- Scratching Out a Living: Latinos, Race, and Work in the Deep South by Angela Stuesse
Angela Stuesse has written an exceptional book about the poultry industry and its workers in Scott County, Mississippi, during the 1990s and the early twenty-first century. She did not do it alone but had the help of collaborators, including immigrant workers, former industry executives, workers' center colleagues, union representatives, civil rights historians, and many others. This "collaborative writing process" was central to her "activist research approach" (p. 243).
Scratching Out a Living: Latinos, Race, and Work in the Deep South reads in part like an exposé akin to what Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906) did for Chicago's meatpacking plants or what Edward R. Murrow's Harvest of Shame (1960) did for migrant agricultural labor along the eastern seaboard. Stuesse [End Page 230] makes plain the exploitation and horrors of the poultry industry. I have not eaten chicken since reading the book.
But Stuesse focuses even more attention on the social and economic relationships within Mississippi's Latino and African American poultry working communities. Her core concerns include, first, the racial landscape that Latino migrant workers entered when they arrived in Mississippi; second, the enduring divisions between African Americans and Latinos and the solidarities that she herself played a role in forging; and third, how her activism as a scholar both shaped and was shaped by the communities she worked with in Mississippi.
For historians of the South, Scratching Out a Living will be of greatest interest because of how Stuesse contextualizes the recent arrival of diverse Latin American immigrants—from Mexico and Central and South America—in a place shaped by segregation, racial hostility toward African Americans, economic despair for many, and riches for a few. As historians have noted, during this era of neoliberal globalization, employers recruited an exploitable migrant workforce that received abominable wages for extremely difficult work. These new immigrants disrupted the black/white binary that had, Stuesse argues, defined southern race relations before their arrival and in many ways embodied the new social and economic realities of the region's shift from agricultural to mechanized factory work.
Historians will likewise appreciate the depth of Stuesse's ethnographic analysis, which offers more details about the interiority of Latino immigrant and African American communities than do most historical archives. Historians will be familiar with both groups' mutual recriminations—some Latinos view African Americans as lazy, while some African Americans view Latinos as foreigners—but Stuesse also offers a new look at dynamics inside poultry processing centers and their surrounding communities, including housing markets and the organizing methods that Latinos and African Americans have relied on to combat their exploitation. Inside the factories, African Americans still hold some of the better-paying and more desirable jobs, but Latin Americans often occupy a more privileged position in their communities and Scott County's racial hierarchies.
Stuesse firmly believes that the best way to overcome such divisions is through solidarity and collaboration. She even taught a course on these topics during her field work, through which African American and Latino workers came to know one another and to see their own hardships mirrored in others' struggles. This belief informed Stuesse's research and writing. She has various names for her approach, all of which gesture toward collaboration, empathy, and democratic practice and fall under the umbrella of activist research. Historians may find her methods controversial given our pretention of neutrality and objectivity, but Stuesse persuasively argues that her approach can increase "methodological rigor" because her work went through several rounds of critique and revision following her dialogue with interlocutors and stakeholders (p. 243). Historians might consider how our practices can be more collaborative and democratic.
Stuesse should have paid more attention to the consumer side of the equation and to how demand shapes industry practices. It struck me that Tyson Foods...