Category Archives: Class at the Intersections

Missing Women: Watching The Makers

I watched The Makers: Women Who Make America on PBS last week with a conflicted eye.  No doubt, the documentary about the last 60 years of activism and social change on behalf of women reminded me of just how much my own life was shaped by the feminist movement.  My first act of political engagement was knocking on doors in support of Pat Schroeder’s first run for Congress.  I was twelve.  I wrote my first women’s history paper in 9th grade, in part because I was angry that the textbook said so little about the woman suffrage movement. I learned about domestic violence, women’s health, and activism from Ms. magazine. In college, I marched to take back the night and hosted the weekly feminist collective radio show. I went to the University of Minnesota for my PhD because I wanted to study women’s history with Sara Evans.  A decade after anti-feminist women activists killed the ERA, I was trying to make sense of their views by writing a dissertation about an intelligent, independent nineteenth-century woman who opposed the idea of woman suffrage.  My dissertation committee had one “token” man.  In other words, I benefitted in specific, concrete ways from the battle for equal rights and the expanded choices it secured for women.

But the movement was also geared to women like me, as The Makers reminded me.  As a white child of a progressive, privileged household, I had the cultural and economic capital to view my life as full of opportunity.  I could be proud of my father for hiring the first female commercial airline pilot without thinking about the consequences of his regular contract negotiations with stewardesses, as we called them then.  Like many feminists of my generation, I sang along to songs about women wanting to be engineers but had no interest in that option.  I knew that all women were not the same, of course, but I didn’t think much about whether the movement that had empowered me was doing much for working-class women.

Eighteen years in Working-Class Studies has changed that perspective, and while I appreciated much of the documentary, I was also keenly aware of what was missing. The stories of key battles and strategies, video clips from protests, and even the interviews with women who were put off by feminism all resonated for me.  I was glad to see at least a few stories about working-class women and women of color – a couple of examples of women who sued for workplace rights (including flight attendants), a coal miner’s tale of fighting sexual harassment, Barbara Smith’s explanation of the goals of the Kitchen Table Press.  Yet the film’s primary narrative about women and work, especially, involved the gains women had made in professional jobs – establishing a construction business, becoming a dot-com CEO, working as a television producer – and, ultimately, the struggles white middle-class women face in balancing work and family.

While The Makers does include comments by several women of color and acknowledges the movement’s difficulties with recognizing or advocating for issues facing women who were not white or middle class, it also replicates the movement’s tendency to focus on the needs of women whose goals and expectations reflect their race and class privileges.  Like the women’s movement itself, the film largely ignores the concerns of working-class women. When traditional types of women’s work are mentioned, as in a reference to the growth of the typing pool in the 1950s, the implication is that service work was a temporary way-station, not the type of work that most women still do – perhaps not with typewriters but with computerized cash registers or blood pressure cuffs.  The solution to a telephone operator’s low pay, the film suggests, was not to organize and advocate for better pay for that job but to fight to get a few women access to higher-paying jobs that had been reserved for men. As Karen Nussbaum, founder of 9 to 5, the National Association of Working Women, notes near the end of the film, the women’s movement should have focused “more on the economic issues of working people.  It should have been about creating an alternative that worked for most women, and that alternative would have included child care, it would have included community services, it would have included after school care where your kids could get cared for by adults.  None of that happened, and I think that’s the great failure of the women’s movement.”  As Nussbaum’s comment suggests, the problem with The Makers may not be the filmmakers’ view but the real history of the women’s movement.

On the other hand, the film leaves out many examples of activism by working-class women and women of color.  Where was Angela Davis, who offered a radical vision that linked race, class, and gender?  Or bell hooks? How about Roseanne Barr, whose hit show started in the same year as Murphy Brown, a show the film celebrates, but provided a funny, realistic, and very political look at ordinary life in a working-class family?  How do we talk about the fight for women’s rights without recognizing the efforts of 9 to 5 or any other labor union  that advocates for the rights of women in the workplace – not just the right to a seat in the boardroom but the right to better working conditions in all jobs?

The Makers reminds us of how much our expectations for and assumptions about women have changed since the 1950s.  It also highlights the threats to women’s rights and opportunities, including the danger that if younger women take those rights for granted, we could well have to fight all over again.  It’s an inspiring film, and the history matters.  It’s also an important reminder that both the movement and the media need to pay more attention to working-class women.  As narrator Meryl Streep acknowledges, “As long as so many women are falling through the cracks, some argue, the feminist revolution will remain unfinished.”

Sherry Linkon

Union Density: What’s Literature Got to Do with It?

So union density in United States has declined yet again. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 11.3% of American workers now belong to unions.   This compares to 11.8% in 2011, and it’s a long way from the all-time high of 35% in the early 1940s.   The “right to work” campaign is expanding – even to Michigan, of all states – along with “austerity” policies that target working people.   Since Ronald Reagan launched his attack on labor in 1980, when union density was at 20%, real wages have declined along with union membership to a point where we now have a “gilded age” level of income inequality.

In times like these, it is useful to be reminded of what unions can be good for.  A labor history like From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend (2001) explains in readable style what it took to establish unions in the first place, while New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse makes clear in The Big Squeeze: Hard Times for the American Worker (2008) why we need them now more than ever.  Novels, too, can make the case for working people’s rights, through compelling fictional narratives that engage us with characters we care about.  Two Depression-era novels from the Pittsburgh steel district, Thomas Bell’s Out of This Furnace and William Attaway’s Blood on the Forge, both in published in 1941, do this particularly well, though in very different ways.

Bell’s book – subtitled “a novel of immigrant labor in America” when it was republished by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1976 – follows three generations of a Slovak-American family from arrival in the 1880s up to the unionization of the steel mills in the New Deal era.  Along the way it addresses the Homestead battle of 1892, as well as the great strike of 1919 and the struggles of 1934-37.  Attaway’s is a novel of the Great Migration, tracing the experience of three African-American brothers who are lured north from Kentucky to work the mills during the 1919 conflict.  By this time, eastern European laborers have been admitted into some union lodges, while blacks are excluded and demonized as strikebreakers.

Although Bell’s novel is a family saga spanning fifty years of steel-town history, while Attaway’s focuses on one pivotal year, they have several points of contact.  Both address the dislocations of [im]migration, the hazards of steelmaking, racial/ethnic subjugation, labor strife – and the strength of the human spirit in response to these conditions.  And there are telling coincidences of detail between the two: fourteen men die in the blast furnace “accident” that kills Joe Dubik in 1895 in Furnace and fourteen in the explosion that blinds Chinatown Moss in 1919 in Blood.

