Race, Gender, Justice

Moved to Blogger.


The third edition of the Radical Women of Color Carnival is now up, hosted at Blac(k)ademic.
This month’s theme is women of color and sexuality. Check it out!

I was recently asked for my model of an economy that would be “fair.” This doesn’t really address that question, but now that I’ve worked my way around this far I see I’m reinventing a number of wheels:

A very tiny minority of wealthy, mostly white people, through their multinational corporations, exploit the rest of the world’s population for their own benefit. Even in the United States the exploitation is ruthless and getting worse; outside the US and Europe it is far worse. Huge portions of the world’s population cannot afford a decent life, many more are barely getting by, and even the comfortable are always in danger of falling into bankruptcy. Factories close, jobs are lost or shipped to other countries, there is “no money” for public education or health care. Everyone can see that the ruling class has gathered to itself all the material wealth of the world and has more than it could ever use–certainly more than it deserves under any possible meritocratic standard–enough to feed, clothe and shelter the world. Why do we tolerate this vicious exploitation? Why aren’t the street filled with police keeping the poor from rising up against the rich?

One reason for the ease with which the goods of the world are kept from the people who produce them is the systematic exploitation of seemingly natural divisions–between races, between men and women, between us and them. The one division that white men have trouble seeing is the only one that really matters–the one between them and the wealthy elite with whom they identify. No apparent barrier exists between the white male worker and white male elite; anyone can be rich, anyone can be President. Meanwhile, the ruling class steals from the majority white male workforce but the usual suspects are blamed. Jobs aren’t lost to corporate greed, they are lost to affirmative action, or illegal immigrants. Public universities shrink as the population needing them grows, but my kid can’t get in to UCLA because of affirmative action. White male workers whose parents could support families on their hard-won union salaries wonder where the money has gone, but instead of seeing the vast wealth that has been sucked up into the upper 1% of the population they see the insignificant, token benefits flowing to the less fortunate. And why are they less fortunate anyway? Because they are different, less qualified, lazy, have too many kids, aren’t as smart, won’t learn English, aren’t Christian. Deprived of the support of the white masses, the revolution can’t (yet) get off the ground.

All it would take for a better, more just, more moral economy would be for the exploited 99% to unite against the thieving 1%. But that requires that ordinary white men recognize that they have more in common with Tibetan peasants and black single mothers than they have with George W and his handlers. In the conversation that prompted this post, someone compared feminism to unions as an idea that might have outlived its usefulness. Unions have declined because coordinated action by the workforce is so powerful that tremendous resources were directed at undermining it. Organized violence, legal restrictions, corruption, bad press, and most of all, manipulation of internal divisions along racial, gender and ethnic lines crippled unions. Unions or a 21st century equivalent may be our only hope of a world in which resources and opportunities flow to those who actually work for them. But to be effective, unions must actually unite all the groups now divided from each other. Feminism’s role in this is to study, publicize, explain and eliminate the oppression of women that also oppresses men. Denial of opportunity on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, sexual preference, etc. must all be addressed at the same time, and worldwide. Otherwise illusory gains will be made at the expense of other oppressed groups while the wealth continues to flow into the hands of those who have not earned it and do not need it.

Feminism has enabled people like me to be lawyers. In the big picture, these are not real gains. We are being bought off by the system because we have demonstrated enough ability to make trouble. Our existence and success (such as it is–we are carfully trained to conceal any problems we might be having in having it all) serves the exploitative economy by supporting the illusion of equal opportunity for all. Apart from that role, how people like me fare in the economy is pretty much irrelevant to the real structural change that is needed.

Everyone should read this post:
woman of color blog: Lynndie England and Feminist Movements

And another:

[My worthy opponents and countless others like them:] Your points have been answered over and over again: logically, personally, wittily, angrily, smugly, self-righteously, wrong-headedly–in every way possible. The best you have been able to come up with in response is that you don’t agree. You are wrong for the following reasons:

1. You say women can demand either equality or special treatment, but not both: The equality/special treatment contradiction rests on false–or, at least, patriarchal–premises. It invariably assumes that situations–jobs, public bathrooms, whatever–designed to accommodate the needs of males are gender-neutral. Any female needs not shared by men are then regarded as failings, downward departures from the norm, and any modifications to the model that need to be made to fit these needs are then seen as special treatment. Hence the bathroom problem. If we are going to provide public bathrooms in concert halls (this is where the problem is most acute) they should be designed to enable human concert-goers to make use of them during one regular-length intermission and still buy overpriced drinks. Over half the concert-going human population menstruates and sits down to pee–bathroom facilities and intermission lengths that take account of this fact are not providing special treatment; bathroom facilities and intermission lengths that don’t are favoring men over women.

