September 19, 2003
It All's Gotta Start/End Somewhere

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When I was a kid in Chicago, it seemed Polish women had a monopoly on cleaning jobs. Other than that, it wasn't til I moved to Iowa that I ran into any caucasians in any service positions.

Here in NYC, there are almost no whites making coffee, sandwiches, sweeping streets, cleaning toilets, etc. (certainly no second-generation or later whites.) This is basically the truth in any urban area you go to.

In some respects, there is no problem with this. Every group takes their turn at the entry-level of our economy, and truly, you gotta start somewhere. I got my first job flipping hamburgers when I was 15, and flipped hamburgers & cleaned toilets & washed dishes til my junior year of college. I have done farm work, delivered pizza, telemarketed, delivered newspapers, was a stockboy at KMart, worked the cash register at Blockbuster Video, and so on. The work sucks, but it doesn't kill you.

Usually it doesn't kill you because as you do it, you can see beyond it. For me, I was literally doing it to make money to live on while in college, so I knew it was a temporary thing. I knew I could get past it, so it was easy to believe myself when I muttered to myself under my breath "I just gotta so this a few more years". And true enough, I got past that.

This too is fairly common...many that were at entry levels of the economy 20 years ago have made it past. This is as it should be. That said, how long should it take to get past the first level? One or two generations? What would it mean if certain groups had no real reason to believe that their days in a hairnet and nametag would come to an end in time?

How is it that African Americans, most of which can trace their ancestry on this continent back much further than the average caucasian here, have not yet, en masse, made that step up? How long must all brown skinned people work at the entry-level of the economy? Am I the only one that feels odd constantly being served by brown people? Is there no one else that sees an unpleasant historical continuity to this? What does it mean to be called "boss" by the dude making your coffee?

When do we see the leap ahead? When does the cook get to be the manager? When do they get to buy the store the way the current owner did?

I would never say these things won't come, but the clock is ticking. It would be an indictment of white America if we were quiet as the "bootstrap track" stopped working for one group where it had worked for so many waves of European immigrants.

Most "new economy" companies are whiter than Lawrence Welk Meet-n-Greet's would have been in the 60's. There are certainly inroads made by people of Indian or Asian extraction, but I have been around the horn in this business many times, and swear to God that I generally only see Hispanics answering the phones or delivering the catering. For a line of business that is centered amidst the most ethnically diverse cities in the country, most .com offices are lucky to have one or two blacks working, and even then, usually in support positions.

Is the government the only body that can do something about this? Are there not enough people working in whitey vaults that would rather work in a diverse workplace that are willing to say something?

Our country is an experiment. We are trying to do what has never been done, and we have made good progress, but we are not anywhere near done. If we are who we say we are, these questions will have to become a part of our national debate.

Literally, what are we waiting for?

Posted by rudayday at September 19, 2003 11:48 AM