Why Talk About Class?

MY FATHER-IN-LAW GREW up eating blood soup. He hated it, whether because of the taste or the humiliation, I never knew. His alcoholic father regularly drank up the family wage, and the family was often short on food money. They were evicted from apartment after apartment.

He dropped out of school in eighth grade to help support the family. Eventually he got a good, steady job he truly hated, as an inspector in a factory that made those machines that measure humidity levels in museums. He tried to open several businesses on the side, but none worked, so he kept that job for 38 years. He rose from poverty to a middle-class life: the car, the house, two kids in Catholic school, the wife who worked only part time. He worked incessantly. He had two jobs in addition to his full-time position, one doing yard work for a local magnate and another hauling trash to the dump.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he read The Wall Street Journal and voted Republican. He was a man before his time: a blue-collar white man who thought the union was a bunch of jokers who took your money and never gave you anything in return. Starting in the 1970s, many blue-collar whites followed his example.

Over the past 40-odd years, elites stopped connecting with the working class, whom prior generations had given a place of honor. Think of the idealized portrayals of noble blue-collar workers in post offices across the country, painted by artists of the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration during the 1930s. (My favorite WPA mural is in Coit Tower in San Francisco.) Or of Tom Joad in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (1939), or Terry Malloy in the film On the Waterfront (1954). Elites worked hard to understand working-class men’s striving and their pain.

Class consciousness has been replaced by class cluelessness—and in some cases, even class callousness. Emblematic of this reversal is “All in the Family,” one of the most popular shows on television between 1971 and 1979. The central blue-collar character, Archie Bunker, represented a new and unflattering contrast to his long-haired, liberal, and enlightened college-going son-in-law. Archie was narrow-minded, coarse, ignorant, sexist, and racist. This image came from the core of the progressive elite: Norman Lear, the series producer, who later founded People for the American Way. The 1990s brought Al Bundy, the dimwitted women’s shoe salesman on “Married . . . With Children,” and Homer Simpson, who epitomized stereotypes of the working-class man as “crude, overweight, incompetent, clumsy, thoughtless and a borderline alcoholic” (to quote Wikipedia).1 He works as an inspector at a nuclear power plant, his laziness an ever-present danger to the environment.

With rare exceptions—Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics come immediately to mind—this offensive portrait reigns today. It’s unbecoming for a country that prides itself on a commitment to equality.

An entire book—a different one than mine—could seek to explain why this shift occurred. But the upshot is simply this: during an era when wealthy white Americans have learned to sympathetically imagine the lives of the poor, people of color, and LGBTQ people, the white working class has been insulted or ignored during precisely the period when their economic fortunes tanked. The typical white working-class household income doubled in the three decades after World War II but has not risen appreciably since.2 The death rate for white working-class men—and women—aged 45-54 increased substantially between 1993 and 2013, a reversal from the decades before. In 1970, only a quarter of white children lived in neighborhoods with poverty rates of 10%; by 2000, 40% did.3

In an era when the economic fortunes of the white working class plummeted, elites wrote off their anger as racism, sexism, nativism—beneath our dignity to take seriously. This has led us to politics polarized by working-class fury. “We’re voting with our middle finger,” said a Trump supporter in South Carolina.4 If Trump fails to rejuvenate Flint, Michigan, and Youngstown, Ohio—and he probably will—things could turn even uglier. That’s saying a lot.

This book focuses on the class comprehension gap that is allowing the United States (and Europe) to drift toward authoritarian nationalism. To be clear, I do not focus on hollow-eyed towns gutted by unemployment and the opioid epidemic, or despair deaths of white men with high school educations or less.5 To focus on white working-class despair will lead well-meaning people to approach the white working class as they traditionally have approached the poor—as those “we have a moral and ethical obligation to help,” to quote a well-meaning colleague. This attitude will infuriate them and only widen a societally unhealthy class divide.

