Racism in the strawberry fields

Most people in the United States don’t think racism is a problem. While they’ll agree it was a “problem of the past,” the lack of formal segregation (the only kind of racism people were taught to understand) suggests to them not only have things gotten better, they’re pretty good overall.

This perspective is rooted in the post-Civil Right Era debates between the Left and the Right, a debate the latter largely won.  When Reagan seized the rhetoric of “personal responsibility,” he worked from the assumption that people were unencumbered by any formal structural kinds of impediments to their own progress and, so, if they were poor, it was their fault.

The lack of recognition of racism in our present-day is ultimately linked to our lack of understanding regarding how “race” actually operates in our society.  As I suggested above, that is not surprising considering the historic contest of the last thirty years over ideology and interpretation, a struggle of public policy and accountability as much as anything else.  But our condition is also expected when you consider the complexity with which race actually does operate in our present moment.

Take strawberries.

In 2007, over the objection of 50 medical and scientific experts, the Bush Administration’s EPA approved the use of the pesticide methyl iodide.  The chemical is promoted by the strawberry industry, despite the fact it “has been found to cause thyroid toxicity, neurological damage, and fetal loss in lab animals.”

The letter written by the group opposing its approval in 2007 said, in part, “We are concerned that pregnant women and the fetus, children, the elderly, farm workers, and other people living near application sites would be at serious risk.”  The EPA approved it anyway.

You and I and anybody else who might ever eat a strawberry is at risk because of this chemical.  Honestly, we have been for a long time.  Strawberry production is reliant on a host of chemicals, not to mention systemic labor abuses, some of which were detailed in Eric Schlosser’s 1995 exposé of the industry.  The long and short of it is, none of us should at strawberries, for both health and moral reasons.

The most disturbing part of this, however, is the way racism is at play.  Brown bodies toil in those fields, almost without exception. Those brown bodies are not valued by government or society as embodying the same kind of human being as do white bodies.  Their cancer rates are irrelevant; their wombs are collateral damage.  Their humanity is dismissed as an appropriate risk and loss in order for us to have big, red strawberries.

The use of methyl iodide has been banned by the State of New York. The decision on whether to scrutinize its use in California is currently in the governor’s hands. In the next two weeks, Schwarzeneggar will make his decision: to be a pawn of agribusiness or to recognize the humanity of poor, brown workers.  We will see.

A tremendous h/t goes to Barry Estabrook and his coverage of this issue on Gourmet.  Their “food politics” coverage is almost without rival.

Read more LATINO LIKE ME.

2 thoughts on “Racism in the strawberry fields

  1. Yeah, as I keep telling people, I eat organic not for my good but for the good of the farmworkers. It’s that simple.

    I gotta take issue with your opening claim, though, Profe. When you say “most people in the United States,” I suspect you’re committing the Default Fallacy. “Most people” includes a whole lotta brown people (both documented and undocumented), and an awful lot of them know that racism is alive and well and living large in the USA.

  2. Alas, my friend, even with a generous count in 2010, better than 6 out of 10 people living in the US will be “non-Hispanic white.” That’s not to say the “most” of which I speak does not, in fact, include some brown, Black, and other nonwhite Americans. But even if it included ALL of them, it still wouldn’t be “most” Americans.

    I, perhaps, should have qualified “problem” to say “Most people in the United States don’t think racism is a BIG problem.” When I made the assertion is was thinking of this: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/01/18/AR2009011802538.html

    As always, thanks for the thoughtful read.

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