|Unknown individuals wave the flags of Honduras and Mexico above the caravan|
“What else could I have done?” I heard myself screaming, desperate to be taken seriously. “What would you have done? I have to make a living!” I realized I was waving my hands in front of me, Bernie Sanders-like, scared and desperate. Because I knew I had been wrong, but I didn’t know what other choice I had.
I was talking with a friend, over Facebook remote video chat, about something that had happened at work the previous day. I had been one of four guys installing tornado-proof outdoor furniture at a bank branch in a central Nebraska town, a process that wasn’t difficult but was tedious and time-consuming. And as dudes will do when bored, we started chatting.
The topic turned to current events. I’ve learned not to broach politics at work unless someone else brings it up, and never to offer my opinions, no matter how founded on facts and evidence, because doing so gets me in trouble. In Nebraska, and especially in blue-collar work, partisan allegiance isn’t a matter of discussion, it’s a matter of group identity. Dissent doesn’t mean you debate, it means you’re an outsider, or worse.
As the other three guys chatted about politics, and I kept my head down pretending to be selectively deaf, one guy asked another guy’s opinion about the caravan. As an estimated 7000 mostly Hondurans walk slowly toward the United States, planning to claim political asylum at a port of entry, probably Del Rio or Eagle Pass, Texas, this caravan has become America’s hottest political dividing line. This isn’t accidental.
“I don’t know much about this caravan,” one guy said, while the other two nodded like Solomon. “But I know, when you have a stampeding herd, you shoot one or two animals at the front, the rest of the herd will scatter.”
That’s what had me screaming down a Facebook video at my friend the next day. She insisted I had a moral obligation to speak against such dehumanizing language. I said I couldn’t, because when I’ve tried before, the blowback has been too vicious, and I’ve found myself ostracized for days, in a job where communication is paramount.
“You should’ve gotten the boss,” she said. “He has an obligation, by law, to provide a workplace free of that kind of hostility and discrimination.”
“I apparently haven’t made myself clear,” I replied. “That was the boss. That was the site supervisor.”
|The caravan passes from Guatemala into southern Mexico|
This is something I’ve encountered repeatedly since taking a construction job over three years ago. Racism is widespread in this business. I’ve been forced multiple times to swallow my objections while other workers, including my supervisors, have stood around running down Blacks, “Mexicans,” and other groups. Racist bullshitting is basically a form of group bonding.
This leaves me conflicted. I know keeping silent serves to empower the oppressors in our society. Jim Crow laws were only overturned when White people joined with Black people to call injustice unjust. When White people previously swallowed their objections, going along to get along, racists felt empowered to make laws even more unjust.
But, as I told my friend, I have to make a living. Construction isn’t a job anybody can do in isolation. If nobody will talk to me, if I find myself ostracized for speaking against group identity issues, like most workers’ shared conservatism, I can’t do my job. So sometimes I do what I know is wrong, keep quiet, and let people say things I consider morally odious.
This carries extreme risks, though. When people only speak to other people who already share their views, they tend to emerge from such discussions with more extreme versions of the views they already have. Psychologists call this phenomenon “group polarization,” though the military has a superior term for it: “incestuous amplification.”
I really feel I witnessed incestuous amplification happening last Friday at work. As otherwise good, hard-working White people stood around furiously agreeing with one another, their views became more extreme before my eyes. A guy whose expertise I respected, suddenly compared brown people to herd animals, and suggesting shooting them for doing something perfectly legal.
Now I have to return to work Monday. I have to return knowing I’ll hear language that bad again, or worse; knowing co-workers have Alex Jones InfoWars and “America For Americans” bumper stickers on the trucks where they carry their tools, knowing White people regularly write racist graffiti in shared outhouses. And I don’t know what to do if this happens again. Because it will.