The Crime of the Century: Remembering Sacco and Vanzetti 100 Years Later

April 15th marks the 100th anniversary of the crime that propelled Italian immigrant anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti into the international media spotlight: the robbery and double murder at the Slater & Morrill Shoe Company Factory in South Braintree, Massachusetts. Arguably the most famous criminals tried in the 20th century, in a trial that incited a flurry of debates over the manipulation and use of insufficient evidence, questionable testimony, and ethnic bias against defense witnesses, Sacco and Vanzetti were found guilty and spent seven years in jail until their execution on August 23, 1927.

In the 1920s, Sacco and Vanzetti came to symbolize the failure of American justice, drawing massive outpouring of support, including world-wide protests and a funeral cortege where over 200,000 people lined the streets of Boston. Their story reflects tensions around class, race, and politics that still reverberate in today’s discussions about white supremacy, historical memory, immigrant rights, surveillance, workers’ rights, the Antifa movement, and the right to protest in the name of social justice.

Their story is deeply entrenched in the Italian-American psyche. Growing up in Southeastern Massachusetts not too far from the site of their arrest in Bridgewater, I heard my family talk about Sacco and Vanzetti as if they were older, distant relatives. My father and grandmother spoke of them only rarely, in hushed tones over dinner, suggesting a combination of curiosity and fear. Their story highlighted the suppression of labor radicalism and the repercussions of anti-immigration laws, ethnic prejudice, and intolerance during the tumultuous yet formative decades of the early 20th century. Their legacy has long been shrouded in silence—one that has shaped my family’s perspective and, to a larger degree, that of Italian Americans across the U.S.

The banner, pictured here at the Boston Common, used by the Sacco and Vanzetti Commemoration Society during marches and events. (2015)

But the story of Sacco and Vanzetti does not belong to Italian Americans alone; the two men have inspired radical resistance in new but familiar ways. For example, the Sacco and Vanzetti Commemoration Society (SVCS) works to end “political persecution” and the “scapegoating of immigrants.” The SVCS holds annual public lectures and discussions by scholars and activists about the significance of the case today. In 2015, I attended one of the protests they organized, a march from the Boston Common to the North End (the city’s oldest and a notably Italian neighborhood) directly past the historical marker noting the site where the Sacco and Vanzetti Defense Committee met. I was struck by the disconnect between the anarchists holding political signs reading “No to State Repression!” and “Abolish the Death Penalty” and the mildly curious tourists eating at local establishments on Hanover Street. In addition to musical performances, several speakers addressed the fight for international social justice, drawing connections between Sacco and Vanzetti’s struggle and contemporary events, including political prisoners across the world as well as the Black Lives Matter Movement. But the importance of remembering Sacco and Vanzetti seemed lost on the crowd of people walking by, perhaps because people didn’t support the gathering’s overt political message but maybe because they didn’t recognize the names of the two men whose memory inspired the march. Confronting history—even as this march took place on Boston’s Freedom Trail, the story of America’s independence—appeared to be too revolutionary an act.

The plaque in Vanzetti’s hometown, Villafalletto, that reads, “Assassinated by the state because they are anarchists; Your sacrifice reinforces our will to fight.” (2015)

They may not be adequately remembered in Boston, but their hometowns of Torremaggiore and Villafalletto host annual events on “Sacco and Vanzetti Memorial Day.” Family members and activists plan marches, community events, and even revised elementary school curricula to teach younger generations about the case and raise awareness of the persecution the two men faced as immigrants and radicals in the U.S. The Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti Association, a political and cultural organization led by Sacco’s grand-niece, Fernanda Sacco, also organizes programs honoring Sacco and Vanzetti. Italy’s reclamation of Sacco and Vanzetti points to a political intervention that emphasizes the intersections among ethnicity, class, citizenship, and activism—difficult lessons learned as a result of the men’s conviction.

 

In the U.S., we largely ignore the history of labor radicalism and political activism. As historian Stephanie Yuhl writes in “Sculpted Radicals: The Problem of Sacco and Vanzetti in Boston’s Public Memory,” only a few commemorative markers of this story exist in the U.S. today. Public history seems to forget, she writes, that “Their actions, both violent and nonviolent, addressed very real historical grievances that are an essential part of the complex national narrative that we strive to represent.” The efforts of men and women across the U.S. who organized strikes and labor protests during the early 20th century labor movement—anarchists, syndicalists, and activists alike—ought to be recognized more publicly. So, too, should those walking off the job today, from striking teachers and nurses to the Amazon and Instacart workers who recently protested the lack of appropriate safety equipment and sick leave during the COVID-19 pandemic. These activists show us that ordinary people can effect social change.

Such recognition should go beyond physical markers. We could take a cue from Italy and incorporate the study of work and labor action into K-12 education, teaching young people how essential workers are not only in a time of crisis, but every day. Incorporating a working-class studies approach in curricula early on could make ethnic and working-class history more visible. And that, in turn, might encourage us to recognize more fully how the most vulnerable members of society help all of us survive.

The story of Sacco and Vanzetti can help us to remember and understand the more radical side of the Progressive Era. Even before the Great Depression drew attention to economic inequality, they remind us, immigrant labor radicalism was pushing back against xenophobia, precarity, and the decline of unions. As the centennial of their executions looms ahead in the coming years, it is time to reconsider how we remember Sacco and Vanzetti today. They are not just labor’s martyrs. They were part of a growing international working-class movement—one that built upon solidarity and the pursuit of social justice. Honoring their memories can help inspire working-class activism now.

Michele Fazio, University of North Carolina-Pembroke

Michele Fazio is a Professor of English and a former president of the Working-Class Studies Association. She recently won the University of North Carolina Board of Governors Award for Teaching Excellence.

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Working-Class People Hold Society Together: Class and COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted class inequalities. Commentators in the US, UK, and Australia are acknowledging that working-class people are more likely to suffer as a result of both the virus and the measures put in place to contain its spread.

Workers face increased risk of exposure to the virus because many have no choice but to be in regular face-to-face contact with people who might be infected. Workers in hospitals are at especially high risk, and while the majority of doctors might be middle class, most nurses, care assistants, cleaners, porters, and the people preparing and serving meals are working class. These front-line workers simply can’t stay at home.

Working-class people also have more difficulty accessing health care. In the US, working-class people often lack access to adequate health care, and they might not be able to afford treatment if they can get it. In the US, working-class people are also less likely to have sick pay and may have no choice but to go into work when sick. Existing health disparities put people of colour in the US at far greater risk of serious illness if they contract COVID-19. The UK and Australia have universal health care systems, but there are still discrepancies in access to treatment. In the UK, for example, Tory austerity measures have severely diminished the capacity of the National Health Service (NHS), so the system that cannot cope with the influx of infected patients despite the efforts of NHS workers. And racial disparities exist in these countries, too. Indigenous Australians are also at greater risk from the virus due to the racial gap in health outcomes.

