This coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the exclusion of whole subsets of the most vulnerable in our society, exemplifying the toxic mix of racism, sexism, imperialism, and capitalism that the US blends so well.
by Eleanor Goldfield
They talk about it as if they’re doing a garbage, low budget remake of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” but instead of a golden ticket, it’s a $1,200 check. And instead of a magical trip through a fantasy land of candy and orange-faced crooners, it’s a paltry pittance from an orange-faced fascist who held up the delivery in order to ensure brand advertising on each and every check. For all of us stuck in the real world, outside the movie magic, the illusion of these golden tickets saving Americans from their all too real and all too poor existences is just that – an illusion.
It’s an illusion made all the more sick and dangerous when one considers the fact that millions of people who desperately need a “golden ticket” will never see one. Millions of people in the U.S. fall through gaping cracks purposefully designed to oppress and marginalize the most vulnerable. The exclusion of workers such as undocumented folks, street vendors, domestic workers, and sex workers exemplifies the toxic mix of racism, sexism, imperialism and capitalism that the U.S. blends so well.
A Pew Research report from last year estimates that there are some 10.5 million undocumented people in the United States. Many, if not most of these folks, find seasonal or full-time subsistence wage jobs in industries we now deem “essential.” They build families, pay taxes, and contribute socially, politically, and economically to their new home places. They pay billions into a system that profits doubly off their labor: by paying starvation wages and excluding these workers from any federal, state, or local assistance.
Now, millions of undocumented workers find themselves without even a measly bailout, and unable to apply for unemployment benefits due to their immigration status. To add injury to injury, as many are “essential” workers, they run a much higher risk of contracting COVID-19. And then what? Do they die in the shadows without seeking medical help for fear of being reported to ICE? Or do they roll those dice and hope they aren’t forced into the plagued Petri dishes that are U.S. detention centers? It’s a decision many have already had to make.
Here in D.C., one family watched in confused grief as their relative was taken away by an ambulance, only to find out days later that they died. Applications for financial assistance for burials require a social security number. Even after Events DC, the official convention and sports authority for D.C. approved an $18 million relief package in early April, which includes $5 million for undocumented workers, folks have been left wondering when that money will actually be there for people. In the end, local organizers and street vendors raised the funds for the family, not the city. The chance for reimbursement feels about as likely as finding a golden ticket.
A Venn diagram of overlapping oppression
In the Venn diagram of exclusion, street vendors make up a large group of both documented and undocumented workers who will never see a check. Here in D.C., Soledad Miranda explained to me that “Before, I would work cleaning eight hours, then I would pick up my daughter and we would go sell on the street (as street vendors). And now, not anymore. We can’t sell on the street anymore,” she says. “We don’t have enough to survive for us here. We don’t have anything left from what we’ve saved. We hope this all will end soon.”
The Venn diagram adds another ring: domestic workers. First off, just the mere fact that someone has to work eight hours and then go to another job in order to make ends meet is a grotesque and all too real fact that rings true for millions. In a conservative 2019 estimate, the Census Bureau found that some 13 million workers have more than one job. Furthermore, women are more likely than men to hold multiple jobs. How’s that for women’s progress?! Not only can we grow and birth humans, but we’re also proving that women are strong enough to work multiple jobs for subsistence pay in a system that devalues our labor, our lives, and our basic human rights. ‘Murica!
In an email, Stacy Kono, Executive Director at Hand in Hand, a Domestic Employers Network told me “Domestic workers are disproportionately women of color and immigrants. COVID-19 has magnified their challenges as families stay at home, suddenly laying off domestic workers who lack access to unemployment and relief.” Hand in Hand has put out a call to domestic employers, asking them to pledge to continue paying their workers during this crisis.
This Venn diagram of overlapping oppression highlights another important fact: that women have always been part of the labor force. Running households, raising children, caring for elderly or sick relatives – these are incredibly labor-intensive jobs, jobs that are predominantly done by women. The International Labor Organization estimates that some 83 percent of domestic workers are women, many of whom are migrants. Still, as ILO notes, domestic work is “often hidden and unregistered.” Indeed, it is work that is largely unpaid and unrecognized. In a recent Politico article, journalist Renuka Rayasam noted that “More of the daily grind tends to fall, on average, on women: From the increased cleaning and chores that come with more time spent in the home, which falls disproportionately to so many female household members, to the extra education and childcare work created through closures of school and daycare, where men have also been known, on average, to skimp.” In short, the “unseen” work is piling up, and those carrying the weight continue to labor in the shadows of a system disinterested in their plight – a plight that for many also includes domestic violence.
A recent report by the UN Population Fund found that “If the lockdown continues for 6 months, 31 million additional gender-based violence cases can be expected.” Already back in early April, nine of the 20 largest metropolitan police departments reported double-digit jumps in domestic violence calls. Still, the reality is likely much worse considering the fact that survivors often avoid calling authorities or domestic abuse hotlines, fearing more violence if their calls for help are found out by their abuser. And with shelters overrun and difficult to access for many, particularly LGBTQ survivors, those suffering from domestic abuse find themselves dangerously locked in during the lockdown. Taken together, it’s perhaps not surprising that the fastest growing population among the unhoused are women and children. The combination of poverty, abuse, and unseen or shunned work is an oppressive trifecta that describes millions of women’s lives.
