Tom Finneran: “Jobs That Americans Won’t Do”
Friday, January 18, 2013
Which brings me to my friend Ulysses. Ulysses is black. Ulysses is old—70 plus years. He grew up in North Carolina at a time when racial bias and hostility were much more pronounced and severe than today. Yet growing up, Ulysses and his friends, all black, regularly worked side by side with white kids from the same community.
And they all worked hard—not in shirts and slacks in air-conditioned offices but in hard physical outdoor labor. And consider this, the heat and humidity of the Carolinas in the summertime are miserable—hot, sweaty, stifling, swamp-like conditions. Try humping lumber, digging ditches, or clearing fields in the Carolinas. Ulysses’ friends, black and white, all did it, and they did most of it by hand.
Ulysses is a wise man, carrying the wisdom derived from a life of work. When Ulysses hears that phrase “jobs that Americans won’t do,” he is puzzled. And angry.
He is puzzled because he cannot imagine any circumstances where American workers, black or white, would consider any paying job beneath them. He is angry at the absence of self respect and what he sees as an attitude of entitlement.
Ulysses understands dignity—the natural God-given dignity of every person first and foremost. The dignity of that person, standing on his own two feet, determined to provide for himself and his family, speaks to an essential element of a life well-lived. Scrape and paint a house? Sure thing. Shingle a roof? No problem. Trim brush and trees and cut grass? Ready to go. Clear and plant a garden or even an entire field? Can do.
Any job—clerical, menial, exhausting—is better than no job. So thinks Ulysses. And I agree with him.
I can’t pretend to understand the vicious cruelty and inhumanity of slavery and its aftermath in America. But one of the most degrading of all experiences has to be the humiliation of folks who desperately wanted to support their families, searching high and low for any kind of work, and being mockingly turned away because of the color of their skin. What a searing and hateful act.
I suspect that such humiliation being visited upon “his people” is the source of Ulysses’ appreciation of work, including all of those “jobs that Americans won’t do.” It’s probably in his DNA, which is why he is puzzled and angry to even hear the phrase.
Americans, all Americans, were once renowned for can-do attitudes, along with remarkable perseverance and ingenuity. Ulysses wonders if that is still the case today. In certain sections of his town, he sees recent immigrants pursuing work, trying to feed their families either here or back home, and he recognizes the hunger of his youth. Landscaping, roofing, painting, setting stone, mixing concrete, all suddenly seem beneath some Americans who once laughingly enjoyed such work and the dignity it provided. Maids, housekeepers, janitors, sales clerks, garbage and sewage workers: none of these jobs seemed lowly to the Irish, Italian, Polish, German, Chinese, Japanese, African, Scandinavian, Spanish, Portugese—the classic American mix. You name it and they did it, oft times with a song in their hearts for the opportunities of America and the futures of their children.
Ulysses wonders about welfare, its perverse incentives, and its dampening of effort and energy and ambition. He wonders about the Great Society and the War on Poverty and whether the proof is not now overwhelmingly definitive that America has lost that war. He does not seem to allow any room for the good intentions behind all those Great Society programs, probably because he sees the family havoc they have created. Who cares about good intentions when the resultant carnage piles up before one’s eyes?
In fact, Ulysses might supply his own quote to replace the one he so dislikes and to remind us of our frequent follies. In doing that, I suspect that Ulysses would remind us that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
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