Reflecting on Labor Day & the Conflict of White Privilege

 By Howie Knoff, Ph.D.

Labor Day weekend is usually a time for family, food, fun, and relaxation. But this past Labor Day—like many days in 2020—was a time of distance, loss, reflection, and uncertainty.

And so I found myself spending most of Labor Day weekend writing in my office—and at one point, thinking about the origins of Labor Day while being thankful that my “labors” (i.e., my “job”) can be done on-site—or (in today’s pandemic-dominated world) on-paper and online.

I also recalled a virtual meeting, the week before Labor Day, with a superintendent who is leading one of our five-year U.S. Department of Education School Climate Transformation Grants. As we eased into our agenda, she said, “I have never worked as hard as a superintendent as this year.”

She continued to describe all of the meetings and planning that she and her Leadership Team had completed this past summer, in the midst of the pandemic, to craft different back-to-school scenarios, schedules, and staffing approaches… all to address the varied needs of her students and families. But then, after spending most of the summer in recess, her State Legislature reconvened and, with virtually no input from educators across their state, made the Superintendent’s plans largely obsolete.

Frustrated, she sighed, knowing that she had to redesign the District’s plans, but that she would still make sure that her students and families would receive “full value.”

Booker T. Washington said, “Nothing ever comes to one, that is worth having, except as a result of hard work.”

Celebrating Our Labors

While researching its history, I discovered that Labor Day became a national holiday in 1894 as “a general holiday for the laboring classes”—a way to celebrate those in the working class and, especially, those who were union members.

As I thought about my colleague, the superintendent described above, I reflected on those educators who have “labored” so conscientiously over the past months of this pandemic, as well as those who have indirectly contributed to keep our educational systems open and working.

And so, we need to celebrate:

  • The superintendents, administrators, and office staff—many of whom, this past spring and on top of their education-specific responsibilities, turned their districts into food distribution centers to make sure that students were fed;
  • The support staff—including the school technology and transportation departments—who canvassed their communities just to locate some students, while connecting other students to computers and hot spots;
  • The related service professionals (counselors, social workers, school psychologists, nurses, and others) who checked in with sequestered students to ensure their health, mental health, and wellness—providing needed social, emotional, and behavioral services and supports;
  • The teachers, intervention specialists, and paraprofessionals who learned new technologies, adapted their approaches to curriculum and instruction, balanced their own personal and professional lives, and rededicated themselves to their students and their craft; and
  • The parents, guardians, and caretakers at home who, once again, became their children’s “first teachers” while attending to their other roles and responsibilities.

Labor Day—But Not For All

But while celebrating our colleagues in education above, we still need to recognize the embedded issues of race and equity that have been especially highlighted by the pandemic. In fact, during the time when Labor Day became a national celebration of the American worker in 1894, many of the atrocities historically experienced by African Americans in this country were redoubled.

According to a historical account of the 1890s by the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, the 1890s saw a three-pronged counter-attack aimed at erasing African Americans’ participation in politics and the economy. We will go through each one.

  • Disenfranchisement—every southern state, between 1890 and 1905, passed laws designed specifically to prevent African Americans from voting.
  • Jim Crow Laws—In this same period, each southern state passed laws formally segregating public facilities. It was in the 1890s that the famous “white” and “colored” signs appeared.
  • Lynching—In this same period, a campaign of lynching began, targeting African American men especially.


In the 1890s, each southern state passed constitutional amendments placing stipulations on voting that hit African Americans hardest. There were three main ways of doing this: poll taxes, property tests and literacy tests.

  • The poll tax simply put a tax on voting. Poll taxes, now illegal, clearly had a discouraging effect on voting by poor people.
  • Property tests made it illegal to vote unless you owned property.

But there were also more flexible tools, like literacy tests. In this method, voters would be confronted by an election inspector, who would ask them to show understanding of some piece of writing. It might be a newspaper story or a children’s’ textbook, or it might be Article Three Subsection 5A of the state constitution.

