“Working class” is a confusing concept. It’s not just that the term is hard to define. It also carries different, even contrasting connotations. Sometimes it’s merely descriptive. “Working class” refers to hard-working, blue-collar and low-wage workers without college education who struggle to get by economically. But “working class” can also bring to mind lazy, unproductive failures who are going nowhere, or relics of earlier era of industrialization. And in this year’s election, working-class is becoming synonymous with racist.
Of course, we have some positive images of the working class. We revere the hard work that, as Alabama sang in “Forty Hour Week,” “keep this country turning around.” Blue-collar work, especially, has long been viewed as “real” labor. Many working-class people take pride in the toughness of doing physically-demanding and often unpleasant work day after day. Whether it’s building cars, cleaning toilets, or even ringing up sales at a grocery store cash register, working-class jobs require resilience, physical strength, and endurance. You’ll hear many references to this version of working-class culture during the football and political seasons. Football commentators praise linemen for their “blue-collar values” of toughness and doing the dirty work without complaint. Similarly, during political campaigns, and especially this year, politicians talk about workers as heroes, validating their hard work in order to get their vote.
Too often, though, “working class” is a derogatory term. In a country where everyone is supposed to have an equal opportunity to get ahead, calling someone working class can feel like a put down. The American dream isn’t achieving great wealth; it’s becoming part of the middle class. Because of our faith in the possibility of upward mobility through effort and talent, people who remain in the working class are often judged as failures. As Jonathan Cobb and Richard Sennett argue in The Hidden Injuries of Class, many working-class people internalize this idea, blaming themselves for not having moved up the class ladder despite years of hard work and dedication.
In American popular culture, working-class people are often portrayed as losers. As Pepi Leistyna shows in his terrific documentary Class Dismissed: How TV Frames the Working Class, working-class women in television sitcoms are often portrayed as physically out of control – fat, loud, overly sexual, and dressed in loud and inappropriate clothing. It’s even worse for the men. They might not look any more “refined” than the women, but at least most female working-class characters are competent. Roseanne might not fit the Carol Brady image of suburban motherhood, but she could balance working and running a household and usually had good advice for her kids. Working-class men, as Richard Butsch has argued, are usually shown as buffoons. They’re lazy, foolish, selfish, and childish. Think Homer Simpson.
The image of the working class is taking an additional beating in this year’s presidential race, ironically because working-class voters are seen as an especially important constituency. Despite the historical patterns that Jack Metzgar cited a few weeks ago, showing that the white working-class does not usually vote for Democrats, many pundits describe the big challenge of Barack Obama’s candidacy as winning the votes of the white working class. The problem, commentators suggest, is that the working class is racist. Add another stereotype to the negative side of the public image of the working class.
I have two problems with the way some are equating “working class” and “racist.” The first is that, like any stereotype, it implies that a quality that fits some working-class people applies to all working-class people. Perhaps some white working-class voters will not vote for Obama because he’s black, but others will support him because of his plans for creating new jobs and because he has experience helping working-class communities respond to economic struggles.
The second problem is that the stereotype suggests that only working-class people are racist. But racism doesn’t recognize class borders. Some middle-class and elite people won’t vote for Obama because of his race, but nearly all of the commentary focuses on working-class racism. It may be that working-class people, who value directness, are more willing to admit that race matters, while people with college degrees have been trained to hide their racism. But racism doesn’t automatically disappear with education, income, and social status.
I don’t deny that race matters to many working-class voters, and we need to take that seriously. And I’m happy to hear politicians and pundits talking directly about the working class for once, instead of insisting on the euphemism of “working families” or pretending that everyone is middle class. However, stereotypes of working-class people perpetuate social divisions, prejudices, and economic barriers. We should challenge working-class stereotypes and pay closer attention to real people.