The Unsettling

Smoke from the fires in Oregon, photo by John Locher, AP

It’s fire season again.  Two years ago, my parents lost their home in Paradise.  This year, I almost lost mine.  I live in Oregon, where scores of fires were stoked up by unusual Eastern blasts of dry wind over the Labor Day weekend.  As of this writing, more than 1,000,000 acres had burned, and 500,000 people (more than one out of ten Oregonians) were under evacuation orders.  California, Washington, Idaho – also in flames.  While I was fortunate not to be directly in harm’s way, like every other Oregonian I have been choking on hazardous air since September 8th.  In fact, the air quality has been so bad that many of our air quality indicators have not been able to measure the hazard.  By one account, the amount of smoke and ash in the air is equivalent to smoking more than three packs of cigarettes a day.  And all the displaced persons, the firefighters, the helping personnel, and workers who have to be out during the day (such as postal workers) have been breathing this for more than a week.  We are all looking for a break, some blue sky to show itself, even as we worry that this is just the start of fire season

Jay Inslee, the Governor of Washington, has been the most outspoken about linking these extraordinary fires to climate change.  He called the scene “apocalyptic” and “maddening.”  In response to the President’s blithe denial of science, Inslee said, “If this is not a signal to the United States, I don’t know what it will take.” But he was not alone.  Kate Brown, the Governor of Oregon, calls the wildfire a “wake-up call” on climate change.  Touring the wreckage in Oroville, a town very close to Paradise, Gavin Newsom, Governor of California, said, “The debate is over in terms of climate change… If you don’t believe that, just come to the state of California.”

In Oregon alone, 40,000 people fled their homes in the face of the fire.  For many, there is nowhere to go.  Community centers, fairgrounds, churches, some hotels, have opened their doors, although COVID is complicating how they do so.  In my hometown, we have opened up our football stadium.  This is not a covered structure.  People are living in tents in the open air wherever they can.  Tents are, in fact, one of the most useful items to donate  and are hard to come by. 

All of this has been very unsettling, both literally and metaphorically.  The events of this past week have thrown me back to memories of my working-class childhood, where bad things could happen at any time.  How can anyone plan for the future when the basic foundations of food, shelter, air, and water are unsettled?  It’s hard enough just getting out of bed in the morning when you are afraid to look out the window, let alone making a decent plan about what to accomplish that day.  For years now, I’ve tried to explain this basic fact to well-meaning middle-class people who have never faced such uncertainties.  Now, it seems, many of them are sharing this experience. 

Those who study working-class life have long drawn a distinction between “hard-living” working-class families and “settled” ones.  This may have begun with Joseph T. Howell’s Hard Living on Class Street: Portraits of Blue Collar Families, published in 1972, although other influential endorsers of the concept include Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb, Lillian Rubin, and Lois Weis.  Settled living families play by the rules, work hard, abstain from hard drugs and other distractions.  Hard living families act like it’s the end of the world.  I have to admit, I never took to these descriptions, not because they seemed overly judgmental – though they sometimes do – but because they draw too clear a line between these types of families. 

I’ve talked with Jack Metzgar helped me realize that this may be a generational thing.  Growing up in the dysfunctional 1970s, I am of the first generation that did not assume they would be better off than their parents. My generation, the first one without a descriptive identity (Generation “X”), stands between the baby boomers and the millennials and Gen Zers whose lives definitely will not be better off than their parents, due to both a faltering economy (don’t tell Wall Street) and a burning planet.  For working-class people of my generation and later, playing by the rules will not get you security, working hard will not get you social mobility, and there’s no one out there who is going to give you any credit for staying away from drugs.  In fact, doctors will push them on you, and everyone else will assume you take them anyway.  We’re all living hard, not settled lives.  Period. 

As with so much in 2020, the fires unsettle us. The pandemic has made us all lose sense of time.  In the United States, we suffer under a heartless president whose lies and distortions can give us whiplash.  We are riven into two nations, living under different realities, even as “reality” becomes more real with every passing moment – as hurricanes multiply, snow follows heatwave in less than 48 hours, and fires roar across the land, hurling down hazardous ash that spreads in fast-driven plumes across the nation (you can watch  this on if you have the stomach for it).  While nearly one million people have died of COVID-19 – close to 200,000 in the US alone – we are hardly in agreement on how dangerous this virus is, how to prevent future deaths (wear a mask!), or when to expect a return to “normalcy.”  There is little stable ground to hold on to here, for anyone, left or right.  Will school be shut down next week?  Who knows?  Will I have a job next month?  Who knows?  Will my landlord be permitted to evict me in a pandemic?  Maybe.  What then – who knows?  Will we have peace after the election?  Martial law?  Who knows?  What can one reasonably plan for in such a world? 

Let’s not leave on such a gloomy note, although it has been hard to keep positive against the many foul blows of 2020.  My original theme for this blog had been “What the World Needs Now.” Perhaps next time I can tackle that.  But the world is wide open at the moment — otherwise known as a crisis.  Let’s call it the Unsettling.  We cannot live as we have been living, planning for tomorrow as if there is no bill coming due from the toll we’ve been heedlessly, selfishly, putting on the planet.  As all those who live through hard times know, there is no tomorrow if we can’t get through today.  And to get through today will take all our reserves of strength and compassion. 

Allison L. Hurst, Oregon State University

Posted in Allison L. Hurst, Contributors, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-Class Culture | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Undelivered: The DeJoy Scandal and Democracy in the Balance

Laborers Vote, Laborers BuildIn this turbulent moment, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy aptly symbolizes the precarious state of both our democracy and the workers on whose shoulder its future rests.  Last week,  a Washington Post team uncovered seven former employees of New Breed Logistics who reported being cajoled by CEO DeJoy or his aides to make political donations to candidates he favored and to attend fundraisers at his 15,000-square-foot gated mansion in Greensboro, N.C.. Such events regularly raised more than $100,000 per event for Republican candidates for Congress or the presidency.  Employees who contributed to the boss’s preferred candidates were rewarded with monetary bonuses, according to this report—which would be a crime if proven in court.

The DeJoy scandal is all the more disturbing because of the context in which it came to light.  At this moment, voter suppression efforts are underway in multiple states, the president is attempting to pre-emptively delegitimize mail ballots, and DeJoy himself is continuing to implement measures that impede the work of the US Postal Service despite his recent promises to Congress that he would cease being obstructive.   Even as polls indicate that Democrats will be twice as likely to vote by mail in this election, the institution that will help make our national election possible in November–the United States Postal Service–is being undermined.      

These headlines recall the early years of the 20th century when, for working people, the U.S. was at best an aspirational democracy.  Back then the carrot-and-stick methods that DeJoy used—repaying loyalty to his political causes with bonuses and favoring those employees who stood with him—were utterly commonplace.  Pioneering sociologist John A. Fitch explored the prevalence of political coercion in turn-of-the-twentieth-century steel towns like Braddock, Pennsylvania.  At election time, the New York City headquarters of U.S. Steel sent instructions to mill superintendents, Fitch learned, who dispatched foremen to escort workers to the polls to do their civic duty by voting for the candidates endorsed by their employer.  During a period of recessionary unemployment, workers reported that management promised to first rehire the most politically loyal employees.

That was also an era of rampant voter suppression.  African-American men had been stripped of the vote in most southern states by 1910, thanks in large measure to the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous Williams v. Mississippi (1898) decision, which opened the door to literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and a host of other mechanisms to block the black vote.  After more than a half century of struggle for suffrage, women had only won the right to vote in a handful of states.  And even white male workers often struggled to get equal access to the ballot box.  Many states used poll taxes or barred those who received public assistance from voting in local elections, as historian Alex Keyssar has shown.  And when more strenuous methods were needed to minimize workers’ political voice, employers did not hesitate to use them.  During labor conflicts in the coalfields of Huerfano County, Colorado, in 1914, mine operators collaborated with sympathetic local officials to redraw the maps of seven electoral precincts so they were entirely on company property.  On election day, armed guards simply prevented anyone seen as potentially “disloyal” from entering those precincts to vote.

Precisely because workers’ voting rights were so often obstructed in the early twentieth century, their efforts to build a successful labor movement had to be tied to efforts to win political democracy.  The workers’ movement’s ubiquitous call for industrial democracy alluded to that inescapable interconnection of political democracy and a more democratic workplace.  For the half-century between 1918 and 1968, that interconnection was borne out as the expansion of unions and political democracy repeatedly reinforced each other.  Workers’ demands for industrial democracy during World War I helped open the door for women’s suffrage after the war. The rise of an industrial union movement in the 1930s, in turn, created the political space for the “Long Civil Rights Movement” to emerge.  Subsequent civil rights struggles not only won voting rights for African Americans but also helped produce the last big breakthrough for U.S. unions, the organization of public sector workers in the 1960s and 1970s. 

Over most of the last half-century, however, the synergy between unionism and democracy has operated in reverse.  As unions declined, democratic rights eroded, which in turn accelerated the decline of unions, bringing both back to the conditions of  more than a century ago.  If Williams v. Mississippi serves as a marker of the backwardness that earlier era, future historians will someday mark our current low point by pointing to recent Supreme Court decisions as Shelby County v. Holder (2013), which undermined the Voting Rights Act, and Epic Systems v. Lewis (2018), which allows employers to induce workers to sign away their rights to undertake collective action as a condition of employment.  

The long-running deterioration of democracy in both politics and the workplace is what accounts for figures like Louis DeJoy in our time.  Although his methods were unusually crass, his desire to control his workers is hardly unusual these days.  Elizabeth Anderson reports that in recent years one in four U.S. workers describe their workplace as a “dictatorship.” More would use that description, Anderson says, if they realized how much power their employer has to arbitrarily regulate and punish their speech and conduct, not only on the job, but off it as well.  In most workplaces, she argues, “employers don’t merely govern workers; they dominate them.”

Alex Hertel-Fernandez has turned up plenty of evidence of such domination.  In recent years, he finds, corporations have succeeded in coercing workers to adopt their employers’ political causes in ways not much different from those John Fitch discovered in 1908 Braddock.  Whether they are forced to stand behind political candidates who visit to their workplaces for a “photo op,” asked to write letters to legislators protesting bills their employers oppose, or urged to vote for the employers’ favored candidates, workers are increasingly subject to the influence of those who sign their paychecks. 

Is it any surprise that as our workplaces have become less democratic, we’ve become less able to resist political democracy’s erosion?  It is no coincidence that in a country where only 6 percent of private sector workers are in unions, a political party whose candidates have won the national popular vote for the presidency only once since 1988 has nonetheless named most Supreme Court justices; a country where a man who lost the popular vote by a larger margin than any president in history has appointed  nearly one quarter of the circuit court bench; and a country where the party whose candidates received a total of 14 million fewer votes than the rival party controls the majority of Senate seats.  This is a country that not only allows an employer like DeJoy to use his employees to further his political aims, it installs him in a position of power to stifle the political voices of millions more workers.  Is it any wonder that in such a country Joe Biden must not only win the popular vote in November, he must, as Nate Silver reminds us, win by at least three percentage points to be assured of becoming president.

As we enter the home stretch of this fateful political season amid a raging pandemic, as Black Lives Matter protests continue and an increasingly militant resistance to those protests emerges, the DeJoy case reminds us that working people and our democracy face daunting challenges. We should draw encouragement from knowing that our predecessors overcame similar challenges.  Our task, like theirs, must be to revive democracy in both politics and our work relations.  Ultimately, our future will depend less on who wins in November—as crucial as that is—than on how well we wage that larger fight.

Joseph A. McCartin

Joseph A. McCartin is Professor of History and Executive Director for the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor & the Working Poor at Georgetown University. 

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Unemployed Workers of the World Unite?!?

Karl Marx’s famous phrase spoke of the unemployed as the “industrial reserve army.” His argument was plain. Creating greater unemployment was a key tool in giving employers the upper hand in forcing down wages and disciplining workers. I can still vividly remember a typical call-and-response from my early organizing days. When I would run into a colleague who was between organizing jobs, I would ask what they were doing these days.  The answer: “I’m in the army.”  Caught off guard in the beginning, I’d reply, “Really?” to which the answer would be, “Yes, the vast army of the unemployed.”  It wasn’t funny, but we would laugh anyway. The joke somehow made being out of a job less personal and more systemic, and the fact that it seemed to have a reddish tint to the phrase made it all even richer in the fading decades of the Cold War.

What now on another US Labor Day? 

The reserve army is indeed vast.   Twenty million jobs were lost in March alone as the statistical unemployment rate jumped from 4.4% to 14.7%.  With one-million new unemployment filers per week, we are now around thirty million unemployed with rates over 10% in record highs since the Great Depression.  The world is in no better shape.  In the European Union, fifteen million were unemployed as of June 2020, and the current unemployment rate is around 8%.  Country to country, the stories are horrific and the numbers are incalculable in places like India and many African countries. 

Reading Francis Fox Piven and Dick Cloward’s Poor Peoples’ Movements, it was always exhilarating to discover the work of the Unemployed Councils in the 1930s, their marches, rallies, anti-eviction fights, and demands for $35 per week and $5 per dependent.  I can still vividly remember ACORN’s own efforts to organize unemployed workers, CETA (Comprehensive Employment & Training Act) workers, and youth job actions during the 1978 recession during the Carter presidency. We held sit-ins in Denver, organized rallies of over a thousand in Philadelphia, and faced arrests and police brutality in response to an action in New Orleans. 

