Something My Grandfather Seemed to Know About Race and Class

polish-immigrantsI want to share with you some stories about my father’s father, Stanley J. Pawelek. Grandad Pawelek seemed to know something about race and class that feels extraordinarily important for this moment in American history.

He was the oldest of nine children born and raised in Thorp, Wisconsin. He was the son of Polish Catholic immigrants who didn’t speak English. Thorp was a farm town, and the Paweleks were subsistence farmers. They owned two acres of land and some animals—mostly chickens. My father remembers visiting Thorp with his parents when he was young. He loved Thorp. He loved the land. He loved eating fresh eggs for breakfast. He says his extended family was lovely in the sense that they were tight-knit and still practiced Polish culture and traditions. I get the impression from my father they were ‘salt-of-the-earth’ people. When he was with them he was one of them. He belonged. He felt loved. But there was a shadow side. They were racist. Like so many European immigrants who would eventually lose their hyphens and become White Americans, the Paweleks very quickly picked up American racism towards Blacks and other people of color. In fact, picking up and expressing that racism was part of becoming White. My grandad was no exception. My father remembers him using racist jokes and slurs. He believed Blacks were inferior to Whites. He didn’t have much contact with Hispanics, Asians, Arabs and Native Americans; but I suspect if he had he would have held racist beliefs about them too.

My grandad also held deep admiration for what he called “the working man,” specifically people who worked with their hands. “A man doesn’t need a college degree to achieve the American dream,” he would often tell my father. A man could work with his hands—build things, manufacture things, repair things—and earn a good living, good enough to support a family, purchase a home and retire with enough savings to maintain a decent standard of living. He saw the working man as the proud, heroic heart of American society.

Oddly, he did not possess the gift of working with his hands, which may be why he developed a very specific vision for his life. He wanted to be the director of an industrial arts program for a major urban school system. He wanted to help train the next generation of working men. He knew this by the time he reached high school. He went to college to learn how to teach industrial arts and eventually earned a Ph.D. in vocational education from the University of Minnesota. In the early 1940s the Baltimore, MD board of education hired him as Supervisor for Industrial Arts, a job he held for over 30 years. He retired in the mid-70s for health reasons related to diabetes and died soon after that.

Baltimore desegregated its schools soon after the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. As was the case in many towns and cities, White parents boycotted. They kept their children home. Grandad Pawelek refused to participate in the boycott. He went to work and he sent his kids to school. My father has vivid memories of White parents lining the walkway to the school entrance, taunting and spitting at him and the small handful of White students whose parents weren’t boycotting. We aren’t sure what my grandfather thought about integration or the boycott. The message to my father was crystal clear: your education is more important than whatever I may think or say about Black people.

In the pre-segregation era when my father was in elementary school, he and my grandad had an interesting Saturday morning routine. They would visit the schools under Grandad’s supervision. They would drive first to a White school, get out of the car, enter the shop wing, remove the best tools and equipment, load up the car, drive it across the city to a Black school, and replace what my father calls the ‘crappy’ tools and equipment at the Black school with the high quality tools and equipment from the White school. While they did this, my grandad would talk to his son about the working man. He didn’t talk about the White working man. It was just the working man. As Supervisor for Industrial Arts for the City of Baltimore, he understood it was his job to insure that every student received an education that would enable them to take their place in that proud, heroic heart of American society. If the Black schools under his supervision did not have adequate tools to successfully educate Black students, it reflected poorly on his leadership and he would do what he could to make things fair.

What I find so fascinating and confusing about this story is that despite his racist beliefs, he behaved in a principled way. He believed Blacks were inferior to Whites, but somehow his racism did not eclipse his sense of obligation to every school, teacher and student under his supervision. His racism did not eclipse his commitment to equality of opportunity. His racism did not eclipse his vision of who America is for, who could enter the working class, get a good job, support a family, purchase a home. His principles were bigger than his racism. His America was bigger than his racism.

