#8 Class: Meditations for a New Year
Until recently, it was a forbidden subject that no American wanted to discuss. In fact, it was often viewed as un-American, this notion of class. Somehow, even though we always knew there were the rich, the poor, and everyone in between, Americans were stubborn in thinking of themselves as a classless society.
Well maybe not classless, but certainly a middle class society. Everyone was middle class, no matter where you lived, where you went to school or what kind of job you held.
Didn’t we all watch the same TV shows? Didn’t we all root for our local sports teams? Weren’t we all intent on achieving the same American dream?
The homogenization of mainstream pop culture in the post WWII era helped promote this idea. There were three TV networks that everyone watched. There was a unified devotion to Top 40 hits. We all tuned into the yearly broadcast of the Wizard of Oz and to the World Series.
But no, even in this imagined former America, class was still insidiously at work. The culture, and its curation of only a few choices for the populous, just lulled us into this false sense that we were one people with a shared experience of middle class life complete with barbecues, Halloween costumes, and Christmas tree lights. That’s the America that I guess people think of when they yearn to make us “great again.”
But peek behind the facade and a different picture emerges — one of rural poverty, inner city unemployment, hunger, and racial segregation. Not so great this America when you have no idea how you’re gonna replace the shoes your kids have outgrown.
I grew up in what you might call a community of working and lower middle class families, most of whom were headed by white (mostly Jewish) male veterans of WW II, who not only had the GI Bill to fall back on for their education, but the opportunity to buy into a co-op garden apartment in a beautiful new area in northeast Queens. This was our opportunity to own a sliver of the pie, not quite the same as buying a house, but more than renting.
My dad worked a blue collar job as a printer and my mother gave up her job as a key punch supervisor for a clothing company when she had me. My dad worked in various print shops until his industry transitioned from letterpress to offset printing, and as a guy in his 50s, he was deemed too old by his union to re-train. (This was before the Age Discrimination in Employment Act was passed, which would have protected him.)
So he hustled from print shop to print shop, driving over 50 miles each way to eastern Long Island at one point, ‘til one day fate smiled upon him and his friend offered to make him a partner in a small courier business he owned. When the friend died shortly thereafter, my dad took over the business, delivering packages from a financial printing company to Wall Street firms. He was now delivering the documents he could no longer print.
Money was a constant topic in our household, but it was also our biggest secret. I was told repeatedly never to talk about it outside the family.
Still, we were not poor. We went out for cheap dinners every Sunday night. I had guitar lessons and bought records with my babysitting money. I always had clothes and there was always food.
In my neighborhood, blue collar families like the Kramdens on The Honeymooners or even Wilma and Fred Flintstone seemed normal (as in “just like us”). It was the Cleavers on Leave It to Beaver or the Stones on The Donna Reed Show with their large houses and perfect families that seemed like make believe.
In my neighborhood, there weren’t summer homes or European vacations or expensive sleep away camps, but we didn’t feel deprived because we were all the same.
Then I went to a private university on a patched together quilt of scholarships, loans and work study. It was there that I met upper middle class kids for the first time. These were the kids whose fathers wore ties to work, who lived in big suburban houses, and who did not have the pronounced Queens accent that marked me as different. I had pooh-poohed my high school’s college advisor when she told me that the hardest adjustment I’d have to make in college was being teased about my accent. But alas she was right.
Except she never explained anything to me about class and why my accent was a marker of it. I’m not sure I would have gotten it, but it might have shed some light on the various rude awakenings I was in for.
In this current election cycle, it appears that the media is slowly opening itself up to talking about class. Trump’s voters are tagged as “white working class” or its synonym, “white no college.” Apparently people of color are classless as far as the media is concerned, though when you read more sophisticated analyses (thank you Ta-Nehisi Coates) the point is made that race and class are almost impossible to disentangle, except where racial oppression exists across all levels of class.
But there’s no getting away from the fact that not all boats have been lifted with the rising tide of economic recovery since 2008, or that factory jobs are in sharp decline, or that the economic buoyancy once provided by union membership has been almost eliminated as conservatives have prevailed with their anti-union narrative.
All of these factors, and others, have resulted in a brand of “white working class” despair we’re regularly hearing about (while the media takes a break from covering the ongoing shootings of young Black men and the ongoing attacks against American Muslims). But it is important to acknowledge that this despair is real, as real as the alcoholism and the Oxycontin addiction that is responsible for the spike in the mortality rate of white, middle aged working class women (i.e., the person I might have grown up to be had I not had certain advantages).
In 1973 Jonathan Cobb and Richard Sennett wrote a book called The Hidden Injuries of Class, in which they profiled the working class community of South Boston. I worked in South Boston for a number of years in the 1980s at a consulting firm run by two women. At one point we hired a high school student from the neighborhood Catholic school to do filing and other simple office tasks. She lived across from our office in the D Street public housing development. She was on track to be the first in her family to graduate from high school. She was a good worker and was well liked by our staff.
One day, she told us she had to quit. Her family felt she was getting too “big for her britches,” what with this strange job and the prospect of graduation. She needed to be home watching the younger children. Perhaps that was out of necessity, but it wasn’t how she communicated it. It was clear from what she told us that there was a need to take her down a notch. We never heard from her again.
You can’t escape the hidden injuries of class. And if you manage to do so, you are both estranged from your roots and never quite comfortable in your new environs. Maybe at that point you have truly achieved classlessness. And it doesn’t feel good.
These meditations are inspired by the Prepent series by Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie of the Lab Shul which consists of 40 daily letters to himself as a lead up to the Jewish New Year.
Here’s the full list:
Mindfulness & the Year Ahead * Family * Children * Grandchildren *Spouse* Love * Writing * Tikkum Olam * Social Justice * Community * Faith * Judaism * Curating * Ideology * Progress * Friends * Movies * Reading *Division * Politics * Class * Israel * Aging * Body * Food * Money * Charity & Philanthropy * Gender * Shoah * Forgiveness * Worship * Education * Introversion * Sexuality * Accountability * Sin