By Dan Clendenin
Joan C. Williams, White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2017), 180pp.
If you appreciated the efforts by the conservative JD Vance (Hillbilly Elegy) and the liberal Arlie Hochschild (Strangers in Their Own Land) to understand why so many experts and elites have ignored a huge demographic of blue collar white people, you might add Joan C. Williams to your reading list. She wrote an essay version of this book right after Trump was elected, and posted a digital version of it on the Harvard Business Review, where it blew up the internet with three million views.
We know that about two-thirds of Americans don’t have a college degree, and guess what? “When you leave these people out of your vision for a good life, they notice. And when elites commit to equality for many different groups [LGBTQ, blacks, women, Latinos, immigrants] but arrogantly dismiss ‘the dark rigidity of fundamentalist rural America,’ this is a recipe for extreme alienation among working class whites.” Think of Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” remark, Obama’s complaint about people who “cling to their guns and religion,” or Romney’s condescension about the “forty-seven percent.”
Williams’s definition of “working class” invites easy criticisms for such a complex category. She argues that many of us have conflated the categories of poor and working class. In this book she divides people into three categories. There are the “poor,” there are the rich or “elite,” and then there are those who are the subject of this book: those who are neither rich nor poor, who exist above the bottom 30% who are truly poor, and the top 20% who are genuinely rich: “This is the middle 53% of American families: the true middle class.”
Think of pipe fitters and brick layers, a radiation therapist, a construction worker, car mechanic or security guard. These are people who work hard, hate government handouts as beneath their dignity, and honor traditional values. They know full well that they are derided as homophobic, racist and sexist by the elites. And they resent how they have been ignored by those elites who shower attention and benefits on numerous other “identity” groups. So, these working class whites resent both the elite and the non-working poor.
For about forty years now, says Williams, elites “stopped connecting with the working class, whom prior generations had given a place of honor.” Making matters worse, the working class has been insulted and ignored precisely when their incomes have “tanked” or stagnated. It should not surprise us, then, as one Trump voter put it, that they “voted with their middle finger.” Williams urges us to address this situation for both ethical and strategic reasons. Our American vision of social equality must include all people, and our democracy is now threatened with this “politics of fury.”
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