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Order Class Matters: Cross-Class Alliance Building for Middle-Class Activists by Betsy Leondar-Wright (New Society Publishers, 2005).

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Are There Class Cultures?

Betsy Leondar-Wright

Betsy Leondar-Wright

If common culture means that the people would recognize each other as similar — might laugh at the same jokes, talk somewhat alike, have a similar range of habits, etc. — then the answer to the question "Are there class cultures?" seems to be "no". We in the US experience the class system in ways so specific to our age, race, geography, religion, ethnicity and nationality that class alone rarely seems to create that sense of kinship. If poor people from Appalachia and the South Bronx see each other as kin, it's probably as a result of some hard political work to create solidarity, not because of close cultural similarity.

In The Clustering of America, Michael J. Weiss describes the Claritas Corporation's system of dividing all the zip codes in America into 62 types. The high-priced marketing consultations offered by Claritas promise to predict how the people in any zip code will tend to react to a new product or a politician's slogan, based on their neighborhood type.

For example, the suburban area where I grew up is categorized as "Furs and Station Wagons." Then I went to college and lived in a "Towns and Gowns" area, then moved to a "Bohemian Mix" city neighborhood full of counterculture folks. I've had community organizing jobs in "Smalltown Downtown," "Emergent Minorities," and "Public Assistance" neighborhoods.

The 62 types are narrow enough that they each have a particular cultural flavor. Most have a predominant race, a predominant age, and/or a predominant source of income. The people in "Shotguns & Pickups" areas, even in different states, might actually recognize each other as kin. The book arranges the types in order of class privilege (by combining median income, education and home value into a single score). Assuming that Claritas Corporation's research is sound, then it's safe to say that there are about 62 class cultures in the United States.

But 62 is an unwieldy number for class analysis. It's an impractical number for the purposes of having discussions about the group dynamics of a mixed group, or of organizing solidarity among people of a particular class to press for social change. Two to five would be a much more practical number. But dividing up 280 million Americans into just two to five clumps means that there's going to be a lot of diversity in each clump.

Low Income, Working Class, Middle Class, Owning Class

So if class cultures aren't intuitively recognized by the people involved, then it makes sense to step cautiously into generalizing about them. It's easy to fall into stereotypes of people with a particular amount of money or a type of occupation or neighborhood — easy and dangerous. Working class and poor people in particular don't need any more stereotypes of them, given how negatively they are usually portrayed in the media. Rich people are also usually villains in Hollywood portrayals. Sometimes stereotypes are based on a grain of truth unfairly generalized, but I take it for granted that smart versus stupid is not a culture difference but a stereotype.

The romanticization of working-class people I sometimes hear on the left — they're earthy, warm-hearted people with a natural resistance to oppression — is not universal truth either. Even positive stereotypes are harmful for strategic efforts for social change, because our efforts to persuade people will be based on inaccurate understandings of what motivates them. I've heard leftists celebrate economic downturns because they assume that harsher conditions will inevitably cause poor people to rise up in rebellion. That romantic stereotype leads to flawed strategy. The romanticized demonization of all privileged people as cold-hearted, uptight betrayers who collude with oppression is also untrue. Every class includes people whose relationship to injustice is passive acceptance, enthusiastic collusion, individual gut resistance, and collective organizing.

To avoid stereotypes, an experience-based approach is appropriately cautious. I'll attempt to stick to generalizations based in shared experience that socializes people into a class culture.

The clearest examples of a class culture will be families with three or more generations in the same class in the United States. Recent class mobility, recent immigration, and living in the "gray area" between two classes all muddy the waters. Many, perhaps most, people's experience is of a mixed class culture. We will see culture contrasts most clearly if we compare people with long periods in the same class in the same country.

Given all these caveats, are there shared experiences that would define a number of class culture distinctions sufficiently less than 62 to be useful?

Yes, in my experience, I think there are differences of experience that do in fact socialize most American people into one of four distinct cultural groups:

  • chronic poverty,
  • working-class/lower-middle-class,
  • professional middle-class and
  • owning class.

This set of four class culture categories seems to me defensible on materialist grounds. And each one rings true to me from my own experience. My experience is, of course, limited (primarily to progressive activists and to three northeast states), so I put the following class culture generalizations forward humbly, generalizing primarily about activists, and expecting contradictory evidence from others' experience to enrich them. My goal in risking generalizations is to make visible some class-culture-based coalition behaviors and dynamics that are too often invisible.

Steady Work for Different Classes

Differences between activists steadily employed and not

There's an experience that most people have that low-income and owning class people do not: the expectation of and experience of steady employment. Working 35 or more hours a week, 48 or more weeks a year, for 35 or more years — that's what working-class and middle-class men, and in recent decades women too, have been brought up to expect. And that's approximately what the majority of us experience. It's so familiar to us that we forget that not everyone shares our experience. But in fact, not everyone does.

For long-term low-income people, steady work is neither possible nor expected. They live outside what economists call "the primary labor market" of steady jobs, and patch together an inadequate income from public assistance and temporary, under-the-table, part-time, and/or extremely low-paid jobs.

For owning class people, defined as those with enough investment income to support them, steady work is optional, just one choice among many.

Many owning-class people are in fact employed, but with fewer lifetime work hours than working-class and middle-class people. They may travel around for a year or two after college. They may work part-time or run unprofitable businesses doing something they enjoy. Owning-class women are more likely to take extended childrearing leaves.

The class culture of steady workers (in which I include myself) includes pride in our pragmatism and in our disciplined work habits. And these are indeed gifts to be proud of. But lacking the expectation and experience of constant steady work pushes people to be unconventional and to think outside the box in a way that steady workers often lose.

The very expectation of poverty from generations of low-income living can sometimes make activists bolder and more visionary. My long-time low-income friend Michaelann Bewsee started an organization 25 years ago, ARISE for Social Justice, along with 3 other welfare recipients. She started it without any funding, and she has stuck with it for all this time, sometimes getting paid, sometimes not. The organization sticks to whatever the low-income people of Springfield, MA, are concerned about, not shying away from controversial and unfundable issues like needle exchanges. I don't know any working-class or middle-class activists who have done the equivalent.

I do, however, know owning class activists who have done the equivalent, including in my very own workplace. United for a Fair Economy was the brainchild of an owning-class white man, Chuck Collins. Chuck has been the originator of some of UFE's most original programs. He comes into the office with a dozen new ideas every week, some wacky, but some brilliant. I, a child of money-anxious Depression-era parents, come into the office every morning worrying about the length of my task list and how I'll get everything done. It's not that I'm not creative at work, but my creativity usually comes out as solving a problem, not dreaming up something new. Chuck grew up with different expectations than I did about how constrained his life would be, and this freed him up to be a visionary. There are working-class and middle-class visionaries, to be sure, but they are going against their class culture far more than low-income and owning class visionaries are.

Of course, most activists who don't expect to be steadily employed aren't visionaries and don't start organizations, but even so, they tend to be less bound by convention and less deterred by difficulty than steadily employed people. Often when I've felt taken aback by low-income or owning-class activists, it has been because they seem undeterred not just by difficulty, but by impossibility. Middle-class activists often take the necessity of pragmatic compromise for granted, and low-income activists often resist compromise.

When middle-class and working-class people work with low-income or owning-class people, we steady workers find ourselves frequently in the roles of the pragmatist bringing things down to what's realistic. This pragmatic role can add a helpful realism or an unhelpful wet blanket.

Conventional or Unconventional

In my organizing experience, the tensions between working-class people and low-income people — the groups that writer Barbara Jensen calls "settled living" and "hard living" working class people — arise over issues of conventional and unconventional behavior. When I worked as a tenant organizer, there were chronic tensions between the steadily employed or retired tenants and the long-time unemployed or erratically employed tenants on public assistance. The former saw the latter as breaking the rules and getting away with it, and frequently expressed resentment.

And as a welfare rights advocate, I often encountered hostility among steadily employed working-class people towards welfare recipients — not just among socially conservative people, but also people progressive on most other issues, including African Americans and former short-term welfare recipients.

A lot of the confusion about class on the left comes from not understanding this class cultural difference between long-time low-income people and long-time steadily employed people. Often anyone with less class privilege than middle-class is clumped together under the label "working class," or under the label "poor." In part this clumping is done for the progressive goal of valuing poor people and promoting solidarity among all less-privileged people. But it doesn't serve our cause to obscure real differences and real antagonisms just because our opponents might misuse them.