2. More fundamentally, your arguments all assume that the basic unit of humanity is the individual, and that male/female is a valid and useful way to sort those individuals in all circumstances. You can thus look at the world as including one group: males, and another group: females, and that it makes sense to compare these groups to each other and generalize about them as if they were real competing entities in the world rather than abstractions from the more general category human. But single humans, or uni-sex populations of humans, are not found in nature. The basic unit of human population is probably more like the extended family or clan, and even that unit cannot survive without at least one other family or clan to relate to.

It does not matter whether each of us thinks he or she is an autonomous individual surviving on his or her own brains, effort and good looks. That attitude is only possible within a modern culture including modern economic institutions and the beliefs (like the belief in the autonomous individual) that support them.

3. Because you regard the basic unit of humanity to be the person, and the division between male person and female person to be a rational way to sort humans, you believe it is valid and useful to compare the abilities of men to those of women. Viewed from a Darwinian perspective that comparison would favor women every time–women can survive without men a lot better than men can survive without women–except for the fact that men tend to be bigger, stronger and more aggressive. These qualities, however, are primarily useful in fighting off other men, so if they didn’t exist they wouldn’t be necessary. But if you assume the requirements of the modern workplace and ask whether the male or the female is better at meeting those requirements the answer might be that the male is more useful in that context. Which would be no surprise, because the modern workplace was designed by men to exploit the energies of men.

4. You regard feminism as a program for improving the lot of women, and to a great extent it is. But you have again and again brushed off any suggestion that the feminist program must succeed in order to end oppression for any disfavored group. As long as women can be paid less just because they are women (whether through arbitrary discrimination or “rational” discrimination based on women’s “special” needs) men will also be paid less because the lower wages for women drive the whole “market” down. This is also true when some workers can be labeled “illegal” and, on that basis, paid less and treated badly. Or when workers in some locations are labeled “foreign” and made to work for pennies a day.

5. Most of the gains made by the feminist movement, as well as most of the gains made by other civil rights movements, have benefitted a relatively privileged portion of the affected population. “Equal” opportunity has enable some hard-working, talented, lucky individual black people and women (like me) to join the ranks of highly-paid white men (not, mind you, the ranks of wealthy global capitalists but their pampered servants). People can point to us and say Look, discrimination has ended, anyone can go as far as his or her diligence and merit will carry them. Because a relative few of us exist, millions of others can be blamed (and can blame themselves) for their own failure to advance, and we can be (I was for a long time) blinded to the randomness of it all. It would actually be better for the rest of the downtrodden population if no one could rise above his or her origins so that talented, energetic and lucky people identified with the less fortunate folks around them, perceived the expoitative discrimination holding everyone back, and opposed the system rather than allowing themselves to be bought off by it.

Another effort in a conversation that won’t go away:

Homo sapiens is a species of mammal. Its only “purpose” is to perpetuate itself. Enough babies must be generated, borne, fed, sheltered and kept alive long enough to reproduce. All other human activities are gravy. Interesting gravy, gravy that we should all have an equal opportunity to slurp up, but still just gravy. Any institution premised on the notion that the humans involved will not or should not reproduce is short-sighted, wrong-headed and immoral. An economy in which an ordinary person cannot afford to have a baby is immoral.

If it were in any meaningful sense true that childbirth worldwide was a decision rather than an overdetermined, socially coerced condition, overpopulation would not be a problem.

