The Changing Working Class

In the old progressive narrative of American culture, everyone would do better over time. The son of a miner with an 8th grade education would graduate from high school, and even if he got an industrial job, stronger unions and general prosperity would mean that he worked fewer hours than his father and earned enough to buy a small house.  His daughter would go to college and get a job as a nurse or a teacher, and her kids might keep moving up by attending a better college and getting a better  job. And surrounding the generations of this one imaginary family would be most other families, so that over time, the whole country would experience increasing prosperity and higher social status.  Maybe everyone wasn’t going to make it to the middle class, but most people would get there.  (Of course, there’s a troubling counterpart to this narrative that blames those who didn’t become middle class for failing, but that’s another story.)

But something, actually many things, went wrong over the past few decades.  I’ve written before about the growth of income inequality, citing Timothy Noah’s analysis that describes it as a long-term trend with multiple contributing factors.  Perhaps because of income inequality, surveys suggest that Americans no longer expect their families to keep moving on up.  So despite the expectation that we would all become middle class, the working-class is not simply a majority, it is a growing majority.   That’s true according to the analyses of academics like Michael Zweig, who describes most Americans as working class on the basis of the limited power they have in the workplace. In the 2011 edition of his book America’s Working Class Majority, Zweig finds  that 63% of Americans are working class, up from 62% in the original 2000 book.  It’s also true in terms of how people identify themselves.  While the General Social Survey for decades has  shown that over 40% of Americans identify themselves as working class, the 2010 version of the survey, which the GSS reruns every few years, show that 46.8% now identify as working class, the highest percentage since the early 80s.

The working class is also changing.  The term used to call to mind blue-collar unionized workers with no college education, but today’s working class not only works in a wide range of jobs, but many have at least some college.  These days, many people with college degrees settle for jobs that don’t require the credential, and others whose jobs do require degrees have lost the professional autonomy that, according to Zweig, defines middle-class jobs.  Indeed, one of the reasons Zweig sees the working class growing is because so many teachers and nurses are now, on the basis of the limited control they have over their own labor, working class.  Many people go to college because it seems like the most promising path to economic security, but that promise fades when they can’t find jobs and are burdened by loans.  Combine that with an economic crisis and long-term shifts in employment that leave increasing numbers with precarious work, as John Russo noted recently, and it’s clear not only that more people belong to the working class but that the working class itself is becoming more educated and less-steadily-employed.

There’s another likely change in the American working class, one that reflects the broader shift in racial demographics.  The Congressional Research Service documents a slight decline in the percentage of Americans who self-identify as white, a slight increase in those who self-identify as Black, and more significant increases in those who identify themselves as Asian or Hispanic, and its study projects these trends to continue over time. Even if we looked only at population numbers, the working class – which was never really “all white” — is almost certainly becoming even more diverse.

The racial diversity of the working class is also likely increasing because of patterns in education and income.  While Blacks are more likely to get some college than are whites, whites earn more bachelor and advanced degrees, and whites with BAs earn about $10,000 a year more than Blacks with similar degrees.  Hispanics are less likely to either go to college or earn a degree than either Blacks or Whites, though when they do, they earn more than Blacks.  Beyond reminding us that racial differences still matter in education and earnings, these figures suggest that Hispanics and Blacks may be more likely than whites to remain in the working class even if they go to college.

Diversity isn’t only about race, of course.  A number of sources, including the Public Religion Research Institute, suggest that working-class political attitudes differ by gender, by region, by religion, and by situation, among other things.  They note, for example, that the white working class was at least somewhat divided along gender lines in this year’s election and that white Protestants were more likely to support Romney than were white Catholics. Their survey also found that voters who had been on food stamps were more likely to support Obama in this election, while those who had not received such assistance were more likely to support Romney.

So what does all of this add up to?  On the one hand, if the working class is growing, it ought to have more clout, as voters and as activists.  We may well be seeing a difference in elections, but there’s a big difference between people leaning just enough toward the Democrats to re-elect Obama and having a strong or coherent political voice.  The gap between functioning as an electoral block and developing a working-class consciousness that would fire coherent activism may be even larger. While the Occupy Movement stood up (and sometimes laid down) for economic justice, it’s unclear what role working-class people or working-class perspectives played in that movement.

