Labor Day celebrates work with dignity and the human rights that workers have fought for and won over centuries. This year we cannot separate any reflection on the rights of workers from the events in Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teen, was killed by a White police officer. This summer, the courageous and consistent protests in Ferguson brought the devastating and too often lethal effects of mass criminalization into the spotlight. This Labor Day, we must speak out about the impact of the current levels of brutal criminalization on the human right to work with dignity.
Our country has criminalized whole segments of the U.S. population, particularly African Americans. Our political system and discourse labels some people “criminal” or “illegal,” most often in direct juxtaposition to “productive citizens” or “workers,” stripping them of their fundamental rights to education, healthcare, decent jobs, voting, basic freedoms, and life itself through a complex web of laws, regulations, practices, and social stigma.
In a painful and stark illustration of this dynamic, Brown’s tragic, untimely death was all the more disturbing for the violent suppression of vigils and protests held to honor his life, and for attempts by the Ferguson Police Department and some media outlets to paint Brown as a criminal. News coverage implied that the mere suggestion that he may have committed a misdemeanor should devalue his humanity and justify the taking of his life. This spin on Brown’s death is rooted in a deep racialization and criminalization of African Americans and other people of color.
This racialization and criminalization multiplies the insecurity workers face in today’s economy exponentially. Young Black men experience extraordinarily high unemployment: nearly one-third of young Black men are out of work, and the jobless rate for young Black male dropouts, including those incarcerated, is a staggering 65 percent. Black boys born in many communities today will be more likely to end up in prison than in college. In recent months, stories of Black workers being criminalized have been coming hard and fast. In March, Shanesha Taylor, a Black mother of two in Scottsdale, Arizona, who was homeless and had no access to childcare, left her children in her car while she went into a job interview. She was arrested for child abuse and her children were taken way. In April, Monica Jones, a student in Phoenix, Arizona, was convicted of “manifesting prostitution” because it was deemed suspicious for her, as a Black transgender woman, to talk with strangers as she walked down the street. She is appealing her conviction, but worries about her education and job prospects with a criminal record. In June, Debra Harrell, a Black mother of one working at McDonalds in North Augusta, South Carolina, dropped her daughter off at a park, at her daughter’s request, instead of forcing her to sit through another shift at the restaurant. When she went to pick her daughter up, Harrell was arrested to spend 17 days in jail and face felony charges, and her daughter was taken away. In July, Eric Garner, a Black father of six in Staten Island, New York, was confronted by police for selling cigarettes on the streets. He was put in an illegal chokehold, and within minutes lay dead on the sidewalk.
The criminalization of poverty and people of color forces people into impossible situations: situations that only get worse when Taylor, Jones, Harrell, and millions of others are convicted of a crime and then have to try to find an employer willing to overlook the conviction. The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) has recognized the growing need to rethink criminal histories, and in 2012 issued a renewed directive on how employers should use background data. The Commission recognizes that employment policies that appear race neutral on the surface can disproportionately harm people of color. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, such policies must therefore be specifically related to the nature of the job and consistent with business necessity. The directive recommends that employers consider how serious a job applicant’s crime was, how long ago it occurred, and how relevant the specific crime was to the nature of the job. Reasonable as this is, the backlash from business interests and Congress has been extreme. The EEOC remains under assault. What’s more, the underlying cause of the disproportionate racial impact—mass criminalization—remains inadequately challenged.
The assault on Black workers is, of course, nothing new. Slavery, sharecropping, and Jim Crow segregation are at the heart of the American story. Despite the gains of the civil rights movement, African-American workers are scarcely better off today than decades ago, if at all. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes:
“The arguments and rationalizations that have been trotted out in support of racial exclusion and discrimination in its various forms have changed and evolved, but the outcome has remained largely the same. An extraordinary percentage of black men in the United States are legally barred from voting today, just as they have been throughout American history. They are also subject to legalized discrimination in employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service, just as their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents once were.
