Over the last two years, I have tried hard to understand how a group of people who are mostly good, decent, hard-working, and generous have come to support politicians and policy proposals that are antithetical to so much of what I believe is right. The “white working class” has become the shorthand label for this group. In many ways I feel like I have always been part of the so-called white working class: I am white, I work(ed), and I usually self-identify as being about in the middle of the middle class. And yet, it has been difficult for me to relate to the decision of so many in the the white working class to support someone like Donald Trump, and I often feel alienated from this segment of American society. Perhaps I have long since left the “white working class” and become one of the “elites,” even if I have never felt particularly elite?
Joan C. Williams’ recent book, White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America (Harvard Business Review Press, 2017) has helped me understand some of the reasons why on the one hand I still identify with the white working class, but on the other hand, feel alienated and disagree with where many have ended up politically. In this review, I want to summarize several of the issues Williams identifies and then respond personally (my personal responses appear in light italics).
Who are the white working class? Williams says that her editor and she had a “lively discussion” about terminology and agreed to call Americans who are neither rich nor poor (i.e., in the middle) the “working class,” and to refer to the people at the top as elite.” She acknowledges the confusion this creates: for example, the 2015 median income of the elite was $173, 175; the 2015 median income for Americans in the middle was $75, 144; and the term “working class” has often been used as a euphemism for “poor.” By these definitions, I am most definitely not an elite, but fairly firmly in that vast middle of Americans who are neither very rich nor very poor. And yet….
Why does the working class resent the poor? For many years, as the social safety net has expanded, those at the lower end of the working class have not benefited (because their income is just above the cut-off for benefits) and yet have struggled to make ends meet. Even when they qualify for some benefits, there is a strong tradition of self-reliance and personal responsibility that mitigates against taking advantage of those benefits. Meanwhile working class tax dollars are used in part to help the poor.
My grandparents and parents often struggled to make ends meet; I clearly remember the stress associated with my father’s difficult search for meaningful and adequate employment after our return from Africa; for some time he worked as a school janitor, a job for which he was overqualified. In the early years of our marriage, Dale and I were often financially stressed, but we never relied on programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or food stamps (now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP) even when we might have qualified. However, I was always aware that others struggled much more than we did, and I don’t remember ever resenting the fact that we struggled while others were received food assistance. While I can understand some of the resentment some working class people feel toward the poor, I can’t agree with it.
Why does the working class resent professionals but admire the rich? The professional managerial elite (PME), according to Williams, are often seen as “snobs.” They can send their kids to private schools, shop at organic food stores, eat at trendy restaurants, call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” etc., and are perceived as looking down at those who don’t. The working class hold strong traditional values, including strong family and place rootedness. Williams says, “The professional class seeks social honor by embracing the edgy; the white working class seeks social honor by embracing the traditional…. For many in the working class, becoming a member of the professional class is an ambiguous achievement – you have more money, yes, but you also have to adopt new folkways.” So “[b]rashly wealthy celebrities epitomize the fantasy of being wildly rich while losing none of your working-class cred.”
For me personally, this description of the divide between the working class and professionals feels artificial. By going to college and graduate school and choosing a career first in teaching and then in communications (writer, editor, etc.), I entered the “professional” class, and I admit to valuing the sophistication, boundary-breaking, and creativity that Williams attributes to professionals. Yet, I also fully embrace the traditional values, family rootedness, stability, and dependability she attributes to the working class. I am more put off by ostentatious displays of wealth than wishing I could be fabulously rich myself.
Why doesn’t the working class move to where the jobs are? Here the issues are those same values of stability and family rootedness that characterize the working class: “Non-privileged people, whether poor or working class, tend to be more rooted than American elites…. they rely on close networks of family and friends for many things more affluent folks purchase on the open market, from child and elder care to home improvement projects. Moving would eliminate this safety net….” On the other hand, “the rootlessness of the PME makes sense in their lives: they have friends and classmates throughout the country or the world, their job markets are national or global, their family ties are chiefly emotional rather than practical or economic.”
On this issue, I feel a little split: Having grown up with an unrooted childhood, I am now firmly planted in south-central Pennsylvania, I never wanted to move somewhere else for a better job, and most of my family and friends are relatively close by. I understand completely why people would not want to uproot themselves to find a better job. And yet, I know the world has changed, we are part of a global economy, and the internet and technology have revolutionized the way we can interact with each other to mitigate geographical isolation. If I were young and just starting out, I might be willing to move for a job I really wanted.
Why doesn’t the working class get with it and go to college? Williams documents the ways in which the American higher education system operates as “caste system,” widening class divisions. Beyond that, however, are other reasons why going to college isn’t as high a priority for many in the working class: fear of ending up with an expensive degree and massive debt and still failing to get a job, not wanting a “pencil-pushing” job, not feeling suited for intellectual work. According to Williams, college “may not be as good or as safe an investment for working class kids. They’re not ignorant and lazy. They just live in different worlds.”
I come from a family where education was highly valued, so it was somewhat shocking to read that fully two-thirds of Americans do not have college degrees. Both my parents were the first in their respective families to graduate from college, and they worked hard to pay their way through college and achieve their goal. It was a clear unwritten assumption that I would go college when the time came, and my parents supported me when I decided to enter graduate school immediately following college. I always assumed my children would go to college too. When one of them dropped out (twice, in fact), my dad said rather wistfully, “He’ll be my only grandchild not to graduate from college.” I understood where he was coming from, but I was also hurt and angered by the comment. College is not for everyone, you can make a perfectly good living without a college degree, and I agree that it is an unattractive elitist attitude to look down on people who have chosen not to go to college.
