Covid, Race, and the Revolution

Is the nation retreating already?, empowering workers to say no, the lifesaving potential of community engagement, and more, in this week’s Covid, Race, and the Revolution

Issue No 55. June 9, 2021

Is the Nation Retreating Already?

By Angela Glover Blackwell

Just a year ago, people across the country were applauding health-care workers nightly and expressing deep gratitude for the essential workers who were delivering groceries and meals, stocking pharmacy shelves, and doing all kinds of things that enabled millions of us to stay home and stay safe.

Even before the murder of George Floyd came crashing into everyone's homes, more people were recognizing and beginning to accept that our country had to seriously address the marginalization of people of color, particularly Black and Latinx people. There was growing understanding that the illness, death, and economic hardship disproportionately striking people of color reflected centuries of unaddressed racism. The Floyd murder and the Black Lives Matter protests that spread across the world added to the emerging consensus that our society had to finally change. Celebrating low-income workers of color seemed a good place to start. 

But now the governors of 25 states have decided not to accept expanded unemployment benefits anymore because they think people aren't going back to work because of an extra $300 a week. The idea is to inflict pain and make people take jobs no matter how poorly they pay or treat workers. 

Will the American people, who applauded and relied upon frontline and essential workers, stand by and let that happen?

I spoke with Jessica Gordon-Nembhard, professor of community justice and social economic development in the Department of Africana Studies at John Jay College in New York, about the myth of the labor shortage and what it will take to create the kind of jobs people need.

Angela Glover Blackwell: What's your reaction to what’s happening?

Jessica Gordon-Nembhard: I think your framing is absolutely right. We're very forgetful of all the things that people do and all the sacrifices labor makes. We live in a country that not only undervalues but demonizes labor and yet relies on it.

This is a leftover from enslavement. The nation totally relied on slave labor but totally demonized the people who were doing the work. 

It's so frustrating, because it seems like we're always fighting this battle of how to make sure we recognize and appreciate both visible and invisible labor that the most marginalized people do. In a crisis, we start to be a little bit human and actually see low-wage workers and think about their plight a little bit. But the minute our leaders think we are out of the crisis, they go back to forgetting about them and their struggles. 

When I hear the conservatives saying people don't want to go back to work, because of the “benefits,” I conclude that they're just being selfish and short-sighted.

AGB: There are so many assumptions baked into what these governors and some employers are saying about the reason for the labor shortage. Some of what I'm reading suggests it's too early to even call it that.

JGN: There's not a labor shortage — what we have is a shortage of appropriate and decent jobs.

It's not that we don't have people who can, should, would do the work. We don't have the right jobs for people, given their needs. There is another more complicated issue. High unemployment is usually a way to control labor. When there is a lot of unemployment, people need to take any job, so owners like unemployment because they can offer bad jobs and people will take them. 

Labor shortages should be more favorable to labor because owners are desperate for people to hire and have to offer better jobs or at least better pay. In this case, however, there are too many bad jobs and not enough supports for workers. Workers understand that the jobs are bad and won't take them — they can't take them because the necessary supports aren’t in place. Blaming that on the workers and on government subsidies, instead of on the work itself, is another way to try to control labor and maintain the balance of power. 

It’s morally wrong to judge people who say I can’t or won’t take that job because I don’t have childcare, it doesn't pay enough, I don't have health coverage, I can't put food on my table with that job, or the workplace is not safe. 

AGB: How has the pandemic exacerbated these issues?

JGN: Childcare problems are more acute because many schools are not operating full time and many childcare centers are closed. Transportation is less reliable because of cutbacks. Many workplaces are more dangerous. 

These issues have always been there, but have been ignored or invisible to so many people. They are now obvious. I hope and think that more people recognize this is not the time to be reasserting backward, very anti-labor actions and attitudes. Now is the time for us to coalesce and see ourselves as a humane society that treasures and cares about the people who do the work that has to be done. Now is a time for us to raise ourselves up and say, this is the kind of society we want to be: one that reveres and rewards the people who do the tough work to keep our society going.

AGB: Oh, thank you for that. You stepped right up to my next question. What should advocates say and push for to be in solidarity with workers?  

JGN: It starts with caring for our fellow human beings. I am a very strong advocate of worker ownership and particularly worker cooperatives, which are ways that employees can actually own and control their own companies and enterprises. There's a movement right now to help convert some, especially small businesses, to worker ownership in order to make them a bit more stable and flexible.

The data show that worker-owned companies treat their workers better, and that having ownership, plus more say in your work life and how you produce your products, makes people more productive and keeps them in their jobs longer.  Worker co-ops often are able to pay a living wage, and provide good benefits. 

We should also be looking at better public health systems and health insurance options, and ensure occupational safety. We got complacent, thinking we had safe workplaces under control, but clearly with Covid we see that we do not.

AGB: Darrick Hamilton and I have written about the need for a federal job guarantee. While it might seem counterintuitive to push for such a guarantee when there is talk of a labor shortage, the problem as you’ve described it cries out for a policy that would move the private sector to provide better employment opportunities. If the government provides jobs with benefits that pay livable wages, the private sector will have to do the same to compete. Is this the time for people to get behind the federal job guarantee?

JGN: I think it probably is. The public is already getting used to an FDR-kind of activist government that steps in when the economy, and especially capitalism, fails — to make sure that people survive.

For me, the other piece is the assumption that people are lazy and don't want to work. That assumption again makes invisible all the things we already do, like raising children and caring for family, the elderly, and community members. A job guarantee that compensates people for all that work — invisible as well as visible, and unpaid — will begin to change the way we think about work and its worth. 

But I really believe that we could go even further. A federal job guarantee ultimately helps to keep the current system afloat. I’d like our society to  transform ourselves to implement a more people-centered solidarity economy.

