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Member since: Sun Jul 4, 2004, 02:07 PM
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Striking Down the Nostalgia for Mammy: Black Women and Labor Activism


Published in 1936, Gone with the Wind represents a particular moment in the history of domestic work. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many European women—Irish, German, and Scandinavian—worked as domestics, especially in the North and Midwest. With the curtailment of European immigration in the 1920s, African American women, who had long served as the primary domestic worker labor force in the South, came to dominate the occupation in the North as well. This context of African American women becoming synonymous with domestic work enabled the warm reception of the representation of Mammy in Gone with the Wind.

Although the popular stereotype of Mammy was powerfully resonant for many white Americans, the history of African American domestic workers tells a different story. Two years before Mitchell’s book was published, household workers in New York City had formed the Domestic Workers Union—with an estimated one thousand members—to challenge the ongoing exploitation and mistreatment of household workers in the context of the Great Depression. Led by Dora Jones, who lived in Sunnyside Queens, they established a hiring hall, insisted on minimum wages and a contract signed by employers, and fought for state-based labor protections. The DWU eventually affiliated as a local of the Building Services Employees International Union. And it was not the only organization of household workers. Similar groups emerged in other parts of the country. Domestic workers, it seems, were far from passive or content.

Examining the character of Mammy in light of the organizing and resistance by African American women, who were challenging the racialized nature of the occupation, illuminates how this novel entered into a contentious and highly-charged debate about the labor of black women. Black women activists were trying to break free of the history of slavery and servitude and end the rampant labor exploitation that characterized the occupation. Indeed, the New Deal offered some hope for a new racial order. In Gone with the Wind, however, Mitchell landed firmly on the side of seeing African American women as the servants of white women. It was no accident that Scarlett’s struggle for survival was aided and supported by the black women around her.

Gone with the Wind is still a favorite among American audiences. What’s to account, then, for the novel’s ongoing popularity even though African American women are no longer the primary household worker labor force? The themes of feminist success and racial subordination seem timeless and continue to play out in multiple ways. In contemporary political debates, the context is the corporate boardroom and (white) women’s struggle for voice, autonomy, and leadership. Female corporate leaders encounter sexual objectification, the work-family balance, and dismissive attitudes in high-powered meetings. Their success has become, for some people, representative of the feminist struggle. They are quintessentially women, mothers, and professionals. Missing in their stories of success (and this goes for corporate male leaders as well) is the staff of workers who help raise the children, clean the house, and tend to the lawn. In fact, most professionals depend on a supporting cast of low-wage service workers to carry out much of the day-to-day drudgery that enable them to be the best that they can be. Success and subordination, the central themes of Gone with the Wind, are still very much with us today.

Labor Day, the labor movement, and black Americans


Many working people across the United States are enjoying a three-day weekend thanks to Labor Day. But sadly, it has become more of a retail holiday and a marker for the end of summer than a celebration of workers and organized labor. Even those who do honor workers and unions rarely explore the historical links between the Pullman Strike of 1894 and the black Pullman porters who could not strike—because they weren't allowed in a whites-only union.

In an op-ed for The Grio, Theodore R. Johnson wrote about how Labor Day was born:

Labor Day was nationally established after the Pullman Strike of 1894 when President Grover Cleveland sought to win political points by honoring dissatisfied railroad workers. This strike did not include porters or conductors on trains, but for the black porters, racism fueled part of the workers’ dissatisfaction, and was never addressed. Pullman porters were black men who worked in the trains’ cars attending to their mostly white passengers, performing such tasks as shining shoes, carrying bags, and janitorial services. During this period, this profession was the largest employer of blacks in the nation and constituted a significant portion of the Pullman company’s workforce, yet blacks were not allowed to join the railroad worker’s union.

Being excluded from the right to even fight for fair work and wages, the Pullman porters formed their own union called the Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters, the first black union, and A. Philip Randolph was its first president. That name should sound familiar: the first planned March on Washington was Randolph’s brainchild. Set to take place in the 1940s, this demonstration was called off weeks before its kick-off date because President Roosevelt met with Randolph and other civil rights leaders in 1941, and signed an order barring racial discrimination in the federal defense industry. Roosevelt did so to stop the march from happening.

Demonizing the Poor


For years state lawmakers have piled on these sorts of rules, creating a great wave of prohibitions, with drug-based denials of aid the most popular ban of choice. Things have gotten so bad that in May the Huffington Post ran an article titled “Wisconsin GOP Advances Bills Controlling How People on Welfare Eat and Pee.” When The Onion lampooned the new rules with an August article titled “New Law Requires Welfare Recipients To Submit Sweat To Prove How Hard They’re Looking For Job,” the line between satire and news had never seemed thinner.

Lobster dinners and drug binges. Casino romps followed by a morning at the spa. Perhaps an ocean cruise and then a quick stop at the fortuneteller before heading to the jewelry store. Can policymakers actually believe that welfare recipients squander their government benefits on such luxury items?

