Arts and Culture

Class Cluelessness in America

By Jim McCarville

Joan Williams book, White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America, has a lot to teach about the consequences of a “professional privilege” that disadvantages what she calls the “white-working class”. It was a hard lesson for me to absorb. I suspect it will trouble many readers as well.

She acknowledges that much more could be written about the privilege leveraged over the non-white-working class, but that would be a more complicated story and maybe for another author.

Williams tackles the animosity that working class whites direct at the poor but she saves her major criticism for the animosity the white-working class perceives it gets from what she calls the Professional Management Elite (PME Elite).

Williams argues, admittedly with some slightly simplified math, that these top 20% of income earners (with family incomes over $132,000), as a class have been complicit in helping structure policies that help the bottom 30% (family incomes under $41,000) at the expense of the middle 50%.

She cites some key statistics to explain why the white working class resents the status quo:

“The typical white working-class household income doubled in the three decades after World War II but has not risen appreciably since.

The death rate for white working-class men and women aged 45-54 increased substantially from 1993 to 2003, a reversal from earlier decades. In 1970, only 25% of white children lived in neighborhoods with poverty rates of 10%; by 2000, 40% did.”

“In an era when the economic fortunes of the white-working class plummeted, elites wrote off working-class anger as racism, sexism, nativism,” as “beneath our dignity to take seriously.”

“Deriding ‘political correctness’,” she says, “becomes a way for less-privileged whites to express their fury at the snobbery of more-privileged whites. They demand dignity”.

While Hillbilly Elegy captured some of this resentment, it also left this reader sensing that that author, to a large extent, felt that people in Appalachia were their own worst enemies.

Williams shows that a system that works quite well for PME Elites, just doesn’t work for the working class.

The book is arranged around questions like “Why Does the Working Class Resent Professionals but Admire the Rich?” and “Why Don’t They Just Go to College?” or “Why Don’t They Move to Where the Jobs Are?”

Progressive legislation, she says, has lavished attention on the poor for a century, but because America is testy about the kind of taxes European countries take for granted, our American programs are targeted and not universal, excluding the middle 50%.

To the extent this is true, it forces the “middle” to rely more on themselves and their families, and to resent those who benefit from the programs they are not eligible for and to resent those who crafted the programs.

She says that hard work for elites is associated with self-actualization. “Disruption” may mean founding a successful startup.

For factory workers, on the other hand, a “stand up” guy suffers the boss’s harangue with a smile just to support the family. “Disruption.., just gets you fired”.

Free spirits born into the working class can’t count on the second chances higher education and social contacts might provide. So, blue-collar families stress “family stability” and “self-discipline” and embrace institutions that support those traits. They socialize with those closest to them, not with those who they want to impress, network or just get to know.

For the same reasons, they find it hard to skip family events “because soccer is a higher priority”, or leave their families to go away to college or move to take a new job.

The working class doesn’t hold as many complaints against the super-rich, with whom they rarely have contact (and may secretly hope to be someday), but they suffer daily insults from the elites who criticize their work or ignore them as waiters, doormen or nurses’ aides.

When it comes to racism, Williams says, elite whites pit working-class whites against people of color, displacing the blame for racism by “distancing themselves from white-working class people, who they then construct as stupid and racist.”

Working class racism is more explicit. “Among the white working class, where the coin of the realm is morality, people of color are constructed as lacking in that quality.”

Among professionals “whose claim to privilege rests on merit, [they may] stereotype nonwhites as less competent”.

While not an excuse for either, her point is that elites should “stop justifying their refusal to acknowledge their class privilege on the grounds that those ‘others’ are racist”.

It is only recently that many non-white friends have helped me understand the consequences of white privilege. This is not a book about race or sexual privilege. It is a book about the privilege that one group, mostly white, holds, maybe unconsciously, over another group of whites. This may be the first step in a new education process.

Jim McCarville is a member of the New People Collective and the TMC Board of Directors.

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