The Unemployed Councils thought they were harnessing the anger and laying the groundwork for the collapse of capitalism in the Great Depression.     The Unemployment Act of 1920 established a benefit for unemployed workers.  The Social Security Act of 1935 encouraged the states to establish individual unemployment insurance schemes that have led to the patchwork quilt of rates and benefits paid now.  The Depression lingered at many levels until WWII, but the protests helped create the changes that last still.

In the Trump Recession, capitalism is barely cracking, and even a Google search can’t find evidence of mass protests of unemployed workers.  At least, not yet. But why?

Now the government’s response to the pandemic job meltdown from almost statistical full employment to depression-scale numbers was radical in its own way.  Not because of action on the streets. More because of fear in the White House and halls of Congress with an election looming and no hope for a cure to the coronavirus.  Money stuffed a sock into mouths that might have roared with rage.  Republican Senators and some corporations have yelled louder that the $600 supplemental unemployment benefits kept potential workers away from demanding abysmally low-waged jobs because they were getting more on unemployment than they did when they were working.  Some justice there!  In Europe, 60 million workers were paid supplements to prevent layoffs.  The price was high, but governments bought labor peace. 

Most of the US’s super-sized benefit payments have now ended.  In Trump’s election desperation, some unemployed workers may get a supplemental $300 a week, and in some richer states, $400, but that’s a stopgap and a poor one for only five weeks.  On this Labor Day, Congress is still divided over restoring larger supplemental payments either until the end of 2020 or the end of the pandemic, whichever comes later. 

Did this experience legitimize the case for something like a guaranteed annual wage or a minimum survival standard in welfare benefits and work and unemployment support? Could that become the legacy of this disaster for workers, as the Social Security Act was for the Great Depression?

I doubt it.

In the 30s, workers and their families didn’t buy President Hoover’s excuses and “good times are around the corner” promises.  They turned him out and ushered in the Roosevelt programs. Today, paradoxically, President Trump’s mishandling of this mess still rates him polling better than former Vice-President Biden in his ability to handle the economy.  Perhaps workers, the unemployed, and others will go to the voting booth or the mailbox this November and turn Trump out in the same way.  Perhaps not.

Even if they do, the lesson of history and all the great victories won for workers is clear.  Unless workers vote with their feet as well as their ballots, significant change is unlikely to come.  Until these forces come together as a vast army to push away the opposition, change is unlikely, and more pain and hardship is inevitable.

Juliet Schor and Samuel Bowles argued persuasively some time ago that workers’ internal calculations about the “cost of job loss” correlated better than unemployment rates with the incidence of strikes. Workers figure the price of action to achieve wage and security gains versus the risk of unemployment. That calculation should encourage action today, as we have masses of workers unemployed with forecasts of more furloughs and permanent layoffs to come. Statistical unemployment is already over 15% for Black workers and 18.5% for young people under 24.  The cost of job loss for millions is now zero, while the gains for action are potentially huge.

Unemployed workers of the workers of the world unite!  You have little to lose and a different world and economy to gain.

Wade Rathke, ACORN International

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No Class: Why You Should Be Getting Your Labor News from Teen Vogue

Last Wednesday NBA players refused to take the court for their playoff games in order to protest the latest police shooting of an unarmed Black man, Jacob Blake of Kenosha, Wisconsin, who survived the shooting but is now paralyzed. In response, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play their scheduled game. This shocking announcement reverberated throughout the sports world, and the Bucks were soon joined by all the other NBA playoff teams, the Women’s NBA, Major League Soccer (MLS), and several Major League Baseball (MLB) teams.

Most media outlets didn’t know how to respond to the job action. They couldn’t even figure out what to call it. Many journalists described it as a boycott, while others simply reported that the games had been ‘canceled’ or ‘postponed.’

You might be surprised to hear about one publication that covered the NBA action with speed and accuracy: Teen Vogue. On Thursday, August 27, Teen Vogue reported that, “[p]layers in four major sports leagues have refused to play games in one of the most high-profile wildcat strikes in modern history.” And, just in case a the average Teen Vogue reader doesn’t know what a strike is, let alone a wildcat strike, the article ends with a link to the magazine’s labor columnist Kim Kelly’s explainer from 2019, “Everything You Need to Know about a General Strike.”

Teen Vogue cover, January 2017

Yes, that’s right, Teen Vogue has a labor column. You might have heard about other artifacts of Teen Vogue’s jaw dropping wokeness, from stories calling Trump the “gaslighter-in-chief,” to Teen Vogue’s guide to anal sex, to their column praising Karl Marx on his 200th birthday in May of 2018. I was gobsmacked by the Karl Marx piece, and nearly equally stunned when, earlier this summer, Teen Vogue labor columnist Kelly explained the importance of class solidarity. I know this, but how does Teen Vogue?

The answer has a lot to do with Kelly herself. She grew up without cable, without the internet, or even the occasional rap CD in Chatsworth, NJ, a place she describes as a “poor, working class, white rural community.” Born in the late 1980s to a working-class family (her dad and her uncles are in construction), she became a devoted fan of heavy metal music in her teen years. As Kelly told me, “Heavy metal is the music of the disaffected working class, and it is not very well understood. Heavy metal was forged in a factory. It is an outcast and underappreciated art form, often trashed by mainstream music critics.”

While working toward her goal of writing about heavy metal for a living, Kelly did virtually every job in the industry, from band PR to merchandise sales, all the while contributing to college papers, zines, and blogs. Eventually she got a job as the heavy metal editor for Vice magazine.

Kelly’s interest in the labor movement started the old-fashioned way: she joined it. According to New Labor Forum, not long after Kelly became a “permalancer” at Vice, a co-worker reached out to her about the idea of unionizing the online publication, and she was “immediately on board.” It took them just two weeks to get a majority of Vice writers to sign union cards, joining up with the Writers Guild of America. The next thing she knew, Kelly was on the bargaining committee and was helping to negotiate their first contract.

A few years later, after doing some freelance work for Teen Vogue, Kelly pitched the magazine a profile of the Gilded Age labor organizer and hell-raiser, Mother Jones. Her editor suggested that the Teen Vogue readers might need an explainer on unions before she could tackle a profile of Jones. And that was how “No Class,” Kelly’s regular labor column for Teen Vogue, was born. This summer alone she has written about embattled postal workers, the need for class solidarity, left and right politics in the building trades, and Rebecca Harding Davis’s classic work, Life in the Iron Mills. She’s also written an explainer on capitalism and a persuasive argument against police unions.

