Later this week, scholars, artists, and activists from around the world will gather at SUNY Stony Brook for the How Class Works conference, organized by Michael Zweig and his colleagues at the Center for Study of Working Class Life. We’re a diverse group, coming from about a dozen countries and a variety of academic fields and organizations. Over the course of a few days, sociologists will talk with poets, graduate students will hang out with senior scholars, and community and labor organizers will discuss strategy with political scientists and literary scholars. This combination of diversity and informal interaction creates an engaging, friendly, and lively atmosphere, and it keeps people coming back to working-class studies conferences year after year.
But with the exception of a significant group of international scholars from Turkey, Africa, and China, most of those at the conference will be white. Several times over the course of the conference, people will suggest that, as a community, we should be concerned, maybe even ashamed, about our lack of racial diversity. If we were really committed to social justice, the commentators may seem to imply, if we were sufficiently self-critical and open and inclusive, our interdisciplinary field would be much more multicultural.
But it isn’t. And that isn’t about a lack of commitment, intellectual engagement, or organizing effort. From the beginning, working-class studies has been deeply involved in critical discussions of both the diversity of the working class (or as our British colleagues perhaps more accurately put it, the working classes) and the theoretical and political intersections among class, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. New working-class studies scholars have not generally suggested that class matters more than race. Rather, we argue that class deserves focused attention within the context of broader discussions of inequality, difference, and culture. The founding program in working-class studies, the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University, got its start as part of a national project on diversity in higher education sponsored by the American Association of Colleges and Universities. In 1995, when we applied to that program, we asked whether “the working class would be invited to the diversity banquet.” As the program organizers told us, we were the only people raising questions about class in the context of multiculturalism.
That emphasis remains a key element of working-class studies. It’s been the primary theme of several conferences, and a significant proportion of the presentations each year focus on variations of the theme. At this year’s conference, for example, about 20% of the paper titles explicitly reference race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality, and more than 25% more address class in non-U.S. national contexts, including papers on the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, as well as Europe. A few more papers consider the latest addition to critical discussions of diversity: religion. Of course, many of those who will speak about the intersection of class and race are white. Indeed, one of the strengths of working-class studies is that it has encouraged so many white scholars to apply class as a critical concept in looking at issues of race and ethnicity.
And yes, a number of conference presenters will discuss issues facing the white working class. Working-class studies is concerned that many, some would even say the majority, of whites have been exploited and excluded from so-called “mainstream” culture, marginalized as “white trash,” and stereotyped as racist and reactionary. At best, the white working class has been elided into the more privileged white middle class, who benefit from more political, economic, and cultural capital. As my colleagues and I suggested 17 years ago, the white working class has an important place in discussions and activism related to diversity.
None of which is to say that we should stop thinking about the whiteness of working-class studies as a problem. A more racially-diverse working-class studies could help to deepen and complicate our conversations about how class works. Over the past 17 years, we have pursued a variety of strategies to reach out to colleagues of color: sending the call for papers to organizations that focus on ethnic studies, attempting to collaborate with such groups, organizing conferences around the theme of intersections, inviting keynote speakers whose activism or research focuses on race, and through personal contacts. The international participation in this year’s conference offers evidence that such efforts can bring more diversity to the movement.
Yet almost two decades of outreach have made working-class studies only slightly less white. Why is it so hard? Part of the problem must rest in the history of race and class relations in the U.S. (and in other countries), as the elite have repeatedly pitted working-class whites and blacks against each other (Michelle Alexander provides a useful overview of this in The New Jim Crow). And part of it probably reflects the way some leftist scholars have argued that class should subsume race and gender, advocating for a class-based solidarity. These twin histories might well make some scholars of color uncertain about whether working-class studies is the place for them.
But it may also be that working-class studies has too little to offer to those whose work focuses on race, who may find similar ideas and similar camaraderie in critical race theory (CRT). For me, working-class studies provides important ways of thinking about structural inequality, cultural difference, and shared identity and experience. For contemporary scholars of race, the same core can be found within CRT. Consider, for example, this excerpt from a definition of CRT from the UCLA School of Public Policy:
Intersectionality within CRT points to the multidimensionality of oppressions and recognizes that race alone cannot account for disempowerment. “Intersectionality means the examination of race, sex, class, national origin, and sexual orientation, and how their combination plays out in various settings.” This is an important tenet in pointing out that CRT is critical of the many oppressions facing people of color and does not allow for a one–dimensional approach of the complexities of our world.
Narratives or counterstories, as mentioned before, contribute to the centrality of the experiences of people of color. These stories challenge the story of white supremacy and continue to give a voice to those that have been silenced by white supremacy.
Substitute class for the references to race in this passage, and the result would sound very much like some core ideas in working-class studies, which wrestles with the “many oppressions” facing the working class and which strives to make working-class narratives available because they challenge the class-based social hierarchy.
New working-class studies and critical race theory share some significant intellectual DNA. The key to making the link may not be to bemoan the lack of racial diversity at the working-class studies conference but rather to actively seek out opportunities for in-depth conversation across these two fields. We have much in common, and we have much to learn from each other.
Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies