Dignity, Work, and Race Capitalism

Worker pushes wheelbarrow in the Streets of Queens/New York (Daniel Steuri, Flickr).

Recently, a photo of The Cosby Show alum Geoffrey Owens surfaced that showed the actor working as a cashier at a grocery store. Many commentators found the photo’s release a demeaning attempt to shame Owens for his less-than-glamorous job. In the well-intentioned surge of public support that followed, the maxim “all work has dignity” began to gain traction, including by right-wing free marketeers. While coming to Owens’s defense is good ethical practice, we must make sure that we avoid adopting the common sense formulations that inadvertently serve hegemonically to reinforce the same social, economic, and racial forces that seek to keep the little person down.

One of the powerful aspects of the Black Studies toolkit is its complete deconstruction of all Euro-American categories of analysis. This reorientation of thought — thinking in Black — is necessitated by recognition of the singular and historic nature of Blackness as the categorical underbelly of the Enlightenment and all of the Western-modern-colonial ways of thinking it inaugurated. This situates Blackness as not only an historical, anthropological, or sociological object of study, but, as Jared Sexton declares, “Blackness is theory itself.” This means that Blackness should be the lived reality through which we generate our categories and hermeneutics of understanding and from which we take our orientation towards liberation via a navigational politics of fugitivity.  To think in Black about the categories of labor and worker reveals that maxims like “all work has dignity” rest upon a logics of race capitalism that socializes people into worker-subjects through mechanisms such as the cultural notion of a (sometimes Protestant, at other times secularized) work ethic that correlates one’s individual character with one’s eager commitment to work as an end and a moral good in itself.

In the article, “Gramsci’s Black Marx: Whither the Slave in Civil Society,” Frank B. Wilderson, III presents a simple formula for analyzing any situation related to labor, work, and a cluster of related terms: exploitation, boss, manager, capitalist. In fact, one might even frame this as a litmus-test for making sure one has not inadvertently adopted the rhetoric of the capitalist-boss-managerial classes as a tool of liberal self-disciplining moral governance against the racialized working class:

The slave makes a demand, which is in excess of the demand made by the worker. The worker demands that productivity be fair and democratic….the slave, on the other hand, demands that production stop; stop without recourse to its ultimate democratisation. Work is not an organic principle for the slave.

Originally tasked with distributing abandoned Confederate lands to emancipated Black people, the Freedmen’s Bureau grew to include a range of practical aid (hospitals, education, etc.) to the recently-emancipated “horde of starving vagabonds, homeless, helpless, and pitiable in their dark distress,” as Du Bois phrased the situation (9). But white backlash to Radical Republican plans for any attempt at public support and/or reparations for the freedpeople came swiftly. The rhetorical form of this argument charged the Freedmen’s Bureau with promoting idleness and sloth among the newly-emancipated Black community. A political cartoon from the 1866 Pennsylvania gubernatorial election vividly illustrates this. The right foreground depicts a racist caricature of a Black man lying supine with a thought cloud above his head wondering, “Whar is de use for me to work as long as dey make dese appropriations.” On the left side of the cartoon, scenes of white farmers at work fill a pastoral landscape emblazoned by two labels, one quoting Genesis 3:19, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat they bread,” and the other declaring, “The white man must work to keep his children and pay his taxes.” Resistance to the Freedmen’s Bureau rested upon the obviously false charge that Black people — the nation’s recently-enslaved workforce — were lazy by nature. The activities of the Freedmen’s Bureau itself, through its oversight of enforcing Black workers to uphold their labor contracts with bosses, also helped reinforce the social perception of Blacks as slothful workers prone to reneging.

Instead of arguing against these tropes by countering that Blacks do indeed possess industry, I choose to center the freedom dreams of the ancestors who placed great spiritual value upon recreation, as expressed in the idiom of the sorrow songs that held onto utopian hope for the day that the Lord would tell the enslaved to “sit down, servant, and rest a little while.” Emancipation, in this schema, opened up a little bit of heaven on earth, giving Black folk the ability to demonstrate their freedom through intentional leisure. What could better signal slavery’s abolition than the complete absence of a compulsion to labor, and the full erasure of moral sanctions to prize industry as a mark of good character? Work strikes in the United States and across Cuba, the Francophone and Anglophone Caribbean, as well as Black codes in the South targeting “vagrancy” demonstrate that fully realized Black emancipation posed (and yet poses) a crisis for the capitalist-boss class demand for large pools of “free labor.”

When one makes the rhetorical argument that “all work has dignity,” what one means to convey is that no matter how seemingly dirty, small, unpleasant, or insignificant one’s labor might seem, the very fact that one chooses to honor their obligations towards work dignifies them, enhances their character, and demonstrates a bottom threshold by which other people in society should treat them with a modicum of respect. But drawing the boundaries of respectability and dignity as contiguous with the shape of capitalistic labor relations that isolate only the worker in our social imagination as the party in the contract whose dignity must be demonstrated by the performance of their labor is a dastardly cultural artifact. These rhetorical tropes form part of the assemblage of power that Saidiya Hartman has identified as “the limits of emancipation, the ambiguous legacy of universalism, the exclusions constitutive of liberalism, and the blameworthiness of the freed individual” (6). In today’s neoliberal redeployment of these old nefarious logics as tracked by Lester K. Spence, Black Americans marshal themselves into good workers by glorifying “the hustle” and “the grind” as respectable, responsible modes of showing up and moving through the world.

Let’s defend and ally ourselves with the worker. But let’s be very careful that in our haste to defend, we do not inadvertently parrot the rhetorical logic of racial capitalism in the process. Just as Du Bois speculated that the poor white working class participated in their economic hegemony by accepting the “psychological wage” of whiteness, all workers writ large — Black ones included — receive the psychological wages of good character wherever and whenever they pick up, imbibe, perform, and self-discipline through the understanding that “all work has dignity.” Working hard has never helped the white gaze apprehend the dignity of Blackness. “Work is not an organic principle of the slave.” Dignity is dignity; work is work. And neither the twain shall meet.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

James Padilioni Jr

James Padilioni, Jr. is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion at Swarthmore College. His teaching and research foreground the ritual cultures and plantation lifeworlds of the African Diaspora, including magico-religious, ecstatic, and pharmacopic traditions, Afro-Latinx and Afro-American folk Catholicism, Black queer performance, and critical race theory. He is writing a book entitled 'Black Gnosis: San Martín de Porres, the African Diaspora, and the Problem of Knowledge,' Follow him on Twitter @ApontesGhost.