Testing also reflects class inequities. While many working-class people don’t have access to tests, more elite members of society have had no trouble at all in getting tested and receiving immediate treatment. Prince Charles was infected and isolated himself at the royal family’s private estate in Scotland. No doubt he had excellent medical care available. In Australia the health system is less overloaded, but celebrities there have had no trouble getting tested even as others have had requests turned down.

Class differences also make for different experiences of quarantine, social isolation, and the recommended hygiene routines such as hand washing. Middle-class people are more likely to be able to work at home. Most have good internet access and space for at-home leisure activities such as home-gyms or gardens to escape to. Quarantine looks very different for people living in households with little physical space, and many cannot afford or don’t have access to the internet. The shift to online learning for school and tertiary students has really exposed the digital divide. And the guidelines on handwashing can only be met if people have access to clean running water and soap.

Add to all of this the millions of working-class people who have lost their jobs due to new restrictions on “non-essential” busineses. In Australia, the government announced that all bars and night clubs would close, and restaurants and cafes could only serve take out. Overnight, thousands were unemployed. More people were stood down by retail outlets, the travel industry (such as airlines), and other businesses no longer able to operate due to the restrictions or the sudden and unsustainable drop in trade. This sent thousands of people to Centrelink (the Australian social security offices) to apply for unemployment benefit. The system has been unable to cope with the mass applications, and people have been left without any income. The Australian government’s response in the form of a wage subsidy will help some, but not all, of the laid-off workers.

For working-class people, these inequalities come as no surprise. People on low incomes know only too well how easy it is to be down to their last dollar and understand the implications of precarity. Class divisions are only a surprise to people who have never struggled financially or experienced class discrimination.

At the same time, the crisis has shown that working-class people matter. As others have pointed out, society is learning to appreciate workers whose essential labour is usually taken for granted and ignored. Now the middle classes are realising that retail and delivery workers, cleaners, sanitation, and utility and transport workers are the ones who keep society ticking along. Without these workers everything falls apart. Can the same be said for some middle-class professionals?

The pandemic crisis has also shown how important is it for workers to be organised. Unions have played a big part in pressuring governments and industries to look after workers. In Australia, the union movement has been instrumental in arguing for a wage subsidy and pushing the government to extend them to all workers. Unions have also been lobbying big employers and industries to secure extra sick pay, to ensure that workers on casual contracts also have access to sick pay and carers leave, and to demand that  casual contracts be honoured even if workers are currently unable to work. In other places, workers have been calling wildcat strikes to demand safer working conditions or even for the shut-down of their workplaces.

We don’t know what the long-term effects of this pandemic will be, but it’s already clear that working-class people are essential for the running of our societies. The crisis is also showing more middle-class people how class works to create and reinforce inequalities, and it’s revealing the failures of the free market and neoliberalism. Whether this will lead to a change in the way economies are organised remains to be seen, of course. If nothing else, I hope this new recognition of the importance of working-class people will shift attitudes permanently.

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

 

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Class, Capitalism, and Coronovirus at Disney’s Newest Attraction

Last week the Coronavirus forced Disney to announce that its American parks are now closed indefinitely, resulting in the longest interruptions of any kind since they opened in 1955 (Disneyland) and 1965 (Walt Disney World). Disney has been on my mind because I made my first ever visit to Walt Disney World in Orlando on January 25th of this year, just as the first COVID 19 cases were being identified in the US.

Robot repair shop at Galaxy’s Edge

A Disney skeptic, I had agreed to visit Disney World with my extended family because of my sister’s love of all thing Star Wars. She wanted us to be among the first to experience the Rise of the Resistance, an extraordinary new ride that was built into Galaxy’s Edge, an immersive Star Wars world that has been open for less than a year. The Rise of the Resistance lived up to the hype, giving us a theatrical and participatory experience that positioned us as rebel fighters on a mission against the Nazi inspired First Order.

I returned from Disney World not quite a convert, but I was bowled over by the capital, the artistry, and the immense amount of labor and creativity that went into the making of Galaxy’s Edge. I also learned some lessons at Galaxy’s Edge that I think have some bearing on the Coronavirus pandemic we are experiencing.

Lesson #1: Fantasy requires reality. In this case, strangely, it’s a global working-class reality. Galaxy’s Edge is set in the fictional town of Black Spire Outpost on the planet Batuu, a once-upon-a-time trading hot spot that has been reduced to a post-industrial town for smugglers, grifters, and rebels. It’s the rust belt of the future. Big metal doors lead to nowhere and bits of abandoned industrial architecture are rendered in exquisite detail. There are piles of old metal suitcases, walls cracked to reveal a cache of ancient pottery, wire lockers containing old Rebel fighter uniforms, and an abandoned filling and repair station for defunct planetary jalopies.

The architecture of Black Spire Outpost is also deeply influenced by Middle Eastern cities, including Istanbul, Marrakesh, and Jerusalem. Erik Tiemens, a concept designer for Lucas Films, visited these cities “personally shooting nearly 3,000 reference photos to help inspire those earliest iterations.” Using these photos, the Disney Imagineers reproduced the effect of Middle Eastern marketplaces and densely packed housing. Electric wires and punk/grunge industrial grids are layered with lacy metallic Morrocan lamps, exposed brick, dwelling balconies, holes from laser gun battles, and tracks worn by grist mills.

Black Spire Outpost is a place for roustabouts, migrant workers, and political renegades. It’s an ironic setting, because Disney World is very expensive, now more than ever, and all the Disney goers I see around me are privileged. But Black Spire Outpost is a gritty, working-class town. And it’s beautiful. And it’s inspired by ancient, storied, cities that exist in the real world. And it’s fake. And it’s real.

Lesson #2: It takes a great deal of labor and capital to make Disney Magic. Walt Disney World alone employs more than 70,000 workers, though the company insists on calling them “cast members.” In 2018, they negotiated a series of pay increases that will establish a minimum wage of $15.00 per hour for everyone in the park. That’s a good start, but workers remain a long way from sharing in Disney’s huge profits. In 2019 the corporation netted more than 11 billion dollars.

Galaxy’s Edge took six years to complete and the labor of scores of designers and artists, musicians (John Williams composed new music for it), game designers and architects. It took 50 contractors and 5,500 construction workers to build the version in Orlando. Workers were sworn to secrecy, and there were “no leaks,” according to Disney, because the workers felt a ownership over the project. Like the great cathedrals and previous wonders of the world, Galaxy’s Edge is a massive works project.

