White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America

Joan Williams

By Don McIntosh

What could a University of California law professor have to say about the white working class? Quite a lot, actually. In the days after Trump’s election, Joan Williams wrote an essay about “What So Many People Don’t Get About the U.S. Working Class” that went viral, with 3.2 million people reading it online. Now it’s been developed into a book, “White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America.”  I interviewed her May 24 by phone about the book.

Why did you write this book?

Because Trump won. I began it election eve. I was not surprised, but I was deeply shocked.

So the book is meant to do what?

The book is really meant for anyone who was surprised that Trump won. It’s meant to explain why he won and to explain where we should go from here. I heard in my circles utter disbelief and confusion as to why Trump won, and it was crystal clear to me, so I thought I would explain it.

Let’s start with definitions. Your book is entitled “White Working Class.” How do you define white working class, and why?

I borrowed the definition that I had developed with Heather Boushey from the Washington Center for Equitable Growth in an earlier report called The Three Faces of Work-Family Conflict. We defined the poor, professionals, and the missing middle. The middle 53 percent of America is the true middle class, but often, quite highly educated professionals think of themselves as middle class. They may think of themselves as upper middle class. So I was trying to communicate to them that they’re actually not in the middle: They’re part of the elite.

How do you know so much about the characteristics of these groups that you describe in the book?

Well, I attempted to read every ethnography of the white working class written from about 1975 to about 2005, as well as those published after. I’ve studied it for a very long time. I’ve also lived it for a very long time. The book is really a book about the relationship between the ”Professional Managerial Elite” and the “White Working Class.” I’m a “silver spoon” girl. I come from an elite family, and I married into a white working class family nearly 40 years ago. So the book describes the very different assumptions, dispositions, customs, and folkways of these two groups, and tries to explain them to each other in the hope of mending what is a seriously busted relationship.

What do you mean by “class cluelessness”?

People in the cultural elite in this country often know quite a lot about the lives of the poor. They often know shockingly little about the lives of Americans in the middle. Even socially conscious people run through their heads (and therefore interrupt) a lot of stuff like the biases more privileged people have typically have against less privileged people. They run those through their heads when they’re talking about people of color, but they don’t when they’re talking about people from a different class status, because they are convinced, like most Americans, that there are no classes. Very often the cultural elite speak extremely disrespectfully of people in the middle. And I think your cultural images like Archie Bunker (white working class men as racist, sexist, and stupid); or Homer Simpson (white working class men as stupid, pathetic, and fat); or more recently, “Pennsatucky” from the first season of Orange is the New Black (white working class women as ugly, coarse and brutish). They’re using the kind of stereotypes of non elite people that elites have used for hundreds of years. And people who would never knowingly let a racist comment cross their lips often use open class insults in talking about working class people. The most obvious example is college fraternity parties called “white trash” bashes. University administrations would certainly not allow that kind of thing to happen if the insult were a racial insult, nor should they. They shouldn’t be allowed to happen with class insults either.

What are some examples of condescension or contempt that you hear in professional managerial elite circles towards members of the white working class?

I won’t even repeat them. They are pretty bad though. And they’re pretty open.

Is it fair to say then that this book is written for members of the professional managerial elite — to try to get them to have increased empathy so they stop exacerbating the divide?

I think my goal is less to spark empathy on the part of the cultural elite then to send a message that people who have jobs like plumbers, electricians, wind farm technicians, radiology technicians … these people don’t deserve your empathy; they deserve your respect. The work they do is important. The life you live would be impossible without it. It’s as important as the professional job you do. They deserve your respect, and they’re not getting it. In response to your former question of what kinds of insults, you don’t have to look very far. You have Hillary Clinton calling these people “deplorables” – racist, sexist, and homophobic. And Barack Obama in 2012 saying they are bitter people, clinging to guns and religion. Those are very condescending comments, very unselfconsciously delivered.

Does the white working-class also need to work on its relationship with the professional managerial elite?

I think when an elite is condescending and belittling to people below them on the social scale, I think it’s up to the elite to stop doing that.

Do you think Americans are class conscious?

No. That’s an easy answer. No.

I feel like they are, but there is this ideology of denial about it. I think Americans recognize class, they just don’t talk about it. 

Yeah, everybody knows that classes exist, but there’s a serious social taboo towards acknowledging they exist. People will go, “hey that was a classy party.” What is unspoken is that there are other parties that are not classy. They are “down market” parties. That’s one of the reasons that Trump is so unbelievably good at channeling the resentments against the cultural elite, because he has been condescended to his whole life. He made his name as a boy from Queens having people from Manhattan look down their noses at his garish Atlantic City retreats that were clearly not in “quiet good taste.” So people often say: “How can a rich boy who started out with $14 million from his dad connect with the white working class?” The way he connects with them is that he feels equally condescended to, and has for his entire life.

You might be fairly described as the epitome of the professional managerial elite with your pedigree, your education.

Oh, I am. I grew up in Princeton, New Jersey. I went to Yale, Harvard and MIT. I am a caricature of the professional managerial elite.

So how do you relate personally to members of the white working class?

I was born on third base. I don’t think I hit a triple.

Do you have relationships with members of the white working class?