Kelly understands that the magazine’s target audience, young women between 13 and 24, are part of an extremely well informed and politically active generation. She points to phenomena like IRA TikTok and Communist TikTok. “There are kids on Twitter who know more about anarchist theory than I ever will. You can stream any record you want in the course of an afternoon. Information access is contributing to the politization of teens,” she says.

Teen Vogue has come under attack from conservative media personalities such as Tucker Carlson. It has also been called out for turning wokeness into a slick commodity. But the quality — and the success — of the Teen Vogue labor column points to some long-standing contradictions within corporate media, as well as emerging phenomena in American society.

First, the contradiction: capitalist media, especially in times of extreme competition, will sponsor content that undermines and/or contradicts some of the goals of a capitalist agenda. This contradiction allows Teen Vogue/Condé Nast to pay Kelly to write a labor column in which she critiques capitalism while also selling ad space to Target, IBM, Verizon, Light Life Plant Based Burgers, Ulta, and Tressemé (to name a few), all of which hope to win new converts among  young feminists, teens of color, LBGTQ youth, adolescent Democratic Socialists, tween anarchists, and those Communist-curious who are still too young to drink.

The emerging phenomena include a new hunger among younger Americans for useful, accessible information about how to organize. After all, Teen Vogue’s audience today is tomorrow’s labor force. The American working class is, no longer, as Kelly, quipped, “male, pale and stale.” Working-class Americans are younger, and they include a majority of women workers, more workers who identify as LGBTQ, more immigrants, and more workers who are black, indigenous, people of color (BIPOC). As Kelly puts it, there are “a million ways to be working class.”

As a union member herself, Kelly doesn’t just come from a working-class background. She is a leader of the new working class. And she is gaining positive attention for her work. Since she started contributing to Teen Vogue she has been interviewed by the State of the Union podcast and  the Real News Network, and she has been called the “coolest person on the internet.” This summer she signed a book deal with One Signal to write a history of the labor movement, Fight Like Hell. She plans to feature the labor struggles of women, immigrants, people of color, and LGBTQ workers that do not always get covered in mainstream, academic labor tomes.

As Mother Jones famously said, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” And, while you’re at it, read some of Kim Kelly’s “No Class.” Her labor columns are some of the most inspiring writings on class that I’ve read in a long time.

Kathy M. Newman, Carnegie Mellon University

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Working-Class Public Housing in the COVID Spotlight

The Covid19 pandemic has highlighted many inequalities experienced by working-class people — insecure work, unsafe work places, access to health care, housing conditions and the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on people of colour. Mainstream media has also covered many of these issues, often demonstrating surprise that such inequalities exist. When (presumably middle-class) journalists and opinion writers present these inequities as if they were new discoveries, this has the effect of dismissing the work of activists and community leaders who have been trying for years to show how inequality and injustice operate and to bring positive change, but have been largely ignored.

Nonetheless, the stories appearing in the mainstream media not only highlight some of the issues affecting working-class people but may also challenge some stereotypes and preconceptions about the working class. This new focus on working-class lives is welcome.

We see it in some recent reporting on people living in public housing in Australia, which we call ‘housing commission.’ People living in housing commissions — sometimes referred to as ‘housos’ — are often stigmatised as ‘dole bludgers’ – unemployed, unwilling to work, and incapable of taking care of their homes. Some housing commission areas have an (unwarranted) reputation as being dangerous and crime ridden. This is especially true for the relatively few high-rise apartment blocks found in cities, whose residents face the greatest stigma and discrimination. High-rise private apartment blocks are sought after, but not these buildings.  Clearly, it isn’t the structure of the buildings that creates the negative stereotypes. It is the class and racial makeup of the residents that seems to bother people on the outside.

The high-rise housing commission blocks in cities like Melbourne and Sydney are home to people from many different cultural backgrounds. This diversity has not been celebrated by the wider community, though. Instead, residents have experienced racism and been targeted by police conducting ‘random’ searches of residents who are Indigenous or of African descent. This racist profiling has created suspicion and mistrust of police.

During a spike of Covid19 cases in Melbourne, several housing commission towers were forced into immediate lockdown after some residents tested positive. Residents were not permitted to leave their homes, and the towers were guarded by police, who were even stationed on each floor of the blocks. Many residents found themselves effectively trapped overnight, with no access to supplies or to their usual support networks. Parents were unable to take their children outside to play. They were confined in their small apartments, sometimes with many young children to care for. The authorities responsible for maintaining the lockdown were very slow to provide the essential supplies required by the residents. When they did send food into the blocks, they supplied food that was inappropriate for religious or health reasons, ignoring the needs of the multicultural communities. When residents ordered food or asked friends and family to bring better options, those delivering the food were not permitted to enter.

The extreme nature of the lockdown in the housing blocks did attract mainstream media coverage, though, thrusting residents into the limelight. And the tone began to change. Reporters displayed some sympathy with the residents. They interviewed people who were unable to leave their apartments, and they quoted residents expressing their frustration with the heavy-handed response of the authorities. Some papers also published full-length pieces written by residents who described the lockdown and the subsequent hardship. Residents also explained why they were upset to have stationing police on each storey. Many residents had been targeted by police without reason in the past, and some were refugees who had escaped imprisonment. The police presence during the lockdown triggered painful memories and created anxiety.

As the stories about the lockdown unfolded, the online version of the Guardian in Australia published a special series on life in high-rise housing commission, Lives in the Sky.  The series included stories on the police targeting of young men of African descent, on life growing up in the towers, positive stories of the resilience and community spirit of the blocks, and the experiences of migrants starting their lives in Australia. Although some pieces took a slightly patronising tone, most were sympathetic, demonstrating the diversity and richness of the high-rise community. I grew up in very similar public housing towers (albeit in London, UK), and reading about working-class people who built their communities and helped each other out reminded me of my own estate. High-rise estate life is very different from the inside, but residents are all too aware of the stigma that follows them.

It was unusual and very welcome to hear the voices of housing commission residents – voices that are rarely heard in a positive manner. It was even better to see pieces published in the mainstream media written by working-class people of diverse cultural backgrounds.  But it is a pity that it took a pandemic and an uneven and authoritarian response to an outbreak in a working-class community for the voices of the residents to be heard.

Representation matters, and this more positive portrayal of working-class people should help to shift the negative language and challenge stereotypes. The Covid19 pandemic has hit housing commission residents hard, but maybe the sympathetic interest in the lives of residents will make it just a little easier for them to feel proud of where they live and not be afraid to list their address. Better yet, I hope we will continue to hear powerful stories told by the residents themselves. We need to hear those strong voices in the post-Covid19 society.

Sarah Attfield, University of Technology Sydney, editor Journal of Working-Class Studies

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The Hidden Price of an Education: Black and Working-Class in Academe

In August 2004, I entered a doctoral program at Carnegie Mellon University. My family is from Braddock, Pennsylvania, a largely black neighborhood with working-class roots, and they were ecstatic that I would be their first doctor.