Angela Glover Blackwell is Founder in Residence at PolicyLink and host of the Radical Imagination podcast. You can read more about cooperative economics in Jessica Gordon-Nembhard’s book Collective Courage.

News, Analysis, and Commentary, Curated from Around the Web

Empowering workers to say no

Workers all along the wage scale are gaining leverage over employers for the first time in a generation, the New York Times reports. The tilt in power — and the growing ability of workers to command better pay and job conditions — marks “a bit of a historic moment for the American labor force,” the executive of a large recruiting company tells the paper. Will the moment last? It will take deep long-term change to undo the effects of decades of declining union power and employment restructuring that shifted work to contract and gig arrangements, elevating the fortunes of companies at the expense of those doing the work.

Workers should have the power to say no to a bad job, Annie Lowery argues in The Atlantic. That’s why it’s good to have decent unemployment benefits, which boost that power and provide outsized benefits to Black and Latinx workers, who have borne the brunt of the multiple crises of the past year. It’s not the government’s job to guarantee a stream of desperate low-wage workers for businesses.

Meanwhile, many are seeing their lives disrupted again as companies renege on work-from-home promises, University of Massachusetts researchers write in The Conversation. The researchers surveyed 3,000 people; nearly half said they had relocated or planned to on the assumption — or promise — they’d be able to continue to work remotely. Now many are being ordered back to the office.

The lifesaving potential of community engagement

San Francisco has had the lowest Covid-19 death rate of any major US city, thanks in part to strong local leadership and an engaged populace that took safety and the common good seriously. But a major factor in the city’s success is a grassroots effort that protected the Latinx community — and all San Franciscans. Mother Jones profiles Unidos en Salud (United in Health), a collaboration between UC San Francisco and the Latino Task Force, a network of trusted, deeply rooted community organizations. The campaign has provided crucial neighborhood services, including Covid testing and vaccination, and produced critical research — all of it designed and implemented in partnership with community members. “It’s a case study in what happens when you get community engagement right — and how powerful it can be in shielding not just a targeted population but an entire city from a deadly virus.”

Mississippi’s Black communities banded together and leveraged partnerships with churches and neighborhood organizations to narrow what had been huge racial gaps in Covid infections, deaths, and vaccination, Kaiser Health News reports. When vaccines first became available last winter, Black residents, who represent 38 percent of the population, received only about 15 percent of doses. Now they’re receiving 40 percent. The state is one of the few where the vaccination rates for Blacks and Whites are nearly on par. But the rate statewide remains the nation’s lowest, with 34 percent of Mississippians having received at least one shot, according to the New York Times.

While most states have been slow to vaccinate incarcerated people against Covid, some states, including California, Kansas, and North Dakota, are doing better at getting shots into arms in prisons than in the general population, the New York Times writes. What has worked? Health officials prioritized prison populations for vaccination, and incarcerated people held town halls with experts to dispel misinformation and mistrust. About 73 percent of incarcerated people in California and Kansas, and more than 80 percent in North Dakota, have received at least one vaccine dose. 

Contrast that with Wisconsin, where only 35 percent of the roughly 20,000 people in the state’s prisons have been fully vaccinated, though they have been eligible since March 1, In These Times reports

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is appealing to parents to get their children ages 12 and older vaccinated in light of data showing that Covid hospitalization rates among adolescents climbed in March and April, USA Today reports. Thirty percent of cases were serious enough to require intensive care. Overwhelmingly, the hospitalized patients were youth of color: 35 percent Black and 31 percent Latinx.   

Should remote learning continue?

Many parents were thrust overnight into the role of teachers when the pandemic forced learning to become remote. The challenges were compounded for immigrant mothers who do not speak English. The Lily reports on the struggles of women from Bangladesh, Ecuador, the Middle East, and Latin America, as they tried to support their children’s education while receiving little support or in-language resources themselves. Many found strength in mutual aid networks.

New York City, New Jersey, and other jurisdictions have announced plans to end remote learning in September. RiShawn Biddle writes in the New York Times that’s bad news for most of the Black, Latinx, and Asian students and parents who still prefer a virtual option. While online school has shortchanged many students — in no small part because of tech and broadband inequities — families are concerned about the risk of Covid exposure in the crowded classrooms. They also know it’s unlikely that aging, neglected school buildings in their neighborhoods will be safe and well ventilated. “Black and Brown families like mine hope conditions, both in schools and surrounding communities, improve by the start of the next school year. But we know all too well that things improve in America only after so many lives are lost from doing the wrong things.”

The lab leak theory fuels anti-Asian hate

Anti-Asian hate, stoked by the former president, has been a nightmare throughout the pandemic. Now hostility is escalating as a theory gains traction that the coronavirus may have been unleashed by an accidental laboratory leak in Wuhan, China, Leana Wen writes in the Washington Post. “Over the past two weeks I’ve experienced an uptick in racist hate mail, above the steady baseline levels I’ve received daily since last March. At the same time, I’ve received frantic messages from older Asian American people terrified by reports of other members of our community who have been beaten, set on fire, left for dead, or murdered.” Wen lays out how to investigate the theory without inflaming racist hate: follow scientific principles and the data, and remember that words matter. 

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We hope you find this series an important tool for keeping up with news about the virus and its impact on communities we serve. As a non-profit organization, PolicyLink is honored to provide resources to support the needs of our nation's 100 million economically insecure individuals. Generous partners like you make our work possible. 

Michael McAfee and Angela Glover Blackwell are grateful for the contributions of Fran Smith, Milly Hawk Daniel, Rachel Gichinga, Glenda Johnson, Jennifer Pinto, Heather Tamir, Ana Louie, Janet Dickerson, and Mark Jones to produce the COVID-19 & Race commentary.