The diversity of the working class, in all forms, may present a challenge to working-class organizing.  This has always been the case, of course, and the history of the labor movement reminds us of how difficult it can be to create unity among a diverse working class.  Today’s workplaces no longer provide as many opportunities for workers to come together or recognize their shared interests, and in a tight economy, working-class people sometimes see each other as the competition.  Given those challenges and the way working-class perspectives are also always shaped by race, gender, religion, and place, it’s hard to imagine a widespread, sustained working-class movement for economic and social change, even though it is so clearly needed.

On the other hand, social movements are not the only agents of change. Simply paying attention to the way the working class is changing and growing makes a difference, since it requires us to think about how social class is not a fixed structure but one that responds to other social and economic changes.  That matters for academics but also for civic life.  Being aware of the growing presence and diversity of the working class might make the media, educators, policy-makers, and yes, even politicians, more attentive to the importance of including working-class perspectives in public discourse and policymaking.

Sherry Linkon

The Whiteness of Working-Class Studies

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

The Democrats and Social Classes

It’s more than a little frustrating trying to follow Democrats’ analysis of social classes in this country.  Most of the time now, there are only two classes – the rich (very precisely defined as those with at least $250,000 in annual family income) and the middle class, which includes everybody else.  But in the analysis of elections a “working class” shows up, one which is invariably “white” and, it seems, predominantly male.

Most Democrats, and especially the more progressive ones, know that moving the white working class away from its decades-long lopsided loyalty to the Republican Party is crucial to achieving a long-term governing majority.  But instead of appealing to this demographic electoral block directly, it seeks to lump them in with what Dems think is a universally beloved “middle class.”  This is a tactical mistake, as in many working-class precincts calling somebody “middle class” is meant as a put down and an insult – somebody who doesn’t live “real life,” lacks common sense, and yet thinks they’re “all better.”  Believe me, I’ve been on the front end of this insult, sometimes deservedly so.

Of all the ways of defining class in America the one that gets the least attention is how people self-identify – that is, what class people see themselves as being in.  In exit polls, for example, you get a choice of “White, Black, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, or Other” in defining your race.  There is no such question for class.  Rather, pollsters ask questions about education and income, and then analysts assign people to various classes based on the analysts’ own definitions.  As is often pointed out on this site, the one national survey that consistently asks people to identify themselves by class has for decades found about 46% self-identify as “working class” and another 46% as “middle class.”  Nobody has any idea how voters who see themselves as working class have actually voted — ever.

Over the last decade, through what has often been a rich debate among political scientists, journalists, political operatives, and statisticians, the presence or absence of a bachelor’s degree has come to be used as a marker identifying voters as either “working class” or “middle class.”  Because having a bachelor’s degree correlates pretty strongly with having a professional or managerial job and because these jobs correlate with higher incomes, this is a serviceable marker for “middle class.”  Likewise, because the two-thirds of jobs that are not professional or managerial usually do not require bachelor’s degrees and have lower average incomes, the absence of a bachelor’s degree is a good-enough way of locating the “working class” among voters.  Until exit-pollsters provide voters with a range of choices on class, as they do now for race, this education marker is the best we can do in measuring how social class affects voting.

Problem is that in the last two elections, these two broad classes voted almost exactly the same way.  In 2008 both “college graduates” and “no college degree” voters voted for Barack Obama by a margin of about 53% to 46%, whereas both groups in 2010 voted 52% to 46% for Congressional Republicans.  So, there was a big swing in the last two years, but both the working class and the middle class swung exactly the same way and to the same degree. Thus, class by itself seems not to affect how people vote.

