forms of labor - in status, difficulty and pay - being done by minorities.

While we can I think agree that most overt racism has all but disappeared, at least as a primary factor in employment, structural problems remain in which large sectors of society are disenfranchised and almost destined from birth to lives of poverty and desperation.  And to the extent that any of us partake in the economy, certainly when we purchase services that directly require the labor of minimum-wage employees, we are exploiting their lack of empowerment.  The notion that they are all completely free individuals who could easily have decided to go to school and become lawyers or highly skilled workers is a convenient fantasy.

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