Notes on the Myth of Working Class Racism (1)

In Fear of Falling (Pantheon: 1989), her magnum opus, Barbara Ehrenreich charted the rise of the class consciousness of what she called the professional middle class. This is the articulate class that monopolizes the academy, the media, the elite professions, and all positions of authority in business and government. In short, it controls all of symbolic production in modern American society. And in as much as modern society is characterized by the rule of experts, decision-making is concentrated in this class. We shall therefore call it the hegemonic class. The calling card of this class is expertise — the source of authority of scientists, doctors, lawyers, economists, psychologists, professors, editors, and so on and so forth. But merely expertise is not diagnostic, for there is plenty of expertise within the working class. Indeed, it is the working class that makes everything — that’s where most of the knowhow that constitutes our aggregate human capital resides. But precisely because the hegemonic class is hegemonic, the knowledge of the manual worker, say a machinist, is held to be inferior to the so-called knowledge worker.

No, what is diagnostic about this class is that, alone among the social classes, membership in this class must be renewed in each generation through the fresh effort and commitment of the individual. The rich can pass on their wealth regardless of the talent of their children. The kids of the working class too join their parents’ class effortlessly as it were, merely by belonging to the family and the situated community.  Whereas in the hegemonic class, Ehrenreich writes,

no one escapes the requirements of self-discipline and self-directed labor; they are visited, in each generation, upon the young as they were upon the parents.

This existential fact dictates the reproductive strategy of this class. The principal sites of reproduction are therefore child rearing and higher education. The two sites serve as the focal points of the hegemonic class’s zealous attention and most profound desires. Helicopter parenting and the fight to the death for college admissions is just the tip of the iceberg. The parents of this class would do just about anything to see their class reproduced. It is within the parameters of this strategy of class reproduction that the fights over access to the ladder for the hitherto-dominated unfolded.

Source: IPUMS, author’s calculations.

As college graduation rates across the race and gender binaries increased, women and minorities began knocking harder and harder at the fortresses of the hegemonic class. The great achievement of the rights revolution was to open up the hegemonic class to those who had hitherto been locked out.

Source: IPUMS, author’s calculations.

While racial equity in access to the class ladder is still a work in progress, the class project of second wave feminism was largely successful; at least in terms of access — much work still remains on pay equity. In Human Diversity (Grand Central Publishing: 2020), Charles Murray has a fascinating graph that shows that this class-feminist project had run its course by the late-1980s. Thereafter, female participation in professional occupations stabilized along lines suggested by sex differences in interest.

Murray people-jobs thing-jobs.png
Source: Murray (2020).

Back to Ehrenreich. She begins her narrative at midcentury, where she finds the hegemonic class literally basking in its achievements; thinking itself alone in America; oblivious to the existence of other social classes. In the perception of the hegemonic class at midcentury, there were no classes at all in America. There were only some people undergoing temporary hardship — soon expected to join the great middle class at suburban barbecues — and a sprinkling of the rich, who were of no consequence to the great affairs of the nation. She describes how the hegemonic class discovered to its great surprise, the existence, first of the poor, and then the working class in the 1960s. The first was triggered by John F. Kennedy’s poverty tour through Appalachia and soon led to the war on poverty; yielding the complex of stereotypes, since faithfully reproduced, associated with the ‘culture of poverty’.

The second was much more consequential, and more to the point, relevant to the task at hand today. In one of the most penetrating work of cultural history, Ehrenreich interprets the youth revolt as the sudden failure of reproduction of the hegemonic class. Why had the children revolted? fearful middle class parents asked each other. What had caused them to abandon the self-mastery so diligently taught over two decades in suburban homes? Where had they failed? The hegemonic class soon came to the conclusion that they had been too permissive — if only they had been more willing to wield the whip now and then, maybe the children wouldn’t have rebelled against the civilization forged by the hegemonic class. [The college dropout rates were so high in the late-1960s that one can read them off the college graduation rate. The decline begins with the birth cohort of 1949, ie the cohort that would enter college in 1967.]

Source: IPUMS, author’s calculations.

The unprecedented affluence of the postwar years had created, for the first time in history, a new class of consumers, the teenagers. Mad men began to court this market; in the process creating a shared identity centered on liberation from authority. (They were just trying to sell them stuff.) It was through this channel that the children of the hegemonic class were seduced by the culture of the lower class — particularly the black underclass where rock ‘n roll originated — to the utter astonishment of the buttoned-up middle class parents.

