By Jim Miller
Last week will live in infamy as the time when the American House of Representatives consciously voted to take away health care from millions of Americans, potentially threatening the lives of countless numbers of our family members, friends, and neighbors. It was also the week when May Day rallies happened across the country, including here in San Diego.
At San Diego City College, my friend and colleague, Christy Ball, delivered the following speech that tells the story of the very Americans who are now at great risk, and it shares the anger that more and more Americans are feeling at the cruelty of the current regime. For my column, then, I yield my soapbox to her.
May Day Speech, 2017
By Christy Ball
These past two weeks, my Introduction to Literature class has been studying A Raisin in the Sun written by Lorraine Hansberry in 1959. In it, Walter, the main protagonist of the play, explains to his mother the following. He says,
“Talking ‘bout life, Mama. . . . Mama, you know it’s all divided up. Life is. Sure enough. Between the takers and the `tooken.’ I’ve figured it out finally. Yeah. Some of us always getting ‘tooken.’”
Six decades later, Walter’s words still ring true.
I am a former Extended Opportunity Programs and Services (EOPS) student here at City College and, as an adjunct professor over the last eight years, I have discovered that my story is not unique. So many students can relate to my struggles and many have endured far greater challenges than I have had to face due to systemic racism.
I come from a working-class family. My dad Charlie—who adopted me so I could have his last name—was in the Army until a training accident took the feeling out of his left leg. He then worked as a drafter until a non-violent felony conviction took away his employment options. Afterwards, he worked in construction until he got hurt on the job in an accident that took away his physical strength.
Now, my once playful pops lives with degenerative disc disease in his back, a hernia in his belly, and is wheelchair-dependent because of the loss of his legs. Like Walter discovers in Hansberry’s play, my dad too found that capitalism was happy to take his labor. But now the Veterans’ Administration does whatever it can to deny him full disability benefits with endless red tape.
My mother—who raised me on her own for three years after my birth father returned to Iran— worked as a secretary until carpal tunnel and tendonitis took away her typing skills. For most of her life, my mother, like many of the women in my family, worked the second or third shift as a server and another job during the day until she too became too disabled to work any longer.
For them, our aching bodies are just a means for more production. And when we need protections, when we need a livable wage to raise our families, when we need subsidized daycare so we can work, and when we ask for universal healthcare like every single other developed nation in the world, they have the nerve to label us as LAZY.
Both of my parents worked until they could work no more. And do you know what they have to show for all of their labor? Pain. Lots and lots of pain. In their backs, in their necks, in their hands, in their chests.
When I look back on my life, my parents were always working, two or three jobs, or looking for work, to support our family of five. That meant that I, as the eldest in the family, assumed more responsibilities in our home: taking care of my two younger sisters, making sure they got their homework done, walking them to school, doing the dishes and the laundry, fixing dinner…the list goes on and on.
And, yet, my family was always one job loss or illness or accident away from losing our housing. In fact, we spent many a day and night in shelters—including St. Vincent de Paul right here down the street—welfare offices, and food lines at the local church.
My parents were always working, but it was never enough to fully stabilize our lives. And is it any wonder? Nobody can support their family on a single salary in America. Right now, according to 2016 data from the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, to rent a modest 1-bedroom apartment in California at the current minimum wage, a person needs to work 89 hours a week. And to afford a two-bedroom apartment? You need to make at least $28.90 an hour! How many jobs can working-people find that pay that? How many hours can we be expected to work just to get by?
Like many white Southerners, my parents were duped by the myths of meritocracy and bootstrap theory. They bought into the idea that if you worked hard enough, you could get out of poverty, you could move beyond living paycheck to paycheck, you could change your circumstances. And yet, here I am, a sure sign of success for all of their sacrifice—a working professional, the supposed outcome of the American Dream ideal. But the reality is that I am $90,000 in debt for an education that is completely free in other countries.
As an adjunct instructor, I have zero job security. I have the same or more education as full-time faculty and as much experience in teaching, but I earn half of the pay. I can lose my healthcare insurance at any time because it is tied to the number of classes I am assigned–which as an adjunct, is never certain. I must scramble from campus to campus, spreading my time and self so thin that sometimes I forget which campus I am supposed to be on.
My folks listened to the promise of capitalism—that those who worked would find material success. But what we found was debt and a safety net traded to give the top 1% more of the pie. Under Trump, we have just swapped student loan default protections for higher fees because the Trump administration cares more about protecting banks than protecting students from predatory lenders. My whole life capitalism has told workers that we are disposable people, threatening us at every turn. It told us that a livable wage was too much to ask for. It told us that we just needed to try harder.
In other words, it straight up lied to us.