Differences between low-income and owning class activists

Perhaps it seems strange to find similarities in class groups at the polar ends. Can low-income and owning-class people really have cultural traits in common? Both are more commonly unconventional, eccentric, visionary, undeterred by impossibility, and/or impractical than steadily employed people — but what happens to their visions is very different because of their vastly different resources and status.

What does it do to the culture when everyone has money or lacks money? It adds or removes a sense of efficacy and entitlement. A low-income activist told me, "Being rich means that everything works." When the car breaks down, they fix it, or buy a new one. Owning class people, especially white men, can assume that society will respond to their needs and desires.

Being poor, on the other hand, means that things don't reliably work. One thing I've learned from my colleagues living in poverty is the appalling amount of time spent dealing with crises and chaos: moving frequently, avoiding creditors, dealing with transportation breakdowns, crawling through the welfare bureaucracy, and dealing with sick or disabled or addicted family members, arrested and imprisoned family members, depressed or mentally ill family members, violent family members, evicted or just plain broke family members. It takes a lot of resourcefulness just to get through a day.

The psychological effects of constant crisis vary, but I've heard several poor people describe the same feeling: a discouragement that anything can change, resisted mightily, but too often leeching all hope out of the spirit. I've also met angry low-income activists propelled by rage to speak out against conditions harming their families, but a sense of efficacy is a hard-won rarity. Low-income activists tend to see-saw between being lifted up into action by rage and dreams, and being sunk low in discouragement over personal crises and hopelessness.

It's important not to romanticize poverty. I've said that in my experience low-income people are more likely to be unconventional dreamers, but most don't have the time, energy or hope to launch their dreams in any major, outward way. More common are inner dreams — religious, romantic, artistic, or philosophical — with at most small-scale outward expressions. Buying lottery tickets may be the most common expression of a dream. Lower-income people spend more money on gambling than higher-income people, and it usually impoverishes them further. And some ways of being unconventional are, of course, destructive and illegal.

But it's also important not to assume that hardship empties people's minds and hearts. Tracy Chapman may be indulging in wishful thinking when she says "They're talking about a revolution, standing in the unemployment line or those armies of salvation." But it's true that people waiting for buses, waiting in soup kitchen lines, and waiting out prison sentences are not zombies. They don't feel less, don't think less than people who are better off.

When owning class people act on their visions, they have the resources to create them in a bigger way. Here's a portrait of many progressive owning class people I've known: By carefully investing a small inheritance and living simply, they can travel around for years filming footage for the independent documentary of their dreams. Others are writing books, painting, giving away healing services, or starting "businesses" with little likelihood of breaking even.

Four Class Cultural Groups

Contrast all these creative people with this story: An alcoholic and mentally ill woman volunteered for my affordable housing group. Her rent took up virtually all of her SSI check, so she had almost zero discretionary income. But some of it went for a pair of white sneakers and a set of washable markers. Every day she would come in with a new design drawn on the sneaker tops. Sometimes we made her day by ooh-ing and ahh-ing over her new shoe painting.

Both spending years gathering footage for an independent movie and daily shoe painting are ways of expressing dreams that might be unlikely behavior in working-class and middle-class adults. But one has a wider audience than the other, one paints on a bigger canvas than the other.

Owning class people may get lost and confused deciding among their options, they may do things in ungrounded ways, they may sink into addictions in which their money keeps them from hitting bottom. But when they do decide to express their dream, they have far more sense of efficacy than do low-income dreamers, especially if they're male. There's a positive aspect to this — it would be wonderful if every human being felt empowered to express their dreams and had the resources to do it — but there's a negative side as well.

Owning class people can often self-fund their dreams, and so they get less feedback and have fewer external constraints from funders and collaborators. This freedom can lead to delusions of grandeur, particularly among men, a belief that one's own project is better or more important than it is, and an unrealistic expectation that others will fill one's needs. I would sum up the positive sense of empowerment and the negative sense of arrogance in the word "entitlement." Low-income activists' good ideas too often go nowhere; owning-class activists' bad ideas too often don't flop.

So there are discouraged unconventional people constrained to paint on a small canvas at one end of the class spectrum, and entitled unconventional people painting on a big canvas at the other end.