I did not know in 2004 that pursuing my graduate degrees would leave me with crippling debt and mental health issues. These are the hidden price of higher education, part of a pattern of institutional habits and requirements that impact black working-class and poor students at a higher rate than any other segment of the student population.

I did not know in 2004 that economically disadvantaged and/or black students like me accumulate more undergraduate student loan debt. As Mark Huelsman describes in “The Debt Divide: The Racial and Class Bias Behind the ‘New Normal’ of Student Borrowing,” “underrepresented students take on debt and drop out with debt, thereby saddling communities of color and those with modest means with substantial disadvantages as they enter the workforce.”  Student loan debt serves as an impediment to advancement, contradicting the narrative that education is a direct pipeline to professional and economic success.  Now imagine the amount of debt students might acquire in pursuit of advanced degrees while balancing adult responsibilities. While I was in grad school, I also became a single mother, found a job outside of academe because my teaching load was reduced, and lost a year of financial support due to faulty record keeping.  In the end, completing the degree took longer than I hoped, and I was left with more student loan and credit card debt than I ever imagined.

I did not know in 2004 that there is growing evidence that rates of depression in all college students may be significantly higher than the general population. Those rates are especially high for “students with inadequate financial resources [who are] more likely to experience mental health problems.” This is true for graduate students, too, who might be less likely than other students to seek help. By 2008, I was in debt and suffering from severe depression due to a series of tragedies including my brother’s murder. I lost my medical insurance and became very ill. I asked for reasonable accommodations and was dismissed while other graduate students in comparable circumstances were offered flexibility and resources. Adding to the pressure, I was told I was going to be kicked out of the program. My professors seemed to lack any empathy, which contributed to my deteriorating mental state.

June 9th, 2020 I woke to a text containing a link to a petition from concerned Carnegie Mellon faculty and staff demanding that the “university support efforts to dismantle systemic racism in law enforcement on CMU’s campus and beyond.” While agreeing with every word of the statement, I also felt a visceral and immediate anger directed at the faculty touting this statement as a sign of their progressiveness in the face of the administration’s “toothless response.”  Many of these same faculty were the ones who, through their actions or inactions, failed in their moral and ethical duty to me.  In response, I spent the entire day on social media sharing my traumatic experiences.

Screenshot of #blackintheivory Twitter accountAs I furiously posted story after story, I did not know that several days earlier #blackintheivory started trending on Twitter, thanks to the efforts of Joy Melody Woods and Shardé Davis. A pattern of erasure and silencing of black students and faculty, many from working-class backgrounds, emerges from the stories. Women and men posted stories about being under or uncompensated for labor, delayed professional advancement, lackluster or absent institutional response to racism, discriminatory grading practices, and selective enforcement of policies to push out students and faculty of color. Like me, many shared stories of being made to feel like imposters and punished if we did not work twice as hard. I was not the only depressed and isolated student who had an advisor ask if they were really cut out for graduate school. And many, like me, are still paying for their education in myriad ways, including lower-paying teaching positions with higher course loads, lower credit scores due to higher student loans, lower rates of homeownership, less retirement savings, and fewer assets.

The proliferation of stories with the #blackintheivory hashtag illustrates the different ways in which the intersection of race and class in academe is a space of trauma for many graduate students and faculty of color. The tension between hypervisibility and invisibility, which many #blackintheivory tweets describe, reads like a contemporary update of the prologue of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. While it is heartening to know I am not alone, it is devastating to think that others have and are experiencing similar oversights, dismissals, and challenges.

If colleges and universities want to help establish a more equitable and just society—as many proclaim they dohey must change. As James Baldwin observes in Notes of a Native Son we “have the most remarkable ability to alchemize all bitter truths into an innocuous but piquant confection and to transform their moral contradiction, or public discussion of such contradiction, into a proud decoration.” In more concrete terms, this reminds us that creating yet another diversity committee is merely an opportunity for universities to applaud themselves while leveraging the unpaid labor of people of color.

In “Institutional Barriers, Strategies, and Benefits to Increasing the Representation of Women and Men of Color in the Professoriate: Looking Beyond the Pipeline,” Kimberly Griffin explains that “institutional leaders must understand and address how sexism and racism are embedded in academic structures, systems, departments, colleges, and programs in a comprehensive way.” Classism is part of the problem, too.

To create a safe, challenging, and nurturing community, colleges and universities must:

  • Weed out faculty who have a history of bad behavior towards students and other faculty.
  • Identify and change policies and procedures that are harmful to the advancement of all student and faculty.
  • Eradicate student loan debt, which is an outsized burden placed largely on people of color, the working-class, and poor.
  • Fairly compensate and provide opportunities for professional advancement to contingent faculty.
  • Commit to hiring and retaining a more diverse faculty.

Salita Seibert

Salita Seibert is an adjunct professor at the Community College of Allegheny County.

Posted in Class and Education, Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Essential Work: The 2020 WCSA Awards

At the center of all the chaos and turmoil of 2020 has been the essential worker on the front lines—from healthcare workers treating those infected with COVID-19 to service workers of all kinds who have kept us fed, supplied, and safe while putting their own safety at risk, all too often in jobs which are precarious and underpaid. Working-class life, experience, and precarity have has perhaps not been more central or important in recent memory. And that means that Working-Class Studies has never been more relevant.

Ordinarily, the Working-Class Studies Association would announce its annual awards at its conference, but this year’s conference – marking our 25th anniversary in Youngstown, Ohio – was postponed for a year because of the pandemic. But the awards won’t have to wait a year.

As past-president of the WCSA, I chaired this year’s  Awards Committee. Having served as a reader for various award categories in the past, I know that historically we draw a wealth of strong submissions that reflect the range and diversity of work in this field. This year was no exception. If the work submitted for our annual awards is any indication, Working-Class Studies is in excellent shape as we wind our way into whatever the future holds.

I also know the time and care that goes into reading award submissions. Those gracious enough to offer their time and expertise for this task this year are most appreciated and have my enduring thanks.

The nominees for the Studs Terkel Award for Media and Journalism were diverse in focus and affirmed the depth of work taking place in the field. The winner, Alison Stine’s “The Last Days of the Appalachian Poverty Tour,” garnered high praise from the judges, who called it “reflective and hard-hitting” and noted that it makes visible “some of the main characteristics of impoverished communities, without over generalizing or stereotyping.” Another judge wrote that Stine “Provides a complex analysis that includes both the oppression and pain but also the resilience and community of working/poverty-class life.”

