Beyond Stereotypes: What Makes a Good Representation of the Working Class?

The working class is everywhere these days – in the dozens of reality TV shows about work, in media analysis of the Republican race for the presidential nomination, and in recent reports on economic inequality.  While the Occupy movement isn’t necessarily about the working class, and there are real divides within the 99%, the movement has helped change the meaning of the term “class warfare,” making it harder for conservatives to use it to denigrate any effort to talk about economic justice.  Given recent history, the presence of the working class in public discourse shouldn’t surprise us.

The increase in attention is real and significant.  A check of three news databases – Lexis/Nexis, Newspaper Source, and Newsbank – suggests that the number of stories that include the phrase “working class” has more than tripled over the last two decades.  A Newsbank search of articles in news magazines, for example, found 212 articles mentioning the working class in 1991 and 1992, but a search for 2010 and 2011 listed 778.  Newspaper Source, which searches newspapers, news wires, transcripts, and magazines, tracked an increase from 117 items in 1991-92 to 5774 in 2010-2011.  These numbers may not provide an exact count of what’s happened. Earlier articles may not have been entered into these online databases, which were just getting started in 1991, and the number of news outlets has grown with digital media.  But even given those issues, it seems as if the American media are talking about the working class much more now than they were 20 years ago.

Is it merely coincidence that the first working-class studies conference was held here at Youngstown State 20 years ago?  Several colleagues have suggested that new working-class studies has helped draw attention to the working class. Within this field, scholars, artists, and activists who share a concern about the working class have often noted that American media tend to either ignore or stereotype the working class.  Well, they’re certainly not ignoring the working class these days, so we seem to have made progress.  But have we gotten beyond the stereotypes?

Of course not.  If nothing else, reality TV shows like Hillbilly Handfishin’ and Moonshiners suggest that at least one old-style working-class stereotype – the redneck, white country boy – is alive and well.  So, too, is the idea of the white blue-collar factory worker, a down-to-earth guy who’s proud of the work he does and enjoys a cold one at the end of the day. And then there are all the reporters and commentators analyzing whether Mitt Romney can attract enough white working-class voters to win the Republican nomination over the supposedly more working-class Rick Santorum, a discussion that explains Santorum’s appeal by noting his coal miner grandfather, his traditional values, and his ordinary guy persona.

On the other hand, some recent public discourse about the working class suggests that some of the ideas that we’ve been discussing at working-class studies conferences for the past two decades are being heard beyond academic walls.  Consider, for example, Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.  No doubt, Murray’s argument that the white working class is in decline because it lacks morality and self-discipline is troubling, and a number of critics have already pointed out the problems with this analysis, especially his habit of assigning to culture social changes that are rooted in economics.  Yet we can’t accuse him of mere stereotyping.  Two recent reports by one of the best reporters on working-class issues, Sabrina Tavernise of the New York Times, corroborate two of Murray’s main claims:  that the working-class lags far behind the middle and upper class on educational attainment and that single motherhood is increasingly common for women without college degrees.  Part of what makes Tavernise’s reports so good is that, unlike Murray, she identifies economic reasons for these cultural patterns, rather than suggesting that they reflect moral or intellectual weaknesses.

And yet, Murray’s approach suggests that he understands a key idea of working-class studies: like Barbara Jensen, Jack Metzgar, and others, he views class not solely in terms of economic position but also as a matter of culture.  I wish he’d paid more attention to the idea that working-class culture has some real strengths, such as the strong family and community ties that Jensen identifies, but I’m still pleased that his book has gotten people thinking about class in more cultural terms.  Murray also defines the working class not by income but by a combination of education and occupation, an approach that at least in part reflects the complex understanding of class in new working-class studies.

The working-class value of fostering communal ties rather than focusing on individual achievement was a core theme of Chrysler’s much-discussed “Halftime in America” ad.  Clint Eastwood’s gravelly voice speaks in terms of “we” and “us,” and he reminds us that because the people of Detroit “all pulled together,” the auto industry there has recovered.

Both that ad and another GE ad also challenge the whiteness of so much of public discourse about the working class.  Chrysler shows images of white, black, Asian, Hispanic, and other American people, some looking gravely at the camera, others working, dropping kids off at school, driving a car.  GE shows workers at a Kentucky appliance factory, men and women, white and black, talking about why their jobs matter.

Of course, these ads still draw on a fairly narrow, traditional definition of the working class — the industrial worker.  I’d like to see the media develop better strategies to show us the majority of today’s working class – the janitors, retail clerks, home health care workers, and so on.  For too many people, “working class” still brings to mind a factory worker, not a cashier, and that contributes to continued misunderstanding not only of who the working class is but of what issues matter to the working class.  But then I’m reminded of the question someone once asked after I introduced myself as the co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies:  do we still have a working class in America?  What she meant, I think, is that all the blue-collar jobs had disappeared.  But while most working-class jobs these days are in the service sector, there’s some value to remembering that factory jobs still exist and still matter.

We’ve spent so much time talking about how the media gets it wrong.  Maybe we also need to talk about what it means to get it right. Clearly, we’ve made gains in the quantity of media attention to the working class. But how are we doing on quality? What do you think makes a good representation of the working class?

Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies