I had a lot of mixed feelings reading Joan C. Williams’ White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America.
First of all, I initially only intended to read one chapter that focused on the working-class and education access in the United States. I’ve been doing research into this subject recently and I had it on good authority that this chapter contained useful and illuminating information. And it did – Williams does an excellent job proving not only why college isn’t the solution most in the professional-managerial elite, or PME, as Williams calls them, think it is but why it isn’t even necessarily a solution to those who do pursue a college degree. I certainly learned a lot, including how ignorant I was about how working class culture plays an immense role in shaping working class perception of higher education as a whole. For example, polls and studies (which Williams cites extensively) have shown that family and togetherness (both in an emotional and literal sense) is by far more important to working-class individuals than to those in the PME, and so working class parents don’t necessarily encourage their kids to pursue a degree on the other side of the country that likely won’t even help their chances at economic success…but that’s another story.
So yes, that chapter was useful, but I almost returned the book to the library as soon as I finished it.
Why? Because I was turned off by the title, which indicated it would focus strictly on the white working class (as if only white people are part of the working class) and would offer yet another (possibly) well-intentioned yet patronizing analysis of working class people as if they were another species as opposed to fellow human beings.
In short, I was concerned that the book would:
- Turn a discussion about the challenges facing the working class into one about only one portion of that class (i.e. white people), which would likely make the discussion about the important subject of race but ignore the economic issues entirely, or see them as secondary when both issues are, in many ways, inextricably linked.
- Blame the working class for Trump. Plenty of people have done this already, despite the fact that there is plenty of evidence that Trump’s supporters aren’t solely members of the working class, let alone the working class when we include people other than white men and women.
- On a related note, I was afraid Williams’ argument would fall into the victim/oppressor paradigm that so many discussions on this subject fall into. That is, either blaming the working class for everything wrong in America or, just as foolishly, treat them like misguided and ignorant at best or willful idiots at worst. Either way, the result is a patronizing view that sees the working class as one which elites need to tell what is in their best interests.
However, because I found the education chapter so useful, I decided to give it a try, all the while keeping in mind these three concerns.
In the end, I’d say Williams does a pretty damn good job walking an incredibly delicate line. And she does so all while castigating too many in the PME for holding the patronizing view I was afraid this book might itself exemplify.
First, as far as the issue of race goes, Williams does not focus solely on white people, as the title would imply (on that note, I’d recommend you check out this great segment by Samantha Bee that addresses the tendency of the media to frame the working class as nothing but white people, and usually men who are coal miners at that). In fact, I think the title is misleading and perhaps the book would have been better if it didn’t confine itself, at least nominally, to white people. Of course, a counterargument to that would be that there are problems specific to the white working class, or where race is a useful issue to raise.
I particularly liked lines like the following:
“When it comes to attitudes toward government programs, working-class African-Americans differ from whites in an important way: African-Americans understand the structural nature of inequality.”
Williams does this over and over, stressing racial differences when those differences help account for ideological discrepancies between groups who, in every meaningful respect, face the same challenges as members of the same class.
Things got a little trickier for me when I read what Williams had to say about the way we teach civics (if we teach it at all). She explains that, when she was young, her civics class, “gave a distinctly celebratory view of American institutions: the Constitution and separation of powers, the Bill of Rights’ guarantees of freedom of speech and religion, the presumption of innocence, and trial by jury.” But by the time she attended college, “the new social history shifted to social movements and oppressed groups. That shaped the way American school children are taught history. Celebrating our democracy went out of fashion.”
Now, at this point, I immediately thought, “Hold on a second – why frame it this way? Why is addressing the heroic actions of social movements and oppressed groups, who have only sought to enjoy the same American institutions that were focused on in her younger days, incompatible with a ‘celebratory view’ of our history? And why is it evidence of “celebrating our democracy [going out] of fashion”? Isn’t talking about social movements itself a celebration of democracy? Plus, if we only focus on the good, that isn’t civics but nationalism, and one that willfully ignores Americans whose freedom of speech and religion has never been fully respected, or who are shot in the streets or choked to death rather than given a trial by jury, let alone the presumption of innocence. Civics doesn’t have to only stress the worst aspects of America, but it shouldn’t only stress the good, either. We should confront America as it is, not as we choose to see it. Otherwise, we’ll never be able to improve it so that it truly deserves a celebratory view from all of us.”
Then I read the next few paragraphs, which included the following:
“I have devoted my life to gender and race issues; I’m not suggesting that we abandon the social history curriculum completely. But we need to make sure all Americans know not only the ways our system has failed but also the ways it’s succeeded – if progressives want to keep the social gains we’ve made in the past 50 years.”
And, “We can [teach civics] without descending into jingoism or nationalism.”
So…okay…I guess we’re good.
Similarly, when talking about ways the PME could talk more effectively with white working class people, she emphasizes that, “Does that mean abandoning people of color? Of course not. We must not assume a zero-sum game: that if we care about gender, we don’t care about race; and if we care about race, we don’t care about class. Claiming we can only focus on only one issue at a time also ignores people who belong to more than one group, such as black women or working-class LGBTQ people.”
My assessment, overall, is that Williams does an admirable job of navigating incredibly tricky waters. On the one hand, as I’ve already said, I think it’s necessary and helpful to focus on the working-class as a whole rather than divide it up further, which is something those who are most eager to attack and undermine the working-class are already only too happy to do. Then again, ignoring differences in the experiences and history of different racial groups runs the risk of perpetuating injustices against historically disenfranchised groups. And as far as communicating with the working class in a non-patronizing way, this is one of Williams’ biggest challenges, since the entire book is basically premised on the idea that the white working class is a distinct entity that can and should be treated a particular way.
So did I like the book? I certainly found it interesting and it inspired me to seek out more books on the working-class, particularly those written by non-white authors so that I can assess where the book seems accurate and where it might fall astray. And going into the book with such a suspicious attitude is something that was helpful as well and reminded me that, particularly when it comes to topics we already feel confident about, I should approach any text with that same attitude. For that alone, I’m grateful I read this book, which explores racial and economic factors in the lives of working-class Americans – a class that grows by the day and faces more challenges than ever.
This book isn’t the final word on this topic, nor does it address every facet that should be addressed.
But hopefully, like me, you’ll find it a useful start.
So go read it now.