As Trump’s administration fills with billionaires with little to no political experience in their assigned office or policy area and his family members occupy positions they are not qualified for, there can be very little doubt that our leaders are driven by corporate interests and cronyism.
For a very long time, too many of our political leaders have been on short-term borrows from the corporate world. Now, with the election of Trump, they are not even trying to hide it. These so-called leaders go into office, make policies that favor their corporate friends; then they leave office and return to the private sector. They are not in office to serve the People.
For them, our aching bodies are just a means for more production. And when we need protections, when we need a livable wage to raise our families, when we need subsidized daycare so we can work, and when we ask for universal healthcare like every single other developed nation in the world, they have the nerve to label us as LAZY. They say we want HANDOUTS. That we feel “ENTITLED” to something that does not belong to us. That we must be “SOCIALISTS.”
But guess what, friends? At the end of the day, that is OUR money. That is OUR labor that makes the company function. Our fingers that type the memos. Our backs that break making the beds in the hotels. Our innovative ideas that grow the business. That is OUR money that buys the products that benefit stakeholders. And I am sick and tired of billionaires born into wealth calling the hardworking people who make this country actually function LAZY. We have been working from the start. OUR labor starts in the home and continues until we can work no longer. Our labor produces the money you hoard when you don’t pay your fair share of taxes.
When green rules everything around you, it is no wonder that the land of the free is really the land that incarcerates the most people. It is no wonder that the finest city in America is really home to the 4th largest homeless population. It is no wonder that 1/3 of community college students in this state–the world’s sixth largest economy– “face uncertain housing and homelessness while 12% aren’t sure where they will get their next meal.” And it is no wonder that when we delve deeper into that data, that we find black and southeast Asian students face food and housing challenges at a higher rate. It is no wonder that adjunct faculty make up 83% of departments of community colleges on a national scale and yet must work at two, three, four campuses to earn the same compensation as their full-time colleagues.
It is no wonder because the bait and switch promise of capitalism has led us to a place of hypocrisy and contradiction.
We have been led to a place where we don’t take care of our students, the poor, the hungry, or any of our most vulnerable populations. We have been led to a place where we don’t care about the environment, a place where congressional leaders and oligarchs in the highest offices are completely out of touch with everyday people and want to cut programs like Meals on Wheels and after school lunch programs because “there is no evidence” that these programs work. They need “evidence” because they know nothing about our lives because they’ve never needed these programs.
In today’s America, billionaires like Betsy DeVos who have zero public school or political experience can buy their way into positions of power that have a direct impact on our lives. We are living in a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy where a racist misogynist who can’t even spell “precedent” can become president.
We are living in the time of inversions and reversals and this is why our unity and vigilance matter more than ever.
In Trump’s America, his nominee for Secretary of Education didn’t know at her confirmation hearing that the Individual with Disabilities Education Act is a federal law that must be enforced in all 50 states. Instead she wanted to leave it to the states to decide how to enforce it.
As the aunt of a beautiful non-verbal boy with blindness and autism, and two nephews with ADHD who depend on IEPs and specialists, I can tell you this ignorance terrifies me. And worse, when given a chance to clarify her statement, DeVos completely ignored the majority of students with disabilities who attend public institutions but instead focused on programs that promote the privatization of education, further showing that working-class families with children with disabilities just don’t matter in her vision for privatized education in this country.
In Trump’s America, we have seen the uptick of white supremacy and racism in every corner of society. From craft-making Michaels to hipster Starbucks to high school sporting events, racists have become emboldened, terrorizing people of color, chanting obscenities, verbally assaulting and taunting people based on their perceived race. Just last week, a judge ruled that a mostly white suburb in Birmingham, Alabama could secede from a school district despite a clear racial motive in order to keep their schools white. In this movement for “local control of schools” segregation has re-emerged masked as parental concern. One can’t help but see the similarity between their push for local control and the restrictive covenants Lorraine Hansberry writes about in her play, agreements signed by “concerned” whites in the North to keep black people out of white neighborhoods after the Great Migration.
In Trump’s America, wait–you know what? Fuck that–this is NOT Trump’s America! He may be the avatar of capitalism and white privilege. But WE the People, are made ONE by our commitment to intersectional justice. WE the Union–the mighty, mighty Union–are the lifeblood, the heartbeat, and the voices of true greatness in America, and together we will defy hate politics, defend rights, demand justice, and co-create the world we believe in.
This is a transcript of the speech Christy Ball delivered at the 2017 May Day Teach-In at San Diego City College. She is the first member in her family to earn a four-year degree; former Extended Opportunity Programs and Services (EOPS) student at City; and current adjunct English professor at San Diego City College and Southwestern College.