But there are equally telling points of divergence.  Bell takes the family as a social ideal and traces its process of Americanization within a known community.  The health of family and community depend on strong representation in the workplaces that dominate life in the steel towns.   Although they are discriminated against as “Hunkies,” assigned the worst housing and the worst tasks in the mill, Bell’s characters grow into a sense of citizenship and belonging.  And they are recognizably white in relation the lowest stratum of immigrants to the steel towns.  Looking back on how Braddock has changed in fifty years, Bell’s aging Slovaks lament the arrival of the “shines” in the First Ward, “brought here to break the strike” in 1919.

Attaway’s characters are rootless single men, focused on survival and what pleasure they can find in the present moment, with the aid of corn whisky, dog fights, and the prostitutes in Mex town.   Only the eldest brother, Big Mat, who has left his wife behind in Kentucky, sees any future for himself in the mill town.  Working steel, “His body was happy.  This was a good place for a big black man to be.”  When the strike starts, however, he lends his strength to the company’s campaign to crush it; as a sheriff’s deputy, he becomes a “black riding boss,” trampling those who have mocked him, including the Hunkies.

From contrasting standpoints, both novels demonstrate how racial division was as much a product of industrial management as steel from the mills, and how this division, reinforced by craft union prejudices and racial exclusion, bedeviled any attempt at industry-wide organization – that is, until the CIO swung into town in 1935.   Dobie, Bell’s third-generation protagonist, understands the racial system: “Once it was the Irish looking down on the Hunkies and now it’s the Hunkies looking down on the niggers.  The very things the Irish used to say about the Hunkies the Hunkies now say about the niggers.  And for no better reason.”  Whereas Bell does not criticize the steel unions for their part in maintaining this cycle of racism, its destructive power is central to Attaway’s story.

Differences in narrative style make it a pleasure to read the two novels alongside each other.  Bell writes with a naturalistic matter-of-factness, leavened with gentle irony, and sometimes with finely pointed commentary.  Of the death of Joe Dubik and his workmates, Bell writes:  “Officially it was put down as an accident, impossible to foresee or prevent . . ..  In a larger sense it was the result of greed, and part of the education of the American steel industry.”  His style is also capable of great tenderness, especially in his scenes of courtship, married love, and family losses.  Attaway’s writing, by contrast, crackles and hums with a dark music.  The novel’s first sentence reads: “He never had a craving in him that he couldn’t slick away on his guitar.”  But Melody’s healing blues cannot survive the move to the steel towns, nor can it save his brothers Chinatown and Big Mat, who used to love to hear him play in the red-clay hills of Kentucky.

The two novels’ titles suggest not only this contrast in style but also in narrative outcomes.  “Out of this furnace” comes a vindication of the steelworkers’ aspirations and the possibility of a better life for their families.  At the end of Bell’s novel, Dobie, having helped to build what became the United Steel Workers, engages in a nighttime reverie about issues the union could address in the future:  technological unemployment, environmental destruction, anti-worker politics, bosses and “bossism,” and the degradation of work itself.  As he spins this web at the bedroom window, his sleeping wife is pregnant with their first child – completing the picture of productive and reproductive futurity.

The “blood [spilled] on the forge” in Attaway’s novel is not redeemed by any such optimistic conclusion.  The book itself becomes a kind of blues, and any uplift it provides comes from Attaway’s ability to sing it.   Big Mat, Melody, and Chinatown do not recover from the combined violence of cultural dislocation, deadly working conditions, and racist labor politics – and they do not understand what has happened to them.  But we, as readers, are invited to develop the consciousness they can’t.  The novel offers us the insight and empathy out of which to draw our own conclusions about the industrial system and the need for racial solidarity in labor.

For me, novels like these suggests that unions can be good for much more than better hours, wages, and working conditions. What they achieved, on the evidence of Bell’s novel at any rate, included a sense of personal dignity and collective strength in the present, and a hopeful vision pulling one forward.   When Bell wrote that in 1937 “the fifty-year struggle to free the steel town was nearly over,” he was claiming that the fight to organize, to be recognized, to bargain implied more than “labor rights” alone; it was a struggle for what came to be called civil and human rights. Conversely, Attaway shows us, in visceral scenes, the damage done, no only when companies and their henchmen engage in violent suppression of those rights but also when unions play into a company’s hands by excluding the unorganized and the “other.”

Most unions today seem to get this – though, for now, they are still on the losing end of the most concerted legal and political assault since the robber barons ruled the roost.  But we would be much worse off without them, and they may be due for a revival.  Read any good labor novels lately?

Nick Coles

The Changing Working Class

In the old progressive narrative of American culture, everyone would do better over time. The son of a miner with an 8th grade education would graduate from high school, and even if he got an industrial job, stronger unions and general prosperity would mean that he worked fewer hours than his father and earned enough to buy a small house.  His daughter would go to college and get a job as a nurse or a teacher, and her kids might keep moving up by attending a better college and getting a better  job. And surrounding the generations of this one imaginary family would be most other families, so that over time, the whole country would experience increasing prosperity and higher social status.  Maybe everyone wasn’t going to make it to the middle class, but most people would get there.  (Of course, there’s a troubling counterpart to this narrative that blames those who didn’t become middle class for failing, but that’s another story.)

But something, actually many things, went wrong over the past few decades.  I’ve written before about the growth of income inequality, citing Timothy Noah’s analysis that describes it as a long-term trend with multiple contributing factors.  Perhaps because of income inequality, surveys suggest that Americans no longer expect their families to keep moving on up.  So despite the expectation that we would all become middle class, the working-class is not simply a majority, it is a growing majority.   That’s true according to the analyses of academics like Michael Zweig, who describes most Americans as working class on the basis of the limited power they have in the workplace. In the 2011 edition of his book America’s Working Class Majority, Zweig finds  that 63% of Americans are working class, up from 62% in the original 2000 book.  It’s also true in terms of how people identify themselves.  While the General Social Survey for decades has  shown that over 40% of Americans identify themselves as working class, the 2010 version of the survey, which the GSS reruns every few years, show that 46.8% now identify as working class, the highest percentage since the early 80s.

