Exhortation - Winter 2006

The Dispossessed


First we stopped noticing members of the working class, and now we're convinced they don’t exist

Workers leaving Pennsylvania Shipyards, Beaumont, Texas, June 1943 (Library of Congress photo)

By William Deresiewicz

December 1, 2006


Sometimes you don’t realize that something’s been missing—it doesn’t matter how big it is—until, for a moment or two, it isn’t. About 10 years ago, I was listening to an interview with the choreographer Bill T. Jones, who had just published his memoirs. Jones is gay and black, and when the interviewer asked him what his father had thought about his becoming a dancer, Jones, somewhat testily, said something like, “You don’t understand. This wasn’t a middle-class family. The goal wasn’t to become a professional: the goal was to better yourself.” The first thing that hit me about this was that it had nothing to do with race or sexuality. The second thing that hit me was that it had everything to do with class, specifically the working class—which, I suddenly realized, I never heard anyone talk about. A little while later, I read a profile of Roseanne Barr in The New Yorker. Only middle-class women care about feminism, Barr claimed. Working-class women already have power, because they’re the ones in charge at home.

Working-class career expectations, working-class family structures: two things I knew nothing about. Each revelation gratified me with the feeling of learning something interesting and important and new, but together they enraged me with the recognition that the reason they felt new, the reason I was so abysmally ignorant about this world that lay all around me—the American working class—was that such knowledge had been withheld from me by my culture. It’s not just that I’m middle class myself. I’m white, too, but mainstream culture (popular entertainment, the news media) has exposed me to a steady stream of images and information about blacks. I suspect that American gentiles also know quite a lot about Jews. But the working class is American culture’s great lost continent.

There are exceptions: Roseanne’s show was one, Michael Moore’s Roger & Me (as well as the whole persona he’s constructed) is another, as was the recent HBO series Family Bonds. But much of what was seen as important and “edgy” in those productions was their working-class subject matter, which shows how rare any serious, extended, or sympathetic popular treatment of the working class now is. (Analogous things could be said about Bruce Springsteen, or novelists like Richard Russo and Russell Banks, or The New York Times’s recent multipart series on class in America. Imagine how superfluous it would have been for the Times to do a series about race or sexuality, topics that permeate half the stories it publishes.) Among mainstream films of the last decade, Mystic River and Good Will Hunting come to mind, but far more typical is the kind of thing we got in Million Dollar Baby, where the heroine’s family was presented as loutish, contemptible trailer trash, or on the Simpsons, where Homer’s working-class characteristics (and he seems to be the working-class breadwinner of a middle-class family) are played strictly for laughs. There are working-class characters all over the place: cops on detective shows, nurses and orderlies on doctor shows, and so forth. But it’s the nature of such dramas to present people only in terms of their jobs, asking few or no questions about the rest of their lives. Look at a show or a movie that takes you into its characters’ homes, and you’ll find that the homes you’re being taken into are almost always middle or upper class, even when the characters belong to that vast, imaginary social group we might call the pseudo–working class, people with working-class jobs but middle-class lifestyles, like the Simpsons or the Gilmore girls or those lucky kids on Friends.

What we don’t have in this country, in other words, is anyone like Mike Leigh, who makes art out of working-class lives by refusing to prettify them. We no longer have anyone, among our major novelists, like Steinbeck or Dos Passos. We don’t even have any TV shows like The Honeymooners or All in the Family, whose frank depictions of the material conditions of working-class life (think of the Kramdens’ kitchen, with its bridge table and two chairs) didn’t prevent them from achieving a monumental universality. When we do get the rare serious mainstream treatment of working-class life, it comes from a middle-class observer like Barbara Ehrenreich. So why is it that the only working-class person anyone will pay attention to these days is a middle-class journalist masquerading as one? More fundamentally, why is it that the working class is treated as an exotic species, while the middle class, which it heavily outnumbers, is regarded as normal and normative?

It’s not hard to begin to answer these questions. First, the people who get paid to create mainstream culture—journalists, editors, writers, producers—are, ipso facto, members of the middle class. As social mobility slows, more and more of them originate in that class. The middle class is not only what they know and identify with, it often seems to be the only thing they’re aware of. Today’s army of cultural commentators, who speak so confidently about the way “we” live now—the crazy hours, the overscheduled kids, the elite colleges and nursery schools—mistake their tiny world of urban and university-town professionals for the whole of society. Second, as TV’s creation of a pseudo–working class suggests, looking at the real one is kind of a bummer. Just as everyone on TV has to be beautiful, so does everyone have to have money, or at least live like they do. Nobody wants to watch a show about some fat guy struggling to make the rent. Finally and most important, we simply don’t talk about class at all anymore. Why should we, when we’re all supposedly part of a single one, the great middle? What we talk about is race and sexuality. (Or in the academy, race, gender, and sexuality, the great triumvirate. The humanities, despite their claim to transformative significance, have all but forgotten about class.) Instead of Steinbeck and Dos Passos, we have Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, Oscar Hijuelos, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Michael Cunningham.