If, however, you measure class along with race, then class matters a bit more.  Neither class of whites gave Obama a majority in 2008, but middle-class whites gave him 47% of their vote, while working-class whites gave him only 40% of theirs.  Meanwhile, among non-white voters (lumping together all “Black, Hispanic/Latino, Asian and Other” voters), there was a similar degree of difference by class but in the opposite direction – working-class non-whites gave Obama a larger majority (83%) than middle-class non-whites (75%).  A similar race-class pattern occurred in the 2010 Congressional elections, with working-class whites giving Republicans 62% while middle-class whites gave them 57%, whereas working-class non-whites were more decisively Dem at 77% than middle-class non-whites at 71%.

Two conclusions emerge from this breakdown:

One is that race matters way more than class.  In fact, very few large groups of whites have voted majority Democratic at the national level for decades.  Using only the exit polls, which do not cover all possible groupings, the only whites who gave Obama a national majority in 2008 were Jews (83%), whites with “no religion” (71%) or “other religion” (67%), and 18-to-29-year-olds (54%) – though it is important to add that Obama won white majorities in 19 states and in the Northeast as a whole.

The other conclusion is that the single largest race-class grouping, the base of the base of the Republican Party in America, is working-class whites.  Even though declining as a proportion of the electorate (as non-whites increase faster in the population and as more whites get bachelor’s degrees and are, therefore, no longer considered “working class”), working-class whites are still almost two of every five voters, and until 2010 they had been voting in the neighborhood of 60/40 for the GOP in national elections.

In parts of the country outside the South, however, the white working-class, like whites in general, has been drifting toward the Democrats over the past few decades, culminating in the 2008 election when, for example, Obama won majorities of white workers in 14 states and got into the high 40s in four others.  That drift was reversed big time in the 2010 Congressionals.  According to the guru on these matters, Ruy Teixeira: “The most significant shift against the Democrats [in 2010] occurred among the white working class.  Congressional Democrats lost this group by 10 points in both 2006 and 2008.  Yet that deficit ballooned to 29 points in 2010.”

That’s a huge move toward Republicans who were against saving the American auto industry and who voted against infrastructure investments and jobs, (very) partial bailouts of state governments, extensions of unemployment insurance, and health care reform and tax policies that benefit working-class whites more than any other race-class grouping (in absolute numbers though not proportionately).  And this massive swing occurred nowhere more strongly than in the Great Lakes states, including strong union states Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin.

What accounts for this swing of previously Democratic white working-class voters in 2010 will be the subject of my next blog.  Until then, I can do no better than recommend  that all Democrats look at a conservative Republican’s class analysis of “Midwest at Dusk.”
Jack Metzgar, Chicago Center for Working-Class Studies

Tea-partying while White

At a recent extended family gathering a relative of mine asked me, “So what do you think of your President now?”  I indicated my firm support, briefly explaining why I thought health care reform was really important and good, and then asked for her opinion.  “I don’t know enough [about policies] to say, but he just scares me.”  I asked why, expecting something about the deficit or “big government,” but she said, “I don’t know why.  He just scares me.”  I tried to probe for specific reasons, but she reported that she wasn’t sure and didn’t “want to talk politics.”

I teach my students in undergraduate critical-thinking courses that it is not legitimate to attribute negative motives to people unless you can credibly explain how these motives are related to what the person actually says.  This is a particularly important principle, I say, if you disagree with someone – and even more important if you strongly disagree.  By that standard, it would be wrong to charge Helen with “racial prejudice,” let alone “racism,” but in the absence of specific reasons to be scared of Barack Obama, it’s also hard to imagine that her fear does not have something to do with his being a black man.

Helen (not her real name) is a white senior-citizen widow living almost entirely on Social Security in a modest one-story house that she owns outright.  She never attended college and worked as a clerical worker after she helped raise her three children as a stay-at-home mom.  Her husband, who also had no college, was a front-line supervisor in a steel mill now long gone.  Later in another fleeting conversation she expressed interest in and sympathy for the Tea Party.

