Within a capitalist society, Black labor matters. Black labor has value.
To be clear, I did not say Black laborers, which is to say Black people. I said Black labor, which is to say the product or services rendered by Black people. There’s a clear distinction.
Black labor will cease to matter only when a suitable replacement can be found. Bob Moses speaks to this in his book “Radical Equations,” when he talks about a cotton-picking machine used on a Mississippi plantation in the 1940s. Even after the abolition of enslavement, sharecropping ascended as a replacement for the peculiar institution because sharecropping continued the fundamental relationship of enslavement – white lives dependent upon Black labor for economic survival.
But with the mechanical cotton-picker, with the ability to pick 1,000 pounds of cotton an hour versus 20 to 30 pounds an hour by one person, Black labor was no longer in demand as it once was. In a society where Black folk were limited to what they could learn and what they could do, the opportunity to feed one’s family became even harder while Black.
Today, Black people face the same prospects for struggle in the age of automation.
According to a 2018 report, African Americans likely will have one of the highest rates of job displacement as automation ramps up compared to other groups, with an estimated displacement of 4.6 million individuals.
However, there are industries where automation has yet to break through. One such industry is professional football. In the NFL, Black labor most definitely matters.
It matters to the coaches, team executives and team owners, most of whom are white (particularly team owners). It matters to network executives, TV analysts, newspaper and broadcast journalists, many of whom are white. It matters to white consumers of the NFL.
It matters to these constituencies because Black labor has value where professional football is concerned… Black labor provides an entertainment value to consumers and therefore a financial value to the other constituencies.
Therefore, Jon Gruden, former coach of the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders, resigned.
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Released emails display Gruden’s homophobia and misogyny, which can compromise sponsorships considering the LGBTQ and #MeToo movements. But the racism is particularly of note here because the NFL may survive a few rescinded sponsorships but they can’t survive a general strike by Black labor.
As sure as W.E.B. DuBois noted in his classic “Black Reconstruction In America” that the Civil War was won when Black labor transferred itself from the Confederacy to the Union, white ownership and executives know that without Black labor on the field, the money dries from their pockets.
The NFL’s governing structure is racist. Black players are coached and policed, and careers are dictated by white people. In exchange for tolerating that implicit racism, however, is a paycheck. Explicit racism, as displayed by Gruden is not part of the bargain. That comes only after retirement, but I digress.
Gruden’s removal is about self-preservation of the entire league because of course, no one wants the money to stop flowing, including the players. Because Black labor matters to Black people and while whites depend on our labor for financial gain and entertainment, we depend on our labor for survival within a racially capitalist society.
Black players perform on the lie of inclusivity, even if internal emails say otherwise. But that’s not nearly as high a level of cognitive dissonance as painting “end racism” on endzones in every stadium while Colin Kaepernick remains unsigned.
Nevertheless, a general strike is prevented, and by the Super Bowl halftime show, this will all be forgotten. I suppose Jay-Z’s labor matters too.
Rann Miller is director of anti-bias and DEI initiatives as well as a high school social studies teacher for a school district located in Southern New Jersey. He’s also a freelance writer and founder of the Urban Education Mixtape, supporting urban educators and parents of students in urban schools. You can follow him on Twitter @UrbanEdDJ .