The working class is also changing.  The term used to call to mind blue-collar unionized workers with no college education, but today’s working class not only works in a wide range of jobs, but many have at least some college.  These days, many people with college degrees settle for jobs that don’t require the credential, and others whose jobs do require degrees have lost the professional autonomy that, according to Zweig, defines middle-class jobs.  Indeed, one of the reasons Zweig sees the working class growing is because so many teachers and nurses are now, on the basis of the limited control they have over their own labor, working class.  Many people go to college because it seems like the most promising path to economic security, but that promise fades when they can’t find jobs and are burdened by loans.  Combine that with an economic crisis and long-term shifts in employment that leave increasing numbers with precarious work, as John Russo noted recently, and it’s clear not only that more people belong to the working class but that the working class itself is becoming more educated and less-steadily-employed.

There’s another likely change in the American working class, one that reflects the broader shift in racial demographics.  The Congressional Research Service documents a slight decline in the percentage of Americans who self-identify as white, a slight increase in those who self-identify as Black, and more significant increases in those who identify themselves as Asian or Hispanic, and its study projects these trends to continue over time. Even if we looked only at population numbers, the working class – which was never really “all white” — is almost certainly becoming even more diverse.

The racial diversity of the working class is also likely increasing because of patterns in education and income.  While Blacks are more likely to get some college than are whites, whites earn more bachelor and advanced degrees, and whites with BAs earn about $10,000 a year more than Blacks with similar degrees.  Hispanics are less likely to either go to college or earn a degree than either Blacks or Whites, though when they do, they earn more than Blacks.  Beyond reminding us that racial differences still matter in education and earnings, these figures suggest that Hispanics and Blacks may be more likely than whites to remain in the working class even if they go to college.

Diversity isn’t only about race, of course.  A number of sources, including the Public Religion Research Institute, suggest that working-class political attitudes differ by gender, by region, by religion, and by situation, among other things.  They note, for example, that the white working class was at least somewhat divided along gender lines in this year’s election and that white Protestants were more likely to support Romney than were white Catholics. Their survey also found that voters who had been on food stamps were more likely to support Obama in this election, while those who had not received such assistance were more likely to support Romney.

So what does all of this add up to?  On the one hand, if the working class is growing, it ought to have more clout, as voters and as activists.  We may well be seeing a difference in elections, but there’s a big difference between people leaning just enough toward the Democrats to re-elect Obama and having a strong or coherent political voice.  The gap between functioning as an electoral block and developing a working-class consciousness that would fire coherent activism may be even larger. While the Occupy Movement stood up (and sometimes laid down) for economic justice, it’s unclear what role working-class people or working-class perspectives played in that movement.

The diversity of the working class, in all forms, may present a challenge to working-class organizing.  This has always been the case, of course, and the history of the labor movement reminds us of how difficult it can be to create unity among a diverse working class.  Today’s workplaces no longer provide as many opportunities for workers to come together or recognize their shared interests, and in a tight economy, working-class people sometimes see each other as the competition.  Given those challenges and the way working-class perspectives are also always shaped by race, gender, religion, and place, it’s hard to imagine a widespread, sustained working-class movement for economic and social change, even though it is so clearly needed.

On the other hand, social movements are not the only agents of change. Simply paying attention to the way the working class is changing and growing makes a difference, since it requires us to think about how social class is not a fixed structure but one that responds to other social and economic changes.  That matters for academics but also for civic life.  Being aware of the growing presence and diversity of the working class might make the media, educators, policy-makers, and yes, even politicians, more attentive to the importance of including working-class perspectives in public discourse and policymaking.

Sherry Linkon

Can Working-Class Women Have It All?

This past summer, Anne-Marie Slaughter generated a tsunami of commentary with her Atlantic cover story about “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”  According to the magazine’s editors, the article broke records for online readers, Facebook likes, and comments, and it inspired response articles in a number of other publications.  Building on that success, the magazine is running another potentially controversial piece on women’s lives this month, Hanna Rosin’s argument that the “hook-up culture” on college campuses is empowering women.

Both writers acknowledge, in different ways, that when they say “women,” they really mean white middle-class straight women.  Slaughter states directly that she was “writing for my demographic—highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place. We may not have choices about whether to do paid work, as dual incomes have become indispensable. But we have choices about the type and tempo of the work we do. We are the women who could be leading, and who should be equally represented in the leadership ranks.”  I appreciate Slaughter making this point; too often, when people write about “women,” they don’t acknowledge class differences.

Yet I also can’t help imagining the potentially productive conversation between a woman from Slaughter’s “demographic” and a working-class woman about strategies for achieving work-life balance.  After all, working-class women have always worked, often in jobs that don’t have clear time and space boundaries (home-based piecework, taking in boarders, child care), and the tension between doing your job and caring for your family is one they’ve navigated for generations.

Rosin ackowledges working-class women more directly in her piece, citing a study by Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton that examined the views of hooking up by college women from different class backgrounds.  They showed that going to college reflects “a classed self-development imperative that discourages relationships but makes hooking up appealing.”  In other words, Rosin suggests, women choose casual sex over committed relationships in order to preserve their ability to, as one young woman put it, “maintain the lifestyle that I’ve grown up with.” Rosin mentions that the working-class women in the study found the hook-up culture “alienating,” but in order to “succeed” in the eyes of their peers, they had to adapt to it.  Those who didn’t were seen as “the dorm tragedies.”  

She also notes, again briefly (perhaps because it doesn’t fit the narrative of her article), that the working-class women “felt trapped between the choice of marrying the disastrous hometown guy who never gets off the couch, and will steal their credit card – or joining a sexual culture that made them uncomfortable.” In her view, it seems, marrying a working-class man is an inherently bad, even foolish choice.  The only other option she can imagine – or the only one that fits her claim that hooking up reflects women’s increasing power — is embracing the hook-up culture.  Obviously, there’s plenty of open space and many options between those two extremes, including the possibility that an educated woman from a working-class background could construct a fulfilling relationship with an uneducated man with whom she shares a home culture.

Having glibly exaggerated the tensions working-class women might feel with the “classed self-development imperative” of higher education, Rosin blithely treats the Yale business-school students she interviewed as representative of most college women.  In truth, they may be more deeply invested than most college students in the individualistic culture of personal advancement that scholars such as Barbara Jensen have associated with the middle class. So while I give Rosin credit for acknowledging the possibility of class differences among college women, her efforts reflect exactly the kinds of stereotyping and blind spots that Jack Metzgar wrote about here a few weeks ago.

 Slaughter overtly excludes working-class women, while Rosin addresses their perspectives in highly problematic ways.  Nevertheless, these two pieces suggest an interesting question: what would it mean for a working-class woman to “have it all”?

