Reclaiming Youngstown’s Story

Two weeks ago, the Center for Working-Class Studies sponsored a panel discussion on reporting on Youngstown and the working class as part of our annual lecture series. The panel featured journalists from the Wall Street Journal, the Plain Dealer, and National Public Radio who had written on community and its working people. Their message to a local audience wondering why Youngstown is so often portrayed in negative terms:  the community must understand and reclaim its identity and must show journalists, business leaders, and legislators the strengths of the Mahoning Valley. Otherwise, others will continue define who and what we are. Over time, the narratives developed by outsiders have become the conventional wisdom in explaining Youngstown’s culture, history, and economic plight.  Unfortunately, conventional wisdom about Youngstown isn’t always accurate, and it has even contributed to the community’s difficulties.

A culture is the accumulated experiences of people. For most of the 20th century, the experiences of the Mahoning Valley were powerful and largely positive. The community grew prosperous both economically and culturally, building on working class values of hard work, family, community, and generational advancement through education. But the memory of that economic and cultural history was disrupted by deindustrialization and, over time, replaced by a negative image constructed, to a great extent, by commentators from the outside the community.  These negative visions of Youngstown described us as the poster child for deindustrialization, a place known more for loss and failure than for productivity and hard work.  Over time, this community became known for its economic desperation, high crime rates, and political corruption.  Many in the local area internalized these images and people have forgotten the cultural strengths that made this community great.

In our book, Steeltown USA: Work and Memory in Youngstown, Sherry Linkon and I argue that the Mahoning Valley has been shaped by conflict, first over work and culture, and more recently over memory itself. As Robert Bellah has suggested, a healthy “community of memory” involves shared understanding of its past, good and bad, is deeply rooted in associations (family, food, religion, place etc), and contributes to the common good, empowers struggle, and is source of enlightenment and understanding.  This community and its working people must remember that a community is not just a conglomeration of buildings and/ or deindustrialized spaces on the landscape.

As Connie Schultz, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Plain Dealer, told local residents at the panel, you have to “take back your town.” That is, local residents need to reconstruct the community’s identity.  They can do this by recovering their cultural and civic values, renewing the relationships among the people who live here, and restoring the spaces, public and private, that offer the possibility of coming together.  This doesn’t meaning hiding the negative features of past behind the term “community.” Rather, Youngstown must embrace both the good and bad in order to move forward and build on its history and memories.

John Russo

Continue reading

Warming Up to the Working Class

When John Russo, Sherry Linkon, and other faculty at Youngstown State University initiated Working-Class Studies as a field in the mid-1990s, it was virtually impossible to use the term “working class” in public discourse.  We were a “middle-class society,” with all but a few rich people and poor people in that one ubiquitous class. This was a point of considerable national pride.

It was both pleasing and a bit unnerving, therefore, to hear so many people throwing around the term “working class” during last year’s presidential election.  As Carl Bloice at Black Commentator pointed out, it was often assumed that the working class in question was all white and usually male.  Bowling was pitted against basketball, beer against wine, NASCAR against golf – as if everybody knew what they were talking about.  But at least it was possible to use the term, and the actual multiracial, multi-gendered working class occasionally got some attention paid to its interests.

One of the interesting pieces of research produced by political scientists studying white working-class voters was overlooked during the election.  Larry Bartels’s very useful Unequal Democracy reports in passing on a “feeling thermometer” where people are asked how warmly or coldly they feel toward a long list of different groups (p. 137).

Working-class people outpolled middle-class people, poor people, and rich people by 5 points, 9 points, and 22 points, respectively.  What’s more, working-class people outpolled every other group presented.  With a temperature reading of 82.3, the working class was more warmly considered than women, older people, the military, and young people – the next most warmly considered groups – as well as The Democratic Party and labor unions (both by 24 points), big business (by 26 points), and The Republican Party (by 28 points).

I wonder if those Democrats and labor leaders who prefer usages like “middle income,” “working people,” or “working families” have seen this temperature survey.  They’ve bent over backwards to avoid using the term “class” unless it is preceded by “middle.”  As Bartels declares, “Given the frequent characterization of America as a society that exalts the middle class, it seems remarkable that most Americans express even more positive feelings about working-class people than about middle-class people” (p. 138).

Why do people of all classes, genders, ages, and colors feel so warmly about “working-class people”?  I don’t know, but given how confused Americans are in using class language, it would be worth further investigation.  One thing such investigation would almost certainly uncover is that the reasons for warmness vary by class.  There is a working-class set of connotative meanings that is different from the middle-class set.

For example, from the early 1970s – when the notion of America as a proudly “middle-class society” was probably at its peak – until its most recent survey in 2006, the National Opinion Research Center has found that about 46 percent of respondents self-identify as working class, while another 46 percent self-identify as middle class.  During most of this period, the term “working class” was virtually banned in public discourse, often seeming vaguely unpatriotic during the Cold War, and yet it is likely that the overwhelming majority of working-class people (whether defined by occupation, education, or income) identified as working class.  I taught working adults during all of this period, and though my students were influenced by the “middle-class society” discourse all around them, many routinely used the banned term with accuracy-and pride.  That is, many defined themselves and their world as outside middle-class society, and of those, most were proud of and glad about that (though admittedly more so in the ’70s and ’80s than now.)

