I Am Class Conscious

conception on family and home...
conception on family and home...

By now, the term "politically incorrect" has become a rubber chicken with which to beat one's opponents. Invoking it simply means you feel like saying (maybe shouting) something nativist, misogynist, racist, or homophobic and you damn well will, because it's your right as an American.

But there is a subtler form of self-censorship crossing over our political divides, a social correctness. I mean our collective unwillingness or sheer inability to discuss class in any real way. Think of the tepid, nervous fashion in which our pundits and politicians approach the problem of class stratification. If you took what you heard on the hustings and the Sunday television roundtables seriously, America consists of a vast "middle" hemmed in by small layers of "rich" and "poor" people at the top and bottom, both of which are caricatured to absurdity--Donald Trump versus a homeless person.

What we can't discuss in public is class as it's actually lived, as Americans assess their status and that of their families--one's own neighbors versus neighborhoods where one would be neither welcome nor comfortable; who is marrying up and who is sliding down; who should be invited to a family event, and whom one hopes will not come.

Think about it this way. While it is obviously inappropriate to label someone to their face "white" or "black," "man" or "woman," "gay" or "straight," we all know who we are in terms of those social identities, and others know it too. We speak from those positions and address others likewise, and it is hardly rude to acknowledge these facts in conversation. But to refer in any way to someone's class background, or even one's own, is shockingly gauche (to use my mother's word).

Some of us are lucky in every possible way. Take me--I'm not just a white man, I'm a white man of (mostly) Anglo-American ethnicity. My parents and siblings went to the best colleges, there was inherited money, they sent me to elite schools, we're Episcopalians--you get the drift. But other than describing myself as "privileged," which might mean nothing more than white skin and male physical characteristics, I can't talk about these facts without coming off as weird or a snob. I have no doubt colleagues or friends have called me a "WASP," but that hardly gets at class: white sharecroppers like Elvis Presley's or Johnny Cash's families were just as much white Anglo-Saxon Protestants as me, as were my ancestors among millions of farmers and storekeepers across the Northeast. But nowadays it's an assertion of class privilege to acknowledge your actual privilege, and worse to note that someone else doesn't have it. To say about someone, "like me, she/he comes from an upper-class background," or, "as a working-class guy, he knows more about manual labor than I do," is as inappropriate as can be.

Consider this: if I were to address black fellow professors as if we were the same, I would look like a fool. They have to live with campus security treating them as intruders, and that's the least of it. If I presumed I was in the same boat as female colleagues, they would quickly disabuse me regarding work-life challenges, student expectations, and much more. Only an ostrich cocooned in his privilege pretends "I don't see gender" or "I don't see color."

But rather than generalized anecdotes, I'll make it personal. Growing up, my family was infused by class awareness. There were constant subtle reminders of who we were versus others. Just because bourgeois white Protestants express their class antipathy via ethnic allusions doesn't obscure the social hierarchy. Distance from working-class whites was typically via Catholicism. Instead of calling someone "vulgar," they were referred to as an "Italian Catholic," slightly worse than the Irish variety. Or my beloved Aunt Binnie, turning upon her granddaughter with a sneer at "your Polack boyfriend!" But it was never clear-cut. Long before we all married outside the caste, a private language was used--saying someone was "of good family," or to mitigate someone's origins, "well, they're very fine people."

People experience lives bounded by class as much as gender, even if the two operate differently. Whereas "trans-gender" is talked about as a new idea, the forefront of personal liberation, the ubiquity of the "trans-class" myth is at the heart of American ideology. And myth it is too, as your parents' class is the best predictor of anyone's life chances in wealth, social and professional standing, or educational level. Social mobility takes place mainly in the interstices of a particular class, so Trump moves from the solidly rich to the super-rich, just as millions of black and white southerners moved north and into the industrial working-class in the 1940s and 50s. But most of the time if your father drives a truck and your mother takes care of other people's bodies as an LPN, you will need extraordinary self-determination, luck, or some rare talent (the one in a thousand who can play professional sports) to move out of, rather than within, that class. Conversely, the eight percent of American families who can afford the $60,000-plus annual cost of a good private college will mostly reproduce themselves, unless they are too lazy, cheap, or old-fashioned to invest in the tutoring, SAT prep, private college consultants, and "enrichment" to leverage their kids into reputable institutions and set them on the right life-course. And then there's the ultimate class privilege guaranteeing the bourgeoisie can reproduce itself, the "legacy preference," which will get a significant number of their progeny into colleges they might not otherwise have earned (Princeton, in my and my family's case).

These are the realities of class in America and yet we have no real words for it--it's as if we forgot "black" and "white," or "male" and "female." Nowadays, my students, at a college where we need half the students to be in that eight percent, appear to have no idea at all what the terms "working class" or "middle class" actually mean. They (at least the full-pay ones) have been brought being told they are "middle class," which is absurd. The top eight percent is the top, the elite, the upper. To them, "working class" and "poor" all run together as a generalized category--would they call who serves them food in our Dining Hall "working class"? I doubt it. And this is hardly their fault: we, their parents and teachers and leaders have let them down, we have either propagated or accepted a fable. This is a class society, it always was, so let's start talking about it.