“What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of society than with the language we use to justify it. In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all of the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”
Alexander points to a confluence of events that have criminalized Blacks and stripped them of their right to work with dignity over the past few decades. In the 1970s, massive economic dislocations shifted manufacturing jobs overseas, and moved the United States toward a service economy. While White factory workers suffered from the job losses too, racial segregation and economic development patterns shifted jobs out to largely White suburban areas, while Blacks living in city centers were left with underfunded schools and poor access to jobs. Then in 1982, President Reagan launched the War on Drugs, a drive to crack down on even minor drug offenses. The crack epidemic of the late 1980s played into Reagan’s hands, allowing him to win major financial backing for his policies. Although crime rates in the United States have remained in line with those in other Western countries, incarceration rates have soared. The United States locks up people at a much higher rate than any other country (we have 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of its prison population), and, as Alexander writes, “The racial dimension of mass incarceration is its most striking feature. No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities. The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.” Although drug use and sales are just as prevalent in White communities as in Black ones, laws and practices like three-strikes laws and racial profiling disproportionately criminalize African Americans.
The web of criminalization extends beyond the Black community as well. Some eleven million undocumented immigrants from every corner of the globe are slapped with the label “illegal,” which denies them job options, decent wages, workplace protections, and access to healthcare and public services. Homeless people in cities across the country, who very often have little if any chance of employment in the formal economy, increasingly face laws and police sweeps that criminalize them for panhandling or sitting, sleeping, eating, or otherwise living their lives in public. Many other workers—including African Americans—labor in unsanctioned sectors of the economy as informal caregivers, unlicensed street vendors, or sex workers, for example, but their work is devalued and stigmatized. At best, these workers (most of whom, not coincidentally, are people of color, women, or transgender) work without social security, employer-sponsored insurance, workers’ compensation, and other worker protections. In many cases, too, their work is deemed “illegal,” which strips these workers of additional legal protections and social supports and pushes them into the shadows, where they are vulnerable to theft, harassment, violence, and other dangers.
In the midst of this human rights crisis, private companies have been profiteering from this moral tragedy. The Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest owner and operator of for-profit prisons, earned $1.77 billion in revenue from public contracts in 2012—revenue that grows with the number of people criminalized and put in prison. Recent exposés have shone light on prison labor, such as the essential labor conducted by detainees in immigrant detention centers for the appallingly low pay of $1 per day. Meanwhile public budgets are driven by perverse priorities, as in Ferguson, Missouri, where residents were hit with an average of three warrants per family in 2013, and court fees were the City’s second largest source of revenue. Across the country, prisons are being built and prison populations are growing as schools are underfunded. In the absence of funding to support teachers in classroom management and restorative justice, school pushout, through abusive discipline and suspensions, begins as early as preschool. Meanwhile, fundamental human needs like social services and even water are increasingly outsourced and treated like consumer goods.
The mass criminalization of Blacks and other workers is a human tragedy of enormous proportions. In order to win the right to work with dignity for Black workers and all other workers in the United States, we must end the War on Drugs, decriminalize people’s work, and shift funding that supports criminalization and incarceration toward restorative justice, social services, education, housing, healthcare, and other services that support our fundamental human needs. We need teachers, not tanks.
We must also allow people with records of crimes that have no bearing on their work to get a fresh start by sealing the records from employers, making them irrelevant through Ban the Box campaigns, or expunging them altogether. And while we must strengthen Title VII and other protections against discrimination in employment, we must also recognize that pernicious hiring discrimination will not end any time soon, and must therefore provide a public jobs guarantee to make sure that anyone, regardless of whether they have been touched by the criminal justice system, always has a decent job option.
In February 1968, almost a half-century before the death of Michael Brown, striking Black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, held signs proudly over their heads as they marched through the streets of Memphis. “I am a man,” the signs read, a simple but powerful statement against the dehumanization the workers faced every day. In the past year, as Black men and women have been killed by police and vigilantes at a startling rate, protesters are again marching through the streets with signs making a simple but powerful statement: “Black lives matter.” It is unconscionable that in 2014 such an assertion should need to be uttered, but the struggle for human dignity and human rights is far from over. On this Labor Day and on every day, we honor all of our brothers and sisters facing abuse and dehumanization, and pledge to fight for the dignity and humanity of every person. All lives matter, and by affirming Black lives and communities and their basic economic, social, civil, and political rights, we affirm the lives and humanity of all people.