I Could Have Been David Brooks’s Friend at the Sandwich Shop

Last week David Brooks wrote about America’s increasingly pronounced lack of social mobility. The families into which children are born have always heavily influenced the life chances of those children — more money means better opportunities, despite our comforting (and preposterous) myths of living in a meritocratic, class-less society.

The occasion for Brooks’s reflections is the new book Dream Hoarders, by Richard Reeves. Reeves, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, makes the case that the upper middle class in the United States has solidified its social position by actively excluding 80% of society from joining its ranks. There is nothing particularly new in Reeves’s or Brooks’s observations, except to mark the reality of just how entrenched these social dynamics have become. It is hard to see a clear way out, although in his book Reeves presents several proposals for building a more inclusive society.

Meanwhile, though, everyone is obsessing about David Brooks’s trip to a sandwich shop. Midway through his column there is this now infamous paragraph:

“Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.”

This text has been lampooned mercilessly since the column appeared last week. At McSweeney’s, for instance, Lucy Huber prepared a course catalog for David Brooks’s elite sandwich college.

Brooks has long been a target of mockery, sometimes from his fellow columnists at the Times. Whether that mockery is earned or unearned is in the eye of the beholder. Here, though, I believe it entirely unearned.

The paragraph right after the “sandwich shop” anecdote is this one:

“American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, ‘You are not welcome here.’” (Bold mine)

The sandwich shop anecdote provided the context for this moment of self-reflection on Brooks’s part. People who ridicule this paragraph are lifting it out of context. We can argue about whether this particular anecdote best serves Brooks’s aims, but those aims are more upstanding than his detractors give him credit for.

I did not think about any of this when I first read the column, actually. What I thought instead was, “That friend could have been me.” In high school the fanciest sandwiches I ever ate were from Subway, and I worked at two different Subway shops so that I could get those sandwiches half-off. We served ham and salami, not soppressata or capicollo. Just like his friend, I would not have known what to order. Brooks has a point.