Algebra, Civil Rights, Immigrants: Why Sending Them Home Won’t Solve the Job Crisis

From the book jacket of Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights:  “Bob Moses went to Mississippi in 1961, a young man, drawn by the sit-ins.  By 1964, his work and others’ to organize Black voters in Mississippi had famously transformed the political power of entire communities.  Nearly forty years later, Moses is back in Mississippi, organizing again, this time as teacher and founder of the national math literacy program called the Algebra Project.”

As you might imagine I have read a lot of books about civil rights leaders and the Civil Rights Movement.  So when another civil rights worker sent me Racial Equations, I wondered why.  Robert Moses was already a hero in my mind.  I remembered his work in Mississippi registering voters – going to jail and being beaten.  He was an early “outside agitator” and I was proud to be following in his footsteps in 1965 even if I was in South Carolina, not Mississippi.  The book tells his story in Mississippi, but I looked for something else and I found it.  Among other important explanations, I found a reason why sending illegal workers back to where they came from will NOT solve our job problem in the U.S.  Let me use Bob’s words to explain.

In this book Bob writes, “Everyone said sharecroppers didn’t want to vote.  It wasn’t until we got them demanding to vote that we got attention.  Today, when kids are falling wholesale through the cracks, people say they don’t want to learn.  We have to get the kids themselves to demand what everyone says they don’t want.”  That is the mission of this book.  It explains how Bob motivated the sharecroppers and how that same technique works with kids leading them to the Promised Land.  There were some new insights that I want to share.

At Hopson plantation in the Mississippi Delta in 1944 a reliable cotton picker was first demonstrated.  “Each machine picked about one thousand pounds in an hour.  A good human cotton picker could pick about twenty to thirty pounds an hour.  On the first day the machines picked all the cotton in the field…  In dollars and cents…Howell Hopson calculated that the cost of picking by machine was $5.26; the cost of picking by hand was $39.41.”

A new world dawned and this wasn’t the first time an invention had changed the world of cotton production.  More than two hundred years before the cotton gin had made it possible for the production of cotton to explode.  In human terms that meant that there was a greater need for slaves to pick the tons of cotton the new machine could clean much faster than human hands.  Slave producing plantations provided the new workers that laws against the slave trade had stopped.

That invention made slaves more necessary but the invention in 1944 made it clear that there would be less work for the sharecroppers who now did the work of slaves.  Black labor had been essential to cotton production after the cotton gin and the white culture and government of Mississippi (and other southern states) created many ways to keep Blacks in Mississippi picking cotton.  The cotton picking machine did just the opposite making most sharecroppers unnecessary.    “Economic necessity no longer acted as a constraint on the virulence of white racism.”  Now the White Citizens Council “could mount a drive to ‘export’ Black people out of the state after the 1954 Supreme Court decision with so little objection from the powerful planters.  The Ku Klux Klan was there to encourage those Blacks who refused to go to think again.”  (The decision was Brown v. Board of Education which overturned the segregation decision Plessy vs. Ferguson.  The Brown v. Board decision helped break the back of state-sponsored segregation.)

A year before the cotton picking machine was demonstrated at Hopson another technological revolution occurred for the entire country.  “At the University of Pennsylvania the U.S. Army had contracted some of the schools best engineers to develop an electronic machine for calculating artillery-firing tables.  The result was the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), the forerunner of our modern computers…And just as automation and the mechanical cotton picker were changing cotton and southern agriculture, so, inexorably, would the computer push us from the assembly line by shifting work away from industrially based technology to computer-based technology.  In field and factory, the twentieth century was being uprooted.”

“With the joining of science, ‘high’ technology and commerce, something very different from the smokestack industries that arose in the last century began to dominate production and the economy.  Among the offspring of the new technology were fiber optics, computers and electronics, polymers, ‘research and development,’ and a range of information technologies.  Almost anyone driving a car today is driving a wheeled computer.  Detroit automakers now spend more money putting onboard computers and microprocessors in cars than they spend on steel.  In industrial zones like the Chicago area, steel plants and slaughter houses closed or began moving away around the same time the mechanized South began to push people out.  The industrial corridor of great factory cities lying between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic that once powered the economy acquired a new name: the rust belt.”

“And as the need for assembly line workers diminished, the need for what economists have begun to call the ‘knowledge worker’ grew.  Such workers have technical skills related to computers and automated machinery, and interpersonal skills such as the ability to communicate effectively and work as a part of a team.  The need for such workers continues to grow along with their salaries.  The American electronics Association (AEA) defines high-tech workers as those working in computers, consumer electronics, communications equipment, electronic components, semiconductors, industrial electronics, phonics, software services, data processing, and defense electronics.  This industry paid a total of $280 billion in wages between 1997 and 1999 according to the AEA.  During the same period the group says, high-tech workers earned 82 percent more than people in other industries earned.”

“Sixty percent of new jobs will require skills possessed by only 22 percent of the young people entering the job market now.  These jobs require use of a computer and pay about 15 percent more than jobs that do not.  And those jobs that do not are dwindling.  Right now (2001), the Department of Labor says, 70 percent of all jobs require technology literacy; by the year 2010 all jobs will require significant technical skills.  And if that seems unimaginable, consider this: the Department of Labor says that 80 percent of those future jobs do not yet exist.  The demand for high-tech workers is now, however, ‘If there is a dark cloud,’ former AEA chairman Ed Bersoff told a reporter, ‘it’s that if the trend continues (and the tech industry keeps growing), we better find more workers.’  Next year, 1.3 million available high-tech jobs are expected to go unfilled and the demand for workers with high-tech skills is expected to double by 2006.’”

According to “The Week” magazine, “The number of coal-fired power plants dropped from 619 in 2005 to 427 in 2013, and just 65,000 coal miners remain.  Even coal executives admit their industry is in permanent decline.” (April 14, 2017, p.17)  “Propping up a declining coal industry will inevitably reduce U.S. investment in renewable energy – ‘opening the way for China and others to dominate’ the industries of the future…  Rather than trying to return the U.S. to its coal-fired past, Trump should be aiming for the U.S. that could exist 20 years hence – a global leader in clean technology.”

I write today in 2017 sixteen years after Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights was published and our political situation clearly shows the stress that this transition to the electronic world has reeked on our culture and economics.  Politicians promise that they will return us to a world of manufacturing jobs as though they can will a time machine to take us all back.  But they can’t.  The managers of Hopson plantation are not about to “go back” to the days of the cotton gin.  It is not monetarily expedient.  As much as factory workers and others want to go back to an economy based on the assembly line, it is not going to happen and those folks who support candidates who say this can happen will be sorely disappointed.  Most immigrants – legal or not – haven’t taken most of our jobs, they do the jobs that none of “us” want to do.  Other immigrants have the technical skills that Americans have not yet acquired helping our digital country run.  Americans should be thankful for their help and expertise – and working industriously to acquire the digital skills they have learned outside the U.S .

Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights by Robert P. Moses and Charles E. Cobb, Jr. holds so many “ah has” that it is an important read regardless of civil rights, electronics or cotton.  I have picked out a small piece to share, but the next piece is on how mathematics is a tool for liberation.  Students in our public schools – or at home – need to know that math is no longer a class that can be muddled through or skipped all together.   It is as basic as reading and writing if they are to avoid being set aside in the future because they did not learn the lessons of the past.



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