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There’s no doubt that African American history here in the United States is rich. From Black Patriots in the Revolutionary War, to Lewis Howard Latimer – the real inventor of the light bulb, to Colin Kaepernick standing up to the NFL, we have much to celebrate and many to honor.
Whether we choose to recognize it or not, history shows us that many of the battles Black people fought to maintain our own human dignity were won under inhuman systems of labor – literally on the split-open backs of Black men, women, and children.
These castigating systems depended on our silence. They sanctioned brutality, maintained legal racism, and bred damaging economic disparities. These systems bled into the fabric of American culture and continue to stain our 21st-century workplaces. Quite frankly, there’s nothing new about historical or current attempts, collective or independent, to silence Black workers and organizations determined to end racialized terror and bridge gaps in the workplace.
Still, in this era of breaking silence and speaking truth to power, it’s critical that Black workers collectively challenge racism in the workplace and call out wealthy corporations, business leaders and public officials, and plain old White supremacists trying to muzzle our voices. Intentional or not, they create barriers to prosperity for Black workers and our families. When Black workers make our voices heard or call out the obstacles in the workplace, we lift standards of accountability for everyone.
One battle is against corporate censorship. Recently, nine Black workers from an Ohio auto plant filed a lawsuit against General Motors for several racist incidents that included hanging nooses and ‘whites only’ bathroom signs. While the incidents date back to March 2017 – only four months after the election of Trump – Black employees say racists threats continue. They’ll see GM in court.
And last month, Rep. Maxine Waters met with CBS after their news team proudly tweeted its line-up of 2020 election reporters that did not include a single African-American journalist. Rep. Waters pointed out the irony between the announcement and how CBS touts its supposed support for diversity on its website, and requested an explanation. CBS promised to unveil a more diverse slate of African-American journalists in the coming months.
These circumstances are far too familiar, played out and tired. For centuries, Black people have stood at the intersection of racial hatred, implicit bias, White supremacy, and fights for racial and economic justice. But, this transformative moment requires a level of urgency and action to keep our gains from remaining stagnant or even being reversed.
In the year before his death, Dr. King said: “There is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”
Fifty-five years after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Dr. King’s quote still rings true. Black history, our legacy, should continue telling the story of how Black workers rise. Silencing Black workers is no longer an option.
We will explicitly name issues of discrimination and challenge the status quo. We will change the rules, value dignity at work and treat others the way we want to be treated.
Big-time CEOs and politicians choose to ignore the concerns of Black workers. Our work, however, is valuable. Black workers deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, to be paid equally for equal work and to operate in safe spaces.
From slavery to the Civil Rights Movement to the Movement for Black Lives, our living history shows us our triumphant past and offers a glimpse into a promising future for Black workers who will fight silence with action and organizing.