Given the differences in values between the working class and the middle class (see Jensen’s new book Reading Classes for a good overview, or click here for an earlier version of her analysis), we can probably begin by speculating that “having it all” for a working-class woman would not be about professional success.   More likely, it would be about finding the balance between hours at work and hours at home, keeping a job and a steady income while being there for her kids — pretty much the same challenge that professional women face. 

So what’s the difference?  Choice, for a start. Privileged women are more likely to have the option to stay at home.  Many also have the financial stability and social capital to work fewer hours, to travel less for their jobs, or to choose a job that is more flexible.  Some earn enough to be able to hire help. One reason we don’t hear much about working-class women debating whether they can have it all is that they have few options.  Most have to work at least one job, and they do forms of work that allow them little if any control over their shifts or working conditions.  Many probably have some choice of which job to do, but many do not.  They do the work that is available, under the conditions that exist, and they do the best they can with their families.  So there’s nothing to debate.  

That’s the standard thinking, right?  But it might not reflect the whole story.  In her 2011 book, For the Family? How Class and Gender Shape Women’s Work, Sarah Damaske argues that while working-class women cite financial need as their reason for working, they are also motivated by the satisfaction they find at work. Working-class women, Damaske suggests, feel pressure to claim that they work in order to fulfill the needs of their families.  Work may be a source of pride and identity for working-class people, but for women, especially, family roles are even more powerful.  Yet in Damaske’s interviews, working-class women also described their jobs as providing intrinsic motivation.  One woman says that it’s her job that “makes me want to get up and go somewhere.” She and others found work meaningful and enjoyable, just like their middle-class sisters.

For professional-class women, the opposite social pressure may well be in play.  They feel pressured to achieve as much as possible in their careers.  For them, choosing the less-demanding job, or worse, choosing to stay at home, feels like a decision that must be defended, while working-class women feel they must justify working.

Working-class and middle-class women are also likely to have different expectations about family life.  In her research for Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, Annette Lareau found clear differences in how middle-class and working-class families approached raising children. The middle-class version emphasized intentional, organized child development aimed at individual achievement, while the working-class model is less ambitious, built around a vision of more spontaneous, organic development.  The middle-class version is also more labor-intensive for parents, requiring constant juggling of children’s schedules of lessons, soccer games, and other activities.  No wonder professional women struggle to balance work and family.  Even with less flexibility and power in their jobs, working-class women may be able to fit work life and home life together more smoothly, because family life involves fewer activities and less pressure for performance.

As this comparison suggests, talking about “having it all” is never simple.  But this much is: gender is classed.  That’s old news in Working-Class Studies, but it’s a lesson all those pundits talking about women have yet to understand.

Sherry Linkon

The Whiteness of Working-Class Studies

Later this week, scholars, artists, and activists from around the world will gather at SUNY Stony Brook for the How Class Works conference, organized by Michael Zweig and his colleagues at the Center for Study of Working Class Life.  We’re a diverse group, coming from about a dozen countries and a variety of academic fields and organizations.  Over the course of a few days, sociologists will talk with poets, graduate students will hang out with senior scholars, and community and labor organizers will discuss strategy with political scientists and literary scholars.  This combination of diversity and informal interaction creates an engaging, friendly, and lively atmosphere, and it keeps people coming back to working-class studies conferences year after year.

But with the exception of a significant group of international scholars from Turkey, Africa, and China, most of those at the conference will be white.  Several times over the course of the conference, people will suggest that, as a community, we should be concerned, maybe even ashamed, about our lack of racial diversity.  If we were really committed to social justice, the commentators may seem to imply, if we were sufficiently self-critical and open and inclusive, our interdisciplinary field would be much more multicultural.

But it isn’t.  And that isn’t about a lack of commitment, intellectual engagement, or organizing effort.  From the beginning, working-class studies has been deeply involved in critical discussions of both the diversity of the working class (or as our British colleagues perhaps more accurately put it, the working classes) and the theoretical and political intersections among class, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. New working-class studies scholars have not generally suggested that class matters more than race.  Rather, we argue that class deserves focused attention within the context of broader discussions of inequality, difference, and culture.  The founding program in working-class studies, the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University, got its start as part of a national project on diversity in higher education sponsored by the American Association of Colleges and Universities.  In 1995, when we applied to that program, we asked whether “the working class would be invited to the diversity banquet.”  As the program organizers told us, we were the only people raising questions about class in the context of multiculturalism.

That emphasis remains a key element of working-class studies.  It’s been the primary theme of several conferences, and a significant proportion of the presentations each year focus on variations of the theme.  At this year’s conference, for example, about 20% of the paper titles explicitly reference race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality, and more than 25% more address class in non-U.S. national contexts, including papers on the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, as well as Europe.  A few more papers consider the latest addition to critical discussions of diversity: religion.  Of course, many of those who will speak about the intersection of class and race are white.  Indeed, one of the strengths of working-class studies is that it has encouraged so many white scholars to apply class as a critical concept in looking at issues of race and ethnicity.

And yes, a number of conference presenters will discuss issues facing the white working class.   Working-class studies is concerned that many, some would even say the majority, of whites have been exploited and excluded from so-called “mainstream” culture, marginalized as “white trash,” and stereotyped as racist and reactionary.  At best, the white working class has been elided into the more privileged white middle class, who benefit from more political, economic, and cultural capital.  As my colleagues and I suggested 17 years ago, the white working class has an important place in discussions and activism related to diversity.

None of which is to say that we should stop thinking about the whiteness of working-class studies as a problem. A more racially-diverse working-class studies could help to deepen and complicate our conversations about how class works.  Over the past 17 years, we have pursued a variety of strategies to reach out to colleagues of color: sending the call for papers to organizations that focus on ethnic studies, attempting to collaborate with such groups, organizing conferences around the theme of intersections, inviting keynote speakers whose activism or research focuses on race, and through personal contacts. The international participation in this year’s conference offers evidence that such efforts can bring more diversity to the movement.

Yet almost two decades of outreach have made working-class studies only slightly less white.  Why is it so hard?  Part of the problem must rest in the history of race and class relations in the U.S. (and in other countries), as the elite have repeatedly pitted working-class whites and blacks against each other (Michelle Alexander provides a useful overview of this in The New Jim Crow).  And part of it probably reflects the way some leftist scholars have argued that class should subsume race and gender, advocating for a class-based solidarity.  These twin histories might well make some scholars of color uncertain about whether working-class studies is the place for them.