The US PROS Collective, a multiracial network of women fighting for the protection of sex workers and the decriminalization of prostitution notes that “Women and children make up 73% of the poor in the US, 1 in 25 families, and around three million children are in households living on $2 a day.” Sex workers represent yet another part of the excluded workers Venn diagram. As Rachel West, founder of the US PROS Collective wrote in an April press release, “Most sex workers are mothers, primarily single mothers…Sex workers are deliberately excluded on moralistic grounds from the coronavirus $2 trillion bailout bill if their work is judged to be of a “prurient sexual nature”. (So selling weapons means you get a bailout but selling sex means you don’t.).” Ah, good ole American values. Sex sells, but war pays. Bombs matter. Women don’t. Considering these policy points, it’s not all that surprising that our two choices for president this year are two men accused of sexual assault. Two men that have done more than their fair share of war hawking too. One can’t help but think of George Carlin’s assertion that wars are started by men who are insecure about their penis size.
A $1.32 million token of appreciation
For more evidence of this violent fetish, one need only have looked up this past weekend. Above crowds of people huddled together in the midst of a pandemic, fighter jets seared the afternoon sky in a loud and masturbatory display all meant to honor healthcare workers. Because what says “thanks” to our medical professionals more than pedestaling the number one cause of global death and destruction while risking more mass infection in the midst of a pandemic? I feel all warm and cozy already – tho that could be a fever.
Adding to the frighteningly stupid and reckless nature of the whole charade is the fact that this display of imperialist violence cost taxpayers some $1.32 million. That’s roughly 66 ventilators going for $20k a piece. Or 1.32 million N95 masks, listed at one dollar a piece. Or 1,100 $1,200 checks. Now, military officials assure us that this isn’t money that’s being freshly allocated but money that’s already in the Pentagon’s budget, to which any logical person’s response should be “why?” A follow-up question might be: “hey, instead of using that money for this mind-bendingly stupid display, why not re-allocate that money to deal with the crisis at hand?” The answer boils down to that toxic blend of racism, sexism, imperialism, and capitalism. Indeed, if the U.S. can claim American exceptionalism in anything, it would have to be that no one in the world does imperialist capitalism better than our government.
With this sadistic efficiency, our government keeps money out of the hands of people who labor, tells us to be grateful for bread crumbs when we’re the ones making the bread – and going hungry. They tell the most marginalized and poor that their personal failings are to blame while bloated billionaires are propped up at the expense of those very same poor. Indeed, as we’ve seen in previous bailouts, to the hoarders go the spoils.
To the hoarders go the spoils
The latest $484 billion “relief” bill which lacks funding for food aid, rent relief, and basic worker protections comes on the heels of the ironically named CARES Act which includes a tax break for those earning more than one million dollars per year. To be more precise, 82 percent of the tax benefits will go to roughly 43,000 taxpayers. This generous cut will cost $90 billion this year alone. That comes out to an average handout of $1.6 million to each millionaire or billionaire in 2020. To put that into perspective for all those who got a “stimulus” check, the CARE-ing tax break handout is worth 1,300 times as much as that $1,200 check. And that’s just one section of tax breaks. Big corporations are on track to get trillions from the Federal Reserve as the largest asset manager in the world (as well as a piggy bank for weapons manufacturers and the fossil fuel industry), Black Rock has been tapped to manage these bailout programs. As journalist David Dayen wrote in a recent article, “This is a robbery in progress.”
More broadly, it’s been a robbery in progress. The entire system of capitalism is built on robbing the working class to profit the ruling class. It’s why billionaires are so eager for us to get back to work. This economy is built to serve them, not us. Consequentially, it’s why strikes have the potential to force the hand of the ruling class: without our labor, without our complicity in a system built on our oppression, they lose – literally and figuratively.
On their site, PayDay Report hosts a map of past and ongoing strikes throughout the country, and it’s an inspiring visual. Wildcat strikes have been popping off since March in defiance of unsafe working conditions, low pay or no pay, and the lack of basic worker rights like paid sick leave. The rolling movement to cancel rent, combined with coordinated rent strikes has further highlighted the need and the demand for housing as a human right. Organizers have deployed tactics like caravan protests to amplify a wide array of issues, from excluded workers to universal healthcare to climate justice. Mutual aid efforts continue to grow and evolve, showing the myriad ways in which communities can and do look out for each other. Indeed, the avarice and sadistic oppression of the ruling class is matched only by the powerful and vital displays of our humanity and solidarity. For instance, despite her precarious financial situation, Soledad now makes masks for children and adults. “I make one, and I give one away. I am selling in my home. I love to share with people who have nothing, who are worse off than me,” she says.
We can’t undo the harm already done, and we can’t smooth over all the sharp teeth of oppression that tear through people’s lives. But we can manifest an alternative. We can show through our work that human value is not tied to a dollar sign and that a few golden tickets will not pacify our passion for change. As historian Howard Zinn once wrote, “Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can become a power no government can suppress, a power than can transform the world.” And what time better than now – in the midst of a global pandemic – to show that dissent can be contagious? We are linked by more than our shared oppression – we are linked by our shared humanity. And from this foundation, we can rattle thrones. We can topple empires. We can transform the world.
Feature photo | Women in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, a neighborhood with one of the city’s largest Mexican and Hispanic community, wear masks to help stop the spread of coronavirus while waiting in line to enter a store, May 5, 2020, in New York. Bebeto Matthews | AP
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