The Kennedy escalationthe greatest geopolitical gamble of American social democracy at midcentury — had come to grief in the jungles of South Vietnam. The children of the hegemonic class had broken out in outright rebellion. The youth revolt generated not only fear in the heart of the hegemonic class but also great revulsion in the forgotten working class that constituted the overwhelming majority of the populace; patriots to the last man. They wanted nothing more than to see some hippie asses kicked. This is precisely what obtained in Chicago. As rioting broke out at the Democratic National Convention in 1968, Mayor Daley’s police resorted to indiscriminate and unrestrained violence; beating up whoever came on site; including a number of convention delegates, reporters and cameramen. The agenda-setting New York press was horrified. They began baying for blood. The editors of all major newspapers telegraphed their protest to Mayor Daley. Then something very peculiar happened.

Polls taken immediately after the convention showed that the majority of Americans—56 percent—sympathized with the police, not with the bloodied demonstrators or the press. … As bumper stickers began to appear saying “We support Mayor Daley and his Chicago police,” the national media awoke to the disturbing possibility that they had grown estranged from a sizable segment of the public. “I was stunned by the public reaction to Chicago,” said NBC’s documentary producer Shad Northshield. “We all were. I was stunned, astonished, hurt. It’s the key thing that opened my eyes to the cleavage between newsmen and the majority.” Media leaders moved quickly to correct what they now came to see as their “bias.” They now felt they had been too sympathetic to militant minorities (a judgment the minorities might well have contested). Henceforth they would focus on the enigmatic—and in Richard Nixon’s famous phrase—silent majority. The switch was announced in the trade journal Editor and Publisher and, on the same day, September 27, 1969, in TV Guide, in an article that quoted one penitent network official after another: “We didn’t know it [the white, adult majority] was there!” one admitted. “The world doesn’t end at the Hudson,” another claimed to have discovered.

This discovery of the working class by the hegemonic class had profound and immediate consequences. Most immediately, media and intellectual attention shifted decisively to the working class.

The Nixon administration commissioned a task force on “The Problem of the Blue-Collar Worker.” … The Ford Foundation, which had been generously funding African American community activism, suddenly switched its attention to white ethnic groups and devoted a January 1970 staff conference to “the blue-collar problem.” Writers and academics moved quickly to fill in the general ignorance with books and studies, some of them—such as The White Majority, Middle Class Rage, The Radical Center, and The Troubled American—quite thoughtful and sensitive. And in the fall and winter of 1969, every major news magazine ran a cover story on the “middle Americans,” the “troubled Americans,” or the “forgotten Americans.” … “Now the pendulum of public attention is in the midst of one of those great swings that profoundly change the way the nation thinks about itself,” Newsweek announced …. Time was more honest, explaining that the “Middle Americans” were “‘discovered’ first by politicians and the press,” and attributing this belated discovery to a “pervasive discontent” and, mysteriously, to “the character and achievements of the astronauts.” U.S. News and World Report merely observed that “the common man is beginning to look like a Very Important Person indeed” ….

But the most important consequence, one that is still very much in play, was the emergence of the stereotype of the white working class as dumb, reactionary, intolerant and bigoted. Per the media chorus, ‘a blue-collar vanguard was leading Middle American in its shift to the right’. But there were voices of dissent on the left. The Nation criticized the mainstream media for reporting ‘loosely and inaccurately’ on social groups they saw as ‘anthropological subjects’. The authors of the The American Melodrama, objected to the portrait of the working class as ‘the vanguard of reaction’:

By repeating the rather comforting doctrine that racial hostility was to be found among the working class and particularly among…“the ethnics,” rather than among “people of substantial place and means,” the media were spreading an unproven simplification and one that was in danger of being self-verifying.

Despite the warnings from the saner corner of the hegemonic class, there was no stopping the stereotype from becoming received wisdom. Seymour Martin Lipset had set the tone already in his 1959 essay, ‘Working Class Authoritarianism’. The myth of working class authoritarianism would be picked up again by political scientists in the aftermath of the catastrophe of 2016 — although without the overt classism. But it had no basis in reality.