But it may also be that working-class studies has too little to offer to those whose  work focuses on race, who may find similar ideas and similar camaraderie in critical race theory (CRT).  For me, working-class studies provides important ways of thinking about structural inequality, cultural difference, and shared identity and experience. For contemporary scholars of race, the same core can be found within CRT.  Consider, for example, this excerpt from a definition of CRT from the UCLA School of Public Policy:

Intersectionality within CRT points to the multidimensionality of oppressions and recognizes that race alone cannot account for disempowerment. “Intersectionality means the examination of race, sex, class, national origin, and sexual orientation, and how their combination plays out in various settings.” This is an important tenet in pointing out that CRT is critical of the many oppressions facing people of color and does not allow for a one–dimensional approach of the complexities of our world.

Narratives or counterstories, as mentioned before, contribute to the centrality of the experiences of people of color. These stories challenge the story of white supremacy and continue to give a voice to those that have been silenced by white supremacy.

Substitute class for the references to race in this passage, and the result would sound very much like some core ideas in working-class studies, which wrestles with the “many oppressions” facing the working class and which strives to make working-class narratives available because they challenge the class-based social hierarchy.

New working-class studies and critical race theory share some significant intellectual DNA.   The key to making the link may not be to bemoan the lack of racial diversity at the working-class studies conference but rather to actively seek out opportunities for in-depth conversation across these two fields.  We have much in common, and we have much to learn from each other.

Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies

Concepts, Real Life & the Working Class

Man, it’s hard thinking and talking about social class in these United States.  Most of the time since President Obama was elected, there’s nobody out there but “the rich” and “the middle class,” as if both the working class and poverty have been eliminated.  Then along comes a political election, and all of a sudden the mainstream media starts talking about a “working class” that turns out to be all white, all male, and uniformly good at bowling!

A recent spurt of this usage is particularly confusing as it casts Republican Presidential candidate Rick Santorum as “a working-class hero.”  Santorum, a lawyer who now makes about a million dollars a year, grew up in a Pittsburgh suburb the son of a clinical psychologist and an administrative nurse.  His “working-class roots” derive from one of his grandfathers having been a miner and from Santorum’s having driven past steel mills as a teenager.  Santorum had a 15% AFL-CIO voting record when he was a Senator, and according to the Washington Post, he now earns his living “as a consultant for groups advocating and lobbying for industry interests . . . [including] $142,500 to help advise a Pennsylvania natural gas firm, Consol Energy.”  Nobody mentions his bowling average, but otherwise newspaper articles with titles like “Santorum fits working class bill” (David Brooks in the New York Times) and “Like Rocky Balboa, Rick Santorum is a working class hero” exhibit a broader pattern of class talk among the punditry.

As a Working-Class Studies studier, I am generally grateful for any reference to the existence of a working class in the U.S., and I am on record as arguing that Working-Class Studies does not need a single, univocal definition of the class in order to study it.  I have been sympathetic with the progressive Democratic focus on “white working class” voters since it was first articulated by Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers in their 2000 book America’s Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters, and I have followed the definitional debate between identifying the working class by education (those without a bachelor’s degree) or by income (those in the bottom third of the income distribution) over the past decade.  The overall result of this debate has been positive, in my judgment, both in blowing up a conception of the electorate that mistakenly saw college-educated voters as a huge majority and in pushing Democrats in a substantially more progressive economic direction in their policies and political appeals.  I also think that Teixeira’s continued cold-eyed social-scientific probing of voter demographics along these lines continues to be both insightful and practically fruitful in informing Democratic Party operatives and politicians.

But the public media discussion of working-classness has so consistently stereotyped and psychologized a resentful, culturally confused, and politically volatile blue-collar white guy that at this point public discussion of white working-class voters not only does more harm than good.  It bewitches any chance we might have of understanding class dynamics in the arena of electoral politics.

First, and most importantly, the term “working class” is often used, as in the headlines above, without the “white” modifier, leading journalists and pundits to sometimes report faulty voting statistics and, worse, to identify working-classness with whiteness.  Many statements are made and facts reported that clearly apply only to the white part of the working class, but without specifying that.  Seldom is it reported that the working class as defined by those without a bachelor’s degree (regardless of race) were a 56% majority of the presidential electorate in 2008, and they gave Obama a 53/46% majority.  So when it is said, as it often is, that Obama has “trouble relating to working-class voters,” someone should ask why they gave him a majority of their votes in 2008.

Likewise, the “working class” is routinely (not always, but often) simply assumed to be all male.  As Michael Zweig points out in his new edition of The Working-Class Majority: America’s Best Kept Secret (p. 32), a majority of working-class jobs are now held by women.  Zweig is using a different definition of the working class than the one used for electoral politics (though there is a large overlap), but by any definition, women are either half or nearly half of the working-class, and the largest-growth occupations in the U.S. include low-wage cleaning, cooking, and caring jobs where women still overwhelmingly predominate.

Finally, even when pundits keep a consistent focus on working-class white men and why they vote so strongly Republican in presidential elections (as do middle-class white men, by the way), they often create social-psychological profiles of these voters as if they were all the same.  Sometimes these profiles resonate with a part of working-class reality as I have experienced it, but more often they are middle-class projections based on the pundit’s own political orientation and all-too-often on a TV sitcom character from more than three decades ago.  As I pointed out in my previous blog, “The Diversity of the White Working Class,” working-class whites vote quite differently from state to state.  But even within the same state and within the same neighborhood and family, it is useful to remember how wildly diverse white working-class voters are.

A couple weeks ago my extended family got together not too far from where Rick Santorum grew up in western Pennsylvania.  About 100 people from five generations were present, and we didn’t talk about politics much.  But if I were to survey this all white and predominately working-class gathering, it would be pretty complicated and politically diverse.  The largest group, across the generations, would either be completely apolitical or Republican, but there are some union and nonunion Democrats as well.  Most do not strongly identify with either political party and try to make up their minds based on the candidates and the circumstances in a given election – that is, they are swing voters who will pay attention once election season arrives, and not before.  Among those who don’t care and don’t vote, some feel guilty about that because they think they should care while others defend themselves with “they’re all crooks anyway.”  Among younger people, there are union members who are antagonistic toward their unions, and nonunion workers (and managers) who very much would like to have a union; both groups are open to Democrats because they associate them with unions, but can’t see how it makes much difference one way or the other.  There are stereotypical GOP hunters and people of faith, but there are also hunters who vote consistently Democratic, and those who are contemptuous of religion but vote consistently Republican.