It was Morrison, in fact, who provided one of the most telling indications of our loss of the working class as an imaginative category, her famous anointment of Bill Clinton as our “first black president”: “Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.” At least Morrison still employs the term working class, but it’s still merely a secondary category for her. If it weren’t, she would have seen that what those attributes really added up to wasn’t that Clinton was black (or “black”), but that he was our first working-class president, if not ever, then in a while, and our most flamboyantly so in a long while. But of course working-class attributes are going to look like tropes of blackness. Just about the only images we have of the working class are images of black people, understood as black people. In fact, many of the things we think of as characteristically black are really true of the working class as a whole (and aren’t true of middle-class blacks). Consider the realm of family structure: having children at an early age, having them outside of marriage, raising them as a single parent, raising them with the help of an older relative—and not being stigmatized by your community for doing any of these things. It’s an old American story: race becomes a surrogate for class, which is to say, a way of not thinking about it at all.

On the rare occasions when we do think about class, our fixation on race makes us confuse the working class with the poor, as the response to the Katrina disaster demonstrated. For an interval that proved predictably brief, Americans started talking about class again, but we still missed the true picture. For one thing, our discussion of poverty was all too quickly subsumed, again, into a discussion about race. (It’s funny how few images we saw of poor, dispossessed whites, though many such people must have existed.) More important is that most of the blacks we saw wandering the highways or abandoned at the Convention Center were surely not the truly indigent (the homeless, the unemployed); they were laborers and waitresses and hospital workers and maids, members of New Orleans’s socially cohesive and culturally vibrant working-class black communities. These are the same communities that are now struggling for the right to rebuild themselves, struggling to get the rest of us to acknowledge that their neighborhoods were more than just slums. The people who lived in these communities may have looked dirty and disheveled on TV, and some of them may have acted desperately at times, but how would you have looked, and how would you have acted after four or five days in those circumstances? Yet so deeply has the notion of a working class been pushed to the recesses of our consciousness, and so powerful is the link in our minds between poverty and race, that when we’re shown a working-class black, we see a poor person—and when we’re shown a working-class white, we don’t see anything at all.

What is the working class? As a first approximation, I’d suggest that a member of the working class is someone who receives an hourly wage. (There are exceptions both ways: airline pilots on the one hand, secretaries on the other.) The virtue of this definition is that it not only excludes the true middle class—professionals, managers, and small-business owners—it also reminds us that working-class people have a very different relationship to their work and their workplace than do those who earn a salary. By this criterion, the working class comprises about 80 percent of the American workforce. Even if one claims that the cop or fireman or unionized factory worker, who might well live in the suburbs and drive a big car, actually belongs to the middle class, the working class still comprises a large majority of the country. (Besides, as Paul Krugman recently argued in a New York Times column on the wage-and-benefit squeeze in the auto industry, a lot of those factory workers—the “working middle class”—will find themselves squarely back in the working class soon anyway.) The poor may literally be “invisible in America,” as the subtitle of David K. Shipler’s recent book puts it, out of sight in the human garbage heaps of ghettos and trailer parks, but the great bulk of the working class—which is to say, most of America—is invisible only because “we” aren’t seeing what’s right in front of our faces: the people who serve our food, ring up our purchases, fix our cars, change our bedpans.

It’s as if the vast space between the poor and the middle class didn’t exist. The term working class has been erased from our political discourse, replaced by working poor and the insidious working families. Working poor is a valuable term, because it reminds us how meagerly many jobs pay these days and belies the notion of what used to be called the idle poor. But working poor is not at all the same as working class, though the trailer-trash stereotype would have us think so. Some working-class people are poor, but the great majority are not, they just aren’t well-off enough to be middle class. Working families isn’t the same as working class, either. Whether in the mouth of a Clinton or a Bush, the term is designed to treat the working and middle classes as a monolith. By conflating the two (the doctor struggling to pay for his kids to go to Harvard, the cashier struggling to pay for medicine), the term eliminates the working class as a political as well as a cultural category.

