By Joel D. Eis
(Editor’s note: The following is the first in a series on talking points to strengthen the information base of those who seek to make others more aware and to be used to expose the undependable nature of ideas from the right. These are good, informative ideas to move fence-sitters.)
Back in the 19th century when factories sprung up in the South around the time of the Civil War, poor Whites worked 12-hour days—alongside their children—for pennies a day. A few times a year, the factory owner showed up from New York or Atlanta, stood around with “the boys” (grown men), and passed around a jug of cheap whiskey. He thanked them for all their hard work for which he paid them pennies, and from which he made millions.
At some point in the middle of this loud-talkin,’ back slappin’ session, he said to them, “Don’t be complainin’ ’bout the wages and the work, boys. At least you got a job, and you ain’t n—s!” Then everybody laughed, and the Big Man passed out an extra dollar to each of them. They went back to work. The factory owner got back on his horse and laughed at them all the way to the bank.
That was the beginning of the imagined unity between White bosses and White wage slaves. After the Civil War, Black people were freed and available to work in the factories. The bosses hired them for half of what the Whites were making. The workers blamed the Blacks for “taking their jobs” instead of the factory bosses who gave them away.
This misplaced hostility strengthened the idea of “Whites against Blacks,” instead of workers of all colors against the owners. The obvious real solution was a union and demanding fair and equal wages for everyone. It still is, and that is why the issue of a fair national living wage is the cornerstone of a real new deal.
Sadly, no one since then has taken the time consistently to make all aware of this fact-based history, certainly not the history teachers in public schools in the South or anywhere else. So we are saddled with this imagined skin-deep alliance, the myth—the fantasy—of “White culture” as a euphemism for nothing at all except fear.
What is this “White culture?
I have no idea and neither do they.
White society is totally fragmented in itself. The Germans dislike the French, the English dislike the Germans and the French, the Italians dislike the English, the Serbs hate Croatians, the Irish hate the English and each of these countries is subdivided into regions that dislike each other. In America, Northerners dislike Southerners, Southerners hate Californians, Bostonians look down their noises at all of us and New Yorkers—well, forget about it.
No person of greatness who is White—any scientist, writer, politician or artist—has ever attributed that greatness to her/his “Whiteness” or “White heritage.” In fact, all of them are quick to point out the eclectic sources of their achievements.
If there is anything that “White culture” (Western European society) has contributed to the world, it is the scientific method. And this has been fought by those who believe in “faith-based learning,” which is to say, no learning of anything concrete at all. Most White culture advocates are opposed to science, adhere to creationism and don’t believe in global warming. So they disavow the single most identifiable contribution to world culture from “White culture.”
With that kind of “click-your-heels, cross-your-fingers-spin-around” mentality, what kind of leaders do we expect them to generate?
This is not to say that pride in accomplishment should not be celebrated, However, truth to tell, a large portion of the emphasis on the ethnicity of accomplished individuals in the last hundred years has arisen to counteract racism. Pointing out that a scientist is Afro-American or that a pole vaulter is of Chinese heritage or that an astronaut is a woman serves to say, “see we can do these things too.” The scientific, or sports, accomplishment is essentially a human accomplishment and that is all. That should be enough.
If you try any of this on someone who is wavering in the decision to vote progressive, or anyone at all, anywhere you hang out, be standing close to the door because nothing scares them more than the truth.
Joel D. Eis, MFA, is a retired university professor and author of four books on theater and politics. He has been an organizer for progressive causes for more than 50 years. He is a graduate of McLane High and attended Fresno State during the Vietnam War. He was a member of El Teatro Campesino and the Draft Resistance.