Working-class pride has two general sources, in my observation.  One is the belief that they are the people who actually do the work and get things done, the ones the world really depends on.  Not simply that there are many more workers than managers, but rather a pride in being on the ground “where the rubber meets the road” and the knowledge and wisdom that derives from that.  Though often associated with men who make things, this pride is also common among women clerical, retail, and other workers who often express amazement at how little understanding managers have of “the real world” they participate in on a daily basis.  This source of pride often comes with a certain negative stereotype about middle-class professional and managerial workers, which is not likely to be a source of middle-class warmness about working-class people.

The other source of working-class pride is more about cultural connotations of working-classness that are shared in great measure by working- and middle-class people.  My guess is that connotations of being honest, sincere, down-to-earth, straightforward in speech and manner, and of not “looking down” on anyone or “putting on airs,” or “caring (too much) about what other people think” are all attributes that make even the most compulsively achievement-oriented middle-class professional feel warmly about working-class people.

Those are my guesses, and it would be interesting to hear others’.  In any case, it is good to know that not only is the existence of an American working class finally being recognized, but that it is warmly considered by damn near everyone.

Jack Metzgar

A Lesson in Politics and Power

Unless you’ve been too busy looking for a job to notice, things are kind of upside down in Washington. President Obama and the Senate Democrats, who kicked the GOP’s posterior last November are skulking around like losers, cutting billions from an already inadequate stimulus package in the hope of securing Republican votes they don’t need.

The Republicans, who should be wearing sack cloth and ashes, have, under the guidance of the party’s de-facto leader, the great prevaricator Rush Limbaugh, seized control of the stimulus agenda and are eroding the public’s support for the president they loved just moments ago.

In order to restore the balance of the universe, I’d like to get everyone together in a huge classroom-the President, Democrats, Republicans, the media, and the public-and give them a reality check in the form of a vocabulary lesson.

Here’s how it might go:

Good morning, class. May I have your attention please?


Claaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaas!  Tom Daschle and all you autoworkers, please stop scanning the help wanted section for a moment and pay attention..

Thank you.

We are going to begin with a vocabulary lesson.  While these words are not directly related to economics, they are definitely related to the fate of President Obama’s economic stimulus package, so we must become familiar with their true meaning.

The first word is “bipartisan.”  Repeat after me: “bipartisan.”  It means “Of, consisting of, or supported by members of two parties, especially two major political parties.”

Now I will use the word in a sentence.  “President Obama was foolish enough to believe that the Republicans would put the future of the country first and engage in truly bipartisan talks to develop a stimulus package that would help the working class.”

Our next word is “consensus.”  Repeat after me: “consensus.”  It means “general agreement or concord; harmony.”

Here’s a sentence using the word consensus: “It is impossible to reach consensus with a group of disgruntled ideologues who, in their heart of hearts, want you to fall flat on your liberal-commie face.”

Our next word is “mandate.”  Say it with me, “mandate.”  No, little Sean Hannity, it does not mean a bunch of guys going to Hooters to watch extreme fighting and pound down shooters and beers.  And please, when I want to hear from you I’ll call on you.

Now, let’s get back on task.  Mandate means “a command or authorization to act in a particular way on a public issue given by the electorate to its representative.”

Here it is in a sentence: “Americans, including the millions of working-class voters who put their faith and trust in him, did not give Barrack Obama a mandate so he could roll over for a bunch of moronic Republicans.  They gave him a mandate so he could roll over them and their failed policies.”

Our last word is “leadership.”  Repeat it, “leadership” — “the quality of mind or spirit that enables one to face danger, fear, or vicissitudes with self-possession, confidence, and resolution; bravery.”

I’ve come up with this sentence using the word leadership: “If President Obama had demonstrated the lack of leadership that’s been on display since he took office when he was candidate Obama, we’d all be talking about President Hillary Clinton’s stimulus plan.”

That’s it, but there will  be a quiz in 2010 and a final exam in 2012.

Like many others in the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party, I take no pleasure in acknowledging that the President and his team are losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the American people when it comes to revitalizing the economy.  Especially since they’re losing it to a corps of cynics led by Limbaugh who, when asked by Hannity if he wanted Obama to succeed said:

“No! I want him to fail.” If his agenda is a far-left collectivism — some people say socialism — as a conservative heartfelt, deeply, why would I want socialism to succeed?

And yet, knowing that the people with whom he is negotiating want him to go down in flames, the President and his allies are still chopping billions from a stimulus package that economic experts including Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman say is already too small to accomplish the goal of creating good-paying jobs for millions of working-class Americans.

Why?  Because the President and Democratic leaders have decided that it’s more important to get Republican senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins to vote for a watered down package then it is to battle the GOP, exercise the mandate they’ve been given, and pass a package that will spur a recovery.

What should the President do?  As Krugman and others suggest, he should beef up infrastructure spending by about $200 billion, initiate health care reform, tell Americans why his plan is in their best interest, and, like the voters, tell the Republicans to go to hell.