It makes my head spin to try and think about the politics of my extended family, partly because it is among the least interesting aspects of people I know and love.  But my point is not that any particular set of political categories is reductive or too simple.   All concepts are reductive and simple, and in fact, that’s what’s valuable about them.  The test is whether they help us get a productive handle on the overwhelming complexity of social reality.  The problem is when we mistake the concepts’ ability to insightfully organize that complexity for the reality itself.  In the mainstream media and in public discourse more generally, I fear the concept of “the white working class” has now reached that delusional state.

Jack Metzgar, Chicago Working-Class Studies

The Class Politics of Mass Incarceration

Across the United States today, communities are commemorating the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  While many of those observations recount the history of King’s inspiration and leadership in the civil rights movement, many will – like the one here in Youngstown – urge us to be inspired by King’s legacy to fight the continuing problems of poverty and inequality.  Some of that discussion will focus on race, but much of it will, rightly, recognize that race and class often work together.

I spent many hours thinking about that confluence this past summer and fall, as part of a community book group reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The strongest theme in our discussions was the persistence of racism.  Across different races, ages, professional backgrounds, and personal histories, we shared a deep frustration that decades of conversation, activism, policy-making, and education had not eradicated racism.  Instead, we agreed, as Alexander argues, it had become more indirect and therefore even harder to fight.

Alexander traces how the war on drugs established and legalized discriminatory practices that have permanently disenfranchised and economically marginalized tens of thousands of African-Americans, mostly men. According to Alexander, more black men are in prison today than were enslaved in 1850.  They are targeted, mistreated by the “justice” system, sent to jail in disproportionate numbers, and legally discriminated against when they are released. She explains that it’s now practically impossible to appeal or challenge this discrimination, because the standard of proof is intentional, conscious behavior, and in a world where we’ve all learned that colorblindness is the ideal, most people are convinced that they are not racist.

Her critique of the war on drugs and the mass incarceration of black men is convincing in itself, and the book is well worth reading.  (For a quick take, you can listen to my interview with Alexander on Lincoln Avenue). But as someone who studies social class, I’ve also been thinking about why the problems Alexander lays out are issues of economic justice as well as racial justice.

Both Alexander and Heather Ann Thompson, a historian who has been studying mass incarceration through the lens of the Attica uprising, point out that the war on drugs took aim at African Americans because Republicans were trying to garner support from southern white Democrats, including many in the working class.  Going back as far as the Nixon administration, but especially under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, conservatives used racial imagery to foster a culture of fear and blame, defining African-Americans as criminals (think Willie Horton) and setting more stringent sentencing guidelines for crack than for powder cocaine. As both Alexander and Thompson point out, urban areas and especially African Americans were targeted in the war on drugs even though clear evidence showed that they were not the ones most involved in drug trafficking. Sadly, this strategy worked politically in part because it tapped into the same white working-class racial resentments that Nixon had successfully leveraged in his presidential campaigns.

Though some white working-class voters thought they were protecting their interests by supporting the war on drugs, the effect was quite the opposite.  Thompson argues that the mass incarceration of blacks contributed to the decline of the labor movement over the past four decades.  She writes, “prisons have long been some of the most exploitative workplaces in America, and thus, the fate of American workers and the history of the American justice system are inexorably linked.” As incarceration rates rose, regulations limiting the use of prison labor were overturned in many states, allowing companies to hire prisoners for far less the minimum wage.  So not only were prisoners exploited as workers, but jobs that might have yielded something close to a living wage in the community were moved into prisons.  As Thompson claims, “There was clear evidence that free-world wages had been cut and jobs had been eliminated as a result of prison labor.”

The expansion of prisons did create some jobs, especially for white workers in the largely rural areas where the new prisons were built.  Of course, those jobs were usually not unionized, nor did they pay well.  In Youngstown, the escape of six prisoners from a medium-security Corrections Corporation of America prison on the edge of the city was tied, in part, to the low wages paid to guards, who were easily bribed to look the other way as a hole was cut in the fence.  When guards at that prison organized a union, CCA temporarily shut it down.  Certainly, the Youngstown story shows that the prison economy does not, in the long run, yield significant numbers of good jobs.

Of course, mass incarceration has the most direct, dramatic impact on economic conditions in African-American working-class communities. Blacks have the highest poverty rates in the U.S. – 27.4%, compared with 9.9% for whites, according to 2010 data from the Institute for Research on Poverty. High rates of imprisonment among African-American men, often for relatively minor offenses that would yield little or no prison time for whites, don’t just undercut household economies while someone is in prison.  Being convicted of a felony creates long-term economic marginalization. Once labeled as a felon, an individual’s chances for employment of any kind are severely limited.  Nor do most ex-convicts qualify for any form of public assistance, and in many cases, they cannot even return to their families, because public housing bans residents with criminal records. Alexander notes that with so few economic options, becoming more involved in the drug trade becomes the only reasonable option for many ex-convicts – an option that makes them vulnerable to a return to prison or a violent death.

As many in working-class studies have argued, though, class is not only a matter of economics.  The working class has historically developed and relied upon strong communal ties that help individuals and families get through hard times and that create the conditions for collective action for social and economic change.  Perhaps the most moving part of Alexander’s book is her discussion of how individuals, families, and communities struggle to deal with the shame of imprisonment.  Families don’t speak openly about their relatives who are in prison, she writes, and those who have been in jail often break ties with old friends and relatives. Alexander writes that the stigma associated with criminality “has turned the black community against itself, destroyed networks of mutual support, and created a silence about the new caste system among many of the people most affected by it.”

Alexander closes The New Jim Crow with a call to action: we need a new civil rights movement, she writes, bringing together people of all races and classes, who will fight against mass incarceration on the basis of human rights and justice.  Such a movement will not succeed, she argues, if it involves only African Americans, nor can it succeed if whites and others are encouraged to participate solely on the basis of their self-interest.  Just as with the marches and voter registration drives across the South in the 1950s and 60s, the efforts we commemorate with this week’s MLK holiday, people of conscience must come together to fight injustice simply because it’s wrong.

Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies

Global Women Workers of the World, Unite!

The film version of The Help debuted on August 10th and set box office records for a film that was aimed at book club ladies.  It has earned 71.8 million at the box office in its first twelve days alone, rising to first place this last weekend over Conan the Barbarian and Fright Night.  The film is based on a bestselling 2009 novel by white Mississippi author Kathryn Stockett about two black maids and a young white woman who collaborate to tell the stories African American domestic workers in the Jim Crow south.  It is a fictional tale.  No actual exposé of black domestic workers was written by black or white women in the 1960s.  But the frame of the novel—the book within a book—gives the novel an air of authenticity that makes it appealing.  Especially, perhaps, to white readers like me, who might feel like we are being permitted to peek behind the curtain of a distant, repressive past.

