The New York Times published an A1 story today about the struggles of farm workers of color in the U.S. But rather than explore the ways that our agricultural and immigration laws have degraded the quality of work and systematically pushed workers of color into the margins, Ethan Bronner strings together quotes that largely regurgitate racist tropes about lazy black workers and “efficient” Latinos. What could have been a story about labor conditions and very real problems of exploitation ended up a mess of racial stereotypes that pit black and Latino workers against each other and makes black folks out to hate immigrants.
The story is ostensibly about a set of lawsuits in Georgia and elsewhere in which U.S. citizens, some black, are suing farms for not hiring them. Some of the plaintiffs say they weren’t hired because of their race or nationality, that the farms only hire Latinos.
But here’s a few passages from the story about workers at a Georgia farm called Southern Valley:
Even many of the Americans who feel mistreated acknowledge that the Mexicans who arrive on buses for a limited period are incredibly efficient, often working into the night seven days a week to increase their pay.
“We are not going to run all the time,” said Henry Rhymes, who was fired — unfairly, he says — from Southern Valley after a week on the job. “We are not Mexicans.”
Jon Schwalls, director of operations at Southern Valley, made a similar point.
“When Jose gets on the bus to come here from Mexico he is committed to the work,” he said. “It’s like going into the military. He leaves his family at home. The work is hard, but he’s ready. A domestic wants to know: What’s the pay? What are the conditions? In these communities, I am sorry to say, there are no fathers at home, no role models for hard work. They want rewards without input.”
After putting us through this litany of generalizations and racist undertones, Bronner writes, “Such generalizations lead lawyers — and residents — to say there are racist undertones to the farms’ policies.” Thanks.
Why not frame the story around what the story is about: the way that guest worker programs depress wages and public policies have systematically pushed black and Latino workers into the most vulnerable parts of the labor market? Why not write about the racist undertones in the policies—the one’s that lock guest workers into captive employment relationships that make it possible for employers to force folks to work seven days a week?
It’s not that Bronner doesn’t give these ideas some space, but to frame the story as it’s framed makes a problem of structural racism into another black-brown struggle. There is a story here about the impact of guest worker programs on wages for other low-income workers, including black folks, but it’s hard to find that story through the weeds.
For a more nuanced take on how black and Latino workers often struggle together at the botton of the labor market, read Brentin Mock’s 2010 story on workers in post-Katrina, post-BP spill New Orleans. Mock wrote about…
an ugly underbelly to the new economy that’s being built. It is one in which opportunity is ever-more concentrated in a few hands, and in which profiteering capitalists and scapegoating politicians are pitting struggling workers against one another in starkly racial terms.