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Work, the Best Medicine for Racial Hatred
Tone was born and raised by caring parents in Baltimore City. Unfortunately he was a slow learner and was also black, which means that his peers would harass and alienate and attack any one of their number who made any effort to gain an education. For Tone, survival called, he cliqued up, and got passed through school barely able to read and not able to count reliably above ten.
However, even though he lacked the defiance to go against his peer-inflicted cultural conditioning and pursue an education, he also declined to get involved with crime. Tone was a decent, unremarkable, guy with a clear sense of right and wrong. Unlike many of his peers he had a father, who gave him that. Although Tone’s ability to manage inventory was never going to be there, he did accept training and I was able to teach him how to build displays. His customer service was excellent and that counted for a lot.
Tone, like most of my black clerks who worked afternoons or overnight and had to travel through Baltimore on foot in the dark, was arrested on roughly a quarterly basis for being a black man on foot in Baltimore after dark. He was also attacked and beaten by innocent unarmed black youths on a few occasions. He would be out sooner rather than later, as he was not one of those knuckleheads that fought or back-talked the cops. Tone could not afford a lawyer. He used to give my name and number to the public defender so I could vouch for his job status. I have spent my share of time observing court cases in Harm City, and for all of the overloaded dysfunction, counsel and judge alike seem committed to keeping non-violent employed black men out of jail. They, unlike the people who make the laws, understand that having a job is a huge leg up for men like Tone.
There was an occasion where my night crew staged a mutiny, which resulted in me firing or demoting all but one man. I cobbled together my customer service clerks like Tone and tossed them all onto the night crew for training. I knew this would be tough for Tone, working a full 8 and sometimes 10 hours, as he had a drinking problem. Liquor was how he had swallowed the pain of running the gauntlet between criminals and cops for 40 years in a world that literally did not add up for him, and was plastered with signs that made less sense to him than they do for anyone reading this. He ate a whole lot of pain, and it showed in his eyes. I did not think he would be able to handle the demands of night work, but he wanted the chance to prove himself after I found out he could not count well enough to do the receiving.
Some of the guys on this ad hoc crew hated each other. I assigned them aisles and left them to sort the order without assigning a lead. Sorting the order is what separates the men from the boys on a night crew. Every man needs to be dedicated to saving the next man a step. As I was up in the office taking off my douche bag management drone shirt and tie and slacks and putting on some working clothes, a heated argument broke out between three of the men over how the order would be sorted.
I did not hear Tone’s voice.
Two of these dudes were ready to fight, and Joe-Damn barked in his gravelly voice, “Come on ya’ll fools. Just aks Jimmy L when his ass get down here.”
Then I heard Tone speak up, “No! We men. We gotta learn ta work togetha. Havin’ the GM work over night with us is an embarrassment! We need ta come togetha as a crew. No fightin’ ya’ll—none, not while I’m here.”
Tone had always been the quiet man that said “Yes sir,” and leant a hand. These guys were dumbfounded, and listened as he laid out a plan that was fair, not too inefficient and had the virtue of simplicity.
I opened the door and came down into the stockroom in my sleeveless shirt and jeans, and he looked at me and said, “We got it covered Boss.”
I said, “Then I’ll build the displays while you guys freight.”
He looked at me and said, “How 'bout I build the displays and you go home and get some rest?”
I just stuck around long enough to make sure Tone had a handle on things. He read at a fifth grade level, could barely count, and was actually drunk at the time. But he had character, had stopped a fight, and had gotten these guys to work together. Now they knew that I trusted him, that as long as they made things work and made him look good, instead of letting him sink—which is what happens to a lot of guys with limited tools that get promoted in retail food—that they all had a job, a boss that would talk to the cops and lawyers on their behalf. They knew, that I knew, that he was drunk. That was actually the glue that sealed the deal with this crew. In my promotion of Tone they had proof that they would only be treated based on their performance, proof that nothing mattered to this version of The Man but actions.
The crew that I had just dissolved had taken a racist stance against working for a white man. This crew, with one of the same men, made an equally cohesive decision to negotiate a work arrangement with that same white man, which was enabled by Tone taking a chance that I would back him up if he stuck his neck out.
Many times I have been party to the unmasking of the toxic chimera of racism in the workplace. So long as the workplace is run on merit, a natural hierarchy based on character will usually emerge. The corporations and unions I have worked for had numerous methods for destroying these natural hierarchies and retarding the working man’s experience. But, in a natural work environment, where men have the option of doing the right thing—which is rarely as complicated or as stressful as the alternative—even poorly educated men who have been raised to believe that they are hated and treated unfairly because of their race, will be able to peal the lie away.
I would like to caution the reader that few natural work environments are tolerated in the present society, and that I have never witnessed a mixed gender crew, or an all female crew, uplifting itself in the way that Tone, Joe-Damn, John, and the other men did that night. This was not a one man act. When Tone offered himself as the rallying point, the rest of the crew agreed, and supported him.
Tone was not up to handling this kind of pressure for long, and I eventually gave him an easy gig working daylight so he wouldn’t have to worry about man-stomping hoodrats or cops, essentially putting him out to pasture in return for doing his part as a lead over the course of one clutch season.
I don’t know what became of Tone’s employment status when I left. I do know that he died in his early fifties, this past July, and that his 80-year-old father buried him on a Wednesday.
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