It is estimated that the Taj Mahal would cost 100 million in today’s dollars, the Colosseum 435 million, and the Giza Pyramids 1.2 billion dollars. At a cost of 1 billion dollars per Disney park, Galaxy’s Edge is one of the most expensive, prodigious, three-dimensional, sense-transforming, creative and labor-intensive human achievements of the 21st century—and maybe in the history of the world. Galaxy’s Edge may well be our culture’s Giza Pyramids.

Lesson #3: We can do anything we want. Last week’s stimulus bill authorizes 2.2 trillion in spending. What will be the legacy of this spending? As long as we’re printing money, can’t we print money for Medicare for All? For the Green New Deal? For free college for everyone? For more Coronavirus tests? For 100,000 ventilators? For 500 billion hospital masks? What will be our nation’s Galaxy’s Edge?

As America has awakened to the reality of the pandemic some have argued that our only focus should be on fighting the disease, flattening the curve, and putting politics aside. With last week’s stimulus bill the GOP has been transferring wealth upwards to billionaires and large corporations, despite the bill’s bipartisan nature and some provisions that send stimulus checks to many Americans, boost unemployment funds and give money for hospital support.

In contrast to these approaches, Naomi Klein, Bernie Sanders, and others are arguing for a different approach: use the crisis to secure basic human rights that will make withstanding the next pandemic, and the crisis of climate change, possible. My trip to Galaxy’s Edge taught me that we can do anything we want if we put our trillions to it.

Surely if we can build the modern day pyramids we can fight the Coronavirus. Now all we have to do is join the resistance!

Kathy M. Newman, Carnegie Mellon University

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The Class System of Higher Ed Goes Online

Most American colleges and universities moved courses online over the last week. That shift highlights the class disparities of higher education. For example, at Georgetown, by the time the University President announced that classes were moving online, more than 30 full-time staff members from the teaching center and the center for classroom technology had prepared webinars, guides to using various technologies, and a full schedule of office hours and workshops to make the transition as smooth as possible. At Youngstown State University, the poorly-funded working-class institution where I used to teach, the  Institute for Teaching and Learning made similar preparations but with a staff of just five people. Their website includes a well-designed FAQ emphasizing both online pedagogy and equity, clearly recognizing that internet and even computer access may be difficult for the many working-class students enrolled. On the upside, unlike Georgetown, YSU extended spring break to give faculty, staff, and students an extra week to prepare.

It’s no surprise that an elite private university would have more resources than a chronically underfunded working-class state university. What’s troubling is how clearly that disparity does not align with the needs of either faculty or students. At Georgetown, full-time faculty typically teach two sections a semester (the story is different for part-time adjuncts, but I’ll get to that in a minute). Class also provides advantages for most Georgetown students (again, with important exceptions), who have benefited from private high school preparation, individual tutoring, and family lives designed to give them as much cultural capital as possible. High quality teaching won’t make as big a difference for them as it would for most of the students who attend working-class institutions, where faculty teach more courses and more students and have less access to support for teaching. At YSU, my colleagues and students succeed largely because of dedication – something that most have in abundance – but moving education online is a heavier lift and a greater risk for them.

Higher ed’s online shift has particular implications for the least privileged faculty. Many part-time faculty – the working-class labor pool of higher education — teach five or more sections, commuting between at least two different schools. Even where adjuncts are unionized, as most in the DC area are, this situation demands significant extra labor for which they are not being compensated. That this hits during the hiring season, when some have been preparing for campus interviews for full-time positions or are looking for new part-time gigs, just adds to the stress.

Many are also anxious about the move to online teaching means could reshape education after this crisis. Will more schools or students embrace distance learning? If so, what will that mean for faculty? Multiple professional organizations certify online courses and programs, and many review courses or provide certification for faculty. Will those standards be jettisoned if enough students succeed during this massive move to online learning? Faculty also worry about their ownership of the materials they’re creating. Guidelines from the National Education Association and the American Association of University Professors insist that faculty own their work, schools don’t necessarily follow those guidelines. The Grievance Chair of YSU’s faculty union, Gabriel Palmer-Fernandez, tells me that the Board of Directors there wants to retain the policy they insisted on when the University began developing online courses: that materials faculty create for online courses belong to the University, not to them. The advice of Rebecca Barrett-Fox seems especially apt in this situation: faculty should do a bad job of moving our courses online. Indeed, whether we do so deliberately or not, I think it’s just as likely that this year’s mass move to distance ed will demonstrate that faculty can’t do our work nearly as well online as we can in person.

But that doesn’t make us any less anxious, a response that cuts across categories of employment. When my department held a meeting on Zoom last week, my colleagues’ anxiety and uncertainty was clear even from a distance. This may be one area where working at a less prestigious institution could help, because state universities are more likely to be unionized. While a faculty union wouldn’t solve everything, and its powers are sometimes frustratingly limited, unions do provide support. I found myself thinking fondly this week about the YSU faculty union listserv, which provides a ready forum for faculty conversations across departments. As one professor there told me, sharing concerns has reduced his anxiety, and the listserv has helped faculty identify shared problems. Further, the union has a policy and a committee to manage faculty grievances, so they have a process for responding to problems.

Of course, students are wrestling with their own anxieties, and while some tensions affect students from all classes, the challenges are particularly significant for working-class students. Georgetown has kicked most students out of the dorms, requiring them to figure out how to get back to DC to get their things, even as public health experts encourage us all not to travel. For working-class, international, and LGBTQ students, closing the dorms doesn’t just present a problem of managing their belongings. It can leave them homeless. Some can’t afford to go home, some come from countries that have closed borders, and some – especially LGBTQ students — can’t go home because their families have rejected them. Imagine having to deal with that AND figure out how to navigate online classes at the same time. While some appreciate the structure and connections they’re getting by returning to class, others are too stressed out to deal with that.

This may be one advantage of attending a local or regional campus: if you get kicked out of your dorm, it’s easier to go home. On the other hand, home might not have the computer or technical resources you need to attend class online. Home might also be overcrowded and noisy, especially if other family members, including children, are at home with you. Add to that the stress of losing the job that pays your rent, buys your food, covers your tuition, and gives you whatever limited funds you have to pay for health care. Many of the students I taught at YSU worked in food service and retail, fields where workers are especially vulnerable right now. Higher education has never been a fully comfortable place for working-class students, and the current situation makes it even more challenging.

The midst of a crisis might not be the best time to restructure higher education, but I hope we will learn a few lessons from all of this. The first is about the value of human connection, between faculty and students and among faculty. The most hopeful responses I’ve seen to this crisis have been messages of support and solidarity — among faculty and between faculty, staff, and students. From multiple “Pandemic Pedagogy” forums on Facebook to the collective community effort at Georgetown to find housing for students who’ve been evicted from the dorms to the choice most of my students made to continue working in collaborative teams, I see people trying to help each other. I also see plenty of critique of how higher ed works, from complaints about how quickly we’re having to revise our courses to concerns about how this affects faculty evaluations and promotions to how we’re supporting faculty, staff, and students with disabilities and much more. Perhaps solidarity and critique will come together and we will find opportunities and inspiration to push for changes to make higher education more equitable — even if we have to do that at a distance.

