It’s All in the Context
Last month I wrote about protesters interrupting a speech Bernie Sanders gave in August during an event celebrating the 80th anniversary of Social Security. Since Bernie was interrupted by two Black Lives Matter protesters, I noted, “By the way, when the Social Security Act was passed it deliberately excluded Black people.”
A reader responded: “In reference to Mr. James’ article I would like to point out an error in his comments. The Blacks were not exempted from Social Security. The people exempted were farm workers and domestics.
“Also,” the reader continued, “would Mr. James think that it would be alright [if] while the Rev. Martin Luther King was making a speech … a couple of hooded KKK members interrupted him to make a point?
“I am a very liberal person when it comes to social issues, but you have to make sure that what you write is in fact accurate.”
Factual accuracy is important. I agree. Something of equal importance, especially in discussing race, is context. Context can be difficult to find. I totally understand. We naturally want to take things at face value. We want to believe that everyone is honest. Unfortunately, as we all know, when it comes to politicians and lawmakers, honesty isn’t always the policy they’re best at.
The reader is correct that race isn’t mentioned on the list of exceptions to the 1935 Social Security Act. But you have to read that list in context.
Among the seven groups excluded from Social Security — federal workers, state workers, those engaged in “casual labor not in the course of the employer’s trade or business” — were those performing “agricultural labor” and “domestic service in a private home.” According to the 1933 Census, those two exceptions alone included roughly two-thirds of the Black workforce. So, even though we weren’t listed as such, Black people were largely excluded from receiving the benefits of the Social Security Act.
Going further, in Pitied But Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare, 1890-1935, historian Linda Gordon concludes, “Social Security excluded the most needy groups from all its programs, even the inferior ones. These exclusions were deliberate and mainly racially motivated, as Congress was then controlled by wealthy southern Democrats who were determined to block the possibility of a welfare system allowing blacks freedom to reject extremely low-wage and exploitative jobs as agricultural laborers and domestic servants.”
Political scientist Robert C. Lieberman, economists Lee J. Alston and Joseph P. Ferrie, as well as many other historians and academics have written about the southern, racist influence over the Social Security Act.
Is the interruption of Bernie Sanders by two Black Lives Matter protesters comparable to a hypothetical interruption of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. by two hooded Klansmen?
I see similar versions of this question a lot. The usual response is to compare and contrast the two groups of protesters, but for me it doesn’t even get that far. That’s because the question attempts to equate two diametrically opposed groups. The first group (BLM) wants to stop the violence being inflicted upon them, and the second group (the KKK) wants to inflict violence upon the first group. It’s a false equivalence that turns the question into unanswerable nonsense, like, “Who’s taller: unconditional love or Thursday?”
On the other hand, if this is a legal question about freedom of speech, though I am not an expert on constitutional law and do not speak declaratively on subjects about which I am unfamiliar, I can tell you this: laws and public policies are often treated as the source of our collective morality, but they aren’t. They’re only a reflection of that morality — a weird-ass, fun-house mirror kind of reflection, but a reflection nonetheless.
Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller, as well as a locally known filmmaker. He lives in Portland and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.