Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Latino "Problem"

America has always been dependent on, and addicted to, the products and services that extremely cheap labor has provided for us. Our addiction started when we acquired, and enslaved, millions of African men, women and children.

Among other things, these slaves produced a range of pleasant commodities for our ancestors to enjoy -- tasty sugar for cakes and rum, lovely soft cotton for bed linens and clothing (sometimes dyed to a beautiful blue color with the indigo that the slaves had also grown), and heavenly tobacco for our ancestors to smoke and snort. Along the way,
America became powerful and rich by delivering this stuff to the rest of the world, and in doing so we helped everyone else get hooked on all of these marvelous things.

By the time the Transcontinental Railroad needed to be built, slavery had been abolished and most slave descendants were kept “slaving away” in barely-paying, back-breaking jobs such as sharecropping. Ever inventive, American businessmen imported laborers from China, the province of Canton in particular. These workers were highly valued for a number of their qualities, including the fact that they were small -- so they did not eat as much as other types of laborers would -- but they were still incredibly hardworking and strong.

When the Transcontinental Railroad was finished in 1869, the Chinese simply weren't needed anymore. We made up our minds to decide that they were a threat to us and had our Congress pass the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This blocked further Chinese immigration for the next sixty one years.

We shunned the Chinese until World War II, but then, because they hated the Japanese at least as much as we did, we decided they could be our friends. Congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943, and a select number of immigrants from China were invited into our country once again.

America has a long existing pattern of extreme dependency on cheap labor, but also an inevitable, resulting resentment towards those who provide it for us. Our current tension about Latino immigrants and the love/hate relationship we have about our outsourcing to labor markets around the world (“It’s soooo irritating to try to talk to those Indians for tech help!”) are just two more examples of our famous modus operandi.

From the upper class to the very poor, we Americans are addicted to the "high" we get when we consume the products and services that cheap labor provides to us. We have a four-hundred-year-old history of this habit -- in evidence today with the tons of crap that we feel compelled to buy and our insatiable lust to indulge ourselves in personal services, not to mention our massive out-of-control credit card debt and a planet that we have damaged. We just can't stop.

Our demand for cheap things and services that we require in order to find “happiness” is more than enormous. For example, there was a time only a couple of decades ago, that nail salons did not exist on every corner in our cities and suburbs. Even among upper middle class women, having a professional manicure was done fairly infrequently. Now, all social classes can afford frequent professional manicures from, and are dependent on getting them done by, mostly young Vietnamese women who file nails and inhale the stinky dust for cheap. Walk-in closets in the bedrooms of modest homes, once built only in mansions, are becoming standard features because they are essential to so many of us. We have to store all that stuff somewhere!

With our intense cravings, we are on a perpetual search to find a new substance (provided by cheap human capital) that will supply our "fix" and give us that blissful high. As with drug addictions, I am certain that brain scans would reveal that this response is an actual chemical phenomenon. I can feel it when I shop.

We constantly need to keep the “drug” cheap enough so we can buy it and still afford to overeat the way we like to do. We absolutely must have cheap labor. With our current set of social values, it is non-negotiable.

The problems arise when we have to face the fact that our cheap labor is human, and that they actually have human needs that have-to-be-met. Then we end up feeling resentful and pissed off towards them!

Those of us in mainstream America are perpetually ambivalent about the cheap laborers on whom we are dependent -- yes, we love them, and yes, we hate them. We just don't want to talk about this ambivalence in an honest way. If we did, we would have to face the unpleasant fact that we are the ones who have actually created the problems that we’re complaining about! Few people want to admit their shortcomings and confess their sins.

Since we’ll always want someone to clean our toilets and sew the $10 shirts that we "absolutely must have,” and I personally don't think we'll be able to tap into a labor source of little green aliens from outer space anytime soon, cloning might eventually provide the answer for us. We would need to create a smart enough -- but still sub-human -- species that could do all our dirty work like taking care of our homes and our precious offspring for dirt cheap pay.

Other than relying on cloning to solve our problems, there is hope in the efforts of Japanese companies which are developing robots that might do the trick. I saw a piece on TV recently which showed how they’ve created robots that can play the violin! Hopefully they’re also trying to develop robot maids like Rosie who lived with the Jetsons. My kitchen floor is really filthy and it’s way overdue for a good soapy scrubbing.

I recommend that you go to and watch the video.

1 comment:

The Perimeter Primate said...

This response comment was posted on the SF Schools Yahoo group from a "swerenjey."

"I like this post. I have been pushing the "I hate prejudice" speech lately. Your post touches upon this quite well. Our ever growing xenophobia is the result of our ever growing insatiable appetite for more goods and services. Americans don't deign to do the jobs that foreigners, such as Indians, via outsourcing, and Mexicans and Latinos, via immigration- --whether legal or not---are willing to do. So we
create the demand that ultimately leads to our complaining over how our country is losing jobs to foreign workers and how our borders are being overrun. We need to be honest and look at the root cause of this phenomenon rather than pointing the finger at the "aliens." Then maybe we can come up with some useful solutions. Our prejudices keep us from finding such solutions."