|Charlottesville's Robert E. Lee statue, erected in 1924 and removed in 2017|
This idea isn’t new to Charlottesville. I haven’t studied the history of racist rhetoric, though fear of getting displaced by numerically insurgent minorities has a past, being part of Hitler’s claims about Jews and Gypsies. The shooter at Emanuel AME church, whose name I’ve purposed to never repeat, justified his violence by telling friends “blacks were taking over the world.” Fear of imminent displacement seemingly infects racism altogether. I’d argue this fear isn’t without merit.
Marchers outed for racism have included, most prominently, a college undergraduate, facing probable graduation into a job market massively narrowed by automation, and a restaurant waiter, denizen of an industry that hasn’t seen its federal minimum wage adjusted since 1997. These are people on the front lines of the widening gulf between work and reward. Despite libertarian economic principles, hard work and diligence don’t raise most workers above their roots anymore. If they ever did.
In high school American history, I learned that Gilded Age American workers successfully organized, beat back corporate thugs, and pushed Teddy Roosevelt to bust trusts and break the industrial oligopoly. My textbooks conveniently omitted that industries answered this organization by moving work outside organized areas. Iconic industries like the Pennsylvania ironworks and Chicago stockyards, exist today only as museums. The work itself is massively decentralized, moved to “right-to-work states” like Oklahoma and Indianapolis, or overseas.
When I first voiced a less polished version of this idea, a friend countered by indicating that several Charlottesville protesters who’d been outed on Twitter weren’t laborers. Those identified—sometimes, tellingly, in error—included college professors, regional entrepreneurs, business owners, and more. These are skilled professionals, presumably with standing in the community, who contributed their faces to a mass march that has chilled the nation. Calling them laborers, my friend implied, is classist and uninformed.
But I’d contend even these skilled professionals have reason to fear being made obsolete. One person wrongly, let me repeat wrongly, accused of participating in the racist march, was an engineering professor specializing in researching wound treatments. As a former college instructor, I’ll defend the idea his position is vulnerable, as adjunct instructors and other part-time faculty are the numerical majority in many American colleges today. Our children’s teachers have to hustle for grocery money.
We could continue the reasoning this way: entrepreneurs, particularly brick-and-mortar business owners, are constantly jeopardized by advances in online marketing technology. Where once companies like Amazon once paid delivery drivers, they’re now researching drones and other human-free delivery to further trim costs. National retailers moving online shutter stores. People like Jeff Bezos call this friction-free marketing. But that friction is you. This philosophy sees human beings, not as drivers for the economy, but as impediments.
Neighborhood entrepreneurs take personal pride in hiring locally, and deserve recognition for that. But to national and multinational corporations, labor is a sunk cost wise investors avoid. If jobs can be seconded onto machines, they will be, especially since human labor is a tax liability, but machinery is a write-off. The marchers flashing Hitler salutes and brandishing torches insist Jews and minorities won’t replace them, but in many places, they’ve already been replaced by machines.
Even where work exists, it’s pretty sketchy. Anglo-American sociologist David Graeber notes that, as jobs which once produced valuable goods and services have been automated, the economy switches onto “bullshit jobs,” his technical term for busywork labor which contributes no value. The massive rise in supervisory positions means the economic pyramid has been heavily flattened. As nominal management jobs become commonplace, we see what happens whenever any formerly scarce resource becomes abundant: it becomes valueless.
The Charlottesville racists therefore have foundation for their complaints. Our economy has bifurcated into a powerful management class and grunt labor, with little chance to move between. Yet when faced with a rich, mostly white management class systematically replacing them, they turn their outrage onto politically powerless minorities. I understand their outrage; I share some of it. But in targeting minorities, they’re doing management’s work for them. They’re hugging the book that stomps them down.