“I’m blacker than Obama.”
I’m the only white person I know who went to college, made the honor roll, served in the Peace Corps (India), was president of a labor union, wrote stage plays….and also worked 10 years of graveyard shift on the production line in a toilet paper factory, side-by-side with African Americans.
My white liberal friends think they “know” black people—think they know what makes them tick—but they don’t. My black friends think they know what makes “liberal” white people tick, but they don’t….not really. My black friends also think they know what makes white, redneck peckerwoods tick. Alas, they do. These peckerwoods, bless their hearts, worked right alongside us.
Not to state the obvious, but generalizations and stereotypes are wildly unreliable. There are very few national or ethnic stereotypes that do justice to the group in question, including African Americans. However—and this will upset and disappoint the PC crowd—there are some broad generalizations that do apply, at least to the black men and women who work in an American toilet paper factory.
(1) Blacks were, typically, more socially conservative than whites. They were more religious, more opposed to abortion, more opposed to pornography, more in favor of capital punishment, censorship, stricter school teachers, etc. When I mention this to certain white people they come back with examples of the Crips and the Bloods, alcohol, drug use, guns, and sexism, “How conservative is that?!” they say. But social conservatism has little to do with the self-destructive behavior of young men (other than, perhaps, being a reaction to it). Focusing on ghetto violence and substance abuse totally misses the point.
(2) They really, really disliked the police. Blacks don’t have anywhere near the trust or respect for the police that white people do—even white people who profess to hate cops, even white people who see themselves, romantically, as glorified rebels or faux-outlaws. There’s no comparison. Every black person I’ve ever worked with was either terrified of the police or had utter contempt for them.
And (3) unlike white people who rejoice in second-guessing, backstabbing, nit-picking and gossiping about the work performance of their fellow employees, African Americans rarely ever criticized the work of another employee—black or white. They simply didn’t do it. Even when you tried to get them to join in a half-friendly group assault on another’s work habits, they’d avoid doing it….for whatever reason.
Again, these are stereotypes. Therefore, for every six or eight African Americans who conformed to one of these observations, there were probably one or two who didn’t—one or two people who absolutely defied the stereotype. The laziest, most useless worker I ever knew was a white male, a machine operator; the second laziest was a black female. Both were worthless.
Conversely, the best worker I ever knew was an African American utility driver, a man in his forties. This was a union shop. There was no incentive pay, no promotions except through seniority, no merit pay, and no rewards for extra work. And yet this fellow gave it everything he had every minute he was on the clock. He was admired. He voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. I asked him why he voted for a Republican. “Because I don’t like Communism,” he said.
It should come as no surprise that African American factory workers are just as individualistic, confounding and difficult to pigeon-hole as white factory workers. Except in regard to the police. I never met one black person on that production line—man or woman—who thought the cops would give them a fair shake. Not one person.
DAVID MACARAY is a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor,” available at Amazon). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org