Wall St. & Business Wednesdays: Black Workers Hurt Themselves By Not Taking Bottom-Rung Jobs by Tannette Johnson-Elie
There was a time in this country when black folks did the kind of work that nobody else wanted - the hardest, dirtiest and most dangerous of jobs. That's what we had to do to survive and get ahead in a racist society.
Now, Mexican President Vicente Fox has come under fire for a statement he made that points out the naked truth: Mexican immigrants "are doing the work that not even blacks want to do in the United States."
Tell me, how many black folks do you know who are willing to pick lettuce and tomatoes on a farm, or wash dishes and mop the floors in some restaurant, or spread cow manure to fertilize crops and do other field work? You can look around and see that fewer African-Americans are working such jobs.
"My Mexican workers - I don't care if it's rainy, snowing or if it's hot - they are willing to work," says Joseph Nevels, an African-American and president of Nevels Landscape Co. in Grafton. "It doesn't matter what kind of work. As far as Mexicans are concerned, any type of work that they get is better than life back home."
Almost every major industrial sector in the United States has experienced a dramatic increase in its reliance on Mexican workers since the 1990s, according to the American Immigration Law Foundation.
Data from the 2004 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' population survey show that in service occupations, 18% of maids and housekeepers are African-Americans, compared with 38.2% for Hispanics or Latinos; 8.5% of grounds and maintenance workers in the U.S. are African-American, compared with 40.2% of Hispanics or Latinos; 17.8% of janitors and building cleaners in the U.S. are black, compared with 26.8% for Hispanic or Latinos; and 11.5% of workers in food preparation and serving-related occupations are African-American, compared with 19.3% for Hispanics or Latinos.
And those are the jobs that are on the books.
"By and large, African-Americans don't want this kind of work," says Clayborn Benson, founder and executive director of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society and Museum, 2620 W. Center St. "What Fox is saying is true. You hear it in the form of black kids who say, 'I don't want to work at no McDonald's' or they don't want a minimum wage job."
White Americans aren't exactly lining up for such jobs either.
But African-Americans aren't high enough up the economic ladder to make the same choices. If you're on the bottom rung, then you've got to climb the ladder in stages, which means you might have to work at a job that you don't enjoy and for lower wages. It's a start; you don't have to stay there.
When you consider the high unemployment rate among African-Americans in metro Milwaukee - 17% - and that 60% of black males in Milwaukee's central city are jobless, the question becomes: Should African-Americans be rejecting work that once played a fundamental role in their very survival and progress in this country?
An underground economy
Don't get me wrong: It's not that African-Americans aren't willing to work hard, but that many operate in an underground economy where they hustle in different ways to make money - from panhandling to selling goods on the street - vs. working in the mainstream economy.
Consider the growth of the "bootleg" DVD business. You can now purchase a bootleg movie on DVD in the central city faster than you can buy a regular DVD at a video store. How many of us know a back-alley mechanic in the "hood" who can repair just about anything on an automobile for half the money that a bona fide mechanic charges?
Many African-Americans are willing to get their hands dirty for themselves but not for somebody else. They might make enough money to get by, but they're not going to get ahead in the long run.
When you're not building an official work history, you're not developing a track record of success that counts in the mainstream workplace.
"The underground economy says that I'm going to sell drugs instead of finishing high school. It says I'm going to be a prostitute rather than a teacher," says Joseph Tucker, president and CEO of Victory Personnel Services Inc., a black-owned staffing agency that formerly placed the hardcore unemployed and now places professional workers. "You have kids who feel, 'Why should I work for $5 an hour, when I can make $200 an hour?' "
Benson says, "You have young people who make the conscious decision to break in and vandalize rather than do the kind of labor that Vicente Fox is speaking of. Over the 18 years that I've been at the museum, I've run into a lot of young people who never learned work skills. They would rather hustle than work a job."
Many black business owners in the central city face hurdles in training the unskilled labor pool in the African-American community. Some even believe that there's a preference for Latino workers because of their strong work ethic.
Strong work ethic
Mexican immigrants leave their homeland with a clear vision of the American Dream. They hope that the next generation will have it better than they did.
That's the same hope that African-Americans had when they did the hard, physical work that no one else wanted. Black laborers built this country. They worked on the railroads and in factories and tanneries under heat, smoke and soot to earn enough money to sustain themselves and their families.
I understand that many African-Americans feel that they don't want to repeat that chapter in history.
But when you drive around the central city and see young, able-bodied, African-American men standing around idle, one can't help but question whether such logic makes any sense. How do you develop a work ethic if you aren't willing to work in the mainstream economy?
Vicente Fox's statement might not have been politically correct, but he merely made an observation about an ethnic group that is willing to do dirty work and do it diligently to get ahead. Sometimes, the truth hurts.
This article appears in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Wednesday, June 1, 2005