David Henry Sterry

Author, book doctor, raker of muck

David Henry Sterry

Tag: Immigrants

Premilla Nadasen author

Premilla Nadasen On Domestic Workers, Poverty, Cops & What Is to Be Done

I have long been interested in the plight of the domestic worker, so when House Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement came across my transom, I leapt on it. It’s a wonderful read, skillfully written and meticulously researched. So I thought I’d pick the brain of the author, Premilla Nadasen, and see what light she can shed on this dirty little secret of American life.

To read this interview on the Huffington Post, click here.

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David Henry Sterry: What led you to become interested in the plight of the domestic worker?

Premilla Nadasen: I live in New York City and a little over ten years ago I learned of the amazing organizing by Domestic Workers United, a coalition of community-based groups representing different ethnic and racial backgrounds. I attended some meetings and demonstrations and was impressed with their innovative labor organizing strategies–especially at a moment when so many political commentators lamented the decline of the labor movement. As a historian, I began to think about antecedents to this movement as well as earlier instances of household worker organizing. I knew about the history of organizing among African American domestic workers–but was surprised that so little had been written on the post-period. So, I decided to write a full-length monograph of this movement. I found that examining the history of domestic worker activism adds a new dimension to the civil rights movement and labor organizing.

DHS: I’m a first-generation American, and I feel it has given me a very different lens than most when it comes to looking at the United States in terms of race, labor, and the class system. Has being raised by assimilating foreigners impacted the way you look at this country?

PN: Definitely. The immigrant experience for me has been partly about seeing the United States as a land of opportunity. We emigrated from apartheid South Africa, a violent, repressive country. My father had been involved in the anti-apartheid movement and was a victim of harassment. The United States, at least on the surface, seemed to offer something better. It didn’t take long, however, to learn that the U.S. had its own structural race/class system.

As an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan I was involved in a student organization that addressed both apartheid in South Africa and racism on the U-M campus. So, my immigrant experience and the barriers that my family and I faced enabled me to understand more clearly the brutal history of racism in this country. I don’t think, however, that the immigrant experience is uniform. There are immigrants who come here with both race and class privilege and use that to integrate into the power structure. Class matters.

DHS: How do you see the struggle of the household worker activists from the 1950s through the 1970s reflected in the world of 2015?

PN: Household workers of the 1950s and 1960s are the prototypical precarious workers. Precarious labor, so much a topic of conversation in the current moment, is work that is insecure, poorly paid, unprotected and unregulated. Workers may be employed temporarily or part-time, or be subcontracted or self-employed. Labor activists today are grappling with how to organize this kind of precarious worker–whether they are Uber drivers or adjunct professors.

I don’t see precarious labor as something new. Certain categories of workers, very often immigrants and people of color, have always labored in precarious conditions. Bracero workers from Mexico, Puerto Rican contract laborers, farm workers, domestic workers, among others, were denied many of the labor protections that were considered basic rights. So, even in the mid-20th century when most American workers seemed to benefit from good pay and generous benefits, some workers labored under precarious circumstances. Examining the activism of household workers in the post-WWII period can offer some lessons for contemporary organizers about how to mobilize this kind of workforce.

DHS: Do you see the relationship between labor, exploitation, race and class that you explore in your books reflected in the terrible events of the last year with video after video of police gunning down unarmed black men?

PN: The exploitation of African American household workers, their marginalization in the labor movement and their dehumanization on the job are ongoing themes in African American history. In many ways the struggle by domestic workers was a struggle for dignity, for recognition, for humanity, and for inclusion into the body politic. And this seems to parallel the contemporary movement against police violence.

The police violence directed at black people is not new, but has been with us for generations. What is new is that we are now able to capture some of that on video. The recent concern about police violence has been focused on black men as victims–to the exclusion of the many black women who have been victims of similar violence. The Black Lives Matter movement, however, has attempted to draw attention to the issues of gender and sexuality that inform state power and violence. Both household worker organizing and the Black Lives Matter movement mobilized against a larger male-defined narrative of racial injustice. Through their organizing these movements did center, and are centering, the stories and lives of African American women, which presents a different lens to think about both injustice and black liberation.

DHS: I’ve done a lot of work with traumatized people, and I found over and over again how telling stories can be a way of changing how people see themselves, how they see the world, and indeed telling stories can be a fundamental way to help change the world. Can you talk about the way storytelling impacted the people in your book?