The novel has been celebrated for two years straight, winning accolades from People Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, NPR, and The New York Times.  The film, too, has already garnered Oscar buzz, and the NAACP screened it at a packed theater in July, where, apparently, there wasn’t an empty seat or a dry eye in the house.

I settled down to read The Help earlier this summer to see for myself.  While I was not entirely won over by the novel, finding the villain Hilly Holbrook, who campaigns for segregated toilets at the homes where black women work, to be a racist sorority girl cardboard cutout, and the white girl who interviews the black maids, “Skeeter,” a little too weirdo-goody-goody, what got me to sniffling into a tissue was the relationship between the black maid, Aibileen, and her white charge, a toddler named Mae Mobley.  The girl child is ignored and possibly even emotionally abused by her birth mother, and Aibileen is there to soothe the child—to boost her ego and make her strong — even though she knows that Mae Mobley will likely grow up to be as racist and clueless as her mother.  I was intrigued to learn that the character of Aibileen was based in large part on the author’s own childhood maid, Demetrie (actually employed by Stockett’s grandmother), who comforted Stockett during an especially rough patch during which her parents got divorced.

Both the book and the film have drawn considerable fire from scholars, historians, a very smart and funny blog called acriticalreviewofthehelp, and dozens of African American leaders and journalists.  The criticisms are brutal, and, for the most part, hard to refute.  A clear-eyed statement from the Association of Black Women (ABW) faults the novel and the film for recreating the Mammy stereotype. One of The Help’s main characters, Minny, is a big, fat, soft woman with a surly temper who loves to make fried chicken.  Neither the book nor the film offers any suggestion that black maids, like countless other African Americans in the South and North, were organizing, voting, marching, and protesting.

The statement from the ABW also faults The Help for ignoring the problem of sexual harassment of black domestics by white employers.  Instead, The Help represents black male characters as by far the worst men in the story.  This criticism of The Help seems especially poignant this summer, as a recently released six-page story written by famed Civil Rights leader Rosa Parks hints at the likelihood that she barely escaped being raped by a white neighbor when she worked as a maid in the 1930s.

It is certainly fair to attack The Help on the basis that it distorts history, especially since Stockett meant The Help to represent real life in1960s Jackson, Mississippi.  But is the Civil Rights aspect of the story—done well or botched—the only reason for The Help’s popularity and influence?  I am not so sure.  As I have consumed these different versions of The Help I have been wondering:  have we really traveled so far from the nightmarish hierarchy and inequality suffered by women of color who lived in the Jim Crow south?  What is life like for “the help” in today’s world?

For answers, I turned to a work of non-fiction, Just Like Family:  Inside the Lives of Nannies, the Parents They Work for and the Children They Love.  The book, also published in 2009, reflects more than 100 interviews that author Tasha Blaine conducted with working nannies, three of whom she profiles in the book.  The hardships faced by these modern day nannies do not compare to that of black domestics in the Jim Crow south, but many struggled with similar problems:  forming loving bonds with the children but disagreeing with or disliking the children’s parents, being invited to family events but then being expected to perform as if they were servants, and putting up with the strange behavior of their employers—who were sometimes drunk, verbally abusive, or just plain mean.

If you think it is crazy to see a connection between a historical novel about black maids and present-day child care arrangements, consider this:  a national organization, Nanny Biz Reviews, organized a series of “Nannies Nights Out” during the days after The Help opened.  They encouraged nannies to see the film together and to use the outing as a way to network and have fun.  While some found this preposterous, others commented online that they could relate to the maids in The Help more than any other fictional nannies.  As one commented, “[T]here are still parents out there that want to treat all of us regardless of heritage, as second or third class citizens….Maybe for some it is to see how far we have come, and then on behalf of others to remember there are still ways to go.”

In the meantime, in New York State, which boasts one of the largest nanny populations in the country (the official estimate alone is 200,000), legislators last summer finally passed a series of laws aimed at improving the pay and working conditions of nannies.  The “Nanny Bill” is significant because domestic workers, who were excluded from the National Labor Relations category of workers in 1935, have long toiled with low and/or under-the-table wages. Domestic Workers United, a New York union thatfought hard for the “Nanny Bill,” estimates that more than 50% of their members work more than 60 hours per week, and 26% live below the poverty line.  The Nanny Bill gives domestic workers the right to days off, overtime pay, and holidays—similar to other workers.

The question of class is just one part of the contemporary nanny problem. Race, gender, and national status are part of the mix as well.  In their book Global Woman (2003), Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russel Hochschild write about the ways in which an underclass of third world women have become the nannies, the maids, and the sex workers for the developed world.

So perhaps The Help is wildly popular in part because it makes us feel better about ourselves.  Look how far we have come now that we don’t see maids as property to be passed along to our children as if they were slaves!  But be careful if you find yourself leaving the theatre on too much of a joyous, Civil Rights high.  We still have not solved the problem of childcare in this country—and global women have stepped in to fill the gap.

Viola Davis, the actress who may well win an Oscar for her brilliant portrayal of Aibileen, said, “The most revolutionary thing you could do is humanize the black woman.”  What can we do, right now, to humanize those who toil as “the help” today?

Kathy M. Newman

Beyond Precious: Real Change for the Urban Poor

Last month, I received an email inviting me to vote for films nominated to receive an NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) image award. The email stated the film Precious had been nominated for a NAACP image award in several categories, including best picture, best actress, best supporting actress, and best director. “Image, advancement of a people; advancement, image; image, advancement,” I thought.

Like many, I have questions about the film.  Does Precious further the advancement of “colored” people–or better yet—the advancement of all people, regardless of color? Or does the film merely shock viewers, while leaving existing social, economic, and political arrangements unquestioned, unchallenged, and thus intact? What images of a past, present, or future does the film present that might inspire people to work for social changes that will advance not just “colored” people,” not just poor people, but all of us?