I’ve known Helen most of my life, and I have never heard her use explicitly racist language or express anything but a kind of paternalistic sympathy for the plight of African Americans, with whom she has had almost no experience.  There are many nonracial reasons why she would not and did not vote for President Obama.  She is a life-long Republican, a small-town Protestant, and in her early ‘70s, somebody who is rooted in a more traditional set of gender roles and family arrangements that Democrats seem dismissive of.  But she also lives in an atmosphere that is common among the white working class as I’ve experienced it – an atmosphere infused with a free-floating anxiety that any gains for black people will come at some loss to white folks like her.

This atmosphere is not specific to working-class whites, but my guess is the anxiety is more intense for the working class than among more securely affluent whites.  It is this anxious atmosphere of a racial zero-sum game that I suspect informs many of the “supporters” and “sympathizers” of the Tea Party movement, not the boldly explicit racism of the 10% who have told pollsters that “racial prejudice against Barack Obama” is one reason for their support of the movement.

Of course, the class position of the Tea Partiers isn’t clear.  Recent polling has revealed somewhat contradictory notions of who they are, with a Gallup Poll finding, “Tea Partiers Are Fairly Mainstream in Their Demographics,” while a New York Times/CBS News poll proclaims, “Poll Finds Tea Party Backers Wealthier and More Educated.” Both headlines, it turns out, are both true and deceptive.  Both polls show that Tea Partiers on average are whiter, older, and have higher incomes and higher levels of education than the population as a whole, though by somewhat different degrees.

The most widely used demographic class marker for electoral politics is whether a person has a bachelor’s degree – if they do, they’re counted as “middle class,” if not, then “working class.”  By this marker, self-identified Tea Party “supporters” are substantially working class, 68% for Gallup and 62% for the Times.  This is less than for the population as a whole (which is 70% for persons 25 years or older), but still “fairly mainstream.”  Thus, Tea Party supporters are disproportionately middle class, but the majority is working class just like the population as a whole.

Neither white racism nor racial zero-sum anxiety is class exclusive.  The real tragedy  is that many working-class whites like Helen do not have a clear sense of the actual policy alternatives provided by the Democrats and Republicans.  Part of the reason is that our public discussion is allergic to principled debate about public policy.  Not that it never occurs, but most often it is framed by politicians’ caricatures of each other’s policies.  Meanwhile, political reporters use their expertise not to explain the different policies and who might benefit or be harmed by them but rather to explain the different political tactics behind the caricatures.  In the absence of clear reporting about policies as if they might actually matter to real people, Helen can be satisfied to “not know enough” while forming opinions based on vague anxieties related to appearances and antique loyalties.

According to these polls, Tea Party self-identifiers (the vast majority of whom are not active participants in movement activities) are a demographically diverse group of mostly conservatives and Republicans.  At somewhere around 20% of the adult population, they are a decided minority of all voters, of all white voters, and of all working-class whites.  It is also worth noting that in all national polls, the attitudes and views of Southern whites disproportionately affect the national numbers.  In the 2008 Presidential election, for example, only 43% of whites voted for Obama across the nation, but 52% did so in the Northeastern states, 49% in the Western states, and 47% in the Midwest.  The national number is so much lower because only 30% of whites in the South voted for the man who scares Helen.

Jack Metzgar

Why Working-Class Literature Matters

As chronic unemployment grows and many who once seemed solidly middle-class are losing their economic footholds, the working class is getting larger and more frustrated.  Both size and perspective make the working class more important than ever before.

So perhaps more than ever, Americans across the class spectrum have good reason to understand working-class culture and experience.  As recent columns about film and television stories about working-class people make clear, popular culture too often relies on familiar narratives that blame poor and working-class people for the hardships in their lives.  If we want to understand working-class culture, we need better stories – stories that reflect the complex realities of working-class life.

Working-class literature tells those stories.  From poems about being a waitress to novels about the long-term social effects of deindustrialization to memoirs about growing up in working-class families, literary texts provide some of the most affecting and inspiring views of working-class life.  Without erasing the struggles of economic hardship, family dysfunction, or limited options, working-class literature reminds us of the strengths of working-class culture: humor, integrity, hard work, and strong interpersonal connections, among others things.