But class hasn’t completely dropped out of our political discourse. In fact, it’s made a comeback of late, only in a particularly devious new guise, our new ruling paradigm of red state vs. blue state—where ideology is rewritten as region (Republicans are from red states, Democrats from blue), region as culture (red-staters drink beer, blue-staters drink wine), and culture as class, though only implicitly (what do you think beer and wine really mean?). Fifty-seven million people voted for John Kerry in the last election; to speak as if all of them were Chardonnay-sipping professors, or even professionals, is ridiculous. Simple arithmetic tells us that millions of them were members of the working class. But according to the dominant syllogism, if Kerry voters are effete elitists while Bush voters are “ordinary Americans” (the closest anyone comes to actually saying working class anymore) then the working class looks like the stereotypical Bush voter: rural, Southern, conservative, nationalist, and fundamentalist—in other words, redneck. This is as gross an oversimplification as imagining that the middle class is composed exclusively of leftist academics. But absent any other or better images of the working class, the redneck myth not only means that Republicans get to present themselves as champions of the working class while ostensibly denying its existence (as Thomas Frank has argued in What’s the Matter with Kansas), it also means that the true character of the working class, in all its enormous breadth and diversity, remains hidden.

It remains hidden, in particular, from the working class itself, among whom the redneck myth does in fact seem to be taking hold. I lived in Portland, Oregon, last year, a heavily working-class town, and I was struck by the affinity the working class there seems to feel with Southern culture. (Country Music Television, for example, is part of the basic cable package.) The South is the one place where the white working class doesn’t hide itself, as the essayist Richard Rodriguez recently noted, and its leading cultural expressions—country music and NASCAR—are becoming those of the white working class as a whole. This southernization of the working class surely owes a lot to the red-state/blue-state nonsense, to the ascendancy of southern Republicans, and to the scarcity of other kinds of working-class images.

But it also owes a lot to the decline of organized labor. I’ve suggested that working-class images haven’t always been so hard to find in the mainstream, and it’s no accident that their virtual disappearance over the past few decades has coincided with that decline. Fifty years ago, more than one in three American workers were unionized; today, one in eight is. Along with a huge loss in political power has come the loss of a confident, self-conscious, working-class culture. Not only were workers visible to the classes above them, they had their own voices, their own cultural institutions, their own sense of who they were and what they did; in short, they weren’t dependent on the middle class to define them. People used to speak of the “dignity of labor,” and the phrase meant that being a worker was something to be proud of, that the working class saw itself as something more than a collection of people who couldn’t make it, that it had its own traditions and values, constituted its own community.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the working class in the 10 years since those inciting recognitions. I’ve kept my eyes open to whatever I could glean from the media and from my immediate surroundings. I’ve had long talks on the subject with my wife, who spent many years in a working-class environment, and with a former student, who grew up in one. I’ve come to believe not only that the working class constitutes a coherent culture very different from the middle-class one that’s presented to us as natural and universal, but that that culture possesses a genuine set of virtues. New York Times columnist David Brooks has been singing the praises lately of bourgeois values like industry, temperance, prudence, and thrift. I have nothing against these things, especially since, as a member of the middle class, I practice them myself. But industry, temperance, prudence, and thrift are not the be-all and end-all of the good life. In fact, they are apt to be accompanied by a countervailing array of bourgeois vices, like narrowness, prudery, timidity, and meanness, not to mention hypocrisy and self-conceit.

As for the working class, I’ll grant, for the sake of argument, that its vices tend to be the negative of bourgeois values, that working-class people are, compared to the middle class, less temperate, prudent, thrifty, and industrious (though that last seems a rather unfair description of people who do manual labor, work two jobs, or put up with forced overtime). But by the same token, working-class life breeds its own virtues: loyalty, community, stoicism, humility, and even tolerance. Not that every working-class person is a paragon of these virtues; like Brooks, I’m trying to articulate the general contours of a class culture as it arises from the facts of everyday existence. If only because of their limited possibilities in life, working-class people care more about their families and their friends and the places they’re from than they do about their careers. Because they haven’t been taught to believe that they’re entitled to the best of everything, they take what life brings them without whining or self-pity. Because they don’t preen themselves on where they went to school or what kind of job they have, they don’t act like they’re better than everyone else. And when it comes right down to it, they aren’t any more prejudiced than the middle class, and may even be less so. Middle-class prejudices are just more respectable—in fact, they tend to be directed against the working class itself—as well as more carefully concealed. What’s more, while the middle class espouses tolerance, working-class people, because they can’t simply insulate themselves from those they don’t like with wads of money, are much more likely, in practice, to live and let live. Maybe what this country needs are fewer bourgeois values and more proletarian ones.

William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.

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