White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America
By Joan C. Williams
Review by David Wineberg
There are of course, no classes in the USA, officially. But dice the stats and you will find strata that become gaping divisions the deeper you dive. Joan Williams has taken that dive, and has described the classes as succinctly as I have ever seen. It verges on the ethnographic.
She looks at the world through white working class eyes, and it is a different view and way of life. Without disposable income, family, church and neighbors take on new importance. The immobility of workers stems from the absolute need to maintain and benefit from those links. Moving to another state for a new low paying job makes no sense.
They are also suspicious of, if not totally against college education. “Know-it-alls” don’t fit the network. Government is anathema too. Handouts, entitlements and other Republican characterizations of government services (currently working on “government school” to replace public school) have taken solid hold in the white working class. “Keep your government hands off my Medicare“ and condemning Obamacare while treasuring the Affordable Care Act are two manifestations of this self-defeating stance. Nearly 92% of Americans have benefited from some federal program, but more than 50% insist they’ve never touched a dollar from the government. The white working class resents the poor who qualify for aid, while the elites, looking down on both of them, don’t even know there are two other classes. (And they can be split further, into black and Hispanic, very different from the white.) Williams calls this Class Cluelessness and applies it directly to the elites running the political parties.
White Working Class is jammed with facts and stats, reinforcing Williams’ points. But there are two rather important facts that she misses. People with no rights come to believe that is a just and natural way, and that they cannot do better. That’s how the feudal system survived. It explains why the working class supports tax cuts for the rich and nothing for themselves. (Williams thinks they approve out of hatred of the poor.) The other fact is that 48% of jobs in the USA pay minimum wage or less, so college education and job mobility have no appeal. Unless someone is willing and able to address the inequality issue, things will only get worse. It is allowing the West to drift to “authoritarian nationalism.”
Editor's note: This review was has been reposted with permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.