November 4, 2019

CONTRERAS | Dairy’s True Colors: Racism at Dairy Day

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If you haven’t noticed the bubbling racial tension on campus as of late, you should probably come out from under your rock. From the unjust removal of and discrimination against Julia Feliz to racially insensitive Halloween costumes across campus, there is reason for people of color at Cornell to be on edge.

So, when some friends informed me that they heard a member of an on-campus organization, who requested not to be named, say, “I’m not racist, but I just don’t like Mexicans,” I felt compelled to respond. As a Mexican-American student at Cornell, I am appalled that one of my peers felt comfortable to not only announce their racist beliefs, but do so at a public University event.

The racist comment occurred on Oct. 24 at Dairy Day, a public semi-annual event hosted by said unnamed organization where students and locals gather at Cornell’s Livestock Pavilion to interact with cows and farmers. Two of my white friends were attending the event when they were recognized as animal rights activists and approached by a member of the organization. The member expressed that they don’t watch undercover footage from factory farms because it “makes them sick.” They followed, “you know, it’s mostly Mexicans that do that,” referring to the brutality towards animals recorded on farms. When my friends explained the inaccuracy of the statement, as well as the harm perpetuated by the misconception, they replied, “I’m not racist, but I just don’t like Mexicans,” as if prefacing a textbook example of racism with “I’m not racist” makes it less racist. When my friends pointed out that their statement was actually very racist, they shrugged.

The organization claims to be “Educating the future leaders of the dairy industry” — which begs the question, who exactly are these future leaders? Should we be concerned?

It is no secret that the dairy industry depends on undocumented workers, many of whom are from Mexico. In fact, Mexican immigrants make up 53% of all hired labor on dairy farms and dairies that employ immigrants produce 79% of the U.S milk supply. One study even found that more than 7,000 dairy farms would close and milk prices would increase by 90% without immigrant labor.

So, future leader of the dairy industry, you say you don’t like us. Yet, despite this, you’re more than likely going to exploit us for cheap labor. Realistically, as dairy sales decline and U.S. citizens continue to avoid the “physically demanding, dirty and socially denigrating” work conditions on dairies, you probably won’t have a choice.

Racism, abuse and exploitation are commonplace on dairy farms. A report on the state of New York’s dairy workers noted that 48% of Latino immigrants were victims of workplace discrimination. Another 28% reported aggressive and disrespectful behavior from their boss. Beyond that, nearly all immigrant workers live in cramped, bug-infested farmhouses or trailers that house several immigrant families at a time. Workers have 12-14 hour shifts for seven days a week. These long hours, often accompanied by fear of immigration enforcement authorities, cause workers to leave the farm once every 11 days, on average. All this for a miserable wage of $9-12 an hour with no overtime pay. Unsurprisingly, the majority of workers reported feeling depressed. So yes, my concerns include but extend beyond flippant racist remarks. As a white Ivy League undergraduate in dairy science, you are likely to be a future employer of Mexican workers. How can you be expected to treat them with dignity when you demonize them, deny their humanity and ignore the reality of systemic worker abuse?

The hypocrisy inherent to your myopic worldview is staggering. You don’t like us but you enjoy the products of our exploited labor. You indulge in lactose-free Fairlife milk (I know this because you said it), despite the fact that Fairlife is a known perpetrator of horrific animal abuse. You think animal-hating sadists are to blame for animal abuse when the industry itself is inseparable from the suffering it inflicts. You take the moral high-ground when abused workers abuse animals, yet barely flinch when your beloved cows are slaughtered for not producing enough. Just like you can’t get milk without animal suffering, you also can’t get it without the blood, sweat and tears of undocumented workers.

When I reported the incident to this unnamed organization, I was told that the member “could not be removed” for their racist remarks. Instead, they will be banned from participating in international trips, since they “can’t trust someone in another country making racist comments.” The club seems more concerned about the PR implications of a racist in their midst than they are about actually having one.

I strongly recommended that said organization have a mandatory discussion about the role of migrant labor in animal agriculture and was told that they’re handling this by “working with [the member] to understand the offensive nature of [their] remarks.” What the club’s leadership fails to recognize is that their desire to blame the individual for an institutional problem glosses over the fact that these misconceptions are inevitable in the milky white echo chamber that is … this club that I’m not at liberty to name.

Even though we’re talking about the actions of one individual, it does raise questions about why this student felt okay with saying something racist in a room full of only white people in the first place. Would their fellow club members have called them out if they said something racist to them? The confident way this student expressed themselves makes me think they wouldn’t. The apparent racial homogeneity of the club leads me to believe that difficult conversations about racism and oppression within the industry are not being held. Is this white ignorance? Or something more sinister?

The dairy industry, fundamentally, cannot exist as it currently does without both human and nonhuman animal oppression and exploitation. By failing to address how the dairy industry systematically abuses not only farmworkers and animals but farmers as well, future dairy leaders at this University are doing a disservice not only to their industry but also to themselves.

Lucy Contreras is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at lc644@cornell.edu. Her column, Lucy Dreams, runs every other Tuesday this semester.