Sherry Linkon, Georgetown University

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Class and the Challenge of COVID-19

COVID-19, the coronavirus that is spreading across the world, is wreaking havoc on working people and their families.  Weeks after it burst onto the world scene, the end of this deadly threat is still not in sight.  Although it is clear that its death toll will not begin to approximate that of the lethal 1918-19 worldwide Spanish Influenza epidemic, early indications are that COVID-19 could end up inflicting even more economic and political damage than that earlier pandemic.  Its impact is likely to reveal with deeper clarity than we have seen in a long time the class lines that divide our society and the true costs of decades of deepening inequality.

There is no escaping the class dimension of the COVID-19 outbreak, for working people are most likely to be affected by both the virus and efforts to contain its spread.  The way they earn their livings necessarily exposes many workers to the risk of contracting the disease.  Some—such as nurses and homecare workers—put themselves at risk on the front lines caring for those who are ill. More than one-third of the 180 workers Life Care Center of Kirkland, Washington, the Seattle-area nursing home where 13 patients died of COVID-19, appear to have contracted the virus.  Other workers—including flight attendants, teachers, and food service workers—work in highly interactive settings where the virus could easily be contracted and transmitted.  If they do contract the virus, working-class people are more likely to die from it because they disproportionately experience one of the underlying medical conditions that makes COVID-19 much deadlier than the flu: heart disease, diabetes, and lung disease.   Moreover, if they feel ill, U.S. workers are more likely to delay seeing a doctor either because they lack health insurance or have high co-pays that discourage them from getting treatment.

Efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 also have a class dimension.  As the Chinese and Italians found, workplaces provide natural nodes of virus transmission.  In order to restrain the spread of COVID-19, the Chinese government adopted strict quarantine measures that prevented nearly 300 million migrant workers from returning to their jobs after Chinese New Year celebrations, shuttering that nation’s manufacturing economy for three weeks.  Italy did the same.  Fiat-Chrysler closed its Italian plants as the virus spread.  Manufacturing and service workers worldwide cannot “telework” as many white collar or professional workers worldwide are now beginning to do.  Hourly workers are far more likely to lose income than salaried workers during the coming weeks of “social distancing.”  The relief bill enacted by the House on March 14 guarantees sick leave to only 20 percent of American workers according to the New York Times.  Those still vulnerable include independent contractors or gig workers.  As San Francisco Uber and Lyft driver Steve Gregg explains, he is “not in a position” to stop driving despite suffering mild panic attacks over his fear of infection.  He must work to support his family.  Too many workers like Gregg are still in the position where they must decide between personal financial ruin and accelerating the spread of a deadly pandemic.

In their classic 1929 study Middletown, Helen and Robert Lynd observed that the class lines separating working-class from middle-class neighborhoods in 1920s Muncie, Indiana, were most visible before dawn: working-class homes were first to switch on their lights as their occupants rose to face the workday ahead, which started earlier than the 9 to 5 days of the “business class.”  In the weeks ahead, the class lines that divide today’s America might become most visible around who must still venture out to work and who can work from the safety of home.

Yet crises can also be opportunities.  For forty years, Americans have been subjected to the drumbeat of libertarian market fundamentalism, the endlessly repeated allegation that government action could only worsen problems.  “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help,” Ronald Reagan famously joked in 1986.  Who’s laughing at that line now?

Crises like the current one have a way of exposing the bad faith of unclad emperors and their minions.  If the impacts of just wars, depressions, and epidemics tend to be differentiated along class lines, they also give the lie to ideologies rooted in atavistic individualism.  While they demand expertise and intelligent leadership, crises of this kind cannot be resolved by “dear leaders” who issue dictates.  Both their courses and their consequences transcend the individual; they demand mass mobilization and collective action on behalf of the common good.

Although we have not chosen this moment, it is within our power to decide how to meet it.  We could deepen divisions and set off on the fool’s errand of building a “Fortress America,” as our wall-obsessed president urges by cynically labeling the contagion a “foreign virus.”  Or we could use it as an opportunity to build community, forge solidarity, revive internationalism, and renovate the crumbling edifice of democracy.

Working-class culture and workers’ movements have long carried within their DNA the antidote to what now threatens us.  The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us of the timeless truth of the principle once popularized by the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor, the largest workers’ organization in nineteenth-century America: An injury to one must be the concern of all.  If we embrace that time-honored ideal, not only can we reduce the potential lethality of COVID-19, we can begin to build a world more resistant to future plagues.

Joseph A. McCartin

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

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A Punishment with No End: The Journey of a Working-Class Criminal into Academia

We call ourselves the flower pot kids after the floral themed street names the local council assigned in a vain if well-meaning attempt to brighten up an otherwise dreary area. The council-owned social housing consisted of tattered prefabricated buildings from the very early post-war period in the UK. I recently found myself with some other flower pot kids reminiscing about days gone by and the fates of our peers. We also considered the progress that we had made in life despite our disadvantages. One of my friends looked at me and said, “You’ve not done too bad for yourself, Ed. You’ve done yourself proud”.  In many ways he is right, but it has come at a cost.

I grew up in a working-class town in Essex in the early 1980s where money was tight. I felt the stress and strain my parents were under, a shared experience among my friends and neighbours. But I was good at sport, especially cricket, and that won me a place at a grammar school in a neighbouring borough. But I was under no illusions why I was there. While my parents and I wanted me to be there, it put all of us under immense stress and strain — hidden injuries of class. The school was full of what I saw as affluent kids, and the pressure to compete and keep up materially was unbearable. When we couldn’t, that’s was when the othering came in to play. I was the outsider and constantly reminded of it.

So from a young age I wanted to escape the working-class world that I had grown up in. My route out was crime — drugs, violence, and all the other unpleasantness that followed. I was sentenced to 16 years in prison. Fear motivated my desire for education — the fear that unless I did something to improve my prospects, I would face a lifetime of crime and prison. Education helped me discover my passion , through a degree in Criminology and Psychology, followed by a master’s degree – all while incarcerated. I’m now a full-time PhD student on a scholarship and an Assistant Lecturer.

However, it was and still is a different fear that threatened my rehabilitation and my career in education: the fear others have of me. As a criminal man from a working-class background, I am a walking manifestation of the entanglement of welfare, crime, class, and society. The problem may be societal, but it casts a stain on my character and my being. The othering that I experienced in my youth because of my class background is replicated in adulthood as a working-class ex-prisoner/offender.

