The wages of discrimination

As income inequality now rivals that of the gilded age, scrounging for survival has become a mainstr

St Louis came to international attention because of the killing of Michael Brown, writes Kendzior [Getty]

In the United States, they say it is like the 1960s: Civil unrest at home, war abroad.

On September 10, protesters in St Louis, Missouri shut down a highway demanding justice for Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager from Ferguson shot dead by a white policeman. The same day, in New Jersey, students chained themselves together during an eight-hour protest over the corporate takeover of public schools. In Pennsylvania, workers at the fast food chain Chipotle quit en masse over “borderline sweatshop conditions”. As night fell, the nation watched US President Barack Obama announce that we are bombing Iraq again, in yet another chapter of a feckless, regenerative war.

They say it is like the 1960s, but that is nostalgia for nostalgia. Baby boomers romanticised those battles, but it is hard to imagine anyone romanticising this era, in part because the era feels like it has no end.

We woke up on September 11, 2001, in a war and a declining economy. We woke up on September 11, 2014, the same way. The only thing that changed is the scale. Thirteen years of waiting for the tide to turn, only to endure an erosion of opportunity – the economic collapse in 2008, the false “recovery” of the years to follow.

They say it is like the 1960s, but in the 1960s there were options. In 1968, the minimum wage hit its peakand unemployment was at a near all-time low. In the 1960s, middle-class youth dropped out of society because they knew they could drop back in. “Cut your hair and get a job” was something people would say, because there were actual jobs to which people could return.

Today’s youth have no such options. We have the institutional racism and civil unrest and foreign wars of the 1960s – along with a decimated middle class, record income inequality, a slashed safety net, and skyrocketing debt.

Today’s youth have no such options. We have the institutional racism and civil unrest and foreign wars of the 1960s – along with a decimated middle class, record income inequality, a slashed safety net, and skyrocketing debt.

For anyone who came of age after the millennium, war and economic decline are all we have known. Our country stagnates and generations stagnate with it.

They tell you it is cyclical. But that cycle is spin, spin, spin.

Unequal ‘recovery’ 

On March 18, 1968, Martin Luther King addressed striking workers in Memphis, Tennessee. He noted that the main economic problem facing black US citizens was not unemployment, but poorly paying jobs.

“You are reminding, not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages,” he said. “I need not remind you that this is the plight of our people all over America. The vast majority of Negroes in our country are still perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

Today, this ocean of material prosperity is but an oasis for the wealthy elite. Lack of economic opportunity permeates every stratum of US society but the very top. US workers, more educated than ever before, have seen their incomes plummet. While erosion of opportunity affects nearly all US citizens, it hits black and Hispanic workers hardest. The racial wealth gap has widened dramatically since the recession, leaving the average white family with a net worth six times higher than for black and Hispanic families.

Fifty years after the civil rights movement, minorities still work the worst paying jobs. With costly credentials a barrier to employment, workers who lack family wealth take whatever jobs they can find. Today 42 percent of minimum wage workers are people of colour, despite making up only 32 percent of the workforce. Most of new jobs created since the “recovery” have been in the service industries, which rarely pay much above minimum wage.

On September 4, 2014, I rode a bus with fast food workers from St Louis who were joining workers in Little Rock, Arkansas and Memphis in a demonstration for a $15/hour wage and a union. These were key cities of the civil rights movement: Little Rock, where black students fought for equal rights in education; Memphis, the city where King preached and marched and was killed.

These cities now house civil rights museums highlighting past achievements. You only need to drive back to St Louis to see how far this country has to go.

On the bus, I spoke with fast food workers of disparate ages, education levels, and experience. Some had college degrees, some were recent high school graduates, some had been in the industry for decades.

What they have in common: They are black workers from St Louis whose economic opportunity and civil rights are trampled in tandem.

International attention

Though St Louis came to international attention because of the killing of Michael Brown, black St Louisans have been protesting all year long. In April, they protested against the failing schools in majority black areas. Throughout the spring and summer, they protested against low wages in the service industries that comprise 90 percent of jobs created since the recession.

Ferguson is the latest battle of a long, hard fight. Kode, a college freshman rapper and McDonald’s employee, was one of many workers who told me he supported the Ferguson protests.

“It’s connected,” he said. “In Ferguson, they’re fighting for justice. Here, we’re fighting for wages. But it’s about fairness, about being treated fairly… St Louis doesn’t care about black people. We need to focus on what’s happening to the whole community, not just individuals.”

Another worker, Andre, said he had joined the fast food strikes not only for himself but for his family. He has worked in fast food for over a decade: “I always planned on doing something else. But it’s easier to gravitate to fast food, it was always there. I found out there’s little way to move forward.”

His son, a recent high school graduate, works in fast food as well. For many workers, this is an intergenerational struggle, with fast food wages only the latest phase of discrimination.

As the bus rolled on, workers told me ideas they had to improve life for their communities in St Louis, ranging from police monitoring to afterschool programmes to voting initiatives to a massive overhaul of the city and county administrations. There was no consensus, other than on the severity of the situation, and frustration that issues of race and poverty – now subjects of international news – were still not sufficiently addressed by local officials.

‘Operation Blue C.R.U.S.H.’

In Memphis, the workers were greeted by police. A police van labelled “Operation Blue C.R.U.S.H.” awaited outside the golden arches of McDonald’s. Workers from St. Louis, Little Rock, and Memphis demonstrated together, chanting slogans and waving signs, demanding higher wages and a union. When they took the protest off the sidewalk and into the street, police descended quickly, making arrests.

On the pavement, a 70-year-old black woman applauded in support. She told me she had been attending protests in Memphis for 50 years, including those of Dr King. I asked how the fast food strikes compared, and she told me she was impressed: these were “serious business”.

I asked her how Memphis had changed. She looked at me and said: “Not enough.”

People have nostalgia for the 1960s because they associate it with the feeling that change was possible. But its most pernicious legacy is the delusion that justice was achieved – that these were battles to be memorialised instead of continually waged.

Fifty years ago, the civil rights movement transformed legal rights for minorities at the moment economic power for the average worker began to decline. Overt racism became less acceptable while structural barriers for minorities hardened.

As income inequality now rivals that of the gilded age, scrounging for survival has become a mainstream way of life. The safety net was replaced with the trap door of debt and threat.

You may look at Ferguson, at fast food strikes, at racism, at poverty, and think these are not your battles. But these are, and have always been, this country’s battles. What we see today is the detritus of civic responsibility abandoned. Choose your battles, lose the war.

Sarah Kendzior is a St Louis-based writer who studies politics and media.