Colin Kaepernick is right

Colin Kaepernick is right.[1]

It would be one thing if the U.S. had ever given up its slavery habit and if reparations had been made.[2] Then we might look upon the association between the Betsy Ross flag and slavery[3] as quaint. But it hasn’t.

Most obviously, there is the prison-industrial complex, part of a racist and classist criminal injustice system,[4] that exploits an epidemic of incarceration[5] in myriad ways including paying prisoners pennies an hour, if at all, for their labor, extracting ridiculous profits,[6] all as part of a stigmatization of the poor that diverts attention from the crimes of the rich.[7]

But the attitude pervades outside prison walls. Neoliberalism particularizes and essentializes human beings as economic units or production, compelling them to compete globally on terms they have little or no control over, such as the cost of living, labor regulations, environmental regulations, and taxation. This competition impels a “race to the bottom” in wages and working conditions as well as supporting an ideological argument for lower taxes and less regulation.

I am not Black. I am a highly educated[8] white male, alleged to be “privileged,” but unable to find gainful employment.[9] I drive for Lyft because it is the only job I can find. (I used to drive for Uber but they got weird about payment arrangements that had worked months and years.)

Tomorrow is July 4th, “Independence Day” in the U.S. I am not a “slave,” at least as usually defined, but I am hardly “independent.” Tomorrow is supposed to be a holiday but I’ll be working, not under a physical lash, but rather under the figurative lash of a cost of living I still can’t afford, even having moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I can’t afford to take days off. Just as a physical lash wounds a back, the figurative lash is death by a thousand cuts: The bills keep rolling in and I don’t dare fall behind as some employers run credit checks—falling behind constrains my “opportunities” even further.

The U.S. is one of only 29 countries to have failed to ratify[10] the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.[11] Article 7 states:

The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of just and favourable conditions of work which ensure, in particular:

(a) Remuneration which provides all workers, as a minimum, with:

(i) Fair wages and equal remuneration for work of equal value without distinction of any kind, in particular women being guaranteed conditions of work not inferior to those enjoyed by men, with equal pay for equal work;

(ii) A decent living for themselves and their families in accordance with the provisions of the present Covenant;

(b) Safe and healthy working conditions;

(c) Equal opportunity for everyone to be promoted in his employment to an appropriate higher level, subject to no considerations other than those of seniority and competence;

(d ) Rest, leisure and reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay, as well as remuneration for public holidays[12]

The U.S. signed but has, since long before the adoption of neoliberal ideology as a bipartisan Washington consensus,[13] declined to ratify this treaty.[14] It certainly won’t now.

Count capitalist “innovation” and “freedom” among the components of that figurative lash across my back.  But more fundamentally, the operative motivation is the same: Slaveholders wanted cheap, or free, labor. Lyft, like Uber, relies on cheap labor that it would like to replace with free labor: self-driving cars.[15] This is the neoliberal way.

Thanks to my mother’s support, I live in a much nicer apartment than the old slave quarters on display that I could visit (I’m not very far from the Mason-Dixon line here at all) if I could take some time off. And I can (barely) take the time to write this post. My voice, while barely audible in an online crowd, is not particularly suppressed. I am not a slave.

But I’m enslaved by the same motivations as those of slaveholders. The U.S. hasn’t gotten over that mentality and, despite talk of a “Green New Deal” on the Left, shows absolutely no inclination to do so.

So yes, Kaepernick is right. And not just for the historical reasons he cites.[16]

  1. [1]Eli Rosenberg and Michael Brice-Saddler, “A GOP governor wants to cancel a Nike contract after flag-shoe flap, but the city it’s headed for isn’t backing down,” Washington Post, July 3, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/07/03/gop-governor-wants-cancel-nike-contract-city-its-headed-isnt-backing-down/
  2. [2]Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” Atlantic, June 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/; see also David Benfell, “The trouble with reparations isn’t what you think it is,” Not Housebroken, June 11, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/06/11/the-trouble-with-reparations-isnt-what-you-think-it-is/
  3. [3]Eli Rosenberg and Michael Brice-Saddler, “A GOP governor wants to cancel a Nike contract after flag-shoe flap, but the city it’s headed for isn’t backing down,” Washington Post, July 3, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/07/03/gop-governor-wants-cancel-nike-contract-city-its-headed-isnt-backing-down/
  4. [4]Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).
  5. [5]Ernest Drucker, A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America (New York: New Press, 2011).
  6. [6]Empty Cages Collective, “What is the Prison Industrial Complex?” n.d. http://www.prisonabolition.org/what-is-the-prison-industrial-complex/; Daniel Moritz-Rabson, “‘Prison Slavery’: Inmates are paid cents while manufacturing products sold to government,” Newsweek, August 28, 2018, https://www.newsweek.com/prison-slavery-who-benefits-cheap-inmate-labor-1093729
  7. [7]Herbert J. Gans, The War Against The Poor: The Underclass And Antipoverty Policy (New York: Basic, 1995); Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).
  8. [8]David Benfell, “The mother of the social sciences,” Not Housebroken, n.d., https://disunitedstates.org/the-mother-of-the-social-sciences/
  9. [9]David Benfell, “About my job hunt,” Not Housebroken, n.d., https://disunitedstates.org/about-my-job-hunt/
  10. [10]See underlying data (an Excel spreadsheet) for the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights at Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, “Status of Ratification,” May 23, 2019, http://indicators.ohchr.org/
  11. [11]International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, December 16, 1966, United Nations, General Assembly resolution 2200A (XXI), https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/cescr.aspx
  12. [12]International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, December 16, 1966, United Nations, General Assembly resolution 2200A (XXI), https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/cescr.aspx
  13. [13]Melvyn P. Leffler, “The Free Market Did Not Bring Down the Berlin Wall,” Foreign Policy, November 7, 2014, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/11/07/berlin_wall_fall_25_anniversary_reagan_bush_germany_merkel_cold_war_free_market_capitalism
  14. [14]See underlying data (an Excel spreadsheet) for the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights at Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, “Status of Ratification,” May 23, 2019, http://indicators.ohchr.org/
  15. [15]Coverage has focused on Uber, but there is Lyft faces many of the same challenges: Eliot Brown, “Uber Wants to Be the Uber of Everything—But Can It Make a Profit?” Wall Street Journal, May 4, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/uber-wants-to-be-the-uber-of-everything-11556909866; Ryan Felton, “Uber Is Doomed,” Jalopnik, February 24, 2017, https://jalopnik.com/uber-is-doomed-1792634203; Christopher Mims, “In a Tight Labor Market, Gig Workers Get Harder to Please,” Wall Street Journal, May 4, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/in-a-tight-labor-market-gig-workers-get-harder-to-please-11556942404; Christopher Mims, “Self-Driving Cars Have a Problem: Safer Human-Driven Ones,” Wall Street Journal, June 15, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/self-driving-cars-have-a-problem-safer-human-driven-ones-11560571203; Farhad Manjoo, “The Uber I.P.O. Is a Moral Stain on Silicon Valley,” New York Times, May 1, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/01/opinion/uber-ipo.html; Julia Carrie Wong, “Disgruntled drivers and ‘cultural challenges’: Uber admits to its biggest risk factors,” Guardian, April 12, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/apr/11/uber-ipo-risk-factors
  16. [16]Eli Rosenberg and Michael Brice-Saddler, “A GOP governor wants to cancel a Nike contract after flag-shoe flap, but the city it’s headed for isn’t backing down,” Washington Post, July 3, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/07/03/gop-governor-wants-cancel-nike-contract-city-its-headed-isnt-backing-down/

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