At some point in his 56 years of life, Cesar Alteri Sayoc—the man charged with mailing explosive devices across the country and who is the mixed son of Italian and Filipino parents—learned to cloak himself in the construct of whiteness and the benefits he likely presumed it would provide.
Among those were the benefit of the doubt—a privilege generally not granted black men in similar economic stations—that being lost, angry and homeless precipitated his descent into violence. This may be true. It is also apparent that Sayoc’s hopelessness could find salvation in bigotry.
He is just one in a spate of white men who found comfort for their white supremacy in America’s highest executive office and sympathy for their socioeconomic conditions in mainstream media over the course of two violent weeks last fall. Soon after Sayoc was identified as the suspect who spent several days sending package bombs to Democratic officials and terrorizing the country, the public learned about his bankruptcy, the house that was foreclosed, and the van out of which he was reportedly living.
In a world where white interests are prioritized, the black lives that they threaten are collateral damage, afterthoughts in the white imagination. And it begs the question: Where is this attention to the systemic failures of capitalism when black people are its victims, let alone if they are criminal perpetrators?
On Georgia’s red clay in the small town of Sparta, Joseph Flagg hatched an exit plan. His father, about one generation removed from slavery, was old school. He accepted his indebtedness under the exploitative system of sharecropping as simply a way of life. This depressed the younger Flagg, as he witnessed the patriarch work on a farm all year long and finish with virtually nothing. As Joseph would eventually recall to his children—and his oldest child Gwendolyn would later recall to me—the sharecroppers “still owed the white man money and they’re the ones who did all the work. All they got out of it was food.”
Joseph escaped as soon as he was old enough, joining his older brother in Indiana to work at a steel mill in the late 1940s. Fate, and a booming job market, would make New York City his home and that of his descendants for the next several decades. With income he earned at an industrial job in Williamsburg, he would raise his family and, one by one, send for his Georgia relatives to occupy a stretch of Warren Street in south Brooklyn.
Joseph’s eldest child Gwen stayed close to the nest. She fell in love and had her firstborn—Eric Bernard Garner—with her high school sweetheart. Eric Garner learned about agriculture and horticulture from his granddad. “If worse came to worst, a country man could survive,” Joseph Flagg would tell his family, “but a city man would starve to death, because he wouldn’t know how to grow his own food.”
These intergenerational lessons served Eric well and impressed colleagues in his seasonal position at the New York City Parks Department. Unfortunately, it could not secure him a permanent job there or nearly anywhere else for most of his life, until a tragic encounter with New York City police officers ended it.
Eric Garner’s high school dream was to own a chain of mechanic shops servicing foreign cars. He inched closer to realizing it upon graduation, enrolling in college at the Ohio Auto Diesel Technical Institute in Cleveland. He got married to a young woman named Esaw, and they had a child before he could graduate.
With a new family and a history of asthma, his aspirations dwindled. A slew of traditional jobs—and the not-so traditional—followed, from working as a mechanic at Greyhound to being a bouncer to serving as a cashier at a Coney Island Pathmark. The store was conveniently located close to his grandmother, where he spent time with her on weekends.
Job security was fleeting. His prior arrests didn’t help. “He got into a lot of little things. He had a fight with a next door neighbor,” his mom shares. Eric’s street life as the sole breadwinner of a growing family led to a prison bid in 1992. “After a black man is arrested, they are very discriminatory when it comes to the job market.”
Eric wasn’t alone.
Black job seekers, many of whom have been targeted by America’s carceral state, often find limited career options. As the late Devah Pager found in her studies on job discrimination, a black man convicted of a crime is less likely to be hired than a white man who has also been convicted. More critically, a white man with a criminal record is more likely to be hired than a black man without one.
Studies from James Johnson, Ph.D., highlight broader trends disproportionately affecting black people in the wake of deindustrialization (pdf). Between 2000 and 2004, years before the Great Recession, the unemployment rate rose faster for black men than for any other demographic. The blue-collar job exodus, his research has shown, hit black men older than 20 years of age and black youth between the ages of 16 and 19 especially hard. In 2004, the black unemployment rate (10.4 percent) was double the national unemployment rate (5.4 percent), owing in part to the high concentration of black workers who were previously in the manufacturing sector.
These rates don’t account for the many more black men and women who have been unemployed for so long that they’ve given up. A combination of systemic issues have lent to drastic jobless rates among key age groups, like an eye-popping 50 percent joblessness rate among black men in their prime workings years in Wisconsin, the highest in the country and nearly twice as large as the country’s joblessness rate during the Great Depression. In Chicago, black men aged 20-24 are also experiencing nearly 50 percent joblessness, while the same age group in Los Angeles and New York faces 30 percent joblessness.
The adage that blue-collar workers should simply advance their skills and education to keep up with the tech-driven marketplace? “U.S.-based corporations began moving white-collar jobs offshore in the early 1990s,” Johnson highlights in his research. This phenomenon has driven down wages and limited the number of quality jobs that require higher education, rendering some college and advanced degrees virtually useless.
As an alternative—and without the same professional networks upon which other groups can rely for employment—some black men resort to informal and service-sector, gig economies that provide no job security or employee benefits.
For Eric Garner, that side hustle was selling loose cigarettes. The gig regularly attracted police. On July 17, 2014, their harassment escalated to a fatal chokehold. When police killed him, Eric’s mom tells me, he was out of work and had been for years.
His last words, “I can’t breathe,” became a literal and metaphoric representation of unjustifiable black death. Yet in the four years since a grand jury failed to indict his killer on December 4, 2014, little has been said about Eric’s life. Less known was the economic insecurity that led him to that fateful day. Nothing was said of the myriad black people like Eric locked out of the traditional labor market and inflicted with the steadier, state-sanctioned trauma of job insecurity and income inequality, all of which are rooted in unfettered capitalism and the inability of mainstream American politics to respond effectively to its side effects.
