White Men Can’t Mow Lawns

How often have we heard it said by conservative pundits and talk radio personalities that unemployed Americans are inclined to refuse menial work, apparently content to accept government handouts? The list of supposed “shall nots” are numerous: Americans won’t bus tables, clean hotel rooms, harvest crops and, in general, bust our chops. On the flip side, how many times have liberals argued that undocumented labor has little to no adverse impact on American job prospects?

In one key respect, the two sides seemingly agree: American-born workers won’t take “those jobs” anyhow, whereas the undocumented workforce contributes to cheaper goods and services — such are the hands that infuse America with entrepreneurial spirit, after all.

Never mind the reality: The bulk of today’s job growth takes place in the service sector — precisely where the legal and undocumented alike mingle.

But what does one make of it when “reality” is beholden to stereotypes — perceptions so routine, we scarcely question them?

A phenomena of “enforced roles” may help explain why socioeconomic groups become occupationally stratified.

“Jim’s” story provides a window into things present — and trends to come. It began when a middle-aged man and his parents began sharing a roof. The Great Recession had not been kind, having hit the state of California particularly hard. For Jim, the eldest son of retired healthcare professionals, the economic downturn entailed prolonged underemployment — in spite of experience in a supposedly in-demand field. Having hit his late 40s with a résumé that reads like a who’s-who of defunct employers, things weren’t looking up. For Jim’s parents, likewise, failure to pay off their primary residence before retirement forced a difficult choice: upend their son, or live under the same roof.

Like any earnest job-seeker, Jim sought to do “whatever it takes” to get by while searching for full-time work. Imagine, then, his surprise when his parents turned down his offer to do yard work — lawn and garden care for the very home he occupied as his parents’ renter for nearly 20 years.

Why deny one’s own son a mundane job, an offer that if accepted would have netted a savings for a couple who themselves depend upon a fixed income — an offer that, if little more, would have helped a demoralized Jim feel useful? Their objection, Jim says, centered around the difficulty of finding a “good gardener”. And who might a good gardener be?

Stereotypically, the illegal variety.

Too add insult to injury, Jim’s parents spend upwards of 10 hours per day watching FOX News. If anyone were to be opposed to undocumented labor, it would be them — right?

Wrong.

To add yet another layer of irony, it wasn’t the first time Jim had lost out on work he was more than willing to take. When a neighbor passed away before the recession, Jim kept up the vacant home’s yard while the trustees weighed their options. Upon noting Jim’s neighborly actions, the inheritors of the property began to pay him a small sum — fortuitously for by this time Jim’s employer had succumbed to the recession. The owners compensated Jim, that is until they inexplicably apologized for “taking advantage” of him, opting instead for — you guessed it — a gardening service run by those whom society has apparently come to regard as legitimate partakers of such labor.

Jim’s experience is hardly isolated. During the Great Recession, employment prospects for the very rich and the very poor were not as heavily hit as those of the middle class. Under-the-table workers in the underground economy, for instance, suffered less unemployment than blacks and teens. The Great Recession, more accurately portrayed, consisted of the bottom dropping out of the middle class. Some four years into this so-called recovery, three-quarters of Americans live paycheck to paycheck80 percent of us will at some point in our working lives grapple with “economic insecurity”, and most have endured wage loss in the face of increased costs of living.

Jim’s reality is a poor fit for conservative critics’ allegations of pervasive, American lassitude and laziness, nor does it jive with the liberal romanticism our nation of immigrants reserves for the newly arrived. More telling, it begs the question: Is there a double standard in society — a racist typecasting of sorts — that keeps ethnic minorities behind a barrier of subordinate or low-wage occupations and majority “whites” entrenched in roles of a different but no less rigid type?

Maybe it’s time to ask.

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* The title for this blog entry is a take off the film “White Men Can’t Jump”.

Harvard Professor Plays the Race Card

Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. cried foul when a neighbor’s call to the police resulted in his arrest at the door to his own home, the Chicago Tribune reports.

Refusing, allegedly, to identify himself to a responding Cambridge, Massachusetts police officer didn’t help law enforcement appreciate that the director of Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research was the rightful owner of the home — a far cry from the intruder his neighbor feared.

Professor Gates Jr. may not have intended to bait the officer into arresting him, but that’s the effect his apparent refusal to cooperate had.

“Is this what it means to be a black man in America?”, the professor rhetorically opined.

