Newt Gingrich has repeatedly shown that he is an existentially ugly person. Therefore, his repeated comments about the black poor, and “inner city” communities, where people “don’t have a work ethic” are not at all a surprise. Time has demonstrated that “compassionate conservatism,” an oxymoron if there ever was one, is not particularly kind, just, or humane.
As demonstrated by his Wednesday editorial on the website Human Events, Newt Gingrich is apparently wedded to the idea that young black and brown kids should have the “privilege” of becoming janitors in their schools in order to learn about the value of “hard work."
There are any number of problems with this argument.
Primarily,Gingrich is recycling the ugly and deeply racist belief that black people are inherently lazy: poor children who don’t see people around them working apparently grow up to be lazy adults, who are on welfare, dependent on the state, and have no understanding of how to put in an honest day’s work. He gives no consideration to the stigma that child janitors would experience, and the taunting and bullying that would inevitably result from being one of the students who carries a pail, mop, or broom around their school.
Newt Gingrich is also blindly ignorant of the issues surrounding structural unemployment in poor inner city communities, and where it is not a deficit of work ethic or drive, but a lack of desperately wanted job opportunities—especially for young people—that drives urban poverty. Given the Right-wing’s assault on unions, and the social safety net, more broadly, Gingrich’s smearing of school janitors as an enriched and craven class of greedy public employees is just more red meat for an agenda that wants to destroy the American middle and working classes.
In all, Newt Gingrich is offering up a Dickensonian fantasy of workhouses in which African American wastrels and street urchins learn the value of hard work from benevolent white folks like him.
Of course, Newt Gingrich’s children, and those of the moneyed classes who he represents, would never be asked to pick up a mop and broom at their schools—as their kids’ responsibility is first and foremost to prepare and study for college, and the bright future which awaits them.
And I must wonder, what lessons have the children of the financier class, the trust fund baby and inherited money types who brought about the Great Recession, been taught about the value of hard work from observing the destructive behavior of their parents during this time of economic calamity?
Over the years, I have developed a pretty thick skin regarding these matters. However, there is something particular offensive about Newt Gingrich’s repeated insistence that poor black kids become janitors in order to learn about the merits of “hard work” that demands engagement. It would seem to his eyes that janitors are disposable people with easy jobs. Moreover, to him, a janitor's job is so simple that anyone, even an elementary or middle school student, could do it well.
As the refrain goes, the personal is political. I am the son of a janitor. I try not to break kayfabe, or to drop the mask too often. Nevertheless, sometimes it is necessary to speak up for yourself, as well as for the many other people who may not have either the privilege, or opportunity, to speak truth to power.
In that spirit, please take this as an open letter of sorts to Newt Gingrich (and the particular brand of compassionate conservatism that he represents).
My father was a hardworking man. He was not perfect. He took his job seriously and worked for many years as a janitor. He did this with pride, integrity, and self-respect. My father rarely took a sick day, and worked in this job for several decades, retiring only in his late 70s. Work meant a great deal to him, and he would eventually pass away about a year later. I warned my father that without a sense of purpose, and isolated from the many people he befriended at his job over the years, that he would not last long. I was (sadly) proven correct.
These are not details designed to elicit a tear; they are details of a full life, the human experience that stands behind words such as “janitor,” “teacher,” “unions,” and “working class.” These are perennially good titles, now transformed into slurs, by people like Newt Gingrich and his conservative brethren.
My father was a boss, a confidante to his coworkers, and advisor to the men and women he affectionately called his “crew.” His work was at times dangerous, involved long hours, and a good amount of responsibility.
No elementary, middle, or high school student could do my father’s job.
Growing up, I was embarrassed that my father was a “lowly” janitor. His job title was technically “senior maintenance supervisor.” I used that whenever I had the chance. When one’s friends are the children of doctors, lawyers, and white collar professionals, you learn to improvise.
There would be many awkward moments, when my father, the janitor, would have one of his three or so pagers go off in the company of my friends. We could be at a bowling tournament, a movie, or a birthday party, and inevitably one of those beepers would ring.
Those who did not know the facts of the situation would ask if “he was a doctor.” I would answer “no, my father just has an emergency that he has to take care of.”
Unlike in Newt Gingrich’s twisted dream, janitors and their families are not rich. My family had good Christmases, an occasional vacation, and nice Sunday meals. My father’s pay kept me in nice clothes, indulged my hobbies, and helped me (with some hefty student loans and grants) to go to college. My father’s work, in combination with my mother’s, kept us comfortable. We were not middle class, or even solidly working class by most measures. Somehow, we were okay.
A janitor’s job is also about personal relationships. I will not pretend that my father’s position as a janitor at a large Ivy League university was typical. He made sure that I met interesting people; I could take the day off of school, follow him around, and go to the library. He would leave me with different professors or graduate students so that I could talk to them about politics, history, or philosophy. Because my father worked there for many decades, he was part of the university community. My father took that role seriously.
For example, there were many occasions when he made sure that international students had a place to eat and go for the holidays (at times, this welcoming space was our home). My father, the janitor, was a union man and took great pride in how he always fought for the rights of the part-time staff—a group that he felt was always “getting a bum deal.”
When people needed jobs, oftentimes young men who were recently released from jail, or career ex-cons, they could come to my father. He would size them up. If they passed his personal test of being honest and direct about their situation(s), my father would go with them to human resources, vouch for their reliability, and put them on his “crew” so that they would learn how to do “right.”
My father also had some fun times at his job. He loved to talk about how, on one afternoon, he had to show a student from ruralChina how to use an American style toilet. My father joked that “the young man made it this far, I didn’t think using one of our toilets would be so complicated.”
There were sad times too.
On more than one occasion my father, a janitor, had to take up a collection for a student to send home to their family, to help them buy a ticket if there was an emergency, or to subsidize the funeral expenses for one of his crew, or the part-timers, who didn’t have his years of seniority, and pay.
No child could do that job.
My father only wanted me to get a job where my hands would be clean, and I would not have to pick up other people’s messes. I have, fingers crossed, more or less gotten that far. It has taken some years, and a bit of growth. But now, I am finally proud to be the child of a janitor. Those millions of us who were taken care of, provided for, and raised by working class folks such as maids, home health care workers, and janitors, have much to hold our heads high about.
These people are the real “job creators” in this country: they pay bills, provide for their families, and donate to churches, mosques, synagogues, and charitable organizations.
Working class people like my father help to sustain communities and neighborhoods.
Whenever Newt Gingrich and his brand of 1% percent plutocrat conservatives besmirch the working people of this country, people like us and our kin, we need to speak up. There is no shame in our lineage. And all of us need to say thanks, to acknowledge those janitors, maintenance people, and the like who work in our schools, office buildings, apartment complexes, and take care of our aged and sick parents and relatives. They deserve our respect; unfortunately, they rarely receive it from the American people.
Once more, I am proud to be a child of the working class. Are you?