Perhaps. In the US, outrageous stories that demonize the poor and mythical tales of lavish state handouts to the undeserving are rarely in short supply. Even in the best of times the poor are denigrated in popular narratives, and during times of rising inequality and insecurity the poorest are easy scapegoats.

When economic anxieties spread, political entrepreneurs start peddling the same old stories and slanders, polishing them up as newly discovered social problems that demand get-tough solutions. Conjuring images of lavish and irresponsible lifestyles, critics in media and government deride the folly of public aid programs, ridiculing them as counterproductive and costly drains on the nation. Public officials are called upon to show they mean business, and many are eager to lead the legislative charge.

How the Federal Government Built White Suburbia (segregation)

I pasted a bit of it here. The underlying point is that segregation didn't just happen. Ghettos weren't an accident. Segregated neighborhoods were created intentionally, by both conservative and liberal white people of the time.


The Federal Government Built Exclusively White Neighborhoods

Federally funded public housing got its start in the New Deal. From the very beginning, public housing was segregated by race. Harold L. Ickes, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior and the most liberal member of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s brain trust, proposed the “neighborhood composition rule,” which said that segregated public housing would preserve the segregated character of neighborhoods. (This was the liberal position. Conservatives preferred to build no public housing for black people at all.)

After World War II, the Federal Housing Administration (a precursor to HUD) and the Veterans Administration hired builders to mass-produce American suburbs—from Levittown near New York to Daly City in the Bay Area—in order to ease the post-war housing shortage. Builders received federal loans on the explicit condition that homes would not be sold to black homebuyers.

The Housing Act of 1949, a tentpole of President Harry Truman’s Fair Deal, greatly expanded the reach of the public housing program, which was then producing the most popular form of housing (!) in the country. In an effort to kill the bill, conservatives tried to tack on a “poison pill” to the legislation: an amendment that would have required public housing to be integrated.

Napa wine train and spatial racism

I think the Napa train incident is an example of spatial racism. Many white people expect some places and experiences to be completely white. I think a $125 minimum wine train through Napa would be a place where white people might assume they'd only, or at least almost only, encounter other white people. Segregation doesn't just happen in housing, schools, and public space. There are ways, some subtle and some not subtle, to make private spaces more segregated as well. My opinion is that this was an attempt to make this private space more segregated.

There's another racist issue on top of this. I think that many white people become anxious around people of color who are displaying emotion. I need to think that part of it through. If anyone has any articles about that element of racism, I'd appreciate reading them.

Anyway, I'm going to put up a couple of articles about spatial racism. I'm not sure why, but I'm unable to copy and paste from the first article. The second article is from a Catholic perspective, so there is religious talk, but it's a very good article regardless.



White Americans tend not to be aware of the chasm of spatial racism that Cardinal Francis George addresses in Dwell in My Love. If they are aware of it, whites tend to view the chasm as natural and normal. The problem, of course, is that there is nothing natural and normal about white physical, social, and moral separation from people of color. The problem of this chasm is that it has been created by, and contributes to, the inability of whites to understand or feel compassion for people of color, much less practice the solidarity called for by the Church. This inability is termed “social alexithymia” by social scientists. This “white frame of mind” has difficulty understanding where people of color are coming from and what the racialized experiences of people of color are like. Most simply put, social alexithymia is the “significant lack of cross-racial empathy.”[34]

Lack of cross-racial empathy becomes apparent in the everyday assumptions by which whites live.[35] White “folk theory” or common sense knowledge takes things for granted as the way things are. Three key assumptions are held by white common sense thinking on race. First, white folk theory holds races to be biologically valid. This assumption persists, even though biological anthropologists and geneticists long ago demonstrated that there is only one race, the human race. An example of how this nonscientific, white common sense assumption persists is found in the argument that racial intermarriage will erase racial difference and conflict. In other words, the common sense assumption advances a genetic solution to a non-genetic, social construction.

This erroneous biological view also persists in the “one drop rule,” which held that any trace of African ancestry made a person African American. Whites enforced the “one drop rule” during the Jim Crow period between 1865 and 1965 to prevent interracial marriage and to segregate whites from blacks legally, politically, educationally, and culturally. This “one drop rule” assumption can be seen in the way that Barack Obama was described as the “only black in the U.S. Senate” and the “first African American” president even though he describes himself as the son a white, Kansas mother and a Kenyan father.

A second assumption of white folk theory holds that racism is entirely a matter of individual belief and that the ignorance of this individual view can be corrected by education. This view is commonly communicated in blog or newspaper opinion pieces that rightfully desire an end to racism and decry the use of racial epithets. While the anti-racist intention is good, the commonly proposed solution of educating individuals who are ignorant is completely inadequate to the task of addressing the institutional and systemic racist practices. Moreover, this individualist assumption fails to attend to the way that U.S. culture cultivates white folk theory of race.

The best map ever made of America's racial segregation


A few cities:

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