PN: Storytelling was a central political strategy for African American household workers in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. It was a way for them to develop a collective identity–to see themselves as a constituency with a political agenda. It also tied their movement to the longer history of working-class African American women–very often their mothers, grandmothers, and aunts. So, they shared stories about domestic work that were passed down in their families, stories that in part shaped the historical narrative of African American women. These stories also illuminated some of the harshest aspects of the occupation and offered some guidelines for what decent domestic work looked like–what was considered appropriate or inappropriate for a household worker to do. Geraldine Miller, an activist, who lived in New York City, for example, was told stories of the “Bronx Slave Markets.” These were street corners where African American women stood during the Great Depression waiting to be hired as day laborers. These women were exploited and very often cheated out of their pay. Their bodies were bartered and looked over. Miller had heard stories about how potential employers would drive by “looking for the women with the most-scarred knees” because this was an indication that they scrubbed floors down on all fours. Miller repeated the stories of the slave markets in her organizing. It became a way to identify the occupation with the history of racial exploitation, but also, because she was outraged that women had to scrub floors in this way, Miller’s telling of this story implied that African American domestics would never, ever scrub floors on their hands and knees again. So, storytelling was incredibly important to this movement. It’s how they identified with one another and how they developed an agenda for reform.

DHS: What were some of the difficulties of writing this book? What were some of the joys?

PN: It’s always hard to write histories of poor and working class people because documentation is so limited. Poor and working class people, especially women of color, rarely kept diaries and letters, they didn’t preserve papers and documents, and they didn’t publish very much. Few journalists and writers took the time to interview them or tell their stories. Power influences what archival material is kept and whose stories are preserved. Middle class people are more likely to have contacts with journalists and publishers, so their experiences have come to define the historical narratives. Part of what I try to do is unearth those voices who were less prominent and who have been marginalized in the histories to see what they can offer in terms of thinking about struggles for justice and equality.

The joy in writing the book came when I uncovered their narratives and their stories about the lives and their work. I was fortunate that there were some oral historians and archivists who did preserve the stories of these women. I am thankful that there were people who had foresight and the wisdom to do this. The women in the book are truly remarkable. And I began to see the value in this history more clearly when I spoke to contemporary domestic worker activists who were empowered and inspired to learn of the women organizers who came before them.

DHS: What do you think can be done about the abuses that still occur with marginalized Americans and immigrants who toil as household workers?

PN: One of the arguments of my book is that the most effective movements are grass-roots movements–ones in which poor and working people are able to define their own struggle. And we know from history, as well as just looking around us today, that this is happening. The undocumented immigrant movement, Black Lives Matter, taxi drivers, domestic workers have established grass-roots campaigns to transform the conditions of their lives. So, I think a lot can be done about the abuses of household workers. But we have to take direction from those on the ground to see exactly how that will play out. Clearly, the myth that domestic workers cannot be organized was shattered long ago.

DHS: How does the world of domestic workers differ in terms of gender and race?

PN: Domestic work is a highly stratified occupation. There are white women and people of European descent who work as domestics. They tend to be the most privileged and highly paid. Undocumented immigrants of color who don’t speak much English are perhaps the most exploited. They have the fewest resources and often limited knowledge about their rights and how to secure them. Domestic work is fundamentally about power. And citizenship status, race, ethnicity, language, and gender, all determine the power differential between employer and employee.

DHS: When you watch the movie The Help, what was your reaction to it? I have some friends of color who were very offended by the fact that it had to have a pretty, skinny white girl as one of its heroes. I was curious about your take.

PN: The central theme in The Help is an old one in Hollywood: that of the white savior helping the less fortunate. From my perspective, the movie is less about African American domestic workers than about a young white woman’s journey of self-discovery. The domestic workers she encounters are simply an avenue or a platform for her to achieve that. Quite frankly, I’m tired of that kind of portrayal. We need to move beyond seeing African American history as a backdrop for white empowerment and give poor and working class people the space to tell their own stories and share the narratives of their lives.

Premilla Nadasen is an associate professor of history at Barnard College, Columbia University, and is the author of several books, including the award-winning Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States. A longtime scholar-activist, Nadasen works closely with domestic workers’ rights organizations, for which she has written policy briefs and served as an expert academic witness. She also writes about household labor, social movements, and women’s history for Ms., the Progressive Media Project, and other media outlets.

What You Don’t Know About Immigration and Border Patrol Will Horrify You: Sterry on Huffington Post

To view on Huffington Post click here.

I met Todd Miller when a friend told me about the amazing work he was doing on the issue of immigration, borders, and the people who guard them.  My parents are immigrants who escaped the Olde Country in search of the American Dream, and this has colored who I am, how I think of myself, and how I view America. So when his book Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security came out, I thought I’d ask him to give America the skinny on what’s really happening on our borders.

ToddMiller small BorderPatrolNation smallDavid Henry Sterry: You’ve either lived or worked near international borders your whole life. You grew up on the U.S. border with Canada and have been reporting from the U.S. border with Mexico for more than a decade. What are your observations and what should people know about our borders?