The original title of this sermon was “What About All That Rage?” There are two underlying sources of White rage in the United States. The first is legitimate and the nation—including communities of faith—needs to address it: rage at rising economic inequality, economic neglect, the disappearance of traditional blue color jobs, a related deterioration of communities where those jobs were prevalent, and a prevailing sense of alienation, cynicism and loss in those communities. Though this rage is most closely associated in the public mind with White communities in the American rust belt—the declining manufacturing centers of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin—it exists everywhere in the country. It existed long before the 2016 presidential campaign, and people feel it across the political spectrum. Bernie Sanders spoke to this rage on the political left as much as Donald Trump on the right. During the party primaries it was fascinating to note a significant overlap among Sanders and Trump supporters. On the Democratic side in particular, often voters weren’t choosing between Sanders and Clinton. They were choosing between Sanders and Trump. In my sermon on the Sunday after the election I said if this election result was truly “a cry for economic renewal; if President-elect Trump and his supporters understand he has just been charged with dismantling the forces driving the nation’s industrial decline, driving the stark, immoral and unsustainable rise in income inequality, driving the erosion of workers’ rights, wages and dignity … that’s a movement I want to be in.”[1] Principle, not party.

But there’s a second source of White rage which dashes my hopes for this movement: the rage of White supremacy, White nationalism and xenophobia mingled with an alarming embrace of misogyny, homophobia and anti-Semitism. This rage is also not new, but it has been given new life with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. I do not believe everyone who voted for Trump supports White supremacy. I am heartened when I see Trump voters, Republicans and conservatives trying to distance themselves from White supremacy and from Trump’s more egregious statements. Nevertheless, this rage is misguided, dangerous and un-American. It is a form of evil, and the nation—including communities of faith—need to counter it resolutely.

These two sources of White rage became entangled during the campaign. Trump’s rhetoric enabled the entanglement. Legitimate White rage over the effects of globalism, factory closures, job losses, workplace automation and income inequality became entangled with illegitimate racist calls for border walls, Muslim bans, law and order, stop and frisk policing and the continuing roll-back of voting rights. Illegitimate and immoral White American racism hijacked legitimate, moral anger at the nation’s economic condition. White American racism trumped America’s principles of fairness, justice and equality. It will be enormously important in the coming months and years to disentangle these two sources of White rage. The church must send us forth to engage with the rage for economic renewal, and to confront, challenge, and turn back the rage for White supremacy.

Grandad Pawelek said racist things and held racist beliefs. But from what we can tell, his racism didn’t become entangled with his vision of who could occupy that proud, heroic working class heart of America. While his racism was wrong, his understanding of the working class was right. Even before desegregation, even before the civil rights movement was in full gear, the American working class was never a purely White class. It has always been multiracial, multicultural, multi-ethnic. And it has always included women. It has always experienced racial tensions. It has its own history of racial and gender segregation, but it has always been a diverse class. It’s not that there’s no such thing as a White working class. There is. It has a history, culture, traditions, expectations. But when politicians and the media use this term to refer to a racially-identified group of voters with current and historic ties to American manufacturing, it gives a misleading impression of how diverse the working class really is. A brief glance at data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals there are Black, Hispanic, Asian and women workers in virtually every type of working class job.[2] And a 2016 study by Valerie Wilson, [3] director of the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy, estimates that the American working class will be majority people of color by 2032.[4]

I’m pointing this out because it’s not just White workers who are angry about the impacts of globalism and income inequality. People of color workers have been enraged about these problems far longer than White workers have. Industrial manufacturing jobs left cities first, decimated Black and Hispanic communities first.[5] The Movement for Black Lives economic justice demands call for economic renewal designed primarily to benefit Black people, but if implemented would actually benefit all working class people. They’re calling for, among other things, a progressive restructuring of the tax code, federal and state jobs programs that provide a living wage, the right for workers to organize, restoration of the Glass-Steagall Act to break up large banks, renegotiation of all trade agreements to prioritize the interests of workers and communities, and protections for workers in unregulated industries—domestic workers, farm workers, tipped workers and incarcerated workers.[6]

