Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Don’t Just Call Out: Organize!

No we don't fit in with that white collar crowd
We're a little too rowdy and a little too loud
There's no place that I'd rather be than right here
With my red-necks white socks and blue ribbon beer

-Johnny Russell
No photo description available.The White Working Class is not some single thing seething with macho resentment, racism, and contempt for expertise, but a contradictory conglomeration of mostly decent, hardworking people, exploited, sneered at, and abandoned by a liberal elite, who are sometimes mischaracterized as left. I say this because I am of the white working class and of the left, having humped the line for 31 backbreaking years alongside workers—both white and of color—at Chrysler’s Newark Assembly Plant in Delaware. In the early ‘80s, they voted for me, a professed socialist, to serve them in the Plant Shop Committee for three years. They’d seen the newsletters I’d distributed with my comrades at the plant gates opposing speedup, pushing for safety, and urging affirmative action in our pale and male skilled trades. Later, in the late ‘90s, they voted nearly unanimously at our UAW local 1183 meeting to support my work chairing state-wide efforts to stop denying former felons their right to vote, a disenfranchisement targeting citizens of color. One of my proudest possessions is hanging in my office: a plaque my union gave me recognizing my work.
Like me, a Texas descendant, many of these folks are of southern heritage. One of my shop-mates who wore the Stars and Bars on his back once decided it would be fun to harass me as a “Polack” until I thought we would come to blows. I knew I would come out the worse, but it was a matter of honor, so I decided on a day of reckoning and confronted him, gently. He got it, saying he believed in treating everybody with respect. And then we were friends. He taught me a lesson about honor, himself, when he declared once and for all that he was through drinking after a bad car crash, and he was true to his word, boasting, “I don’t have to go to any of those meetings; I just said it and it was done.”
Some, I am sure, would keep those Confederate statues. I have seen the ones in Montgomery, Alabama in front of the Statehouse—Jefferson Davis and the rest. I have also seen the suspended pillars of weathering steel at the nearby National Memorial for Peace and Justice, each one signifying an American county, including New Castle, where human beings like our shop mates of color and some whites were lynched by the thousands. I am sure my white sisters and brothers would weep as I did as they read the names of the dead embossed on those rust-hued reminders.
Whites, Blacks, Latinx, male, female, gay, straight and trans worked and struggled side-by-side in the United Automobile Workers (UAW) for economic security and common dignity, just like the GM workers on strike are doing now. They did not always abandon their prejudices, but they demonstrated solidarity in ways the “woke” generation could learn from.
Now, I teach college English and have my students write essays from the angle of vision of different roles during the Freedom Rides, the 1960 struggle to integrate interstate bus transportation in the South. One role the class considers is the fictional Gavin Stevens, William Faulkner’s white Mississippi lawyer, who, in Intruder in the Dust, holds off a lynch mob with a shotgun until his African American client is cleared of murder. Stevens imagines lecturing a northerner who wants to civilize the red neck crowd. Says he (with punctuation added for clarity), “’Come down here and look at us before you make up your mind,’ and you reply, ‘No thanks, the smell is bad enough from here,’ and we say, ‘Surely you will at least look at the dog you plan to housebreak.’”
Calling out from a distance may feel like a blow against oppression, but winning someone over to a common struggle is what makes history.

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