The thing I liked about Dave Chappelle's TV show was that his sketches showed us a world we could all recognize, but that we mostly don't...

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The thing I liked about Dave Chappelle’s TV show was that his sketches showed us a world we could all recognize, but that we mostly don’t talk about out loud. He explored prickly stuff — race, class and such. Comedians get to do that, but most folks keep quiet.

Politicians are especially sensitive to what they say. That’s unfortunate, because it would be nice to know what people really think. Of course people who speak up can get stomped on if what they say hits a nerve. And certainly if you believe that what you really think is a bad thing, well, keeping your mouth shut is a pretty good idea.

But once in a while a political leader says something worth noting about race or class, though it’s often by accident. Mexico’s president, Vicente Fox, is the latest.

He said: “There is no doubt that Mexican men and women, full of dignity, drive and a capacity for work, are doing the jobs that not even blacks want to do there, in the United States.”

Fox got a tongue lashing for suggesting black folks don’t want to pick vegetables or sweep floors — a complaint that struck me for its own assumption that a person ought to want to do those jobs.

I have cleaned a few toilets, and I have to say I much prefer sitting at a computer writing to you.

I wasn’t angry at Fox for saying Mexicans are doing work not even black folks want to do. For centuries, much of this country’s worst work was reserved for black folks, and in that context his comment makes sense.

When I combine that statement with the first part of his comment, about “Mexican men and women, full of dignity, drive and a capacity for work,” there does seem to be some underlying suggestion that black folks are lazy.

Like a lot of the things we say, Fox’s comment can be read in layers. On the top layer, he’s not saying anything a person could object too, but each layer peeled away stings the eyes a bit more than the last.

On one level he’s saying something nice about his constituents; on another he’s disparaging black folks and papering over a larger problem — his willingness to feed Mexicans to a system of exploitation rather than cleaning up the home country.

Fox made his comments to a group of U.S. business people, the folks who like to hire Mexican nationals. They tend to give their workers the kind of praise Fox used, stuff about working hard, not complaining, etc., which really means, “Hey, we love these guys because we’ve got them by the [insert a word Chappelle might use here].”

The truth is, no one who has a choice wants to do the work many Mexican nationals do if that means putting up with the poor pay and wretched conditions those jobs often entail.

As I said, black folks long did those kinds of jobs, but now more black folks have options. Even the ones who don’t have many choices are not likely to compete successfully against people who are basing their judgment of pay and treatment on what they might get in Mexico.

Immigrant labor drives down wages, and means fewer acceptable jobs for people on the lowest rung of this particular society. Many of those folks are black, but not all of them.

My uncles worked as janitors, and my mother and aunts cleaned houses. All of them did migrant farm work in Texas. I’m too lazy to work as hard as they did, and since I have a college education, I don’t have to.

When I went to work at my hometown newspaper at a beginner’s salary, I made more money than any adult in my extended family. Education did that for me, along with the erosion of the strict segregation that impeded so many people in the generations that preceded mine.

Black people in this nation can reach higher now. I have empathy for the Mexicans who come here looking for something better because the leadership in their nation fails them. They deserve better, here and there.

Fox, like previous Mexican leaders, works with U.S. business people to perpetuate an arrangement that exploits Mexican labor and reduces available jobs for the poorest citizens of this country.

And the argument uptown is over whose poor people are the best poor people. Somewhere in that lies a good sketch for Chappelle.

Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or His column runs Thursdays and Sundays

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