My working-class peers, whether fellow prisoners or prison officers, were unsupportive of my educational aspirations whilst I was in prison. Prison officers feared that I would use my newfound knowledge to somehow ‘game the system’ for my benefit. More punitive staff members resented me attending university, believing that someone in prison shouldn’t be allowed the ‘luxury’ of an education. A governor spoke of how some staff resented my opportunity because they were stuck in a dead-end civil service job until their pensions. I was being allowed to go from prison, where I should be punished, to university and then into secure employment with significantly better wage than they earned. Perhaps naively, I genuinely thought that people would support my progression and success, but instead I was feared and resented.

Both in prison and after, my criminal peers and childhood friends often question my identity, suggesting I’m not being true to myself or my people. I’m still the man who shares values, memories, experiences, and culture with those very people, but they see me as the working-class kid from Essex masquerading as someone he is not, someone from a different class and too good for them these days! This couldn’t be any further from the truth, but the scornful comments sting.

When I left prison, I hoped that this would all be a thing of the past, yet the stigma of both my criminal past and my class follows me into my new workplace. I again find myself dehumanised, seen as a ‘risk’ that needs to be managed and controlled by people with no commensurate knowledge or background in offender risk management.. I have to justify that I am no threat to staff or students or the reputation of my employers. My University has risk assessed me, fearing a backlash in the tabloid press if parents hear that their children are being taught by an ex-offender. This is  despite the prison service, probation, and numerous police assessments over the years that judged me as not presenting a threat. This didn’t stop the University from placing restrictions on my teaching duties.

But there is something else going on, and that is about class. I feel have to justify my existence, my behaviours and actions in the workplace.  I can’t participate in work activities the way I would like to. I can’t assert myself or speak in a tone that feels appropriate for the situation for fear that my past may influence people’s perceptions of me. I have to present a ‘dumbed down’ version of myself, a shadow. I live under the microscope every day, a victim of my past.  The same othered kid from the working-class background as a child has evolved into the othered man in adulthood.

What I cannot help but feel is the ‘violence of class’. The othering that has dogged my entire life due to my class has acted as the catalyst for both the good but more profoundly the bad that I have perpetrated and experienced in my life. Class has underpinned my criminality and its injurious nature complicates my progression from that identity in the present day. Justice was served when I was sentenced to imprisonment, yet injustice punctuates my life since my release.

Ed Schreeche-Powell, University of Kent

Ed Schreeche-Powell is a PhD candidate and Assistant Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Kent. His MA thesis in Criminology examined ‘Peer Support and Well-Being: Exploring the Impact of Peer-Led Induction on Male Prisoners,’ and he recently contributed an auto-ethnographic chapter to the book ‘Degrees of Freedom’ (Policy Press) regarding the experience of distance learning in custodial settings and the interaction with the offender identity. 

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Class Anxiety: Parasite and Joker

A couple of weeks after the South Korean film Parasite won both Best Foreign Film and Best Picture, Donald Trump went on what the Washington Post called a “nationalistic cultural” rant about the film’s awards. He was upset that a movie made in Asia, in Korean, was named the best film in the U.S. The Democratic National Committee responded by pointing out that Parasite revealed “how oblivious the ultrarich are about the struggles of the working class,” a jab at Trump’s supposed populism. The DNC also noted that watching it would have required Trump to read subtitles for two hours, a point the film’s distributor echoed, tweeting that this was understandable because the President “can’t read.”

Trump’s response might have been intended to encourage xenophobia among his base, but it also reflects an important theme of Parasite that most reviews have ignored: elite anxiety about the working class. That anxiety has surfaced in the many studies and reports over the last decade that have tried to make sense of the seemingly exotic, incomprehensible working class of middle America.

Scholars and journalists have spent time in working-class communities, interviewed hundreds of working-class people, and reviewed studies by experts about how economics, politics, and social patterns influence each other. They’ve produced dozens of books and articles, and readers have embraced these works, searching for some explanation of a culture that seems to be gaining power. Writers and readers alike genuinely want to understand the working class, whose life experiences and worldviews seem so foreign.

Of course, the questions we ask don’t just shape what we choose to investigate or read. They also reflect our perspectives. Along with their curiosity, many in the elite also view working-class people with contempt and even fear. They worry about the political and social changes that seem to be rooted in working-class resentment. Brexit threatens the British economy, and Trumpism seems to be destroying American democracy. White supremacists have killed more than two dozen people, most of them Black or Latinx, in shootings in malls or houses of worship. Where did all this working-class resentment come from?

Both Parasite and Joker, another award-winning 2019 film, reflect those anxieties. Joker shows how a lifetime of abuse and disdain transforms a vulnerable working-class boy into a gleeful incarnation of evil whose followers take to the streets, setting fires and rioting in clown masks. In Parasite, a working-class family’s initially amusing insinuation into a wealthy family’s household takes a turn to violence.

Reviews of the two films have been decidedly different. Some critics were put off by Joker’s gratuitous violence, while others dismissed it as no more than “pernicious garbage,” a “miserabilist manifesto,” or a “descent into madness.”  Fans posting on sites like IMDb found the film more appealing. One described Joker as a film about how “an average man” beset by “mockery, bullying, neglect” and “daily life pressures” can go mad. In contrast, reviewers described the multiple Oscar-winning Parasite as a “class warfare thriller,” driven by a screenplay that is “doggedly on-point in its themes of class resentment and economic warfare.” While Parasite takes on class more overtly, both films reflect the recent interest in – and anxiety about – working-class resentment.

In different ways and to different extents, both reveal how economic inequality translates into cultural conflict. In Joker, Arthur Fleck’s madness is fueled by cuts to the public health system, so he can no longer afford the medications that keep his mental health problems in check, but also by the contempt of mainstream society, represented by a late-night TV show host who makes Arthur’s truly awful attempt at stand-up comedy the butt of repeated jokes. At first, Arthur is excited by the attention from someone he idolizes, but by the time he appears on the TV show and admits to having committed an infamous murder, he fully understands that he is the object of disdain. The wealthy Thomas Wayne expresses that contempt explicitly earlier in the film: “Those of us who have made something of our lives will look at those that haven’t as nothing but clowns.”

Parasite offers its own view into the struggles of working-class daily life, without the overlay of mental illness. Early scenes show how the Kim family scrapes by in their sub-basement apartment on low-wage piece-work, reduced to crouching next to the toilet to access public Wi-Fi. Their elite businessman boss insists that workers remain respectful and avoid “crossing the line,” and he complains that the workers smell like “old radishes.” But while his disdain may be less nasty than Thomas Wayne’s, both films make clear that the elite have no idea what workers’ lives are like. Instead, they view the working class as inferior, unpleasant, and problematic.

