Race, money, and all of our politics


This is the kind of thing I was starting to talk about in my previous post: we get caught up in a story that, really, is pretty much over other than the human-interest and prosecution phases, and miss a story that represents a larger tragedy both in lives lost and in its sad connection to our own lives.

A building housing several factories making clothing for European and American consumers collapsed into a deadly heap on Wednesday, only five months after a horrific fire at a similar facility prompted leading multinational brands to pledge to work to improve safety in the country’s booming but poorly regulated garment industry.

By early Thursday, the Bangladeshi news media reported that at least 142 people died in the rubble of Rana Plaza, a building in Savar, an industrial suburb of Dhaka, the capital. Police officials put the death toll at 134, with more than 1,000 of 2,500 workers injured, many of them still trapped. Soldiers, paramilitary police officers, firefighters and other citizens clawed through the wreckage, searching for survivors and bodies.

Like I said the other day, in no way am I feeling callous toward the Boston bombings or the victims. That’s my home, and I still love the dirty water. But the Bangladesh story spent just a few hours on the front page of the New York Times, soon to be replaced by more updates about Dzokhar Tsarnaev and hand-wringing over the minutiae of the investigation and when and whether he’d been read his Miranda rights.

That’s it. A few hours. For a story about a garment factory that supplies American consumers with cheap clothing, at the expense of the pay, benefits, and safety of the thousands of Bangladeshi workers in factories like the one that had visible cracks in the walls, and then collapsed on its workers. When we outsource textile jobs from the Carolinas to Bangladesh, it’s not just jobs we’re outsourcing. We’re outsourcing responsibility for safety, for taking care of the workers who, really, work for us to make things we want. We’re outsourcing labor standards and consciousness of what really goes into the goods we demand from the marketplace. Cheap jeans are important though, and when we prioritize cheap goods over actually caring when fires or collapses hurt and kill workers overseas, or nerve gas attacks happen in conflicts halfway around the world, that is when we reinforce the worst global stereotypes about Americans.

But it’s not really about Americans, is it? Those stereotypes exist here at home too, and they should make us uncomfortable so we can think about what it really means to advocate for equality and understanding and tolerance, and actually live the values we espouse.

I don’t know. More thinking on the way, after that latest story from Fox News about how welfare payments (your tax dollarz!) may have been used to buy the pressure cookers used in the bombings. Because, you know, welfare for brown people leads to terrorism something something.