This week, many people criticized the NCAA for its treatment of college basketball players. LeBron James called the NCAA “corrupt.” Stan Van Gundy, the coach of the Charlotte Hornets, remarked that they there were the “worst organization” and labeled their actions as “racist.” This criticism emerged after a report revealed that dozens of players had been paid and given loans as compensation for their play. This violated NCAA policy, which does not permit players to receive any compensation outside of athletic scholarship and stipends. These NBA players and coaches who voiced their criticisms believe the system unfairly benefits administrators and universities, since the NCAA and the colleges obtain a gigantic revenue stream from college sports, especially basketball and football. These sports have a huge concentration of black players, often from poorer backgrounds, who are robbed of fair payment.
Some express outrage at this system as some sort of abnormality, saying that it symbolizes an archaic relic of the past. I do not believe this. In fact, the NCAA is representative of the labor system in the United States. Various other institutions engage in racist labor practices far more sinister than those of the NCAA.
Prisons are widely discussed as the most prominent example. The 13th Amendment states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Slavery was not illegal as long as a person had been convicted of a crime. In this day and age, black people in the United States are incarcerated at a rate five times greater than that of white people, based on policing practices targeted at black communities. Our government incarcerates minorities in America and then uses them as free labor. This system generates billions in profit, and in a lot of prisons, kitchen laborers only receive 12 to 40 cents an hour. Such penitentiaries epitomize how our labor system has been fueled on the free labor of blacks and Latinos.
Domestic workers are another largely ignored and mistreated part of our labor system. Just in California, there are over 340,000 domestic workers being paid below the minimum wage. Women — often black, Latino or immigrants, comprise most of the workforce. These workers, who take on the strenuous tasks of cleaning and child labor, should be treated as professionals. Instead, they are underpaid, susceptible/vulnerable (pick whichever one you think sounds better) to unchecked sexual harassment and violence and often work ridiculous hours. Yet these workers do not have guaranteed protections in many states, as federal labor and employment law often specifically excludes these workers. Outside of their own resistance to this system, these workers remain largely unprotected with low pay and are subjected to the whim of their employers.
Domestic workers and prison laborers represent only the tip of the iceberg. Farmwork and sexual trafficking represent just some of the other institutions which do not pay up to the minimum wage and employ racist, ableist and violent labor practices. Of course, no one should be surprised. The history of the United States has built these types of institutions into our economy. Slavery, black codes, sharecropping and segregation have all been designed to dehumanize certain groups and generate enormous profit for others. Even as black men and women have worked to dismantle the power of these structures, they persist formally and informally in different ways today.
Yet we should not just segment these systems. They extend across our economy. On average, black women earn 67 cents for every dollar white men earn. Black men earn 6 dollars less per hour than white men. Black workers in America are pushed into lower-paying jobs and have drastically higher unemployment rates. Racist labor practices extend beyond certain occupation and institutions; they are fused into the foundations of our economy and affect people regardless of education or occupation. Just pointing to the NCAA and ignoring the larger structural problem shifts the conversation away from the truth that a racist economy has always existed in this country. Iniquity is the rule, not the abnormality. The NCAA is just the upper echelon of a far more sinister structure.
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