Todd Miller: There isn’t a better time than right now to discuss this. Immigration reform proposals are floating around Congress, and there isn’t one that doesn’t include a multi-billion dollar package to bolster border policing in the south, the north, possibly on the coasts, and definitely in the Caribbean. Since 9/11, more than $100 billion went into a border enforcement apparatus that now seems to be growing for the sake of growth. The budget for border and immigration enforcement, and their law enforcement agencies, are higher than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined, including the DEA and the FBI.  Long gone are the days of orange cones on the bridges at night between Canada and the United States, or chain link fences along the U.S.-Mexico border. Mexican border communities with significant familial, political, and economic ties look like deranged versions of what they were even as little as two decades ago. Twenty-foot walls scar the landscapes, mounted cameras peer into Mexico, and stadium lights blind people at night. Armed Border Patrol agents stand behind these huge obstructions, eyeing Mexico, and sometimes shooting and killing innocent people. A manufactured war zone has been created where there isn’t a war.

DHS: In Border Patrol Nation, you give many detailed examples and stories about how the military style and culture of policing the border is no longer limited to the border itself. What’s going on? Are U.S. Border Patrol really all over the country and not just at the borders? Can you provide examples?

TM: One of the best examples of this is the Border Patrol presence set up to protect the Super Bowl, which has been conducted for the past 10 years no matter if the game is located in Indianapolis or Dallas. A typical operation will include uniformed agents going to train and bus stations in the game’s area, asking people for their citizenship status. This is one example of many of the agency’s post-9/11 expansion into places where it has never been before, having a jurisdiction of 100 miles from any international border–including coastline–into the interior of the United States. This covers an area where two-thirds of the population lives. They are now in other surprising places like Erie, Pennsylvania, Cleveland, Ohio, or Port Townsend, Washington. Since September 11, 2001, Border Patrol has more than doubled its ranks, and is clearly advancing into the interior. Collaboration between these Homeland Security agencies and local police forces (more than 650,000 nationwide) have brought the type of targeted policing into the interior at an alarming rate.

DHS: In Border Patrol Nation you describe the booming business that has exploded around the U.S. Border Patrol. Is this really a growth industry? Explain.

TM: The Border Patrol and the border enforcement apparatus it represents has become big business, and is a growth industry by all prognostications of the market. Companies big and small are flocking to this global industry projected to be worth roughly $20 billion in 2013. And that scratches the surface of what we are talking about. Another projection sees the global homeland security and emergency management industry at well above $544 billion by 2018 if you count “the threat of cross-border terrorism, cyber crime, piracy, drug trade, human trafficking, internal dissent, and separatist movements that have been a driving factor for the homeland security market.”  As we discuss immigration reform, the profit-motive behind border security is perhaps one of the biggest ignored issues.

DHS: Doesn’t increased surveillance, policing, and expulsion of people who are here illegally just make us safer? What’s not to like about a safer country?

TM:  I would argue that it makes us less safe and less secure. If Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy can be ordered out of his car at a Border Patrol checkpoint, then what does that say about the erosion of civil liberties? And if a law-abiding Islamic Studies student can have his laptop confiscated, what does that tell us about freedom of expression? If a U.S. citizen of Puerto Rican descent can be deported to Mexico, and then Honduras—countries where he had never been before—what does that tell us about the racialized nature of this type of surveillance and policing? And if officials hem and haw to tell us how many “terrorists” they’ve caught at the border, how much safer does it make us when the majority of people crossing are simply looking for a job? As a sales representative from a military surveillance company told me, “we are bringing the battlefield to the border.” If these “battlefields” are moving to our neighborhoods, as the notion of the border continually expands, how can we say it’s safer?

DHS: Not everyone agrees with the aggressive treatment of people based on their residency status. There have been flare-ups where ordinary citizens are mobilizing against police actions. What’s been going on?

TM: In Tucson, where I live, some truly remarkable actions have been happening. In one case roughly 100 people formed a human wall around a Border Patrol vehicle so it couldn’t take away two fathers of small children, who agents had arrested under suspicion of not having correct documents. Two days later activists stopped deportation busses in transit, and locked themselves to the vehicles, including its tires, to draw attention to a hungry deportation machine. People are starting to put their bodies on the line in what is, perhaps, the United State’s newest civil rights movement. Undocumented youth, who grew up in the United States, are appearing at U.S. ports of entry in graduation robes and demanding that they be reunited with their families. They do this at great risk: incarceration and permanent banishment from the country.

Todd Miller is the author of Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security, just published by City Lights. http://www.citylights.com/book/?GCOI=87286100874610

David Henry Sterry is the author of 16 books, including Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent Boys: Professionals Writing on Life, Love, Money and Sex, which appeared on the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.  His new book Chicken Self:-Portrait of a Man for Rent, 10 Year Anniversary Edition, has been translated into 10 languages.  He is a finalist for the Henry Miller Award. He can be found at www.davidhenrysterry.com.  https://davidhenrysterry.com/



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