Through their endorsement of the film, the film’s producers—billionaire talk-show host Oprah Winfrey and multi-millionaire actor, writer, producer Tyler Perry—imply that the film enlightens and thus uplifts many.  But I am not fully convinced of this. Indeed, I am troubled by many of the images projected in the film:

  • Images of Precious (a 16 –year- old girl living in poverty-stricken Harlem in the 1980s) being brutally attacked by her mother, repeatedly raped by her father, and impregnated twice by him
  • Images of Precious giving birth to her daughter, who is actually her half-sister, on her mother’s apartment floor— a child whom Precious calls “Mongo,” which is short for Mongoloid or someone with Downs’ Syndrome
  • The image of Precious stealing and then eating a bucket of chicken all at one time, without sufficient exploration of  how feelings of desperation and deprivation generated by poverty and others’ indifference to its effects would drive some people to gorge food to the point of making themselves sick
  • Precious’s deferred dreams seem to “just sag like a heavy load,” as Langston Hughes wrote,   even as she receives an “A-” in English when she can barely recite the alphabet – a story line that gestures toward but doesn’t fully explore how the school has arguably perpetuated Precious’s illiteracy.

Most troubling for me is the film’s underlying message of “individualism,” which is conveyed through the omission of certain historical events, such as the loss of manufacturing jobs in poor urban communities in the 1970 s and 1980s. How could a film covering life in poverty- stricken Harlem in the 1980s fail to cover such things? The loss of manufacturing jobs under de-industrialization had a devastating effect on employment, family structure, neighborhood resources, and neighborhood cohesion within these communities, as William Julius Wilson has documented so well. Without this historical information, viewers are left with only Precious’s individual characteristics to focus on —her abuse, illiteracy, obesity, family dysfunction, self-loathing, self-isolation, and personal blame and guilt. These conditions, devastating as they are, reflect social problems, not just personal ones.

My fear is that such intense individualism will encourage the idea that the best thing others can do to help  people like Precious is to leave them alone to resolve their personal problems on their own. Such beliefs uphold the status quo and overlook systemic factors that continue to limit the life chances of the urban poor. Consider how our understanding of Precious’s story would be different if the film acknowledged these systemic factors:

  • The loss of supermarkets, which has been linked to the urban poor’s declining health
  • Transportation constraints that make it difficult for the urban poor to travel to and from school, the doctor’s office, and to jobs located in suburban or rural areas.

To move beyond the shock and discomfort that many said they felt when viewing Precious, to feel empowered and provide empowerment, we must eliminate these and other systemic constraints within America’s poor urban communities.  And then, in subsequent years, we may collectively receive an award for best performance, and maybe one for best image. But awards that come at the expense of the dignity and advancement of America’s urban poor do not represent a fair or ethical trade and should be seen as what they are: empty platitudes.

Denise Narcisse, Center for Working-Class Studies

Bad Girls: Social Class, Gender, Race, and the World’s Oldest Profession

Recently, I spent a weekend reviewing music videos that would help bring Sociology to life for my students. Reflecting upon what my life had been like as a college student, I remembered the music that was popular my freshman year. Disco was in vogue when I was a freshman, and the “Queen of Disco” was Donna Summer. Even “hard-core wall-flowers” would start to dance when Summer’s “Bad Girls” was played. “Bad Girls” was released in 1979 and immediately became a mega-hit, remaining at the top of pop charts for six weeks.  Hard core-and erotic, “Bad Girls” seemed to signal the sexual liberation of all women—including those “bad girl” prostitutes Donna sang about. It would take my girlfriends and me several years to understand fully the social class, gender, and race dimensions of prostitution.  But eventually we would come to believe that Dona’s “bad girls” were not empowered but oppressed.

Sexual liberation implies release from oppressive people, conditions, and beliefs that control a person’s sexuality. It implies a level of freedom, autonomy, and human agency, which most literature on prostitution indicates prostitutes do not have. Rather, research shows that prostitution dominates, degrades, and exploits people fundamentally because they are women in precarious social-class positions, and even more so if they are African-American.

  • Research indicates that prostitution is largely defined, organized, and regulated on the basis of gender. Most prostitutes are women.  And most of the people who manage or buy sex from prostitutes (“pimps” and Johns”, respectively) are men. About a half- million women in the United States work as prostitutes each year, and 40 million women work as prostitutes annually worldwide.   Within this context, female gender seems to increase vulnerability to prostitution.  Being female also seems to increase the likelihood of prostitution arrest: About 2/3 of the people arrested for prostitution in the United States in 2005, for instance, were women (Federal Bureau of Investigation 2005) Research finds that female prostitutes are regulated more than their male customers, and prostitution laws are more strictly enforced against the women who sell sex  than the men who buy it .
  • Revealing a connection between social class and prostitution, most women say they prostitute for financial reasons. While a few highly-paid call girls say that the work allows them a  lavish lifestyle and others do it to pay for crack cocaine and other drugs, the vast majority of prostitutes simply seek economic survival. Studies reveal that environmental and social-class- constraints—poverty, unemployment, limited educational opportunities, limited transportation, and the presence of strip-joints, “crack-houses”, sleazy bars, and cheap motels in low-income neighborhoods— “push” poor women into prostitution. Can we reasonably argue that these  environments provide women with real alternatives to prostitution for survival?  Social class also influences who gets arrested for prostitution: about 90 % of women arrested for prostitution are streetwalkers of lower social-class origins, and not the high-end call girls who “serve” the rich and famous.
  • Race also plays into this story.  Economic precariousness and stereotypes that define them as sexually promiscuous and immoral by nature, make Black females especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation and prostitution .  Arrest rates for prostitution also correlate with race: the advocacy group COYOTE reports that although  most prostitutes are white, most of those arrested are African American.   

  • Regardless of prostitution venue (e.g., brothels, massage parlors, escort service, or the street) all women in prostitution are subject to harm. (See Melissa Farley’s “Prostitution and the Invisibility of Harm”).  All women “in the life” may experience violence from customers, pimps, hotel managers, and/or the police. All must confront the threat of sexually transmitted disease. And, in effect, all are objectified and treated like commodities.

Stricter enforcement of laws against the men who solicit prostitution, and their public exposure, is a short term solution and is therefore insufficient.  The legalization of prostitution is also insufficient, because like stricter enforcement of laws against the solicitation of prostitution, this does not eliminate the institutionalized inequities that push some women and girls into prostitution.How long shall we attribute prostitution to people’s poor planning, immorality, laziness, and craziness?  How long will we fail to address the lack of jobs, low-wages, poor schools, classism, sexism, racism, ablest ideas, and other systemic problems that force some women into prostitution?  In the words of another disco song that was popular during my youth, shall we simply “throw our hands in the air like we just don’t care”?  As the song says, “Now somebody scream.”

Denise A. Narcisse