If “what it means” refers to negative racial assumptions applied to oneself — ascribing to the color of one’s skin the power to draw negative and unfair treatment — then yes. But in very real way, who or what is proposing the racism — the past or the present? Someone else — or the professor himself?

Psychologists call the phenomena of blurring the lines between the motivations of self and others “transference“. It’s no secret that sometimes we project our own assumptions on others, in this case an officer caught between a nosy neighbor and a prejudicially-minded professor.

To view this situation through a racial lens is tempting, but to anyone without skin color on which to blame such a snafu, far less personal explanations would undoubtedly occur: A) Install a motion-sensor light so that neighbors can appreciate that the shadowy figure attempting to enter the house is, in fact, the homeowner vs. an intruder; B) Note to self that it is time to actually get to know one’s neighbors so that they know I belong here and vise versa; and C) Attend and/or organize a Neighborhood Watch meeting. After all, how can we look out for each other’s personal property when we don’t even recognize each other?

Had the professor been someone whose livelihood was not so enmeshed with the burdens of history, perhaps a more telling question would have emerged from his experience: Is this what community breakdown looks like in America?

What’s wrong with society when we don’t recognize our neighbors? When we don’t bother to introduce ourselves? When we are too busy to have a life that connects in any way, shape or form with those who live, in many instances, a few feet away?

The professor’s statement is troubling at a number of levels. True, one can ascribe troubles in life to history, economic background or just about any perceived barrier. And yes, such conclusions may even be justified. But when we interpret life through this perceptual filter, who suffers for those determinations: the people or circumstances that shouldn’t be the way they are — or ourselves?

When we blame skin color, looks, family, kids, spouse — what we are really doing is giving away our personal power. We are acknowledging, essentially, that “something” or “someone” controls us. If we want race, gender, creed, age or any number of other factors to wield that level of influence, we will find ample evidence suggesting that it can and does.

As we think, so we see — and so we do. This clashes with the prevailing notion that as life is, so we perceive, so we react. Pointing out a racial slight is not an offensive against racism — it is to feed into the idea that racism has a life of its own apart from us. This succeeds only in breathing new life into old stereotypes.

It isn’t the responding officer who set out to express his or her racism. The professor seemingly supplied plenty of his own assumptions. And therein lies the problem with the way in which academia promotes multicultural and ethnic awareness in general: the perverse perpetuation of history’s uglier sentiments. Like a communicable infection, once we embrace “the grudge” — over-identifying with the victim or the victimizer —we’ve incorporated their attitudes into our own.

History isn’t static. We are its vectors.

To learn about the past is one thing. To invite the painful aspects of the past to dominate the present day is another. There is a world of difference between acknowledging a problem at the societal level as opposed to fanning the flames of hostility at a personal level — particularly when those sentiments may not have been motivators in the first place. In this instance, had the police officer “racially profiled” the professor by intentionally stopping in front of the professor’s house while on routine patrols — even while ignoring a number of non-black neighbors entering their own homes — Professor Gates Jr. would have due cause for alarm. But the facts as they have been portrayed simply don’t support this conclusion. If anyone or anything is to blame at all, it is a problem all too common in modern America: Neighborhoods so devoid of community that nobody knows any better, and the most basic of social connections are unduly neglected.

Victim status does nothing to change the past, but it may skew our individual trajectories in life. And while victimization may not begin with a choice, it dies or lives to see another day for highly personal reasons. Victimhood is a form of self-fulfilling prophecy about our lives, relationships, ethnicity or potential as it relates to a recollection or dominating influence. That doesn’t mean powerful influences and limitations don’t exist, or that racism, in this instance, is a thing of the past. Yet when someone as esteemed and educated as Professor Gates Jr. points a finger, everyone sits up and takes notice.

This is not his finest moment.

The professor’s job is to convey history — not to repeat it. Like an actor who has over-identified with his character, it would appear that Professor Gates Jr. is in need of detox. The antidote to victimization is not more talk of victimization, but forgiveness. We forgive not so that we can forget, but so that we may reclaim authority and ownership in our lives. To the extent we call upon the past to explain the present, we are beholden to the act of looking over our shoulders — the somebody-or-something-is-out-to-get-me mentality.

That’s no way to live life. Or in Professor Gates Jr.’s case — no way to teach us to lead ours.

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Resources:

Juan Williams on African American Victimhood | NPR

Social Isolation Growing in US, Study Says | The Washington Post