Differences between working-class/lower-middle-class and professional middle-class activists

I've proposed the experience or lack of steady employment as a dividing line between class cultures. But what divides steadily employed people into different class cultures? Is there a common experience that socializes more and less privileged people differently, one that is materially based enough to cause class cultural differences consistent across race, religion and geography boundaries?

Yes. I think one life experience is key: the expectation of and experience of four-year residential college.

Going away to college is an assumed rite of passage for more privileged middle-class kids, those with parents in professional and managerial occupations. It's an experience that professional middle-class people share with owning-class people, and it helps connect them in a common privileged worldview.

Others enroll in college as well, of course. But living at home, taking community college courses while working and/or parenting, is not the same total-immersion experience as four-year residential college. As bell hooks, Barbara Jensen and others have written, residential college is perceived as crossing a class boundary for many working class and lower-middle-class kids who are the first in their families to go to college. People who have left home, lived on campus, been full-time students and earned BA or BS degrees then afterwards recognize each other as culturally similar, whether old or young, rural or urban, middle-class or owning-class, white or people of color.

How does going away to college change someone? First and most basically, it means leaving home and spending four years with a large group of age-peers. It also means an immersion into abstract thinking and book-learning. It means having a flexible, self-coordinated schedule with some free time. And, of course, it then opens up options in professions that incorporate abstract thinking and flexible schedules.

College, whether residential or not, tends to have a homogenizing, assimilating effect. It typically means exposure to a rational secular worldview, and in fact college graduates are less religious on average than working class people.

Rooted and unrooted are words that sum up these differences. US-born working class people are more likely to live where they grew up, or if they moved, to have moved as a family, not solo. They are more likely to live near extended family, and to have more frequent contact with the older generations of their family — their ancestral roots. (Of course, this isn't true of working class solo immigrants, who have been uprooted from their entire societies.) There has been more geographic mobility in recent decades, but a working-class young adult is likely to have been raised and socialized by traditionally rooted people, whether that's his or her own experience or not. Working-class and lower-middle-class people are also more likely to have strong ethnic and/or religious identities.

Besides these obvious kinds of roots, working-class and lower-middle-class people tend to have pragmatic knowledge rooted primarily on their own experience (as opposed to book learning). They also tend to be rooted in the sense of having their time constrained by work schedules imposed by others. With fewer options, they are often rooted as in "stuck," unable to leave an undesirable job or neighborhood.

Professional middle-class people and owning class people tend to be "unrooted" because prior generations may have left behind distinct ethnic cultures. Then they unroot themselves further by leaving their families to go to college, often never returning to their hometowns. Professional middle-class work schedules are more mobile, less rooted in schedules set by others. They have more options and can more easily move on to a new job or home. Professional middle-class people also unroot their minds by filling them with book knowledge that exceeds and supercedes their own lived experience.

Professional middle-class kids are each other's competitors to get into college, and then are age-segregated for four years with peers who are also competitors for professional success. Self-worth among college-educated middle-class people often rests on feeling smarter than other people — a major obstacle to cross-class alliance building!

Attributes of Different Class Cultures

Combining the gifts of all class cultures

Each of these class cultures was formed as a creative coping mechanism in social conditions that were oppressive to varying degrees, and each gives both gifts and limitations. None should be regarded as the ideal. Current class arrangements do not encourage the best in any of us to thrive. The liberal assimilation worldview sees the goal as making low-income people more similar to middle-class people. But in fact, the process of humanization is just as rocky a path for more privileged people.

Our movements will be stronger if they include the strengths of each class culture. Rather than reacting with judgment to activists of other class backgrounds, an attitude of welcoming gifts and giving a hand with limitations will make collaboration possible. Hearing each other's stories and understanding the experiences that formed each other's class cultures will enable us to become better cross-class bridgers.

But if activists treat everyone as "equal," without recognizing institutional advantages and disadvantages, we will replicate society's class and race oppression in our movements. To be able to organize successfully, low-income and working-class activists need more of the resources they are short on: money, decision-making roles, skills and information. Middle-class and owning-class activists need to share their resources and learn to follow the leadership of those without class privilege. And we need to realize that our motivation to be allies is not some kind of nice political correctness, but increasing the size and effectiveness of the movements we care about.