Whether it is 30 seconds of a police encounter, or 30 years of economic strife, black America is facing a debilitating socioeconomic crisis. But the response has been to tout limp conservative appeals to personal responsibility, if there is a response at all. Almost exclusively, working class economic anxiety is framed as a white problem finally worthy of our national attention.
Riling up racist extremists and advancing interests of the rich was politically effective for the boisterous New Yorker who made it to executive office. Despite his state’s liberal veneer, it built its wealth on brutality. The corner of New York City’s Pearl and Wall Street—named after a wall built by slaves to protect white elite interests and the land they stole—birthed a city market in 1711, trading living stock of enslaved Africans. Underneath this rising center of world commerce were the unceremoniously buried remains of black men, women, and children shackled since birth.
Donald Trump would come much later. In 1861, that man who preceded Trump’s affinity for advocating for the wealthy while using populism to appeal to the basest elements of white supremacy was Fernando Wood, New York City’s mayor for five years. He delivered a provocative message at the top of the new year to the city’s Common Council: secede from the Union, or risk losing the wealth New York City accumulated from slavery’s inhumane enterprise.
Between the traders exchanging black bodies, the insurance companies that protected merchants’ human property, financial firms like the Lehman Brothers investing in cotton, the constant port activity and fees on ships that carried goods produced by slave labor, New York City became the wealthiest in the nation. Becoming a “free city” that continued trading with the Confederacy, Wood argued, would keep it that way.
From white southern elites who weakened interracial bonds among laborers who challenged their property and power, to the northern cities that birthed industrial revolutions through black enslavement, capitalism was a unifying principle.
Two years after Wood’s proposal, the white working class would direct their rage at fellow victims, killing an estimated 1,000 black people in protest of Lincoln’s presidency and his Civil War draft. Lincoln’s calls to save the Union by abolishing slavery meant competing for jobs with free blacks. By this time, the codification of black inferiority to justify slavery and, ultimately, generate wealth, had become entrenched. The merchant classes could delight in the efficacy of their white supremacist mythology and their stolen prosperity amid the conflict among the masses.
Wealth over everything, no matter the human cost.
This principle has been foundational to capitalism’s genesis and rapid growth. Today, it continues to systematically diminish the lives of most everyone it encounters, especially black ones. In 1968, just after the civil rights movement, the median African American had family income 57 percent that of the median white American. In 2016, the ratio was 56 percent.
While black people have regressed, corporations have lined their pockets. Nationally, unprecedented wealth and income inequality have grown and, adjusting for inflation, the average incomes of the poorer half of society shrunk from 1968 to 2014, while incomes for the richest 1 percent almost tripled. Those who remain jobless and underemployed are criminalized and preyed upon, representing dollar signs for yet another privatized market as governments and corporations profit, again, from our cheap labor.
And though many white men and women suffer under the same system, though in generally less pronounced ways than blacks and Latinos, they have historically blamed their conditions on the people they were taught are beneath them.
That is America, with its treasure chest gilded by the ruse of racial essentialism. That is capitalism, an infinite cycle of booms and busts crashing primarily on the backs of the poor, black, and brown. As Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asserts, that’s just the way it is.
Cesar Sayoc bounced around odd jobs and conjured some imagined ones. “He said he worked for the Hard Rock casino booking all their venues,” Debra Gureghian tells me over the phone as she prepares her work at a Fort Lauderdale pizza shop. She supervised Sayoc at the shop for several months, where he drove his infamous white Dodge Ram van on delivery runs. Hard Rock Cafe Inc. denied that it had ever employed him. “I didn’t know any of this was a lie,” Gureghian shares.
When Sayoc wasn’t insulting his boss’ sexuality—“a proud lesbian,” Debra affirms—he was comparing black people to apes and hearkening back to the Hitler regime. Sayoc and others like him, Gureghian observes, “are becoming entrenched in hatred and have become foot soldiers for Donald Trump. The hatred is being bred nightly, daily.”
Gureghian was prepared to defend herself before I had a chance to ask. “I couldn’t fire him. He did his work. Being a non-corporate restaurant, my hands were tied.”
Like Eric Garner and other men dealing with economic insecurity, Sayoc had multiple jobs and no particular career. He, too, became a bouncer. He also had several run-ins with the law. Prior to his gig delivering pizza, Sayoc had multiple arrests. This is about where the comparison ends. As described in a Wired report, Sayoc’s charges “related to fraud, possession of a controlled substance, battery...and more. [He] appears not to have served any jail time in Florida, but was placed on probation in three separate instances.” Sayoc was extended chances in both the legal system and the job market. Despite an extensive record, dating at least as far back as 1986, he kept getting hired.
Unfortunately, that leeway hasn’t been equally extended to black men and women who began falling behind in America’s restructured economy and those still reeling from the devastating blow of the Great Recession. Their rap sheets don’t get ignored by employers. Their anger hasn’t been assuaged by humane news profiles or blessed by America’s high profile public officials.
Black pain, instead, becomes mere background noise. Until it is not. And in those rare moments—when fires rage in post-industrial wreckage—civil unrest is dismissed as rioting. Nonviolent protest framed as extremism. Disillusionment pinned exclusively on Facebook, Russians, and outside agitators instead of our decades of tireless struggle.
When cities no longer provide material comfort and companies abandon us like obsolete machinery, left to rust when we’ve reached our useful life, the pioneers among us engage in a “silent pilgrimage.” From the south to the north and back south again, we search elsewhere in the country’s boundaries looking for a reprieve, searching for a world that has been engineered to never exist. And the cycle continues, as the dreams of our ancestors suffocate, left to die on a concrete sidewalk.