The potential voter “passed” at the discretion of the election inspector, who might decide on the spot that the person didn’t show sufficient understanding. The literacy test was particularly loathsome, in that it made no pretense of fairness and was used selectively to exclude people the election inspectors didn’t want voting.

Some states used poll and property taxes together, some used one or the other, some used literacy tests alone or a combination of all three. The net result was that by 1895, black voting in the South had decreased 65%, white voting by 26%. By 1900, voting by African Americans had almost completely stopped.

These laws were designed, some historians argue, to break the political backs of the people most receptive to populism. But they targeted African Americans more directly.

The most blatantly exclusionary and prejudiced measure passed in the southern states were the notorious “Grandfather clauses.”

These measures waived the requirements named above—that is, waived the poll tax, property tests and literacy tests—if the voter’s ancestors had voted before Reconstruction. The grandfather clause thus effectively allowed whites to vote and excluded African Americans.

The Grandfather clauses were designed for a slightly different purpose—in effect, they split poor white and black voters by privileging one over the other. They prevented the formation of a unified social class—poor farmers—by granting political privileges to whites only. The Grandfather clause told the poor white sharecropper that he was different from the African American sharecropper next door. It created, and strengthened, a racial boundary that ordinary life tended to erase.

Segregation by Law

The South had been segregated by informal custom early on in some places. There were recognized social rules that didn’t need to be spelled out. But there was also a very high degree of integration, in music halls, sporting places, on public transit, and also personally. Black and white people tended to live near each other in the South and see each other daily. The South was in most ways far more integrated than the North.

In the 1890s, segregation was made into law, and specified in signs in public places. Laws passed in the 1890s established separate drinking fountains, bathrooms, restaurants, hotels, train cars, and separate sections of beaches, parks and theaters. You may have seen pictures of this, dating from the 1950s, when the civil rights movement finally overturned segregation. This was the period when those signs first appeared.

Formal legal segregation—or the “Jim Crow” laws, as they were known—was sanctified by Supreme Court in Plessy vs. Ferguson, 1896. In this case the Court ruled that separate but equal facilities were constitutional.

What was the purpose of segregation? Why resort to it? It was clearly not just to keep people apart because they didn’t like each other—it had a much more deeply rooted psychological foundation. Segregation was designed to strengthen and reinforce racial boundaries. Segregation was an attempt to make people feel that they are different, that despite what they might have in common, they are not the same kinds of creatures.

Describing the Jim Crow laws, Charles Chesnutt wrote:

“The author of this piece of legislation had contrived, with an ingenuity worthy of a better cause, that not merely should the passengers be separated by the color line, but that the reason for this division should be kept constantly in mind. Lest a white man should forget he was white–not a very likely contingency—these cards would keep him constantly admonished of the fact; should a colored person endeavor, for a moment, to forget his disability, these staring signs would remind him continually that between him and the rest of mankind not of his own color, there was by law a great gulf fixed.”

The real purpose of the Jim Crow laws was to reinforce a distinction that everyday living tended to erase—to prevent people from realizing what they had in common, and keep them from achieving any sense of community.

It artificially reinforced racial distinctions that might have tended to disappear, or might have lost their stigma.


As they had in Reconstruction, southern whites began a new campaign of violence against African Americans, this time expressed through the medium of lynching. In the 1890s, an average of 187 lynchings occurred every year, mostly in the South. That’s roughly two a week, year in, year out.

Once or twice a week, African Americans in the South would read or hear about someone, perhaps someone they knew, being chased with dogs, brutally beaten, then hung or burned alive.

If we think about this sort of lynching at all, we typically think of it as the actions of a few “rednecks,” under cover of darkness; the actions of a violent minority. This is a comforting belief, and it would indeed be a comfort if it were true. But it is not.

These lynchings in the 1890s were not just hangings, at night, by a few, but systematic festivals of torture. Typically crowds of several hundred or a thousand, some arriving with picnic baskets, would gather to watch as the citizens each took their turn at the victim—breaking bones, burning the skin, ripping flesh with pincers. The crowd would carry off souvenirs.