While these films make a point of showing us the world through working-class eyes, they also highlight elite anxiety about class. The clown agency where Arthur Fleck works seems innocent enough early in Joker, but after he kills three stock brokers on the subway, that mask takes on a more sinister meaning. Once masked, workers all look alike – a move that makes tangible the lack of attention to differences or individuality in the way employers often view the workforce. Workers’ seemingly happy faces and the apparent acceptance of demeaning working conditions and low wages mask their anger and resentment. They wear masks that, as Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote over a century ago in his powerful poem about how African Americans navigate white society, “grin and lie.” As professional middle-class readers encounter working-class individuals in books like Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Tightrope or Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland, they are probably becoming ever more aware of how much struggle and anger lies behind the masks that workers put on.

Bosses may view workers with contempt, but as Parasite suggests, the working class is much savvier about their bosses than the bosses are about them. The workers understand that it’s easy for rich people to be nice, because “money works like an iron, smoothing out the creases of life.” The bosses, however, are completely taken in by the working-class family’s performances of expertise and experience. The wealthy couple complain about their newly-hired chauffeur’s body odor, but they don’t question his credentials. And, of course, they have never noticed the guy secretly living in their basement.

These films reassure elite viewers that working-class people are likely to take their anger out on each other, often before they take aim at those who look down on them from above. Both films feature violence among workers. Early in Joker, Arthur is beaten up by a group of Black teenagers, young men who probably share his class position. His first act of violence is shooting the wealthy jerks on the subway, but he also murders two of his co-workers, men who have failed to demonstrate anything like class solidarity. For all of Parasite’s attention to class conflict, it major conflict is among workers, pitting the first housekeeper and her husband against the family of interlopers. After a very brief gesture toward solidarity, as the two families trade pleas for mercy and understanding, their interactions turn violent. They battle for the limited power they can grasp in a house where neither truly reigns. Their conflict continues until one finally realizes that his real enemy is the head of the wealthy family.

In a period marked by economic inequality and social divides, these films show both sides of the class war. By presenting working-class characters whose experiences seem extreme, either because of mental health or abject poverty, they invite viewers to empathize but perhaps not identify with the working class. By highlighting elite contempt for the working class, they reinforce F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lesson that the rich are different from you and me. But they also make visible the anxieties that not only the very wealthy but many in the professional middle class feel about the working class – a group whose experiences and views seem not only foreign but also potentially dangerous.

Sherry Linkon and John Russo, Georgetown University

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Precarity Goes to the Movies

Two recent events, vastly different in scale and importance, nonetheless point to the importance of the concept of the precariat, a relatively new coinage for the class of exploited, underemployed and temp workers of the world. The Oscars’ celebration of the South Korean film Parasite foregrounded what even mainstream critics in the New York Times and the Washington Post called a “class war” between the comfortable rich in glossy mansions and the precariat, a miserable underclass who live in Seoul’s gross banjiha or semi-basements.

The other event, the pandemic of the latest coronavirus COVID-19 that, among other horrors, curtailed the yearly—and only–vacation of hundreds of millions of Chinese migratory workers, who would normally travel home to the countryside from the industrial mega-cities in which they are similarly stuffed in overcrowded living conditions in dormitories and squalid apartments.

All over the world these workers of the precariat face remarkably similar working conditions, although they labor under many different titles: zero-hour contracts (United Kingdom), casual employment (Australia), low-hour contracts (Ireland), mini-jobs (Germany), subcontracted labor (India), non-hukuo migration (China), and McJobs or the gig economy (United States). We can hardly pretend that these workers are invisible: they are “illegal immigrants,” fast-food workers, Uber and Lyft drivers, retail clerks, day laborers, landscape workers, migrant workers, child laborers, farm laborers, seasonal workers, house cleaners, nannies, domestic workers, hotel and motel workers, carwasheros, tech workers, adjunct professors, convict labor, recycling scavengers, and so-called “guest workers.”

The precariat are everywhere, a vast global workforce defined by their transitory and tenuous relationship with employers emboldened by declining union membership numbers and the cost-saving outsourcing of labor by corporations and government entities alike. Guy Standing, former director of the Socio-Economic Program of the United Nations International Labour Organization and the leading chronicler of the precariat, examines how their lives are marked by the lack of health and safety regulations, job training, and stable income. As he argues in his 2011 book, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, the precariat has replaced the traditional proletariat with “a new mass class … characterized by chronic uncertainly and insecurity.” They “consist of millions of people relegated to bits and pieces living, in and out of casual flexible jobs, unable to build an occupational identity.” They are “wanted by the global market system” but are not simply a lumpenproletriat or underclass. They are even more vulnerable because they have no collective voice in their workplace and no short- or long-term job protection.

In the last twenty years, I have studied how the precariat are presented in both feature and documentary films. Using a broad definition of cinema, I have explored not only the traditional genres of labor documentaries and working-class feature films, but also other genres especially relevant to precarious work, such as epidemic cinema and films of catastrophe, as well as other forms of artistic expression, such as video games and films made for art installations and political protests by non-traditional filmmakers. I analyze 300 of these texts in my new book, The Cinema of the Precariat: The Exploited, Underemployed, and Temp Workers of the World (Bloomsbury).

When we consider the visual exploration of filmmakers of radically different backgrounds and intentions, we realize that the precariat has not been so invisible after all. Many of us know, for example, the classic television documentary, Harvest of Shame, Edward R. Murrow’s pioneering televised exposé of the migrant workers’ plight in 1960. That program launched an extended series of television documentaries, from 1960 through the 1990s, that I see as the first series of films about the precariat, though the term had not yet been coined. These films included white, African-American, and Latino migrant workers and farm laborers. At least six major programs, from What Harvest for the Reaper? (1968) through Children of the Harvest (1998), used Murrow’s model of investigative journalism to expose the scandalous conditions of this substantial arm of the precariat and their devastating effect on their families.

The closing years of the twentieth century engendered another kind of massive migration in China and other developing countries, as workers both from within and without urban centers tried to survive austerity programs that eliminated economic safety nets. Between 1970 to 2009, as many as 340 million rural workers were crowded into edge cities and satellite factory towns, working upwards of sixteen hours a day for low pay to generate the Chinese economic miracle of economic growth. Numerous films have chronicled these exploited migratory workers. Lixin Fan’s Last Train Home (2009), for example, follows a single family on a visit home after working for fifteen years in a garment factory in Guangdong Province only to return to find their factory shuttered because of the 2008 world financial crisis.

Other films document how desperate workers in South American countries had no choice but to move into shanty towns among massive garbage dumps to recycle plastics dumped in ever-increasing mounds of trash. For example, Recycled Life (2006) reveals a forty-acre ravine called the Guatemala City Dump, possibly the largest in the world, where hundreds of scavengers, the guajeros (from guaje or “a thing of little value”) recycle millions of pounds of paper, plastic, and metal. In White Train (1993), we see hundreds of cartoneras (the recyclers, literally “the cardboard people”) gleaning the trash of Buenos Aires and transporting their finds on unmarked special trains to the recycling centers.

