We have been here before; trading lives for labor. When the production of cotton was more important than the lives of the people picking it. The “hands” of these men, women, and even children were “essential” to the supply chain that provided the central commodity upon which the Industrial Revolution was forged. The alacrity of their labor was so indispensable that they were whipped, tied to stakes, and sometimes killed (as a warning to other workers) if they did not meet the daily quotas to keep the supply chain going. They were essential workers, but non-essential humans.
When President Donald Trump used the Defense Production Act to order meat and poultry plants to remain open, it was distressingly similar. These food processing plants have had to close across the country to curb the spread of COVID-19 illnesses and deaths among the workers. Shoulder-to-shoulder working conditions make social distancing nearly impossible, and the physical nature of the work makes wearing masks difficult. Furthermore, because workers are often not paid for sick days, they are incentivized to work while sick. According to the CDC, over 4,900 of these persons have been infected with the coronavirus. In two of these plants, over 17 percent of the persons have tested positive for the disease.
"These are essential workers, they're not sacrificial lambs," said Stuart Appelbaum, head of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, in an interview with CNBC.
Yet history repeats itself – leaders are sacrificing lives to ensure an "uninterrupted food supply." These meat and poultry plants, just like cotton fields once were, have been deemed "critical infrastructure" to the nation's economy. It is no surprise, therefore, that the presidential executive order seeks to protect plants from profit loss as more workers succumb to the virus. But the governmental prioritization of big businesses over human dignity is nothing new. It is eerily reminiscent of how slaveholders were promised compensation for the loss of slave labor after the Civil War.
Time and time again, America has valued the product over the producers – especially when the producers are immigrants or people of color. Data from the Northwest Arkansas Workers reported in 2016 that meatpacking and poultry workers nationwide are majority immigrant and people of color: 35.4 percent Latino, 20.2 percent black, 8 percent Asian. And so, it is perhaps unsurprising that as these workers protest to save their lives and their families, their pleas are falling on deaf ears.
They are just human beings who want a better life. And yet, they have been executively ordered back to work.
Once again, this COVID-19 crisis has revealed the unjust systemic, structural, and ideological bedrock upon which this country was built. It is the bedrock of white supremacist racism that inevitably renders people of color disposable in service to the “liberties” of white privilege: the liberty to move, to claim space, and to be unfettered capitalist consumers. Indeed, both the presidential executive order, like the armed protests to re-open the country, are examples of privileged "whiteness" standing its ground with no regard for the lives of people of color. From the cotton fields to food-producing plants, this is the American way. But does it have to be?
With crisis comes opportunity. We have the opportunity to be guided by our better angels and to live into our democratic aspiration to be a nation where there is life, liberty, and justice for all. This is, therefore, an unprecedented opportunity for faith and religious leaders to step up and to claim their moral voice. Now is not the time – as Martin Luther King Jr. said – to “remain silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.” Rather, it is time to boldly proclaim that there are no non-essential human beings. If we are to become a nation that is better than the pre-COVID-19 normal, then we must choose to sacrifice privileges, not people. This nation has an unprecedented opportunity to stop perpetuating the legacy of the cotton-fields – will we seize it?