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Around the world, populist movements are gaining traction among the white working class. Meanwhile, members of the professional elite—journalists, managers, and establishment politicians—are on the outside looking in, left to argue over the reasons. In White Working Class, Joan C. Williams, described as having “something approaching rock star status” by the New York Times, explains why so much of the elite’s analysis of the white working class is misguided, rooted in class cluelessness.
Williams explains that many people have conflated “working class” with “poor”—but the working class is, in fact, the elusive, purportedly disappearing middle class. They often resent the poor and the professionals alike. But they don’t resent the truly rich, nor are they particularly bothered by income inequality. Their dream is not to join the upper middle class, with its different culture, but to stay true to their own values in their own communities—just with more money. While white working-class motivations are often dismissed as racist or xenophobic, Williams shows that they have their own class consciousness.
White Working Class is a blunt, bracing narrative that sketches a nuanced portrait of millions of people who have proven to be a potent political force. For anyone stunned by the rise of populist, nationalist movements, wondering why so many would seemingly vote against their own economic interests, or simply feeling like a stranger in their own country, White Working Class will be a convincing primer on how to connect with a crucial set of workers—and voters.
If nothing else, it helped me understand where I should start looking to answer some of the practical questions I have (like which government programs do what). I now have a better understanding (or at least a foundation for an understanding) of why I’m so angry at the poor and the elite. Really, I’m not angry at them — I’m angry at how the government interacts with them.
I’m a class migrant (from poor to working class) and nothing upsets me more than this relentless political and media focus on social issues (like bathrooms for Transgender people) and foreign country relief. I’m more concerned with the issue (or lack thereof) “education-to-work” programs, the lack of incentive for people who are on Welfare programs to get OFF and get jobs. I’m upset with the fact that my partner and I work full-time (both of us) and we can’t afford to own a home, health insurance OR organic food. (Not that we have time to cook anyways.)
We can’t afford to have children, we really can’t afford to “live.” We live to work, not work to live. And we’re doing way better than our class transition (started as working class or poor) college graduate friends, who are still living at home as they can’t make squat for earnings or they can’t get a job in their elected field because we don’t need a million psychologists! We need a freaking electrician. We need plumbers! We need a MIDDLE CLASS!
If nothing else, this book helps me understand my anger at my elite friends when they tell (funny — only to them) stories about being jumped to the front of the emergency room/hospital line because their dad is a doctor or how they purposely flunked out of their first year of college to rebel against their parents (despite their parents paying for them to go to college in some of the most expensive schools in the country). To someone like me, who’s worked for everything I have, I want to slap their faces with something heavy like a Bible. And I’m not even religious. I just feel like that’s an appropriate reaction to such callousness.
I now understand why there is such a major divide between myself and other class migrants like my mother. My mother has migrated all the way from abject poverty to the elite and the culture at our house changed along with her status. The problem is that the rest of her family remains poor or working class. I don’t enjoy spending time with my own mother and now I understand why. Our values systems are totally different for very practical reasons.
If nothing else, this book has helped me understand myself a little better and I hope that understanding will help me understand the world a little better. It’s a start. I’d recommend this book to anyone. I think it’s worth reading. I don’t claim to agree with everything in the book, but I do believe it’s worth being read and discussed.
Edited after the fact to include: I think a lot of people want solutions. After you read this book, I recommend reading Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter (The William E. Massey Sr. lectures in the history of American Civilization) by the same author.
It helped me understand some of the things I want to change (For instance…”A good place to start is with in-depth coverage of the five basic elements for work-family reconciliation: short-term leaves, good, affordable childcare, regulation of work hours; universal health coverage; and a tax system that does not penalize dual-earner families.”) Not saying that’s all we should be thinking about, but it’s nice to have something more to add to the discussion. I feel like identifying the problem and then not providing a solution exasperates me. This has helped me figure out some solutions that might help us grow TOGETHER as a nation.
PSS. I am not affiliated with any political party. It feels like picking sides on the playground. I want to be objective, not popular.