From the library: White Working Class by Joan C. Williams

From the library: White Working Class by Joan C. Williams August 18, 2017

By Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Subtitled, Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America, this little book (125 pages) is directed at upper middle-class white Democrats asking themselves, “why were white working class voters so stupid and so bigoted as to have voted for Trump, and how can we get them to vote for our preferred candidates instead?”

And, indeed, the end of the book was seriously disappointing, since there’s no consideration at all of whether the Democratic platform needs any reconsideration; instead, Williams proposals new slogans to try on skeptical white working voters.  Tell them, with respect to abortion, that child-rearing is so difficult that the WWC should support abortion so that “everyone who values families should help ensure that adults who don’t want kids don’t have them.”  With respect to immigration, remind them that “immigrants typically do jobs whites don’t want, from backbreaking farm work to bussing tables.”  With respect to government benefits, point out all of the invisible government benefits they use everyday to get them to be more appreciative.  And with respect to the Democrats’ platform on LGBTQ+ issues, well, “we” won but maybe let’s not rub their noses in it.

Which kind of left me wishing I’d stopped half-way through, because the first half was really interesting, chock full of information on cultural differences between the working class (which defines as “working respectable jobs without a college degree”) and what she calls the PME – professional/managerial elite — in other words, “her people.”   (And it was a bit strange reading her making these distinctions between WWC and PME as if a college degree immediately moved one up to the PME.)

She also differentiates between the “settled-living” and “hard-living” WWC, using the example of J.D. Vance’s family in Hillbilly Elegy — his mom “falls into addiction and has serious impulse-control issues and a series of unsavory boyfriends”; his father is “settled-living” with a stable marriage and a church community.

The fact that “settled-living” takes a lot of hard work, to hold down a job, to suck it up when the boss pisses you off, to juggle split schedules as a way to manage child care, means that the WWC values, in other people, the traits of responsibility, honesty, being hardworking.

Williams says (p. 20)

The professional elite also values, hard work, of course — but it’s different.  To working-class members of all races, valuing hard work means having the rigid self-discipline to do a menial job you hate for 40 years, and reining yourself in so you don’t “have an attitude” (i.e., so that you can submit to authority).  Hard work for elites is associated with self-actualization. . ..

Free spirits born working class can’t count on the second chances available to elites.  That’s why blue-collar families are so big on stability and self-discipline, and they embrace institutions that support these traits.  Chief amont these is religion.

The WWC also tends to resent the professional class — or, rather, distrust them as shysters and phonies, in part because they feel looked-down-upon by them, and they’re not wrong, as professionals increasingly choose activities, foods, etc., that set them apart from the commoners, from upscale coffee to Whole Foods.  Williams says “My circle of friends would no more send a Hallmakr card than eat at TGI Friday’s.”  (Whoa!  I didn’t know that these were downscale activities to be sneered at!)

What’s more, even conventional religion is “down market” as it is the elite that announces that they are “spiritual but not religious” because adopting the actual tenets of a religion is beneath them.

Fundamentally, “elites seek out novelty while the working class seeks out stability” in part because “the elite gains social honor by displaying their sophistication” but also because, for the elite, socializing is about impressing people, building one’s social network, to create people to be able to call on in the future.  For the working class, it’s about comfort, and the stability of friends and family.  The fact that elites network, and build their career success through schmoozing is quite alien:

Working-class entertaining is designed to denote a space apart from jobs, not to be an extension of them.  The goal is not to impress people you don’t know well, but to comfort those you do with abundant portions of familiar dishes (p. 30)

In general, blue-collar workers find professionals to be phony and two-faced for their schmoozing and efforts to move up the corporate ladder by impressing people.  Even the “standard professional-class ice-breaker” of “what do you do?” isn’t a part of their world, since work isn’t their defining identity but the way that they support their families.  What does matter, then, is character, traditional values, stability, rootedness.  “For people whose jobs deny them prestige, ‘family comes first’ is a common refrain” (p. 32) — which, again, contrasts with elites for whom supporting “avant-garde sexuality, self-presentation, and family dynamics” is a way to signal sophistication and gain approval.

Another key element of WWC-ness is rootedness in place, and a strong connection to community, both as a matter of personal values, and for the practical reasons of a support system, with family to help care for you or your children.  This is something that is not a part of the experience for the elite, for whom work shapes their identity to such a degree that, as long as they keep their identity (e.g., “attorney”) leaving one community for another doesn’t matter, and especially if their shallow but very broad social network allows them to feel like they can easily settle in anywhere they choose.  Communities, and family, are generally far more important for the WWC (I read this and could easily visualize all those single professionals who say, “my friends are my family” or, worse, “my dog is family to me”).

A couple more items:  college is taken as a given for children of the elites, but much less so for the working class, and they’re not unjustified in their skepticism, taking into account both the cost of college and the fact that many young people end up graduating and working at jobs which do not in any reasonable manner require a college degree.  What’s more, employers still judge them as being of the wrong class, because they don’t have the social capital taught to elite children by their families and budding networks, and they’re even sneered at, in their colleges, by professors who consider them to be “white trash.”  And, besides, we have made a major mistake in the United States in believing that everyone should go to college in the first place, rather than creating those sorts of structures that allow kids to develop skills and find employment without that costly credential in the first place.

And there is a clear gap between parenting by the WWC and the elites, as the former tend to assume that if you provide for your family and make sure they are raised to be responsible, moral people, you’ve done your job, and the latter engage in what’s called “concerted cultivation” — that is, the moms who sign their kids up for every activity known to man (except Cub Scouts, because travel sports are more important — fine, Williams doesn’t say that, but this is what I see), constantly scheduling their days, coach them through SAT-taking, and dads who use their connections to get them summer jobs that will help move them along that predestined track of being professionals themselves.

(It’s interesting to read Williams’ descriptions and contemplate that I don’t really fit into her classifications.  I do not hyper-parent my kids.  I do not find my own self-worth in work or value my husband for the time he spends at the office.  But I don’t have these deeply built networks of family and friends, either.)

Which all makes her final points, of Advice to Fellow Democrats, just strange.  She just spent time telling us that the WWC doesn’t see work as undignified but rather a means to the end of supporting your kids — and now she wants to tell them to support amnesty because illegals just did undignified work anyway?  She says that WWC view family as important and doesn’t buy into the idea that you have to obsess about your kids every waking hour, and at the same time, deeply values responsibility, but now wants to get them to support abortion because “having children is [whiny voice here] haaard”?  (Note that professional-class women are far more likely to get an abortion if their contraception fails.)

But that does, interestingly, put the debate on Confederate monuments in a different context.  Yes, intellectually, logically, it doesn’t make sense to keep them, from the point of view of the political elites who are making these discussions, and from everyone who doesn’t have any personal connection.  But it’s easy to see that for someone from a social class where stability matters so much in keeping their life going, that destroying these statues is a very symbolic gesture that communicates something more threatening than what is intended.


Image:  By Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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