Learning From Shirley Sherrod: Finding Common Ground With the Working Class

07/29/2010 04:47 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Jessica DuLong Journalist, Marine Engineer, Author, My River Chronicles

On Sunday, Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary brought up an important issue that seems to be getting lost in the midst of all the Shirley Sherrod hoopla: What was Sherrod actually trying to say in her NAACP speech that day? Despite what the edited video that cost the Department of Agriculture official her job portrayed, Sherrod's take-home message wasn't promoting race-based division, but quite the opposite. Instead she pointed out the importance of recognizing the injustice that affects people of all races, across the political spectrum: Economic inequality.

"The struggle," she said, 17 minutes into the full video, "is really about poor people. ...It's about those who have versus those who don't."

People like that farmer Sherrod mentioned -- along with so many other white, blue-collar folks in this country -- have suffered severe economic losses over the past several decades. And those losses, some are arguing, have resulted in shifting political allegiances.

Joan Williams addresses these shifts in a recent post, contending that progressives striving to serve other marginalized groups have been blinded to the impacts of class, leaving white, blue-collar workers by the wayside:

[S]ocial inequality also affects whites. While our attention was elsewhere, the wages of white working-class men plummeted 23% between 1979 and 1998, according to Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers in America's Forgotten Majority. Working-class wives flooded into the workplace to keep incomes from falling, but meanwhile salt-of-the-earth Americans became far more vulnerable to abrupt wipe-out, as documented by Joseph Hacker in The Great American Risk Shift (not to mention the recent recession).

How can leaders of a divided nation meet so many different wants and needs? Truth is, Americans on both sides of the aisle share more common ground than we often assume. When it comes to economic opportunity and creating jobs, Americans agree that fostering a stable manufacturing base is key. United Steelworkers International President Leo Gerard recently highlighted a new bipartisan poll that reveals how self-identified Democratic, Republican, Independent and Tea Party voters all want the same thing: for Washington to promote manufacturing and create more manufacturing jobs.

Meanwhile, Mike Elk of Campaign for America's Future maintains that both Democrats and Republicans have failed for years to address trade reform and focus on manufacturing, wasting a critical economic and social opportunity. Now it seems change is on the horizon. On Tuesday a U.S. House Committee approved legislation that would set forth a four-year national manufacturing strategy to:

  • create sustainable economic growth and increased employment
  • recruit, improve, and educate the workforce
  • increase productivity, exports, and global competitiveness; and
  • maintain and improve national and homeland security

The hope is that these efforts will help close the economic gap, creating a more sustainable economy rooted in production. After years without real trade reform; after decades of declining support for domestic manufacturing; after the closure of tens of thousands of factories; after outsourcing production of most of our everyday goods to other countries, now is the time -- and the opportunity -- to give Americans what they want: a solid domestic manufacturing base that provides good jobs. This can bring us closer to economic equality.

As Sherrod conveyed in her NAACP speech, economic opportunity is something all Americans want and need. Reinvigorating domestic manufacturing can not only offer one real solution to our economic turmoil, but it can also serve as an example of how Americans can join forces in a common cause.