Maternity leave at work is a difficult issue to conceptualize because of the oddly narrow and resolutely private and property-centered way we look at the economy. An employer who deprives society at large of the benefit of one of its members (the worker) for most of his or her waking hours imposes on society a cost of that worker’s labor. It is pretty basic economics that an actor should bear all the costs of its activity so its cost/benefit analyses will come out right. If the employer pays only for the private benefit it reaps from the worker, not for the benefit it reaps from society for producing and supporting that worker, wages will be too low. The costs of monopolizing that worker’s time will fall on others and the wages paid won’t be enough to cover these costs. In part, costs are paid through taxes that could support education, health care, child care, but these services are woefully inadequate in the US and even worse in most of the world, and anyway corporations pay hardly any taxes. Instead, we expect families to provide all these services for employers and pretend they have no value. We ignore the domestic contribution to the worker’s job and/or declare it to be an internal matter of no concern to the employer, but that does not make these costs go away.

Paid maternity leave is made necessary by the general undercompensation of all workers. It is hard to articulate as a “right” for women, because what it really is is a very partial and inadequate payment on the general economy’s debt not only to domestic workers but to workers in general.

IMHO, of course.

A Forum I am on is chatting about whether feminism has outlived its usefulness and what we should think about women who give up careers to stay home with their kids. Some of my thoughts:

Many “career” jobs require two people to be done properly–one to concentrate on the job itself and one to provide for the needs of that worker. Take law. A law firm needs lawyers who are born, reared, educated, fed and clothed, and who receive enough emotional support at home to tolerate the mindlessness or stress of work. But the employer pays only for the lawyer’s work. Traditionally, the rest is handled by wives without compensation or even recognition that their labor is benefitting the husband’s firm. Career women seldom have wives or wife-equivalents (at my law firm, the two most “successful” women partners had unemployed stay-at-home husbands). Without a wife, it is extremely difficult to succeed in a professional career and impossible to do so and also maintain a full family life. Women who try to do both tend to fall behind their male colleagues–either they work for enlightened and benevolent firms who accommodate their needs with part-time arrangements or mommy tracks that slow their career progress or they work for inflexible employers and lose professional ground through their inability to travel at the drop of a hat, entertain in their own homes, devote long hours to rain-making community events and charities, etc.

If a career woman is married to a career man, his ability to perform and advance is also hindered by his lack of a traditional “wife”, but except in the most unusual case not as badly as hers. For one thing, even the most cooperative husband can’t give birth or nurse. For another, employers who are barely capable of understanding why a woman might have to take time from work for domestic tasks don’t tolerate a man having the same “problem” so more of the domestic duties fall to the career woman than the career man. She loses more ground and her career seems stalled and unsatisfying. She sees her family and career conflicting with each other and feels torn; he sees her job holding him back (relative to his colleagues with wives) and feels pissed. He can make more money than she can, enough to support them both. She takes a year off and never goes back. Her male collegues say she burnt out and tell each other privately that women aren’t cut out to be lawyers.

My point is that it takes the cooperation of two people to handle one family and one high-status job. It is insane to expect the same job to be done in the same way by one person without assistance. When women try to work these jobs without wives and don’t “succeed” to the same level as men, it is wrong to think there is something wrong with the woman. There is something wrong with the job.

I’m a feminist. But half the time when people ask if I am a feminist, I say “no, I’m a communist.” Sexism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, etc. are all ways of dividing people with a common interest in justice from each other. All of us are exploited to favor a minute wealthy white male sliver of the world’s population. In the US, the only oppressed group with the potential to overthrow this exploitative economic structure is white males–women will always devote a certain amount of time and attention to child-rearing and no other group is large enough. As the result of sexism, racism, etc., ordinary white American males identify with the corporate ruling class (which I’m sure the corporate ruling class regards as a huge joke). The white male masses still think they can be rich if they are smart enough and work hard enough, like those guys just like them at the top of the food chain.

The ratio of women’s wages to men’s in the US has risen, but I doubt that much of the change reflects progress. The majority of employers have ceased paying anybody enough to support a family on one income. Men will now work for less (in real dollars, much less) and because the adult women in their families are also expected to work so it is still possible to make ends meet. This is in part a response to the threat that jobs will move abroad where labor is cheaper. The oppressed group has simply changed.

Women are still horribly oppressed around the world and we do little about it because they are foreign. Some very important but invisible and (I would say) immoral line divides women and people we need to be concerned about from those who aren’t our problem. The we/they line, whether it is between genders, nationalities, religions, races or what have you, always serves to strengthen exploitation all round. All discrimination has to be addressed at once, and seen for what it is: discrimination in favor of a small privileged clique, or any improvement for one downtrodden group will always be at the expense of another.

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