Book Review: White Working Class
White Working Class by Joan C. Williams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Class, more than anything else, is the crucial divide. Class trumps everything. But class isn’t just about how much money you earn. Nor is it an abiding characteristic of individuals. Class is a cultural tradition.
Williams spends the majority of this short, acerbic book explaining the worldview of the white working class, why they believe and behave as they do. And her message for the professional managerial class is blunt, just as elites ascribe structural reasons for poverty, so too should they recognize the structural factors behind the attitudes and behaviors of the working class.
But the definition of “working class” and similar terms is vague. In some circles, "working class" has actually become a euphemism for "poor," but Williams uses the term "working class" for those living a few rungs higher, Americans with earnings above the lowest 30 percent and below the top 20 percent, with a median household income of about $75,000. Some might consider this range to overlap with the middle class, but since almost all Americans consider themselves middle class, Williams decided that the latter term was too vague to be useful.
She structures the book around the nasty little questions that elites like to mutter about working class Trump voters at dinner parties. Questions like, Why doesn’t the working class get with it and go to college? Why don’t they just move to where the jobs are? Don’t they understand that manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back? Why won’t they take the pink collar jobs that are growing? Why do they refuse to get the training they need to better their lot, and why don’t they send their kids to college? Why do they cling to their guns and their religion? Above all, why do such people vote Republican and vote Trump? Don’t they want health insurance and a higher minimum wage? And how dare they criticize the poor when so many of them are on government disability or unemployment.
When passing judgment on the white working class, elites regard their own values about home life, helicopter parenting, constant uprooting, and work life, creativity, innovation, as the norm, oblivious to the fact that others may hold different ones, as Williams argues.
The white working class dream is not to become upper middle class, with its different food, family, and friendship patterns; the dream is to live in your own class milieu, where you feel comfortable, just with more money.
The working classes simultaneous fascination with the ultra wealthy and disdain for the professional class is not only about trickle down fantasies, it's about proximity. "Most working-class people have little contact with the truly rich," Williams explains, "but they suffer class affronts from professionals every day: the doctor who unthinkingly patronizes the medical technician, the harried office worker who treats the security guard as invisible, the overbooked business traveler who snaps at the TSA agent." "Brashly wealthy celebrities epitomize the fantasy of being wildly rich while losing none of your working-class cred," and "Trump epitomizes this.”
She also walks us through the sources of financial insecurity and hopelessness among the white working class. Jobs have vanished, job retraining is useless. Higher education is no sure step up for their children. Many working class kids live in “education deserts,” miles from any college or university. The return on education can be low, and the resultant debt cripplingly high.
The workplace has vastly different meanings as well. Working class families may not choose to relocate for a job because they care more about their community ties. They may prioritize stability and dependability over "disruption" because in working class jobs, disruption "just gets you fired.” And they may cling to religion because "for many in the working class, churches provide the kind of mental exercise, stability, hopefulness, future orientation, impulse control, and social safety net many in the professional elite get from their families, their career potential, their therapists, and their bank accounts."
At a deeper level, both the left and the right need an economic program that can deliver middle class jobs. The right has one, which is to unleash American business. The left? They remain obsessed with cultural issues. I fully understand why transgender bathrooms are important, but I also understand why progressives’ obsession with prioritizing cultural issues infuriates many Americans whose chief concerns are economic.
The working class, of all races, has been asked to swallow a lot of economic pain while elites have focused on noneconomic issues.
In Stayin’ Alive, his powerful history of the “last days” of the working class, the historian Jefferson Cowie describes how the proud blue collar identity of previous generations disintegrated during the ’70s. “Liberty has largely been reduced to an ideology that promises economic and cultural refuge from the long arm of the state,” he writes, “while seemingly lost to history is the logic that culminated under the New Deal: that genuine freedom could only happen within a context of economic security.”
We, my family and I, are what Williams would describe as “class migrants” but we are still far from middle class or even working class as she defines it. But for elites, or anyone else, to write us off as racist is a telling example of how, although race and sex based insults are no longer acceptable in polite society, class based insults still are.
Liberals at every turn want to mandate which group merits the most sympathy. That we should all feel sympathy for people of color, for women, for refugees, for LGBTQ individuals. But caring about working class whites however always seems to be optional. Even professors, who would never let a racist comment pass their lips, openly embrace the stereotype of the southern redneck as racist, sexist, alcoholic, ignorant, and lazy.
I realize that this is a very unpopular opinion. One that runs counter to our current cultural narrative and that I risk making myself a leper among my friends, what few I even have, on the left or the right. But the biggest risk for us today is to continue to be class clueless, or worse class callous. If we don’t take steps to bridge the class culture gap, when Trump proves unable to bring coal jobs back to Whitesburg, Kentucky, for example, the consequences could turn pernicious.
During my reading I never once had the feeling that this book was for anyone other than the "professional managerial elite" who are very much left leaning. Which is not to say others cannot read and find value in the book, but I did feel that many of the messages presented throughout the book were for the "clueless" "elites." Not those who, for lack of a better phrase, are living the "white working class" life.
Later in the book she does go “off the rails" a bit and seems to ignore much of what she prescribes in the first half of the book, reverting to her "coastal progressive elitism.” It’s almost like she wrote the first part of the book, took some time off, and then came back to finish it from a different perspective.
In the end, however, Williams does offer a concise, penetrating, and thought provoking account of the powerful resentments underlying much of contemporary American politics.