The depth and breadth of work nominated for the C.L.R. James Award for Published Book for Academic or General Audiences made for tough decisions, but the winner was Christopher R. Martin’s book No Longer Newsworthy: How the Mainstream Media Abandoned the Working Class.  As one judge wrote, the book “examines the shifts in journalistic trends that parallel both deindustrialization and the conservative political turn from the late 1960s onward.” It considers “the increasing preference for upscale (middle- and upper-class) readers at the expense of labor reporting and stories by and about working people.” Martin traces how conservative politicians and business elites used “the term ‘job killer’ . . . to undermine work meant to protect the social safety net, union efforts, environmental protections, and the like . . . and demonstrates that it is precisely those CEOs lauded in mass media as ‘job makers’ who are the real job killers.” Another judge praised Martin for “identif[ying] reforms that promise to restore the visibility and voice of the working class, to the benefit of the media, the working-class majority, and indeed, the country as a whole. This book deserves the widest possible audience!”

The winner of this year’s John Russo & Sherry Linkon Award for Published Article or Essay for Academic or General Audiences was Pamela Fox’s essay “Born to Run and Reckless: My Life as a Pretender,” from Popular Music and the Politics of Hope: Queer and Feminist Interventions. As one judge wrote, the essay offers “Rich analysis and very useful movement between the musician autobiographies, theories of autobiography, and how the latter have to be complicated by a class analysis. Popular music narratives and experiences form a counter narrative to power, a ‘politics of hope’ in contrast to dominant narratives of class and disability, class as disability. Her suggestion of ‘reparative practices’ should be taken up in working-class studies and fleshed out.”

The submissions for this year’s Tillie Olsen Award for Creative included short stories, poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction. The winner was Jodie Adams Kirshner’s Broke: Hardship and Resilience in a City of Broken Promises. Judges had high praise for the book and its subject matter, describing Kirshner as “a self-appointed defense attorney for Detroit’s leftovers. Her knowledge has depth and heart.” Another judge wrote that the book is “Excellent nonfiction work on the undoing of Detroit” that “follows key players through the story with insider knowledge of the world she depicts. Rigorously researched. Important work. Exemplar we could turn to in envisioning other working-class stories of place.” A final comment highlights the book’s relevance and quality: “Without succumbing to a single point of view, Jodie Adams Kirshner brings together a wide cast of those most affected and thereby opens the case of and for Detroit and our other large cities suffering financial strain. This is a book is worth reading for its essential story as well as its eloquence of style.”

There were two winners for this year’s Jake Ryan and Charles Sackrey Award for a Book about the Working-Class Academic Experience: Clever Girls: Autoethnographies of Class, Gender and Ethnicity, edited by Jackie Goode, and Allison Hurst’s Amplified Advantage: Going to a ‘Good’ College in an Era of Inequality. Of Goode’s collection of autoethnographic essays, most by British working-class women, one of the judges writes “It is a wonderfully evocative collection that really opens up the experience of class transition to the reader, positively inviting the reader to tell their own story – a wonderful use of autoethnography, and a great book for working class students and faculty alike, as well as having some appeal to a general public.” The book also garnered appreciation for its focus on female working-class subjects. Hurst’s book was praised as “particular timely in terms of the recent admissions scandals.” A second judge said: “This is a hugely important book. By looking at different types of students in the American liberal arts college tradition, it demonstrates clearly and vividly that the situation for working class students in higher education is not simply one of equal opportunities or even equal access.”

In the final award category, the Constance Coiner Award for Best Dissertation went to Melissa Meade for her work In the Shadow of ‘King Coal’: Memory, Media, Identity, and Culture in the Post-Industrial Pennsylvania Anthracite Region. The book “considers the intersections of race/ethnicity and gender in its examination of identity formation and also considers the ‘environmental classism’ which is a result of polluted and poisoned landscapes.” One judge commented that Meade’s project shows how working-class stories “provide the working-class subjects with agency.”  Another described the work as “soundly theorized, yet poignantly human and personal.  A new vantage point on an oft-studied region. The trope of the decades-long fire smoldering under this region of the country resonates powerfully in our current political environment.”

Congratulations to all the winners and to those whose work was nominated! This year’s submissions were indeed a strong collection of diverse, powerful work that bodes well for the diversity and the cultivated and consistent interdisciplinarity of Working-Class Studies.

Cherie Rankin

Cherie Rankin is a professor of English at Heartland Community College in Normal, IL. She is also a published poet whose work has appeared in Labor: Studies in Working Class History, Dragon Poet Review, and Typoetry, a visual exhibit of poetry at Heartland.

Posted in Class and Education, Class and the Media, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-Class Culture | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Downwardly Mobile: How Some People Lose Class Privilege

We have two narratives about class in this country. Perhaps the most prominent is the American Dream – the idea that hard work and moral fortitude can lead people from rages to riches. The second is that of the rigged class system, one designed to ensure that the privileged remain privileged while the poor remain poor.

There are several problems with these narratives, but I want to focus on one: they both miss a large group of people, the downwardly mobile. In fact, one in two kids born into the upper-middle-class – one in two kids born to a college-educated professional parent – fall out of this class as adults.

I wanted to learn how kids raised with so much could lose the privileges they had. So I poured over interviews researchers conducted with over 100 upper-middle-class Americans who they followed from age 13 to age 28. I found out that my idea that they have so many resources was wrong.

As I write in my new book, Privilege Lost: Who Leaves the Upper Middle Class and How They Fall, being born into the upper middle class doesn’t guarantee that children receive high levels of the three resources that help them stay at the top: academic skills, institutional knowledge, and money. These resources depend on parents having them and passing them down, and that doesn’t happen as often as the rigged class system narrative leads us to believe.

Some upper-middle-class parents do not have high levels of these resources themselves. Not all professionals earn a lot of money, so they don’t have it to pass down. In many families, the parent most involved in childrearing – usually the mother – does not have a college degree or a professional job, so she isn’t well positioned to teach her children how to navigate college or prepare for the professional workforce. Of course, some parents who do have all of the resources of the upper middle class don’t pass them on to their children. They may work so much that they spend little time with their children, become too sick to pass them down, or just believe that children should forge their own path. And sometimes, health issues keep kids from internalizing or using the resources they get from their parents.

Children who receive few resources from their parents realize that they this will limit their ability to gain status through school and work. Many then decide that these resources are not worth having and that they don’t want to spend their time in the institutions that value those resources.  Instead, they form identities based on what their resources allow: as a wife and mother, family man, artist, athlete, rebel, or the like. This gives them ways to gain status, but it also leads to a change in their class. Instead of focusing on school, college, and professional jobs, they opt out of these institutions – putting themselves on a downwardly mobile path.