It was weird. Donald Trump kicked off his Presidential Campaign on June 16th, 2015, and even then I could sense the White working class rage he was channeling. Exactly one week prior to that I was arrested in Hartford at a Black Lives Matter action. I remember thinking, first, Donald Trump, you’re the 1% of the 1%–you don’t get to be angry. We’re angry. Black Lives Matter is Angry. Immigrants’ rights activists are angry. Voting rights activists are angry. You don’t get to be angry. But then as that legitimate White rage at globalism and “the rigged system” became more clear, I kept wondering, perhaps naively, why does the White working class like him? Why isn’t the White working class supporting the Black Lives Matter economic justice agenda? Why isn’t the White working class making the connection to all workers, to what’s happening in urban centers, on Indian reservations, to the environment, to militarism? Why can’t all of us who care about these things be angry together in a multifaceted movement for black liberation, gender justice, worker rights, immigration reform, environmental justice, demilitarization, criminal justice reform, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights?  

Why? Because, in this case, Donald Trump made racism bigger than America. He entangled legitimate White rage with White identity politics, with racist dog-whistles, with xenophobic fear mongering, with the degradation of women. He didn’t strengthen the White working class. He isolated the White working class from its natural allies. He played the White working class, and in so doing, he is now poised to reverse years of civil rights gains, years of environmental gains, years of gains for women’s rights, years of health care gains, and years of regulations intended to protect the very workers for whom he claims to speak. That’s how racism rolls. It’s also how the rich get richer.

In his farewell speech Tuesday, President Obama made the argument that there will not be economic progress for working people if working people remain divided along racial lines. He said “Blacks and other minority groups [need to tie] our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face—not only the refugee, or the immigrant, or the rural poor, or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged white guy who …has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change…. White Americans [must acknowledge] that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ’60s, that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness…. They’re not demanding special treatment but the equal treatment that our Founders promised….  Native-born Americans [must remember] that the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, and Italians, and Poles—[they] were going to destroy the fundamental character of America. And as it turned out, America wasn’t weakened by the presence of these newcomers; these newcomers embraced this nation’s creed, and this nation was strengthened.” [7]

Let’s take his words to heart. Let’s imagine an America for everyone. And let’s fight for it: in the streets, at the marches, in the legislative halls, in the schools, in the media, and maybe even on a Saturday morning when nobody’s looking and the good tools need to be moved. Let’s make America greater than its racism!

When my grandad died, our family made the trip to Baltimore to attend the funeral. I vaguely remember arriving late. And I vaguely remember for a moment thinking we were in the wrong church. Our white Pawelek family walked into a church filled with Black people. Most of them were the teachers and students who had worked with Stan Pawelek over the years. Working men and women. The proud, heroic heart of America had come to pay its respects.

His racism was real. His America was greater.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Pawelek, Josh M., “Sending Forth: Six Reflections on the 2016 United States Presidential Election,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, November 13, 2016. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/sending-forth/.

[2] See the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey” at https://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat18.htm.

[3] See biographical information for Valerie Wilson at http://www.epi.org/people/valerie-wilson/.

[4] Wilson’s study is entitled “People of color will be a majority of the American working class in 2032: What this means for the effort to grow wages and reduce inequality.” It was published on June 9, 2016. View it here: http://www.epi.org/publication/the-changing-demographics-of-americas-working-class/.

[5] William Julius Wilson’s 1996 book, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor (Vintage Books) is a definitive resource on this issue.

[6] Study the Movement for Black Lives economic justice platform here: https://policy.m4bl.org/economic-justice/.

[7] “President Obama’s Farwell Speech: Full Video and Text,” nytimes.com, January 10, 2017. See: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/10/us/politics/obama-farewell-address-speech.html?_r=0.

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