Yeah, my in-laws. I’ve been part of a white working class family for 40 years.

Your book is structured as a series of questions. One of the questions you get into is, “Why don’t laid off Rust Belt factory workers just get retrained as computer engineers and move across the country (the assumption being that if they don’t, they have only themselves to blame)? Why does that question persist, and why is it unfair?

It’s a typical example of class cluelessness, in seven different directions.

Number one: The cultural elites are busy announcing that because of globalization and automation, we’re going to have a knowledge job economy. Well, excuse me: Who is going to maintain your bridges, who’s going to give you electric power, who is going to give you your mammogram? That is so unrealistic. That is patently false. How can you say that? That is such a clueless thing to say.  People hold blue-collar jobs because they think they’re important and because they don’t want to be pencil pushers. And my response is: These jobs are important.

Another reason people don’t just move across the country and go to college and get a great knowledge economy job is: Going to college is a very different proposition if you’re from a blue-collar family than it is for people from a professional family. First of all, it’s three times as hard to get in, says one study. And even if you do get in, it’s a far more risky economic proposition because you may feel so culturally ill-at-ease and you may be so poorly prepared academically that you’re much more likely to drop out, in which case you’re going to be paying huge college debt on a high school graduate salary. Which means, according to one study, many people end up paying like a third of their income, without the college degree.

And then thirdly, the kinds of colleges that people from professional families go to are often quite different from the kinds of colleges that blue collar kids go to, and [the latter] are much less likely to lead to high-paying jobs. The divergence between incomes of high- and low-paying college graduates has very sharply increased in recent decades. So many people graduate from college and end up earning not a lot more than non- college graduates.

But finally, with blue collar kids, their families have very different social networks and expectations then professional kids do. Kids from professional families go away to college and they have an instant national network consisting of other elite kids. They have a broad but shallow network of acquaintances that they can rely on for the rest of their lives to help them get professional jobs. Their families assume from the beginning that they would move far from home, and absolutely accept that.

Blue-collar kids are in a very different situation. Their families have very dense, very local, very rooted networks of people who are family, friends that they’ve known forever, neighbors. And their families expect that they will remain part of those networks. And they often do have very good not only social but also economic reasons, because those networks provide things that more privileged people buy, such as good child care or help with home repair. So for a blue-collar person to move away from their family network, they not only have to get a better job, they have to get a job that is so much better that it doesn’t matter that they now have to pay for child care. And the family expectations of blue collar families are typically that the kids will stay close to the home, not only so grandma can help with child care but so that the kids can help when grandma gets older. The social support that professional and managerial kids get when they move far from home often does not exist for blue collar kids. Instead, blue collar kids’ decisions to move far from home for professional reasons are met with a kind of puzzlement at best.

Life looks really different when you’re not in the elite. And the elite sometimes forgets that.

One of the things your book touches on is this distinction between means-tested government programs (like welfare, food stamps, and Medicaid) and universal government programs (like Social Security, Medicare, and Workers Comp). They fare very differently politically. You argue that’s because the white working class resents not just the professional managerial elite but also the poor.

I think this is hard sometimes for people in the Democratic Party to understand, partly because one of the ways they make the middle class literally disappear is they call them “working class” and then associate the working class with the poor. That’s a really effective way to make the group that we’re talking about literally disappear from your vision. But it’s entirely understandable if you have a social welfare system that is focused entirely on means-tested programs delivering benefits to the poor such that people who are just one notch above them get nothing. That is a recipe for class conflict. And that’s not because the people one notch above are mean-spirited. That’s because they also have pressing needs that are completely unaddressed. If you look at Obamacare, what Obama couldn’t stop talking about was the means-tested part of the program – the 20 million people who were going to get Medicaid. And he did not stress the universal elements of the program – the elimination of the pre-existing condition, the right to have your kids on your health care to age 26. Those universal elements are what is making Obama care very sticky politically to eliminate. But that just passed right over their heads.

There’s this idea among Marxists of “false consciousness” — that members of the proletariat can be deluded and not see their true interests. And maybe a modern variant of that is in Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter with Kansas — that working people who vote Republican are dupes because they’re voting against their own economic interest. You hear that argument a lot. What do you make of it?

I think that’s another example of condescension — that these poor ignorant peasants have been duped by the business elite. I don’t think they are duped by the business elite. I think that these voters feel like neither Democrats nor Republicans have offered them anything substantial when it comes to providing the kinds of solid, stable middle-class jobs that their fathers and grandfathers had. Trump offered them jobs. The other thing I think that Thomas Frank’s critique doesn’t recognize is Republicans are the only party that’s been offering these blue collar families jobs. They’ve been saying, “through supply-side economics, we’re going to unleash the economy and give you jobs.” Personally I think that has been shown to be inaccurate, but at least they’re talking about jobs.  If people’s chief concern is that they feel the American dream is slipping from their hands, Democrats have only themselves to blame if these people don’t vote for them, because they’re not talking about that. I think before Trump, these working class people felt that neither Democrats nor Republicans cared a whit what happened to them economically. At least the Republicans were showing them some respect for their much more traditional values than are common among the cultural elite, so they voted Republican. I don’t think it was stupidity. It was very understandable, given the way they were being treated by both parties.

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