Virginia is a good example. Her father was an upper-level executive who earned a six-figure income, so she grew up in a six-bedroom house. But Virginia’s dad was so busy working that she barely knew him. They didn’t talk much about school and his work. Instead, Virginia spent most of her time with her mother, who had dropped out of college when she became pregnant with Virginia’s older sister and had been a stay-at-home mother ever since. She didn’t know how to navigate college and professional jobs herself.

Raised without the knowledge that helps students succeed in school or work, Virginia was unlikely to excel in either. So, she opted out. She saw school as a place to pass through, deemed college irrelevant, and framed professional work as immoral as it would take time away from the people she cared about most. Instead of drawing on her community to gain the resources she would have needed to succeed in school, college, and work, she set her sights on fulfilling roles her resources allowed: becoming a wife and mother.

Virginia started working toward these goals at an early age. In high school and after, she tried to enter relationships that would move toward marriage. By her early 20s, she had become engaged and hoped to soon have children. Because she did not attend college, the men she met were not in college either – including the man she married. Despite her father’s high income, education, and occupation, Virginia then did not have the resources she needed to excel in the institutions that lead to class reproduction, and she formed an identity that didn’t require them or encourage her to see them out. Doing so led her out of the institutions that could keep her in her class and onto a downwardly mobile path.

Cory’s case is a little different. Both of his parents had graduate degrees and professional jobs. His mother spent a lot of time with Cory, monitoring his homework, talking to him about how to do well in his courses, and managing his college applications. He learned to do well in school and earned reasonably high grades. But his family didn’t have a lot of money. His father was in and out of employment, and his mother’s job as a school librarian didn’t pay a high salary. Cory felt that he stood out among his classmates because he had to work a part-time job, didn’t have a car, and was the last of his classmates to get a cell phone.

Raised with less money than his peers, Cory formed an identity around not needing it. He identified as an athlete: a type of person who would pursue a passion rather than money. Cory dedicated his time to sports, became known for his success playing soccer and basketball, and often talked of his passion for the game. As he put it, “God is number one and sports are number two.” When it came time to picking a college, he chose one with a sports management major. He spent his time in college learning about sports, playing intramural sports, writing about sports, and interning for a minor league sports team.

But while the identity of an athlete covered for his family’s lack of money, being disinterested in how to make money later hurt him. Cory never researched the labor market for sports-related jobs. He just assumed that once he graduated with a sports management degree, he would be offered a job in the front office of an NBA team. Of course, this didn’t happen. Instead, Cory ended up with three part-time jobs – he ran a basketball league, played basketball with kids in an after-school program, and, in the summer, he organized a half-day sports camp. He wasn’t sure if he would ever land a professional sports job, but he remained determined to follow his passion rather than selling out by going in to a different kind of business. The identity Cory formed then reflected his family’s little money, but also encouraged him not to seek out ways to make money himself. This strategy brought him some forms of status, but it also pushed him out of the upper-middle-class.

As Virginia and Cory remind us, there are millions of Americans whose lives are not captured by the stories of the American Dream or the rigged class system. Rather, their stories are ones of snowballing effects – of how being raised without some resources cascades into a series of experiences and identities that lead to downwardly mobile paths.

Jessi Streib

Jessi Streib is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Duke University and the author of Privilege Lost: Who Leaves the Upper Middle Class and How They Fall.







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Universal Basic Income and Working-Class Futures

There have been few good things to come out of COVID-19. We’ve seen a genuine sense of community spirit emerge along with greater respect for blue-collar workers in the front line. In the UK, we’ve seen another less obvious shift: an emerging commitment to the idea that all citizens within a country should enjoy a basic minimum income. While some conservative politicians may hate the idea, the UK has come close to creating a system of Universal Basic Income (UBI). This seems a radical departure from the welfare regimes that we have become accustomed to over the last seven decades. Some may think it smacks of communism. In reality, the idea goes back a long way, and its roots may lie in radical politics and utopian socialism such as Tom Paine’s eighteen century pamphlet The Rights of Man. It has even attracted interest from both the political left and right. Richard Nixon toyed with the notion in the 1970s, and Finland has recently tried out a version.

In the UK at the moment, it takes the form of an unprecedented jobs retention scheme for workers who would otherwise be laid off as businesses closed during the pandemic. Many workers have been furloughed, but the treasury is paying 80% of their wages up to £30,000.  The average wage in the UK is around £25,000, and a minimum wage job would pay around £16,000 for someone over 25 employed full time. At present, 8.9 million workers are on the furlough scheme, and it has cost £19.6bn so far. Another 2.6 million people – those who are self-employed or not classified as employees — have also been helped through other schemes.

These moves to provide support for all laid off workers have cruelly exposed the plight of gig workers and the fiction that they are independent contractors. The Taylor report into the gig economy in 2017 estimated there were then 1.3 million workers regularly involved in gig work out of a UK labour market of 32 million. Though a small proportion, the same report predicted a rapid expansion in this form of work.  These gig workers don’t qualify for the furlough scheme, because it was designed around an older model of work. Their relative invisibility and marginality in the labour market has made them difficult to reach by normal welfare routes, and most of the gig work they rely on has dried up altogether. The World Economic Forum has noted that gig workers were likely the hardest hit by the pandemic.

While the furlough scheme, and other employment support measures are temporary, it should invite debates about the nature of work today and about the potential of UBI, which may represent the answer to a whole series of questions that loom over the contemporary work place. That makes it particularly important for the working-class.

Many commentators on work and technology have suggested that we are entering — or may already be in — an era where the past certainties of work have disappeared.  In my courses on the sociology of work, I have had to teach the concept of a job for life as history for two decades. Stable employment and occupational pensions are also becoming history. They’re being replaced by ideas about precarity, insecurity, the gig or platform economy, and a whole host of novel forms of economic relationship which undermine work, especially for the working class. Along with the by now familiar pressures of globalisation, outsourcing, off-shoring, and information technology, workers face new threats — AI, algorithms, big data, and robotics. These combine to destroy huge numbers of jobs – good and bad – that blue- collar workers have relied on for decade, and they increasingly affect white-collar and professional jobs as machine learning starts to take on medical, legal, and financial judgement in the workplace. Clearly, while efficiency and profits increase, the share of work is increasingly under strain, and this creates anxiety for workers, making them less willing to take risks or explore alternative forms of work.

Under UBI, everyone in a society would be entitled to a minimum basic income throughout their lives – even potentially as children. Welfare payments and the infrastructure of enforcement could be abolished or vastly reduced. The amount UBI would provide is up for debate, and some think that it might help those on middle incomes and even hurt the poorest. However, I think the benefit for working-class people is obvious – security.  Security of income, accessible educational and training opportunities, and the ability to care and be present when their kids grow up or their parents grow old.

