Last night, we went to watch a documentary movie called “I am not your negro” (Baldwin and Peck, 2016). For me, it clearly emphasised the attitude toward people of black skin that existed and continues to exist in some areas. The film makers are clearly looking back but at the same time, they are commenting on more recent events in the USA that relate to the way people of colour are treated. In an interview sequence in the film, an academic is brought in to join a TV discussion of the race issue and he tries to broaden the issue to say that it isn't a race issue but an attitudinal issue toward people of different status. Like Baldwin, I agree that it is predominately skin colour that determines the position of the black American. It isn't the black person's social status or work status.
However, I want to also emphasis that there is still social class discrimination in existence in a number of places around the world. At this moment in time as the UK faces an election, I want to say to the UK's political elite, “I am not your economic slave”. When I hear many of Britain's political elite talking about making the economy work for the people and I look at the statistics available on wealth or income distribution over the last 70 years (Office of National Statistics, 2017; HM Revenue & Customs, 2017), I have to conclude that by “the people”, they mean the wealthy or what they might call “the wealth generators”. In watching a Murdoch Mystery, I heard one of the actors talking about the impact of automation saying that the people would enjoy the new leisure time and wealth as a result of automation. The political elite and the Murdoch Mystery writer share the belief that somehow the system will distribute the wealth even to those put out of work by new technologies or in labour intensive jobs. The reality is different. Wealth accumulates where wealth already exists.
The clear message from many politicians holding the more conservative framing story of the world is that we have to work to pay our way and if we don't work, we shouldn't expect to receive a living. So who actually gains from automation or improving production. Is it the workers or do we have to create meaningless jobs to ensure the displaced workers still have a way of earning money.
The clear message is that we have to work. That is we have to be economic slaves. So where Baldwin and the film maker want to say “I am not your negro”, I want to cry out, “I am not your economic slave”. Yes, I am willing to work but the elite have to ensure that what I receive for that work enables me and those like me or worse off than me to enjoy the same benefits of the so called economic progress.
On a more personal note, I want to say to many employers and work colleagues, “I am not your 'work position' slave” or “I am not your intellectual inferior”. I want to say this because I see the attitude of eliteness or discrimination as a basic problem in societies. I have heard in discussions comments along the lines of 'person x' should not receive any more since they are not contributing to the new knowledge, new product, new … or 'person y' shouldn't be given the position in field z because they are using the methods of that field and we don't think those methods are appropriate (i.e. are not as good as the methods my field uses). These are attitudes of snobbery and elitism that lead to the problems of slavery and exploitation.
So like Baldwin, I want to say there is no place for giving status based on skin colour but Like Martin Luther King, Jr., I want to recognise the wider problems created by inequality, our current economic thinking, and discriminatory practices.
James Baldwin and Raoul Peck, 2016, I am not your negro. France: Velvet Films.
Office for National Statistics (2016) Equivalised disposable household income (dataset). Available from: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/personalandhouseholdfinances/incomeandwealth/datasets/equivaliseddisposablehouseholdincome.
HM Revenue & Customs (2017) Personal income statistics 2014-15. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/608854/National_Statistics_T3_1_to_T3_11_publication_2014_15_revised.pdf.