Scholars of working-class literature are uncovering new and forgotten books and exploring the common qualities that define working-class literature as a genre.  While our colleagues who study women’s literature and ethnic literature have been analyzing the literature of cultural groups for decades, working-class literary studies is just getting started.  While a few studies of 1930s proletarian novels appeared in the 1960s, the study of working-class literature really begins with Paul Lauter’s 1982 article on working-class women’s writing.  As with these other categories, working-class literary studies gained momentum through anthologies, most notably the several books edited by Janet Zandy in the 1990s, including Calling Home and Liberating Memory. The first comprehensive anthology of American working-class literature appeared just a few years ago (also by Zandy, with co-editor Nick Coles).  Their work is defining the boundaries of the field.

At the same time, those boundaries are being expanded because of concerns about essentialism and the complexity of cultural identity.  Many of those involved in working-class studies have also worked in women’s studies, ethnic studies, and LGBT studies, so we know very well the problems of claiming that only people who have a specific kind of experience have the authority to write about or critique literature about that experience.  We saw how the shift from women’s literature to feminist literary criticism created new ways of studying literary representations of gender and sexuality.  Having seen the productive directions fostered by that shift, working-class literary scholars resist establishing narrow definitions.  Instead, we want working-class literary studies to provide similar critical openings.

Of course, a writer’s own experience and perspective matter, but we recognize the significance of representations of working-class culture by writers from more elite backgrounds.  Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills may be the most commonly-studied example.  Working-class literary scholars have long debated how to interpret her story of mid-nineteenth-century immigrant iron workers, but her intention of making working-class life visible and evoking empathy for workers is clear, even to those who note that the story is limited by its white, middle-class woman’s point of view.  Regardless of whether we choose to label Life in the Iron Mills as “working-class literature,” it appears in several anthologies and is widely taught and analyzed.  It matters, regardless of its author’s class position.

To avoid essentialism, working-class literary scholars have focused on describing the qualities of working-class literary texts, rather than policing boundaries that define who has the authority to write them.   Janet Zandy, Paul Lauter, Renny Christopher and Carolyn Whitson, and William DeGenaro, among others, have identified qualities that make texts working class:  a focus on work, accurate representation of the material and social conditions of working-class life, validation of working-class culture, resistance to existing power structures, rejection or critique of the standard middle-class narrative of upward mobility, and so on.  Even as they focus on describing the qualities of working-class literature, these scholars have provided us with ideas around which we can frame critical questions about all kinds of literature.

The other complicating issue in working-class literary studies is intersectionality – the recognition that writers, readers, and characters all have multiple identities.  We have at least one race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and class, and our experiences and points of view are shaped by all of those categories, not just one.  Working-class literature, too, reflects the intersections among these categories, not just ideas about class.  Consider some of the books widely viewed as “working-class classics”:  Tillie Olsen’s Yonnondio, Pietro Di Donato’s Christ in Concrete, or Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina. Each of these novels has been claimed by other areas of cultural studies – women’s literature, ethnic literature, LGBT literature.  Yet each also represents working-class culture, and viewing them through a working-class lens can reveal important insights.   It’s become commonplace for scholars to acknowledge and wrestle with the multiple cultural categories that play out in literary texts.  Indeed, to define any text as belonging only to one category seems old-fashioned and naïve.  This, too, is one of the lessons working-class studies has gained from other cultural studies.  We know the dangers of assuming that everyone who belongs to any group is the same.  Of course the working class is diverse.  But working-class literary studies doesn’t simply acknowledge that working-class writers have multiple cultural identities.  It isn’t just that, as Zandy writes, “working-class literature is not white writing.”

Rather, working-class literary studies provides a tool for considering class elements in texts that have been read primarily as representations of race or gender.   Working-class literary scholars like Michelle Tokarczyk and Michele Fazio, among others, are re-examining texts that have become part of the canons of women’s and ethnic literature, raising new questions about how class plays out in the work of writers such as Maxine Hong Kingston, Toni Morrison, and Sherman Alexie.

