Social class in America: the inequality we ignore

When Paul Fussell wrote Class in 1983, social class in America was “notably embarrassing”; sociologist Paul Blumberg, three years earlier, had called it “America’s forbidden thought”. Today, with the focus of media, academic, and political rhetoric on matters of race and sex, class consciousness—to use an admittedly dangerous term—seems absent from the public mind. Rather than being forbidden, the matter of social class as something which can transcend race has been all but forgotten.

But certain questions are only answerable in terms of socioeconomic class. When one asks, as the Washington Post did recently, why the country’s “most progressive cities” are losing their Black residents; or, as the Atlantic has asked, why “blue” cities are often unaffordable for middle-class families; or why the poorest county in the country—Owsley County, Kentucky—is about 98% non-Hispanic White; the progressive cries of racial injustice fall flat.

When I was growing up in suburban areas of the peripheral South, there was no “social class” per se—there were merely different kinds of people. Some lived in houses, others lived in trailers; some moved a lot, others didn’t; some always had money in their pocket, others didn’t. But more importantly to me as a kid, some people looked and acted very differently from others; some read books and others didn’t; some listened to the music I liked and others didn’t. These latter differences, especially the petty disagreements between subcultures which are so important to post-WWII Western youth, did much to cloud my vision of the socioeconomic divisions which were at the root of so many of them.

Such divisions are, ultimately, a matter of differences in shared experience–vocational experience in particular. Differences in shared experience are related to nearness and similarity; people are especially likely to form group identities with those to whom they perceive themselves to be geographically close and similar in culture or likeness. If someone lives far away and has no relation to you, you probably don’t perceive any deep commonality with them–unless you simulate nearness with the help of, say, the Internet.

To draw a useful map of class in the United States, then, means knowing what are the most socially divisive differences in vocational experience–in other words, the differences which are most likely to determine: 1) what kinds of people you live near and 2) what your (sub)cultural norms are, not to mention 3) your material conditions. Some of these might be: whether you have gone to college, whether you own a business, what your credentials are, etc. We can develop such a map in greater detail in the future, but for now we can distinguish an educated class–those living in what Charles Murray calls superZIPs–and an uneducated one. The two are easy to tell apart:

Several teenage church members spent a weekend helping to repair an elderly woman’s small house on a winding country road. For some, the experience was an eye-opener.

“I don’t usually encounter people who aren’t like us,” Zach Hannan, a River Hill High School senior who hopes to become a doctor, said as he joined adults replacing a damaged kitchen floor. He added, “I’m not used to seeing small houses.”

Hannan said that he has accompanied his parents, both psychologists, on cruises to Europe and Alaska and that most of his friends have been to Europe, too. Working nearby, Brandon Pelletier, who headed to Ohio State University this fall to study business, said his friends all have smartphones and shop for high-end clothes at the local mall.

So why, with all this in mind, are “America’s most progressive cities” in the process of “losing African Americans”? For the same reason that Chicanos in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago want “White hipsters” to stop moving in: the educated class is culturally unlike the urban minorities in places like Chicago and Austin, and, more to the point, it makes use of material conditions–gainful employment, home ownership, stable location, etc.–that the uneducated, of any race, urban or rural, do not enjoy in the same proportion. It wields greater social capital as well as economic capital, and both are dependent on social networks which members of the uneducated classes tend not to belong to. This means that, as happily egalitarian as the gentry might be, gentrification doesn’t somehow induct poor Blacks into their ranks. Eric Tang at the Washington Post answers his own question, and does so in terms of class:

It’s not that these cities are no longer liberal, per se, but that the brand of (neo)liberalism they now celebrate is unaccountable to the concerns championed by lower-waged workers[.]
[…]
It’s a liberalism that has, quite literally, left no room for the low-waged worker, particularly African Americans.

Not to mention poor and rural Whites, who not only do not benefit from affirmative action, but are discriminated against by universities. Whatever “White privilege” the educated class has, poor Whites are missing out.

Progressivism, then, is a signal of class; perhaps the greatest impediment to its acceptance by more Americans is economic insecurity. After all, if you went to a good school and make more money than most of the country, bloating the bureaucracy a little more doesn’t sound so bad. But if your livelihood is threatened by possible layoffs, high rent, and debt–in other words, if you’re one of an increasing number among the uneducated middle classes–voting Democrat may be simply unaffordable.

One doesn’t get the sense that middle- and working-class people are as conscious of this as they were, say, a century ago. Americans seem no longer to be as suspicious of the very wealthy as they once were. With the neoliberal GOP moving leftward on social issues and the Democrats losing their economic populism, we are left with two brands of big-government quasi-libertarianism: one for the dwindling middle class, and one for the gentry and their expanding class of dependents. Huey Long and William Jennings Bryan would find both parties hostile to what they stood for; more to the point, so would most of the American political establishment prior to the late 20th century.

To think that the implementation of egalitarian ideas would cause such an ever-growing class divide–an increasingly racial one at that!

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