Films about the recycling of discarded plastics and metals from electronic equipment in China and Southeast Asia and ship-breaking in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh reveal the dangerous and life-threatening tasks the precariat engage in a desperate race to the bottom. Plastic China (2017) focuses on one of five thousand small home factories in the province of Shandong where plastic garbage is transformed into recyclable pellets. On a different and massive scale, workers swarm over discarded ships in select “shipbreaking” ports in the Indian subcontinent, as in Graveyard for Giants (2014). We see Bangladeshi workers suspended hundreds of feet in the air, blowtorching pieces of an old freighter: “Is this a way to live?” one asks the filmmaker.

Looking beyond films that explicitly consider precarious labor, I think we also gain insight on the precariat through film genres and video games that are not so obviously focused on working-class topics. Epidemic cinema has located the spread of diseases among the precariat at least since the 1950s when Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (1950) dramatized an outbreak of plague among the precariat and the lumpenproletariat in New Orleans. Much more recently politically-conscious video game makers have been influenced by traditional filmmakers to offer games in which players have to identify with the precariat to survive or “win.” In the videogame Fort McMoney (2013), modeled on the fracking boom-town Ft. McMurray, Canada, players “walk” around the town, interview workers, and participate in decisions about the city’s future.

The title—and subject matter–of Parasite suggests, like epidemic cinema, that the precariat is a threat to the oligarchy of the 1%, epitomizing the class divide that leaves the 99% struggling for decent pay, health benefits, and job security. The Cinema of the Precariat also devotes separate chapters to the films that demonstrate the 1%’s capitalist drive for profits and economic dominance and that chronicle the rise of alt-labor and the drive to organize the unorganized of the 99%.

While films about the precariat are not new, filmmakers have begun to show the need for new films that will, like Murrow’s Harvest of Shame, make the precariat visible in the 21st century. It seems fitting that the documentary Food Chains (2014) returns to Immokalee, Florida, where Murrow began sixty years ago, to document new organizing drives among migrant labor and to take up the fight for workers’ rights again.

Tom Zaniello

Tom Zaniello is a film and media scholar who has written several books on films about work and class, including Working Stiffs, Union Maids, Reds, and RiffraffThe Cinema of Globalizationand The Cinema of the Precariat

 

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How Polarized Are We?

When I talk with relatives who are not only Trump voters but Trump enthusiasts, I feel pretty damned polarized – especially when I lose my temper and find myself saying some of the things my tribe often hatefully says about theirs.  But as long as we don’t talk about abortion or gun control and tippy-toe carefully around immigration, we share a lot of common ground on a wide range of economic justice issues.  This broad agreement is reflected in survey research that almost never gets reported in the mainstream media.

Worse, that media seems completely unaware of any common ground.

One night during the impeachment trial coverage on MSNBC, for example, as the talking heads were marveling at polling results that showed more than 70% of people supported Democrats’ demands for new evidence and witnesses, Brian Williams quipped that this was astounding in a country that can’t agree that today is Thursday and tomorrow will be Friday.

The polarization around Trump is real, both intellectually and emotionally, but there are a whole bunch of people – not just the Russians and Trump – who have vested interests in keeping us ignorant of how much we agree with each other on economic justice.  It is, in fact, not at all unusual for some 70% of Americans to agree on:

  • Reducing inequality by creating a 2% wealth tax (70%)
  • Reducing poverty by “ensuring that all families have access to basic living standards such as health care, food, and housing if their wages are too low.” (72%)
  • Creating good jobs by “investing $1 trillion in our nation’s infrastructure, including . . . expanded production of clean energy.” (78%)
  • Capping prices on prescription drugs (81%), and
  • Allowing “people who don’t get health insurance through their employer to buy health insurance from a public plan.” (81%)

Numerous other economic policies gain support in the 60-per cent range, including increases in the Earned Income Tax Credit (60%), the Child Care Tax Credit (65%), “food assistance benefits (62%),” and the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour (61%).  Even non-Hispanic whites without bachelor’s degrees —  the so-called white working class — support “higher taxes on the wealthy” (74%), “government provided health care” (83%), and “equal pay for men & women” (86%).

So why do our journalists not seem to know about these areas of broad agreement among us?  One answer might be that they, and especially cable news outlets, have a vested interest in reporting conflict rather than consensus.  Conflict “draws eyeballs,” after all.  Then, too, media owners don’t usually pressure journalists to focus more on tax fairness or on spending government money to intervene in failed markets.

Christopher Martin in No Longer Newsworthy: How the Mainstream Media Abandoned the Working Class has another, more complex but complementary, analysis.

Martin documents how media (mostly newspapers then) began changing business models in the 1970s, moving away from attracting a mass audience and toward focusing more strictly on an upscale, more affluent audience.  Media managers thought advertisers would pay more to reach this narrower audience, and they were right.  Martin then analyzes the impact this had on content.  One of his most telling examples involves transit strikes. For a mass audience prior to the ‘70s, stories focused on the strikers, their issues, and their struggles to get by. A decade or two later, when papers were trying to attract a more upscale audience, stories focused on commuters, their difficulties, and how they felt about the transit strikers.  Martin argues that as working-class readers no longer saw themselves, their lives, and their problems reflected in the media, a vacuum was created that was filled by Fox News and other conservative media, which targeted working-class whites.

Martin’s analysis is compelling, but he pays insufficient attention to how this narrow class focus affects educated middle-class professionals, both in media and in their chosen audience.  For one thing, it encourages the educated middle class to think they are much larger and more “normal” than they are.  They tend to believe that most people have college educations, when only about a third  do. They think poor people are a fairly small group who do not work, when 44% of those who work qualify as “low-wage” with median annual wages of $18,000. They also assume that most people have decent working conditions and reasonably fair bosses like they do, when working conditions have been deteriorating for the majority of workers for decades now (see The Big Squeeze and On the Clock).  Journalists might know these facts, but as Martin suggests, they are also aware that their audience does not know them and that it might overly complicate a story to include such details.

The result is that our mainstream media orchestrates a process that allows the educated middle class to talk among themselves, punctuated by commercials for luxury cars and household goods that are beyond the reach of most Americans.  Though other forces are at work as well, this media environment nurtures what Sherry Linkon and John Russo have called a “politics of resentment” focused primarily on elites – a class resentment that, for many whites, reflects anger that the elites “coddle” racial minorities and immigrants.

Despite the media’s investment in the idea of polarization, the 2020 Democratic candidates for president seem well aware that voters actually agree on many issues around economic justice, even those candidates who distance themselves from the Party’s left wing.  But they are campaigning in a media environment that takes its educated middle-classness so for granted that it highlights how inappropriate it is for the President to say “bullshit” in public while failing to note that that same President gave himself an $11 million tax cut.  Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are identified as “far left” in this environment not only because they insist on framing their arguments in terms of class conflict – even though the classes tend to be the 99% versus the 1% — but also because they are articulating a broadly popular message and set of policies that media professionals cannot imagine being popular among the narrow class audience they envision as much bigger than it is.