Better yet, he should grab one of the 100 cigarettes John Boehner smokes every day out of his mouth and grind it out on his forehead. Then he should walk over to the Senate and poke career obstructionist Mitch McConnell in the eyes-the way Moe from the Three Stooges used to do when he was mad at Curly.

Then he should pass the stimulus package we need and have the courage to say: “I’ve just done the right thing and I am willing to be judged for it.”

He must do this now because, as Ron Todd, the late leader of the British equivalent of the UAW once said, “You don’t have power if you surrender all your principles-you have office.”  After eight years of abuse and neglect at the hands of a president who couldn’t spell “principle” the last thing we need at this difficult time in our history is a man who can do little more than sit in the Oval Office.  Clearly this is not the time for our President to run up the white flag.  It is time for him to fight.

Leo Jennings

Wrestling with Clint

I saw Gran Torino, the latest in Clint Eastwood’s series of films about working-class American culture, a few weeks ago, at a movieplex in Niles, Ohio a few weeks ago.  Niles is one of several largely working-class communities that connect Youngstown and Warren.  Niles is home to a number of small metals factories, including scrap yards and specialty mills, as well as a typical suburban strip of big box stores, a shopping mall, and a minor-league baseball stadium.  Its residents include some workers from the GM Lordstown plant, and probably even more people who once worked for Delphi Packard, which provided electrical components to the auto industry but has all but closed the local plant recently.  Niles is also part of the greater Youngstown Metropolitan Statistical Area, designated in 2000 as the fourth most segregated metro area in the U.S.

In other words, I – an upper-middle class professional who specializes in but has not lived working-class culture — saw Gran Torino in a theater full of people who identified with Walt Kowalski.  More than once, the people around me laughed and cheered at moments when I found Walt’s behavior uncomfortable.  The film invites laughter at times, and it encourages us to view Walt as an aged version of Dirty Harry.  At one point, while challenging one of the Hmong gang members, Walt even utters the first half of Harry Callahan’s famous phrase, “go ahead.” Everyone in the theater probably mentally added “make my day.”  Watching Gran Torino in Niles was an unsettling experience, and it left me unsure of how to think about the film.

But that’s been my experience with all of Eastwood’s working-class series.  Despite stereotypical and problematic race and gender relations in Million Dollar Baby – consider how the most threatening opponent is portrayed as very dark skinned and animalistic as just one example – Eastwood had me in that film until we met the boxer Maggie’s family.  They are portrayed as not merely uneducated, undisciplined, and excessive, but also greedy and uncaring – all the worst stereotypes of the white working class.  The film’s narrow focus on Maggie’s struggle to succeed as a boxer puts the emphasis on the middle-class value of individual success, but that is balanced with other values — toughness, loyalty, dignity, and the hard work ethic that are among the strengths of working-class culture.

In Mystic River, Eastwood takes a more typical working-class turn by focusing on a community responding to crisis rather than on an individual’s effort to succeed.  While some of the characters and situations could be read as stereotypical, by examining multiple characters that represent different attitudes and responses to the same background, the film reveals the complexity of Irish-American working-class experience.  In other words, it manages to balance attention to the group with development of individual characters, each of whom seems both virtuous and flawed in their own way.   While I cringed at some scenes, my concern was more about what Eastwood was revealing than for what I thought he was misrepresenting.  I remember thinking when I saw Mystic River that it redeemed Eastwood as a working-class filmmaker.

In Gran Torino Eastwood focuses more clearly and tightly on race as a source of both belonging and conflict than in Million Dollar Baby. Walt’s racism is real, but it is also shown to be defensive rather than offensive.  Yes, Walt is suspicious and resentful when an Asian family moves in next door, his distrust of them fades as he realizes that, as a working-class family, they are more like him than his own now middle-class adult children.  His distrust and resentment is not indiscriminate but rather targeted at those who violate his working-class ethic of self-control and hard work.  He only acts on his racism in response to other people’s actions, as when he challenges three young African-American men who are harassing a young Hmong woman.  When he talks about his prized car or his collection of tools, and when he teaches his young neighbor how to do repairs and interact with other men, we see his pride in working-class expertise, the kinds of knowledge that Mike Rose described in his book The Mind at Work – knowledge that too often goes unrecognized or is ridiculed.  Walt’s actions and words often made me squirm, yet I also had to acknowledge their realism.

But the laughter of other people in the theater made me uncomfortable about my own prejudices and assumptions.  Was my privileged, educated reading of the film as an exploration of the complex intersection of race and class “correct,” or was the film really a largely-approving portrait of a white working-class male challenging the incursions of African Americans and new immigrants?  As I said to my husband as we left the theater, I’d be curious to see how the audience in a place like Palo Alto, which has plenty of diversity (at least in terms of race – not so much in terms of class), a highly-educated, largely professional middle-class population, and little connection with the ravages of deindustrialization, might respond.   What are we to make of a film that reinforces the views of both those who view Walt critically as embodying the tensions between class and race and those who cheer him on as a white working-class vigilante who accomplishes what they wish they could – vanquishing the bad guys and helping the “good others” become more like themselves?

Sherry Linkon