Instead, I focus on a simple message: when you leave the two-thirds of Americans without college degrees out of your vision of the good life, they notice. And when elites commit to equality for many different groups but arrogantly dismiss “the dark rigidity of fundamentalist rural America,”6 this is a recipe for extreme alienation among working-class whites. Deriding “political correctness” becomes a way for less-privileged whites to express their fury at the snobbery of more-privileged whites.

I don’t like what this dynamic is doing to America. There are two reasons I think we have to try to replace it with a healthier one. The first is ethical: I am committed to social equality, not for some groups but for all groups. The second is strategic: the hidden injuries of class7 now have become visible in politics so polarized that our democracy is threatened.

A few words about me. Nearly 40 years ago, I married a class migrant: someone who has moved from one class to another. My husband was born in a blue-collar family but then went to Harvard Law School. Myself, I’m a silver spoon girl, born and bred. My WASP father was from an affluent family that made its money in Chicago before returning home to Vermont. My mother was the German Jewish daughter of a well-known reform rabbi. I grew up in Princeton, went to Yale College, Harvard Law School, and MIT, and have been a law professor for nearly 40 years. I now live in San Francisco.

I still remember how, at 16, I fell madly in love with an Italian boy from Queens. I traveled to New York City from my hometown of Princeton, New Jersey, every weekend to go out with him, staying with my beloved grandmother on the Upper East Side. When he finally took me home to Bay Ridge for dinner, it didn’t go well. His father seemed to hate me. His reaction: “She looked at us like a fucking anthropologist.” I was cut to the quick, because it was so true.

The working class doesn’t want to be examined like some tribe in a faraway land. They don’t want the kind of pious solicitude the wealthy offer to the poor. (Perhaps the poor don’t either; different topic.) They want respect for the lives they’ve built through unrelenting hard work. They want recognition for their contributions and their way of life. They keep our power lines repaired, our sewers functioning, our trains running. They give the mammograms that save our lives and pick us up off the street when we’ve been injured. They demand dignity—and they deserve it.

In the half-century since that painful dinner in Bay Ridge, I’ve come to understand that analyzing any group is best handled with extreme caution. And even then, it can easily leave the analyzed feeling condescended to. Empathy—something well-heeled and well-intentioned liberals often call for as a way to cross the class divide—often reads as condescension. The hidden injuries of class are like a sunburn: even a gentle touch can make you jump with outraged pain.

But we have to try. Or we will keep making the same mistakes that have helped foster the populist, anti-establishment anger that welled up in the 2016 election. A good place to start is with the common working-class phrase: “Born on third base; thinks he hit a triple.” Elites often pride ourselves on merit, and point out we work very hard. But so do hotel housekeepers. Let’s not forget that.

Does renewed attention to the white working class mean we should shift away from identity politics in favor of a “post-identity liberalism”?8 That’s a silly idea: politics is always about identity, no less so for Donald Trump than Jesse Jackson. One of the goals of this book is to help broaden the conversation of identity to more deftly include class.

I’ve arranged the book around the kinds of questions people tend to ask me, in blunt, private moments. Questions like, “Why doesn’t the working class get with it and go to college?” and “Why don’t they just move to where the jobs are?”

This book stems from a Harvard Business Review essay I started on election night when I realized that Trump was about to win the presidency. That essay, parts of which have been woven into this book, has now been read millions of times, and I’ve received hundreds of comments and emails about it, many from people who had never written an author before. It was positively received by policymakers both on the left and on the right. Some of what they shared with me I’ve quoted in this book. I have heard from people in Sweden, Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, Canada, Ireland, and Chile telling me that my comments about the U.S. white working class also describe something going on in their countries.

A friend wrote, “My working-class family expected Trump to win and for the most part, are quite hopeful about his presidency. My professional-class in-laws have written several emails about their immense grief over Clinton’s loss. . . . I have found the difference in reactions astounding—and I think your article explains the reasons for it perfectly.” I hope this book will help, too.

Comments from the HBR website have a star (*). All comments are attributed using the handles used online. Quotations without citations are from personal emails or from conversations in which the person asked not to be identified. All quotations are used with permission.

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