There is a huge potential for political unity around pursuing economic justice.  A different study with a large enough sample to break out differences among the white, black, and Hispanic working-classes (as defined by education) found a surprising unity among them on eight “economic populist” issues similar to those above.  But that same study found that college-educated folks of all colors had views that were pretty similar. That should encourage the Democratic Party to listen to its left wing, no matter who wins the nomination. Hopefully, Sanders and Warren can convince the media to pay attention to a political universe that is not nearly as polarized on issues of economic justice as it is on who does and does not say bullshit.

Jack Metzgar

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Is There a Working-Class Cable News Channel?

The country just began its long march through caucuses and primaries toward the presidential election in November. How will this political story spin out on the major cable news networks, and what will it look like to working-class viewers?

The stereotypical views of the three major cable news networks – CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC – are firmly lodged in America’s consciousness. The basic profile goes like this: Fox is on the right, MSNBC is its counterpart on the left, and CNN is somewhere in the middle, but left of center. This view ignores some important differences that have nothing to do with ideology, but we’ll get to that later.

By the same commonsense view, Fox News is the channel for the working class, while MSNBC and CNN both serve over-educated, pointy-headed, upscale, elite liberals. That assumption has been fueled by the relentless marketing efforts of Fox News and its political allies since it went on the air in 1996 under the direction of its owner, conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch, and its CEO, Republican operative Roger Ailes. For example, if you take the word of Sean Hannity, one of Fox News’s original evening hosts, he’s just a regular working-class guy from Long Island. As he told Politico in a 2017 interview, “The media has a bunch of overpaid, out of touch, lazy millionaires that have nothing but contempt for the people that do make this country great.” Then he added. “I am not one of those people.” Mind you, that’s coming from the top-rated primetime host of the top-rated cable news channel who makes $46 million a year, has homes in Long Island and Naples, Florida and $90 million in additional real estate purchased through shell corporations with government-backed loans.

So instead of listening to Hannity, let’s take a look closer at the characteristics of the cable network news audiences. For context, let’s add the news/information channels CNBC, Fox Business News, HLN, and the Weather Channel along with the big three.

There are two available, if imperfect, data that provide proxies for class: household income and education. Viewer median household income for all of the news and information channels except the Weather Channel falls within the $50,000 to $74,999 range, and the national median income — $63,179 in 2018 – falls within that range.

Most surprising, because it plays against the myth, is that there isn’t a big difference in the median household income of CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC viewers. Yes, more Fox News viewers (44.9 percent) are in the under $50K household income than CNN (40.9 percent) and MSNBC (39 percent), but given the stereotypes, you’d expect vast chasms between the channels’ viewing audiences in this regard. Even more interesting is that all three channels – MSNBC included – have a lower percentage of viewers with household incomes above $100K than the U.S. population as a whole. Nationally, 30.4 percent of the households earn more than $100K, but only 27.3 percent of CNN households, 24.1 percent of Fox News households, and 28.9 percent of MSNBC households earn that much. Although Fox News households do earn slightly less than CNN and MSNBC households, the bigger story is that all three networks attract fewer viewers with 6-figure incomes than the nation as a whole.

So what are those wealthier households watching? Fox Business News. Their audiences are the highest earning of all the news and information cable channels. The Weather Channel’s audience get the “blue-collar” title, with the median income of its viewers at just below $50,000 a year.

While education is a poor proxy for class, Fox News attracts fewer college graduates, so on that score it does fit the stereotype of being more working-class. Trump used education as a proxy on the campaign trail in 2016, noting that  “We won with highly educated. We won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated.” Like Trump, Fox wears its anti-intellectualism like a badge and wields it as a cultural wedge.

That said, the college graduation levels of audiences of all three of the major news networks are below that national average. By 2018, 34.99 percent of the U.S. population age 25 and older had a Bachelor’s degree or higher. The network that attracts the highest rate of viewers with college degrees is MSNBC, but only 34 percent of its audience has that much education. At the very least, the notion that MSNBC or CNN viewers are out-of-touch, over-educated elites does not ring true.

In fact, it’s not household income or education that best describe the difference in the audiences of the cable news networks. It’s race. MSNBC’s audience may not be super-rich or super-educated in comparison to the other major cable news channels or even the profile of the nation’s population, but its audience is the most diverse on cable television – not just the cable news networks, but any cable channel. In the most recent rankings, MSNBC was the top-watched cable network in prime time among African Americans, ahead of such channels as VH1, ESPN, and OWN. CNN ranked No. 8 in cable networks with the most African-American viewers. With Black viewers making up just 1 percent of its audience, Fox didn’t register in the top 10 rankings. Indeed, 94 percent of Fox News viewers are White. Only 3 percent are Hispanic and 2 percent are Asian.

The whiteness of Fox News’s audience is both a product of and a reinforcing feedback justification loop for its anti-immigration and white supremacist views. For example, after racist and anti-Semitic protests by neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, and counter-protests against them, President Trump commented that “you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.” That kind of talk is shocking anywhere on cable news, except on Fox, where white supremacy is the lingua franca. I could selected any number of examples, but here are two: in 2019, Fox host Tucker Carlson called white supremacy a “hoax” (after a mass shooting motivated by anger at immigrants in an El Paso Walmart that killed 22) and later claimed that immigration “makes our own country poorer and dirtier.” It’s that kind of false statement that makes clear that we can’t describe MSNBC as the lefty counterpart to Fox News. There’s nothing MSNBC does that is this radical or dishonest. MSNBC may have a clear political perspective, but it generally hews to journalism’s rules of truth-telling and verification.

More than household income and education, race animates Fox News. The network may have built its brand on class issues, but it’s class informed by race. Fox News isn’t interested in the entire working class. It’s the white working class Fox News is trying to reach with their political agenda for the 2020 presidential election.

We should, however, put the impact of this in perspective. On a typical day, Fox News’s Sean Hannity has 3.3 million viewers. Meanwhile, the original broadcast networks still run their mainstream evening news programs. Their audiences are much smaller than decades ago, but these programs still draw bigger audiences than cable. More than 22 million viewers watch the news daily on ABC, CBS, or NBC. The stories these networks present, and perhaps especially how they deal with a firehose stream of propaganda and misinformation coming from Fox and the president, will be a factor in the presidential race, too.

Christopher R. Martin

Christopher R. Martin is author of No Longer Newsworthy: How the Mainstream Media Abandoned the Working Class (Cornell University Press). He is professor of Digital Journalism at the University of Northern Iowa.

 

 

 

 

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