I had a hard time getting to sleep and I ended up watching TV for a bit. I stumbled on an episode of Charlie Rose on WXXI re-run from December 1, 2005: an interview with John Hope Franklin shortly after he published his book, Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin. I caught bits-and-pieces as I went in-and-out of feverish sleep.
I did catch a discussion on slavery, though. Franklin's view is that for America to really get over slavery, we need to acknowledge that it was a pivotal part of building America. He also made an argument for reparations in an intelligent manner. I don't remember it completely clearly, but he said that it wasn't as simple as white people writing checks to blacks. I gathered that his intention was that it was not the monetary compensation that was important — for that alone is meaningless — but that it was the whole process of accepting that it happened, understanding that it was an important part of America's development, realizing the effects that have carried to today, and preparing to heal those wounds and close the gaps.
Here he was a man born 50 years after slavery was abolished and who has grown through the slow process of stamping out the flames of racism. As I drifted off, I recall him talking about how slavery is alive today. All those ideas seem to have stuck with me.
So I got to thinking about slavery: what is it?
Well it's white slave masters with whips in the South beating blacks to pick cotton while they got rich. Something like that, right? I imagine that on average slaves were treated like work animals: they were given minimal-but-adequate food, shelter, water, clothing, and health care, they were forced to work, and they were not allowed to leave of their own volition.
So then I connected that with minimum wage. Consider a married person with 2 kids working 40 hours at New York's current minimum wage of $7.15/hour. Working a full 52 weeks nets you $14,872 a year and at the end of the year, you pretty much pay no income tax. Let's round that off to $1,250/month. You'll need a place to stay, so that's like $700/month, then gas and electric will cost another $250 or so. Groceries for a family with 2 kids you might be able to sneak for $200/month if you're frugal. So that's $1,150/month in basic expenses leaving $100 for "incidentals" like health care, clothing, and, oh yeah: transportation.
Let's say you manage to enroll in night classes for a better-paying job (which is the only "acceptable" way of bettering yourself — unlike a well-paid person who is free to take classes in scrapbooking, for instance, without nearly as much sneering and harumphing: a clear double-standard if you ask me). But then the car breaks down … *whip crack* … or your kid needs a tooth pulled … *whip crack* … or you fall ill … *whip crack*.
Just making it through one year without some "mishap" qua "financial disaster" happening is a lucky year indeed. Add to that that you need to be infallible — for human error is not an acceptable portion of the equation. (But remember also that by the luck of the draw, you're probably somewhere around average intelligence and average skill, not superhuman.)
Oh, you say, but there's a safety net of welfare. Yes, a safety net indeed — wherein you accept your minimal-but-adequate food, shelter, water, clothing, and health care, on the condition that you follow the rules and take any job you're accepted for. Given your skills, the best you can hope for is another minimum-wage job. By the way, good luck paying off that debt you now have too.
But there are people who have escaped the cycle, so it must be possible. Possible, yes, but likely no. It requires determination, skill, and luck to all come into confluence. Without all three, the cycle stays closed.
So in the end, I think that's maybe what we need to realize about America: that it took determination, skill, and luck to get to where we are today. Then perhaps we can admit that "minimum wage" approximates "slavery" well enough to call them equivalent. And then we can look at how America operates today and realize that our present view of "prosperity" is predicated upon owning slaves.
And then, maybe we can start to talk about ending slavery once and for all.
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