A key argument in its favour is that UBI enables people of all classes to make choices — to stay in education, to take a career break, go travelling, look after children while they are small, or look after elders – their own family or friends and neighbours.  It would allow people to take risks in their lives, to start new businesses, or to retrain throughout their working lives rather than feel compelled to stay in jobs they hate in order to get by.  This should be attractive to all regardless of class.  Individuals, families, communities, and the population would all benefit from greater levels of education, knowledge, and skill.

Perhaps the argument that might flip UBI from a utopian pipe dream to something on the political radar is that it could enable fair green transitions.  Too often workers in the high carbon producing parts of the economy feel compelled to defend the continued use and extraction of fossil fuels because they fear losing their jobs. UBI provides an alternative that can underpin a socially just economically viable transition to greener development.

At its heart, UBI is radical because it seeks to address some of the key drivers of inequality in our society – access to good work and a decent income.  Everyone stands to gain but especially the working class – the group that is being most adversely affected by COVID-19. One of the positive things that could come out of this crisis is opening a fundamental debate about the relationship between our work, community, and society.

Tim Strangleman, University of Kent

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Racism and the Working Class

When I tell other middle-class professionals who don’t know me well that I’m writing a book about working-class culture, it’s amazing how often they respond approvingly that “white racism” is an important subject.  My reaction, depending on the circumstance, ranges from embarrassment to rage.

It’s frustrating that “working class” reads as all white to so many people who should know better.  And it pisses me off that so many educated people assume that the white part of the working class is either uniformly racist and/or that racism is the most distinctive part of their culture. And it often seems there is a background assumption that little or no racism exists among the educated middle class, that all white racism is contained within the working class.

If there is a common working-class culture across racial and ethnic groups, as I think there is, white racism cannot be part of what is common in that culture, because about 40% of the American working class is not white.  So even if many working-class whites are vociferously racist, racism cannot characterize working-class culture as a whole. Nor have social scientists been able to establish with any certainty that white working-class people are more racist than other whites, let alone measure the difference.  White racism in various forms exists among middle-class professionals. And because they have more power, their racism likely has greater impact than the individual attitudes of working-class whites.

These extravagantly false assumptions are largely based on both educational and occupational snobbery, which plays out in all kinds of ways, some of them inconsequential.  But, as law professor Ian Haney Lopez has documented, they can have a toxic effect on American politics by strengthening racist dog whistles even when you are trying to combat those whistles.

In his 2019 book, Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America, Lopez reports on a political narrative project he helped design after the 2016 election.  In an extensive, country-wide set of surveys and focus groups, the project presented several different political messages to respondents.  Researchers found that neither a message focused only on racial justice nor one focused only on economic justice was as popular and as effective against racist dog whistles as a message that combined calls for racial and economic justice – one that presented interracial solidarity as a necessary condition for economic justice.

To understand this, we have to see how white racism in the working class is layered within a class resentment against middle-class professionals, especially those whose exclusive focus on marginalized groups makes them seem unaware that a struggling white part of the working class faces many of the same economic conditions as black, brown, immigrant, and indigenous peoples.  When politicians and progressive advocates focus solely on racial justice, their messages call forth this class resentment. They also stoke fears that citizenship and whiteness may be the only assets these white workers have left.

Similarly, a message that seeks to appeal to broad class interests benefitting people of all races and genders, while attractive, seems to many black and brown people to gloss over injustices that affect only them or that affect them to a much greater degree.  What’s more, colorblind economic populism, while popular among white workers, does not undermine racist dog whistles and their impact among whites.

Paradoxically, when politicians or media commentators denounce the use of dog whistles like “thugs,” “law and order,” and “illegal aliens” – let alone rhyming looting with shooting – the dog whistles actually become more effective. Because most whites do not want to see themselves or have others see them as racist, they hear critiques of this kind of language as dismissive of their legitimate concerns about crime, law and order, and illegal immigration. They resent being labeled as simply racist, and the result is a melding of both class and racial resentments.

Lopez’s research shows that the most effective message went directly at dog whistles but not simply by denouncing them.  Rather, the best message focused on the purpose and effect of the whistles: to make it harder for the vast majority of Americans to see and pursue their self-interest by uniting to confront our economic and political oligarchy.  The winning message explained that attempts to divide us along racial lines undermines any attempt to redress our shared and growing inequalities of income, wealth, and power.  The winning message called for interracial solidarity as the essential requirement for effectively pursuing both racial and economic justice at the same time.

One of the project’s most interesting findings was that the largest group of respondents (59%) embraced an inconsistent mix of progressive and reactionary views – including people who agreed with both a specific progressive view and its conflicting reactionary one.  For example, this majority group, whom Lopez calls “persuadables,” found both racial-fear and racial-justice messages convincing in nearly equal measure.  And this was basically true of all racial groups, as 54% of African Americans and 60% of Latinx found the racial-fear message convincing, compared to 61% of whites.

Lopez concludes: “It’s true that those [persuadables] – most whites and most people of color, too – filter the world through stereotypes and racist ideas.  It’s also true, though, that they simultaneously hold progressive racial ideals.  The job ahead is not to start in educating the broad middle about racism, but to speak to the anti-racist convictions they already embrace.”

Though Lopez does not provide a class breakdown, my guess is that the non-college-educated working class of all colors is over-represented among the persuadables and that middle-class professionals are over-represented among the smaller groups who expressed either consistently progressive or consistently reactionary views.  That guess is based on 30 years of teaching working-class adults of all colors.  In my early years, I insisted on simple consistency as a logical imperative, but I gradually learned that many apparent inconsistencies are not necessarily illogical if you dig deeper, and I came to respect people’s ability to hold what they knew were contrary notions.  I must have heard hundreds of times students saying something like: “I know I’m contradicting myself, but that’s how I feel.  What am I supposed to do – lie?”

College-educated professionals, on the other hand, tend to overvalue consistency and to be much less willing to express contrary notions.  Our earnest efforts to rely on evidence and logic often lead us to neglect how fear and hope are feelings before they are thoughts. Most Americans desperately want racial harmony, I’m guessing, precisely because they have such deep racial fears.

Lopez’s counsel to speak to whites’ anti-racist ideals is important for this moment because it so strongly warns against class-inflected finger-wagging and moral superiority. The inspiring explosion of nationwide protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder has uncovered a surprising well of interracial solidarity, especially among young people.  As soon as protestors moved from police misconduct to wider issues of racial inequality, they inevitably enter terrain where class inequality merges with racial injustice.  A big part of our endemic racial disparities simply reflects the reality that people of color are disproportionately working class.  We cannot address the magnitude of racial injustice without simultaneously addressing economic injustice, and to achieve economic justice we’re going to need the kind of interracial solidarity that’s been marching in our streets these past few weeks.

Jack Metzgar

Posted in Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Issues, Jack Metzgar, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments