This Labor Day, Revive EcoVillage calls attention to the unpaid or underpaid labor contributed by people of color throughout American history. The progress of every sector of the American economy and culture has been greatly influenced by this labor: some willing, but often coerced or forced.
First, please visit our Land Acknowledgement and internalize that none of the progress allowed by the following laborers would be possible without access to the land and resources which were stolen from Native Americans. The genocide (literal and cultural) of our First People is the proverbial block which our country has been built upon. Find whose land you are on and then learn more about how you can support them.
The following are a list of unpaid/underpaid laborers in the US whom we have historically benefited from and whose labor we continue to benefit from today. Each example includes links to learn more from people and organizations far more qualified to educate you on the respective topic (as well as some causes you can support). In no way is this list comprehensive of every demographic which deserves recognition for their labor, neither are the listed organizations the only ones deserving of our patronage… Please feel free to leave supplementary insight in the comments for us and for others to continue our learning.
- African Americans and Black Americans are the primary contributors of unpaid and underpaid labor in the US, beginning with their enslavement and generations of unpaid labor which their oppressors benefited from financially. Discriminatory and repressive laws and practices continue to this day, limiting the ability of Black Americans benefiting from their own labor and that of their ancestors.
- During their incarceration, Japanese Americans were responsible for almost all of the work done in labor camps (including the construction of said camps). These jobs had income caps, even for highly skilled professionals like doctors. Additionally, many of those incarcerated were robbed of their businesses and incomes during this time.
- SUPPORT: Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project
- Lessons from the Incarceration and Forced Labor of Japanese Americans During WWII
- Chinese laborers built most of the Transcontinental Railroad, which paved the way for a major production boom in the US. They were employed in dangerous conditions for little pay. This is true of most of the other employment opportunities for Chinese immigrants in the mid-late 1800s.
- SUPPORT: Asian Americans Advancing Justice
- Many hispanic laborers (including undocumented and/or migrant workers) in the US experience similarly oppressive practices to what Chinese workers experienced 200 years ago: dangerous conditions, little pay. California produces more food than any other state, and roughly 75% of their farm workers are undocumented. Farm workers (especially if undocumented) are often exempt from labor laws and other protections that would guarantee them fair pay, breaks, and safety measures.
People of color are disproportionately likely to be in more physically demanding jobs and service positions where they do not receive fair compensation (as compared to white counterparts in these positions). It is also worth mentioning the intersectionality of the wage gap: women of color are the most disproportionately affected, earning less than both their male counterparts and white counterparts. Latina women are the most impacted by the racial/gender wage gap, earning just 55 cents to each dollar that their white male counterparts earn.
Additionally, the income gap is not the only financial factor that continues to oppress people of color in the US: inequity is also perpetuated by wealth, which is accumulated/saved rather than earned income. As illustrated in the earlier examples, generations of BIPOC in our country have lost income: accumulating into lost wealth for their descendants who are alive today. “The typical White family has eight times the wealth of the typical Black family and five times the wealth of the typical Hispanic family.” Even with controls for types of worker, education level, etc., these discrepancies persist. “After controlling for age, gender, education, and region, black workers are paid 14.9% less than white workers.” If you’re a more visual learner, visit Vox’s piece: America’s yawning racial wealth gap, explained in 9 charts.
Source: Federal Reserve Board, 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances. Notes: Figures displays median (top panel) and mean (bottom panel) wealth by race and ethnicity, expressed in thousands of 2019 dollars.
The collective labor of these peoples – both physical and emotional – allows for many of the comforts, services, and products that we now enjoy. We cannot separate these facts by enjoying these comforts, etc. without acknowledging how we got to where we are. Therefore, it is our duty as Americans to begin with a simple acknowledgement: gratefulness, understanding, and truth-telling in our histories. From there, we must dig deeper to ask ourselves where these inequities persist today. Whose modern labor do we continue to benefit from? How can we support them? In what ways can we give back? Perhaps most importantly, what progressive actions can we take today to swing the pendulum in their favor – to pay back these laborers and their descendents – physically and emotionally – for all they have given this country?
If I felt I had solid answers to these questions, I would profess them here. Alas, correcting inequities is never so simple. The work, therefore, must be constant and consistent. At Revive, we strive for this in every way: from representation to support services for the unhoused (who are also disproportionately people of color) to having conversations like these. This is not to say we are perfect or experts or doing everything right – but none of those are the point. This work is not for us to feel “right,” but for us to do what is right. If you are interested in joining us on our expedition to do what is right, please consider donating or volunteering with our organization. If this post piqued your interest about related organizations and efforts, please consider donating or volunteering with them as a way to take action and express gratitude for the unpaid laborers who have made your way of life possible.
Additional Resources for Giving Back to BIPOC Laborers:
- 9 Black-Owned Small Business Directories
- BIPOC-Owned Businesses to Support Today and Everyday (Rhone)
- A Resource for Supporting Black-Owned and Person of Color-Owned Businesses (DoneGood)
- Indigenous World’s Indigenous Artist Directory
- Etsy Businesses: Black Owned, Asian Owned, Native Owned, Latina Owned
What other resources do you know? What BIPOC-owned shops do you love?
Please send them to us or comment on this post so we can continue the conversation and work together for a more equitable future.