By Sherry Lee Linkon and John Russo
American culture has a continuing problem with public discourse about race. From critiques about labeling those displaced by Hurricane Katrina as “refugees,” to questions about the portrayal of the African-American women in the Duke rape case, to the most recent dust up over Don Imus’ degrading comments about the Rutgers basketball players, critics have been wringing their hands over the persistence of racist images and attitudes.
In postmortem discussions of the Imus case, several critics have noted that the problem isn’t limited to race. Harvey Fierstein pointed out, in a New York Times op-ed, that we have similar difficulties with sexuality, and Thomas Friedman made the case about our problems talking about religion. Prejudice, it seems, is an equal opportunity disease.
Yet negative images of the working class are almost never challenged. Class is the element of the American social hierarchy that we most often ignore, in part because it makes us even more uncomfortable than race or sexuality. After all, we don’t expect anyone to change their race. But we do expect others and ourselves, for that matter, to change our class. America is all about opportunity, and popular images of class remind us daily that if you’re not getting ahead, you have only yourself to blame. And if it’s your fault that you’re still working class, then we don’t have to worry about whether the system is fair.
Erasing class accomplishes this damaging little two-step by insisting that, when it comes to opportunity and power, we are all more or less the same. As Jack Metzgar has argued, the American class vernacular mistakenly persuades us that if we’re not poor or very rich, then we’re middle class. That implies that someone making $30,000 a year has the same interests and opportunities as someone making $150,000. It doesn’t take an expert economist to tell you how wrong that is.
Even critics who take on economic and social policies that harm the working class almost never couch their positions in those terms. Lou Dobbs defines the problem as “the war on the middle class.” Nearly every politician speaking out about health care and jobs claims to be defending the middle class. But the people who are most hurt by outsourcing and the health care crisis are the working class, even as economic changes are forcing many in the middle class into working class jobs.
For the most part, the working class is simply absent in American public discourse. According to a study by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), network news shows devote less than 2% of air time to workers’ issues. In prime-time network TV shows between 1946 and 1990, only 11% of families were working-class. The working class is present on TV today primarily as victims or perpetrators of crime, or simply as extras in the background in hospital waiting rooms or on street corners.
When we do see the working class, the images reinforce the myths of the class vernacular. As Pepi Leistyna argues in his film, Class Dismissed, sitcoms, reality shows, and afternoon talk shows explain why the working-class can’t get ahead: they’re stupid, lazy, out-of-control, overweight, badly dressed, and in some cases just plain crazy. The King of Queens won’t take the test to become a manager, because his dream job is to be a bartender – and he can’t even do that high-level job well. Jeff Foxworthy and the rest of the Blue Collar TV crew remind us that being working-class is all a matter of personal choices: you might be a redneck if you invest in commemorative plates instead of stocks, and whose fault is it if you make such a foolish choice?
In the news, the working class is presented as a problem for business. GM and Ford can only survive, we’re told, by buying out the contracts of long-time workers, and WalMart can only provide low prices by having nearly everything in the store manufactured in China, because American workers are just too expensive. Ironically, of course, Americans need low-cost goods because our wages have stagnated and jobs with good wages have disappeared. What’s a laid-off worker to do? Retrain. But meanwhile, federal grants to help lower-income students go to college have been cut.
Of course, American culture can’t survive without the working class. Not only do they ring up our groceries, clean our offices, and deliver our packages, they also do other kinds of dirty work. We love the working-class when they’re being good team players. Sports commentators praise the tough working-class values of the offensive linemen who toil in anonymity so the “skilled players” can receive the headlines, trophies, and ESPN interviews. We honor the soldiers – many of them working-class kids who enlisted because they couldn’t find good jobs – who have the discipline and dedication to keep fighting in Iraq while more privileged people attend anti-war rallies.
What’s to be done? First, we need to teach our children how to read the media, so they will understand how popular images teach us to blame ourselves for problems that are structural, not individual. But we also need changes in the media and public discourse. We need more commentators and journalists in the mainstream press to pay attention to the working class and to tell their stories from their perspective. We need our politicians to say the words, not just address the issues. As Jesse Jackson argued several years ago, we need a national conversation about class, just as much as we need one about race.
Sherry Lee Linkon and John Russo are the Co-Directors, Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University.