Why don’t they push their kids harder to succeed? Noting the “all-consuming nature of elite parenting” (or “concerted cultivation” with busy schedules of soccer games, music and dance lessons, play dates, etc.), Williams compares it with the “ideology of natural growth” more prevalent among working class parents, where children are primarily provided with the basics of comfort, food, and shelter. She continues: “What’s the unspoken message of helicopter parenting – that if you don’t knock everyone’s socks off, you’re a failure? What’s the better message: that the key is to be a good kid, or that every child needs to be above average?”
Sometimes I have felt guilty because we did not push our kids to be involved in all kinds of sports and music activities (although we tried to make it possible for them to follow their own interests). Now, I am glad I am not parenting young kids because the pressure to do so would be significant. We did expect our kids to do well academically, and both Dale and I spent many hours “tutoring” them and helping them with school projects. Perhaps we put too much pressure on them? On the other hand, as I said before, the world is changing, and we have to help our children and grandchildren be prepared to function in that world. Wishing things would stay the same will probably not work long-term.
Is the working class just racist? Williams makes the entirely valid point that racism is not confined to the working class; it’s just a different kind: “[s]ettled working class whites, whose claims to privilege rest on morality and hard work, stereotype black people by conflating hard living and race. Professional class whites, whose claims to privilege rest on merit, stereotype black people as less competent than whites.” She also names fear as a motivator, noting that “mass migration returned to the United States in the 1970s for the first time since 1910 – which has coincided with the white working class’s fall from blue-collar grace. It’s easy to confuse correlation with causation, and there’s some of that going on, associating the good old days with the old white days.” And she suggests that elites have just as much of a moral obligation to address injustices experienced by working class whites as those experienced by black and brown people.
I believe that, with some notable exceptions (e.g., the white supremacists whose influence seems to be surging in the current political environment), most people do not want to be racist and it is hard to acknowledge one’s racism when that is not the intent. But rather than respond with defensiveness when the charge of racism is levied, I wish we could all engage in a little more thoughtful introspection to determine to what extent the charge might be true and what we can do to change our (sometimes unrecognized) attitudes and behaviors. For me, one of the most insidious examples of racism in public life has been the delegitimization of our first African American president by promulgating the absolutely false notion that he was not born in the U.S. and demanding that he produce papers to prove he was. That the U.S. is now led by the biggest peddler of that conspiracy theory tells me racism is alive and well, even among people who probably genuinely don’t want to be racist.
Is the working class just sexist? Williams asserts that Hillary Clinton’s quest to shatter the glass ceiling by becoming the first female president and the devastation that many women felt when she lost the election did not matter to the white working class. Williams further asserts that this is not because they are sexist but because gender equality means something very different in the working class context. For example, “What working class women see is that blue-collar jobs with good pay are heavily gendered as male; men ensure they remain so through severe sexual harassment of women who try to enter.” She also posits that working class men felt threatened by Clinton in part because “they value stability and tradition, including gender traditions – rather than gender flux.” Just as racism is not confined to the working class, neither is sexism: “the average working class man is less likely to espouse egalitarian[ism] than his professional class counterpart, but he spends more time caring for his children than does his elite counterpart.”
Let me say personally that I believe that sexism and misogyny played a far larger role in the 2016 election than many people – both working class and professional elites – would like to admit. Just think back to the charge leveled at Hillary Clinton that she was playing “the woman card.” Would anyone ever tell a man that he was playing “the man card”? Of course, there are all kinds of other reasons she lost, but sexism was certainly one of them.
Why don’t the people who benefit most from government help seem to appreciate it? Williams cites a 2008 survey asking Americans whether they had ever used a government social program. More than 56% said they never had, when in fact 91.6% had. Williams believes that showing working class Americans “how they benefit from government programs needs to be a major priority…. We need a bipartisan campaign to educate the American public about the positive roles that government plays in their lives,” especially in two major areas: public safety and economic stability.
I have never understood the antipathy toward government that many people seem to feel. Yes, rules and regulations can sometimes be onerous, and the wheels of government often run very slowly and/or inefficiently, but I receive and appreciate many benefits from government: timely snow removal by my local township government, roads and highways maintained by the state, my health insurance provided by the federal government (Medicare), safety standards for cars, neighborhood firefighters, national parks, to name just a few.
Conclusion: Williams ends by saying that her “book describes a relationship gone bad: that between the white working class and the PME.” While empathy is a good place to start, she continues, more is required. She accuses the PME of leaving “the two-thirds of Americans without college degrees out of your vision of the good life” and of committing to equality for everyone else while dismissing the white working class, thus alienating them.
Williams’ analysis pricked my conscience about the negative and even condescending attitudes I’ve had toward the white working class, especially regarding their political leanings, perhaps proving that I have in fact become one of the elites even though I don’t feel like one. I also gained a new understanding of some of the challenges faced by the white working class and the reasons many felt that someone like Donald Trump could help them.
And yet, and yet…. While I understand some things better, I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that so many people were and still are able to overlook, ignore, or deny character traits and behavior in Trump that are not in keeping with their traditional values (honesty and personal responsibility, to name just two). I also fear that they have been sold a false bill of goods: already, the promises to cover everybody with much better and cheaper health insurance and not to cut Medicare or Medicaid are in danger of being blatantly broken. Maybe I’m still missing something?