It is possible for a middle-class person today to read the papers, watch television, even go to college, without suspecting that America has any inhabitants other than white-collar people – and, of course, the annoyingly persistent “”black underclass.”” The average American has disappeared – from the media, from intellectual concern, and from the mind of the American middle class. The producers of public affairs talk shows do not blush to serve up four upper-income professionals (all, incidentally, white, male, and conservative) to ponder the minimum wage or the possible need for national health insurance. Never, needless to say, an uninsured breadwinner or an actual recipient of the minimum wage. Working-class people are likely to cross the screen only as witnesses to crimes or sports events, never as commentators or – when their own lives are under discussion, as “”experts.””
A quick definition: by “”working class”” I mean not only industrial workers in hard hats, but all those people who are not professionals, managers, or entrepreneurs; who work for wages rather than salaries; and who spend their working hours variously lifting, bending, driving, monitoring, typing, keyboarding, cleaning, providing physical care for others, loading, unloading, cooking, serving, etc. The working class so defined makes up 60 to 70 percent of the U.S. population.
By “”middle class”” I really mean the “”professional middle class,”” or the “”professional-managerial class.”” This group includes the journalists, professors, media executives, etc. who are responsible, in a day-to-day sense, for what we do or do not see or read about in the media. By this definition, the middle class amounts to no more than 20 percent of the US population.
So when I say the working class is disappearing, I do not just mean a particular minority group favored, for theoretical reasons, by leftists. I mean the American majority. And I am laying the blame not only on the corporate sponsors of the media, but on many less wealthy and powerful people. Media people for example. People who are, by virtue of their lifestyles and expectations, not too different from me, and possibly also you.
The disappearance of the working class reflects – and reinforces – the long-standing cultural insularity of the professional middle class. Compared to, say, a decade ago, the classes are less likely to mix in college (due to the decline of financial aid), in residential neighborhoods (due to the rise in real estate prices), or even in the malls (due to the now almost universal segmentation of the retail industry into upscale and downscale components).
In the absence of real contact or communication, stereotypes march on unchallenged; prejudices easily substitute for knowledge. The most intractable stereotype is of the working class (which is, in imagination, only white) as a collection of reactionaries and bigots – reflected, for example, in the use of the terms “”hard hat”” or “”redneck”” as class slurs. Even people who call themselves progressives are not immune to this prejudice.
The truth is that, statistically and collectively, the working class is far more reliable liberal than the professional middle class. It was more, not less, opposed to the war in Vietnam. It is more, not less, disposed to vote for a Democrat for president. And thanks to the careful, quantitative studies of Canadian historian Richard F. Hamilton, we know that the white working class (at least outside the South) is no more racist, and by some measures less so, than the white professional class.
Adapted from Race, Class, and Gender by Margaret Andersen, 2001
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