During the past 90 days, a spotlight has been focused directly on all numbers of structural inequalities that continue to thrive in 21st Century America. The light is deservedly shining right now on Black Americans suffering racism, police violence and economic injustice.
Rural issues rarely inspire broad-scale protests like we are seeing this week in cities across the U.S. But we are suffering related impacts from corporate consolidation, systemic racism and economic policies that favor the powerful.
The vast majority of workers on farms in the U.S. — “Essential Workers” — are undocumented immigrants. That simple, stunning statement is a condemnation of our entire society: we as a people are content to depend for our food on people who don’t share the same basic rights that we do. For immigrants who work on farms, simply driving to work puts them at risk of jail, deportation and separation from their families. Other basic rights are entirely beyond their reach. It is unacceptable.
The vast majority of farmers in the U.S. are in violation of dozens of federal and sometimes state laws simply for hiring the most qualified and experienced applicants available. We live from day to day in denial of this simple fact. Anyone who cannot accept this Sword of Damocles hanging over their head quite simply cannot operate a farm in the U.S.
Farmers and their employees are in a uniquely precarious position. At some level, we must keep our heads down and our mouths closed in fear of giving elected or appointed government officials a reason to take away our livelihoods.
The economics of farming certainly do not justify these risks, either for workers or business owners. Agricultural work is generally seasonal and pays minimum wage. And the majority of American farmers have taken on increasing debt while their net income has dropped in the last ten years.
As a society, we are content to have an abundant and affordable food supply without concern for the ensuring that the essential workers and business owners involved can actually make a living. Most Americans — including policymakers — have zero interaction with the people that grow their food, and rarely travel to rural areas where it comes from. This allows us as a nation to continue to accept a situation that should be unacceptable.
None of these injustices rises to the level of what happened last week to George Floyd. But they are all symptoms of the same toxic mix of racism and economic inequality that poisons our society.
As we speak, scientists around the world are working together racing to develop a vaccine for Covid-19. Perhaps this will become a model of collaboration and dedication that can be put to the task of resolving our nation’s most insidious social and economic illnesses.