Working-class literary studies is just getting started.  In two decades, the field has moved from excavating the long-buried texts of worker writers from the last three centuries to developing an ever-more complex understanding of the value of class as a critical tool for interpreting literature of all kinds.

Why does all of this matter to anyone except literary scholars?  Because literature gives us stories about working-class life as seen by working-class people.  Because working-class literary studies helps us understand how to think critically about representations of the working class, no matter who created them.  Because stories matter.  Because class matters.

Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies

Beyond Precious: Real Change for the Urban Poor

Last month, I received an email inviting me to vote for films nominated to receive an NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) image award. The email stated the film Precious had been nominated for a NAACP image award in several categories, including best picture, best actress, best supporting actress, and best director. “Image, advancement of a people; advancement, image; image, advancement,” I thought.

Like many, I have questions about the film.  Does Precious further the advancement of “colored” people–or better yet—the advancement of all people, regardless of color? Or does the film merely shock viewers, while leaving existing social, economic, and political arrangements unquestioned, unchallenged, and thus intact? What images of a past, present, or future does the film present that might inspire people to work for social changes that will advance not just “colored” people,” not just poor people, but all of us?

Through their endorsement of the film, the film’s producers—billionaire talk-show host Oprah Winfrey and multi-millionaire actor, writer, producer Tyler Perry—imply that the film enlightens and thus uplifts many.  But I am not fully convinced of this. Indeed, I am troubled by many of the images projected in the film:

  • Images of Precious (a 16 –year- old girl living in poverty-stricken Harlem in the 1980s) being brutally attacked by her mother, repeatedly raped by her father, and impregnated twice by him
  • Images of Precious giving birth to her daughter, who is actually her half-sister, on her mother’s apartment floor— a child whom Precious calls “Mongo,” which is short for Mongoloid or someone with Downs’ Syndrome
  • The image of Precious stealing and then eating a bucket of chicken all at one time, without sufficient exploration of  how feelings of desperation and deprivation generated by poverty and others’ indifference to its effects would drive some people to gorge food to the point of making themselves sick
  • Precious’s deferred dreams seem to “just sag like a heavy load,” as Langston Hughes wrote,   even as she receives an “A-” in English when she can barely recite the alphabet – a story line that gestures toward but doesn’t fully explore how the school has arguably perpetuated Precious’s illiteracy.

Most troubling for me is the film’s underlying message of “individualism,” which is conveyed through the omission of certain historical events, such as the loss of manufacturing jobs in poor urban communities in the 1970 s and 1980s. How could a film covering life in poverty- stricken Harlem in the 1980s fail to cover such things? The loss of manufacturing jobs under de-industrialization had a devastating effect on employment, family structure, neighborhood resources, and neighborhood cohesion within these communities, as William Julius Wilson has documented so well. Without this historical information, viewers are left with only Precious’s individual characteristics to focus on —her abuse, illiteracy, obesity, family dysfunction, self-loathing, self-isolation, and personal blame and guilt. These conditions, devastating as they are, reflect social problems, not just personal ones.

My fear is that such intense individualism will encourage the idea that the best thing others can do to help  people like Precious is to leave them alone to resolve their personal problems on their own. Such beliefs uphold the status quo and overlook systemic factors that continue to limit the life chances of the urban poor. Consider how our understanding of Precious’s story would be different if the film acknowledged these systemic factors:

  • The loss of supermarkets, which has been linked to the urban poor’s declining health
  • Transportation constraints that make it difficult for the urban poor to travel to and from school, the doctor’s office, and to jobs located in suburban or rural areas.

To move beyond the shock and discomfort that many said they felt when viewing Precious, to feel empowered and provide empowerment, we must eliminate these and other systemic constraints within America’s poor urban communities.  And then, in subsequent years, we may collectively receive an award for best performance, and maybe one for best image. But awards that come at the expense of the dignity and advancement of America’s urban poor do not represent a fair or ethical trade and should be seen as what they are: empty platitudes.

