Chicago, one of the most populous, politically important cities in the country, has watched its African American population steadily ebb over the last decade, to a point where low-income residents say they no longer recognize the city as a stronghold of working families.
First, there was the demolition of public housing and ongoing gentrification efforts—both of which pushed blacks to the suburbs. Now census figures show that the city’s black population has plummeted 17 percent since 2000. Community activists charge the Census Bureau with undercounting blacks by the thousands and say it is partly to blame for the fact that blacks in the Windy City now stand to lose political representation at the federal, state, and local levels.
Racial and Gender Justice
Walk into any fine-dining restaurant in an American urban center and you will observe: white workers serving and bartending; workers of color clearing tables, preparing food, and washing dishes.
Like the segregated buses of the Jim Crow South, the restaurant industry has reserved the best jobs in the front for whites, while workers of color are relegated to the back (unless they are bussing tables in the front). Both restaurant workers and employers admit that this stark divide along color lines is commonly accepted industry practice based on notions of skills, table manners, language ability, and appearance. Thanks to a legal framework that demands proof of discriminatory intent, this obvious form of segregation has existed mostly unchallenged until recently.
With over 10 million employees, the restaurant industry is the nation’s second largest private sector employer—just behind retail—and the largest part of the nation’s food system. The industry continues to grow rapidly, even as other sectors decline during the current economic crisis, and is considered a gateway of opportunity for immigrants and low-wage workers of color from all over the world. However, research shows that in the country’s largest urban areas, only about 20 percent of all restaurant industry jobs provide living wages and benefits. (There are some instances of waiters and bartenders at fine-dining places in urban centers earning between $50,000 and $150,000 annually.)
Mariano Lucas Domingo traveled north from his home in Guatemala in search of work to support his sick parent. He landed in Immokalee, Florida, the tomato capital of the United States, where he found work harvesting tomatoes. He expected to earn about $200 a week. Then Lucas met two brothers who offered him room and board at their family house, in exchange for a cut of his pay. This didn’t seem like a bad deal to Lucas who had no family or friends nearby, and also because the brothers offered to extend credit even when work was sparse.
Lucas spent the next two-and-a-half years living as a captive with other workers in a truck with no water or electricity.1 The workers were forced to relieve themselves in a corner of the truck and wash with a garden hose in the backyard. The brothers locked them in the truck every night, forced them to work even when they were sick or tired, and took away their paychecks. Lucas and his colleagues finally escaped from the truck one night by punching a hole through the roof.2 The two brothers were subsequently arrested and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
This story, unfortunately, is not unusual among the workers who produce our food. While Lucas’ experience of being enslaved is certainly a horrific extreme, the 20 million workers employed in the food system earn low wages, work in unsafe and unhealthy conditions, and are unable to collectively organize to demand rights at work. Half of all workers in the food system earned just $21,692 a year or $11.05 per hour in 2008.3 That is well below what a family needs to make in order to sustain two children, according to the Center for Women’s Welfare at the University of Washington.4 In a metropolitan area like San Francisco, a family needs to earn around $26.97 per hour just to meet basic needs. In Cleveland, that figure is $20.21 per hour and in Atlanta, it’s $18.37 per hour. Close to one quarter of all food system workers live at the federally defined poverty threshold—earning less than $21,200 for a family of four—as per data gathered in 2008.5
When the United States Census Bureau released its first 2010 census data for California in early March, the news that got immediate attention in the Bay Area was the steep drop in the number of African Americans in the city of Oakland in the last 10 years.
According to the data, Oakland’s African American population plummeted from 142,000 (38 percent) in 2000 to 109,000 (28 percent) in 2010. Even if you included all mixed-race (a new category this census) Oakland residents with some Black ancestry—something which often happens in real life—the number of African Americans in Oakland would only increase by 9,000, or two more percentage points.
Both of the Bay Area’s daily papers emphasized the de-African-Americanization of Oakland in their census coverage. The Oakland Tribune story was headlined, “Census: Blacks Leaving Urban Core For East Bay Suburbs,” while the San Francisco Chronicle led with “25% Drop In African American Population In Oakland.”
In February 4 this year, a long-dormant block on Oakland’s 14th Street came alive as throngs of people—newly-elected Mayor Jean Quan and City Councilmember Desley Brooks among them—flowed out the doors at the Joyce Gordon Gallery for the opening reception of “Aerosoul 2,” a Black History Month event honoring African American urban calligraphers and style writers (otherwise known as graffiti artists).
Down the street, another gallery owned by Gordon was showing blown glass art by Aziz Diagne and further down, the recently reopened Events Center was holding a live rehearsal by the youth group, Pop Lyfe.
At the same time, just over a mile away, members of Oakland’s international street dance phenomenon, Turf Feinz, were wowing astonished crowds with gravity-defying moves at the Oakland Museum. And in the Uptown district, a large crowd had gathered to view a 100x100 foot projection installation known as the Great Wall of Oakland. Just south of that, public art and music performances, gallery openings, and burlesque shows were engaging hundreds at Oakland’s monthly Art Murmur.
Scott Kurashige: We’re going to start with our panelists giving us their sense of how they see the world today and the core concepts we need—to make sense of the challenges we confront.
Grace Lee Boggs: I had the great privilege of coming to Detroit in 1953. And I have lived through Detroit becoming the national and international symbol of the miracles of industrialization, to becoming a national and international symbol of the devastation of industrialization.Today, you see here a symbol of a new kind of society. A society where the gulf between the industrial and the [agrarian] epoch are being resolved. Not because anyone thought it would be desirable, but because living at the expense of the earth, living at the expense of other people, has brought us to the edge of disaster. And it’s that time on the clock of the universe where we face an evolution to a higher humanity, or the devastation and extinction of all life on earth.
A United Methodist pastor and civil rights leader, James Lawson was a counterpart of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He helped coordinate the Freedom Rides in 1961 and the Meredith March in 1966, and as pastor of Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis, Tenn., played a major role in the sanitation workers’ strike of 1968. As a young college student, Lawson was exposed to Gandhi’s teachings on nonviolence through his association with the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), America’s oldest pacifist organization. Now retired, he continues to teach nonviolence and fight for the rights of the oppressed.
Andrew Stelzer: I think a lot of people would say that since the 1960s, or perhaps the early 1970s, we haven’t really seen a massive effective mobilization that worked on any issue. Do you think that’s true?
Lawson: Yes. The peace movement has failed. I would say that mobilizations at the Democratic or Republican conventions (in which I have participated) in Seattle, and some of the anti-Iraq War mobilizations have failed. What is needed is a protracted struggle—organizing around non-violent assessment and focusing on a target—with maybe a decade or two of intense activity that does not depend upon Congressional legislation, but rather forces upon a city or nation the agenda of justice and truth.