Lynchings were often encouraged or actually led by respectable pillars of the community. Former U.S. Senator William V. Sullivan declared in 1908: “I led the mob which lynched Nelse Patten and I am proud of it. I directed every movement of the mob and I did everything I could to see that he was lynched.”

“Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, Governor and later Senator from South Carolina, in 1892 declared, “Governor as I am, I would lead a mob to lynch the negro who ravishes a white woman.”

Such horrific events probably have many possible meanings, but their impact on African Americans is clear. There are photographs of some of these lynchings, and they convey some aspects of the ordeal. But the sheer viciousness comes through best in the songs of the earliest recorded blues musicians, like Robert Johnson. Johnson sang of terror barely under control, of white men and women whose unreasoning hatred for him and his people was like a hellhound on his trail. In “Crossroads Blues” Johnson described being trapped at a rural crossroads where he wasn’t supposed to be, at sunset, desperately trying to flag a ride, and finally falling to his knees and begging God for mercy.

And so, at a time when unions were expanding their influence and advocacy for working class Americans, the prejudice, hate, and vitriol toward African-American citizens was expanding and becoming institutionalized.

Reflecting on White Privilege

In the 125 years since Labor Day became a national holiday, many things have changed relative to race relations in our country, yet many things remain the same.

Indeed, the ability (due to the closing of polling places in many low-income areas) and the right to vote in 2020 for African-Americans remains at-risk. For example, in early September, the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia released a report documenting that 198,351 Georgia voters who supposedly moved from their registration addresses were wrongly purged from that state’s voter rolls. This represented a 63.3% error rate—with the cancellations concentrated among younger citizens and citizens of color.

While not by law, many school districts have become re-segregated, and an April, 2019 Report by the Shanker Institute, The Adequacy and Fairness of State School Finance Systems, documented a cumulative state education funding gap in this country of $23 billion per year favoring white over non-white districts. This funding gap is experienced by approximately 12.8 million of our nation’s students.

Finally, many would argue that lynchings have not stopped in America—especially given the violent deaths of too many black citizens at the hands of police around the country. Indeed, while Black Americans account for less than 13% of the U.S. population, they are shot and killed by police more than twice as often as white Americans.

Clearly, the calls to acknowledge the implicit and explicit racial prejudice in our country—now and over 400 years, and the calls for real and systemic change have been loud, sustained, and passionate this spring and summer.

And yet, while many of us—who are White—have joined the chorus, we cannot fully understand how our white privilege has directly and indirectly opened doors for us and benefitted our lives.

And others—who are White—continue to “miss the mark” by asserting that “All lives matter,” while misunderstanding why “Black lives matter.”

To me, it comes down to the following two perspectives.

As a father of two White sons, I had to give a number of “talks”. . . about drugs, sex, alcohol, respect for authority, and always doing one’s best. But because of my white privilege, I never had to give the following “talk.”

And as a son, I had to assure my mother that I would be home at a certain hour, that I would call her from college every week, and that I would try to make her proud. But I never had to assure my mother in the following way… because of my white privilege.

Labor Day is supposed to be a time to celebrate the end of the summer. But this year, with a pandemic, the killing of too many Black brothers and sisters at the hands of the police, and a divisive presidential election mixed in, there is anger, hurt, confusion, and polarization across our country.

I do not expect this article to “change the world,” or help our country to get “back on track.” I do not expect some of my colleagues, after watching the videos above, to understand our Black- and African-American colleagues any better, or to change their perspectives of what it’s like to grow up Black in America.

But I did want to share my reflections—with honesty, humility, and hope.

Howie Knoff, PhD, NCSP, is an international consultant, speaker, and author specializing in school improvement and strategic planning, social-emotional learning and social skills training, multi-tiered systems of support, and interventions with behaviorally challenging students. He is a practitioner who has also been a university professor (22 years), and State Department of Education federal grant director (13 years). The author of 24 books and 100+ articles/book chapters, he was the 21st President of the National Association of School Psychologists. Learn more at

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