Denise Narcisse, Center for Working-Class Studies

Bad Girls: Social Class, Gender, Race, and the World’s Oldest Profession

Recently, I spent a weekend reviewing music videos that would help bring Sociology to life for my students. Reflecting upon what my life had been like as a college student, I remembered the music that was popular my freshman year. Disco was in vogue when I was a freshman, and the “Queen of Disco” was Donna Summer. Even “hard-core wall-flowers” would start to dance when Summer’s “Bad Girls” was played. “Bad Girls” was released in 1979 and immediately became a mega-hit, remaining at the top of pop charts for six weeks.  Hard core-and erotic, “Bad Girls” seemed to signal the sexual liberation of all women—including those “bad girl” prostitutes Donna sang about. It would take my girlfriends and me several years to understand fully the social class, gender, and race dimensions of prostitution.  But eventually we would come to believe that Dona’s “bad girls” were not empowered but oppressed.

Sexual liberation implies release from oppressive people, conditions, and beliefs that control a person’s sexuality. It implies a level of freedom, autonomy, and human agency, which most literature on prostitution indicates prostitutes do not have. Rather, research shows that prostitution dominates, degrades, and exploits people fundamentally because they are women in precarious social-class positions, and even more so if they are African-American.

  • Research indicates that prostitution is largely defined, organized, and regulated on the basis of gender. Most prostitutes are women.  And most of the people who manage or buy sex from prostitutes (“pimps” and Johns”, respectively) are men. About a half- million women in the United States work as prostitutes each year, and 40 million women work as prostitutes annually worldwide.   Within this context, female gender seems to increase vulnerability to prostitution.  Being female also seems to increase the likelihood of prostitution arrest: About 2/3 of the people arrested for prostitution in the United States in 2005, for instance, were women (Federal Bureau of Investigation 2005) Research finds that female prostitutes are regulated more than their male customers, and prostitution laws are more strictly enforced against the women who sell sex  than the men who buy it .
  • Revealing a connection between social class and prostitution, most women say they prostitute for financial reasons. While a few highly-paid call girls say that the work allows them a  lavish lifestyle and others do it to pay for crack cocaine and other drugs, the vast majority of prostitutes simply seek economic survival. Studies reveal that environmental and social-class- constraints—poverty, unemployment, limited educational opportunities, limited transportation, and the presence of strip-joints, “crack-houses”, sleazy bars, and cheap motels in low-income neighborhoods— “push” poor women into prostitution. Can we reasonably argue that these  environments provide women with real alternatives to prostitution for survival?  Social class also influences who gets arrested for prostitution: about 90 % of women arrested for prostitution are streetwalkers of lower social-class origins, and not the high-end call girls who “serve” the rich and famous.
  • Race also plays into this story.  Economic precariousness and stereotypes that define them as sexually promiscuous and immoral by nature, make Black females especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation and prostitution .  Arrest rates for prostitution also correlate with race: the advocacy group COYOTE reports that although  most prostitutes are white, most of those arrested are African American.   

  • Regardless of prostitution venue (e.g., brothels, massage parlors, escort service, or the street) all women in prostitution are subject to harm. (See Melissa Farley’s “Prostitution and the Invisibility of Harm”).  All women “in the life” may experience violence from customers, pimps, hotel managers, and/or the police. All must confront the threat of sexually transmitted disease. And, in effect, all are objectified and treated like commodities.

Stricter enforcement of laws against the men who solicit prostitution, and their public exposure, is a short term solution and is therefore insufficient.  The legalization of prostitution is also insufficient, because like stricter enforcement of laws against the solicitation of prostitution, this does not eliminate the institutionalized inequities that push some women and girls into prostitution.How long shall we attribute prostitution to people’s poor planning, immorality, laziness, and craziness?  How long will we fail to address the lack of jobs, low-wages, poor schools, classism, sexism, racism, ablest ideas, and other systemic problems that force some women into prostitution?  In the words of another disco song that was popular during my youth, shall we simply “throw our hands in the air like we just don’t care”?  As the song says, “Now somebody scream.”

Denise A. Narcisse