Thanks to the work of historian Richard F. Hamilton, we know now, for example, that Nazism was not a movement of the “masses”—the lower middle class or working class—but received its strongest backing from wealthy urbanites and the rural gentry. Similarly, Hamilton has shown that other notorious outbreaks of “authoritarianism” and intolerance, such as lynchings in the American South or McCarthyism in the 1950s, tended to be initiated by the wealthy and only later embraced by the lower classes. In an exhaustive analysis of American survey and voting data from the late forties through the sixties, he found no significant or consistent evidence for any inherent working-class authoritarianism, intolerance, or hostility to democratic norms.

Facts are no hindrance to discursive cycles, which can last even longer than the longest financial cycles.

Introductory sociology textbooks published in the seventies solemnly repeated the prejudices Lipset had dignified as political science: Blue-collar people are “more ethnocentric, more authoritarian, and more isolationist than people at higher levels,” instructed Sociology. In another introductory text we find that the “lower-blue-collar” person is “reluctant to meet new people and new situations, to form new social relationships, and above all, to initiate contact with strangers. On the contrary, he values and seeks out, more than anybody else, the routine, the familiar, the predictable.”… One text, published in 1972, went so far as to suggest that the official stereotypes might have their own real existence in the eye of the sociological observer. First, the student is given the familiar summary of lower- or working-class traits: “He usually has little ability to take another person’s point of view” (as opposed, of course, to the middle-class author). “His perspective is limited, and so is his ability to understand the world around him.” He is “traditionalistic, ‘old-fashioned’…patriarchal.” In fact, “not many of these people are given to ‘listening to reason.’”

As we shall see, contemporary social scientists faithfully reproduce the myth. But it has been more than 50 years since the discovery of the working class. How could the myth persist decade after decade?

As Richard F. Hamilton observed in Class and Politics in the United States, also published in 1972, the myth of working-class intolerance and authoritarianism is one of the most cherished beliefs of American sociologists. Even when confronted with directly contradictory evidence, they will simply assert their class-based prejudices. For example, a 1966 study on occupational mobility and racial tolerance cited evidence that “the higher one’s class of origin or class of destination the more likely that one prefers to exclude Negroes from one’s neighborhood.” But the authors refused “to contemplate seriously” that such an unflattering finding could be true. Hamilton comments that “years of training” in effect brainwash sociologists into a kind of “perceptual distortion,” whereby they see only such data as seem to support their preconceived notions: “It seems likely that such perceptual distortion goes on continuously, social scientists either ‘not seeing’ contrary evidence…or, if seeing it, not remembering it.”

Ehrenreich goes on to document the distorted representation of the working class in film and television. But at some point we must take her leave. In a series of brilliant articles, Richard Butsch has comprehensively documented the astonishingly biased and contemptuous representation of working class white men in American sitcoms over the entire postwar period. [The following excerpts are from Butsch (2017).]

[American domestic sitcoms] have repeatedly presented the same image of working-class men, which have become taken for granted as real, which dovetail with similar assumptions about class in other institutions and discourses that “discipline and punish,” and which comfort higher classes by confirming their superiority, and shame lower classes for their inadequacies and failures. … Overall through the seven decades, upper-middle-class sitcoms were far more numerous, over-representing that class. On the other hand, working-class families were relatively scarce—roughly ten percent of all domestic sitcoms—even though manual workers constituted over half the labor force. The proportion of working-class sitcoms ebbed and flowed, but until recently were no more than a small percent of sitcoms. Gerbner and Gross (1976) called such absences, especially the contrast, a form of symbolic annihilation. Invisibility implies that such people are not worthy of representation, uninteresting, boring, etc. At the same time, the over-representation of the upper-middle class normalized it as the universal American family experience. Illustrating this normalization, colleagues from working-class backgrounds have recounted to me how they, as children, watched and wished that their family were like those middle-class sitcom families. Even when working-class shows did multiply, the characterizations did not affirm the capability, admirability, or respectability of working-class men, but quite the contrary. In the small percent of sitcom series that depicted working-class families, there has been a striking consistency, especially in representing working-class men.

Working class men.png
Source: Butsch (2017).

In almost all working-class sitcoms, however, comedy centers on a Fool, and he is almost always the male breadwinner. He is a buffoon or bungler, often well-meaning and warm-hearted, but incompetent, immature, ignorant, irresponsible. They are the opposites of models for their children to emulate. He is played against his wife and children, who typically are more sensible, competent, mature, and intelligent. The children will not follow his footsteps into a manual labor job, but will go to college and rise into the professional/managerial upper-middle class. The comedy of these shows is based on laughing at the man. These patterns shift over time and in some cases characterizations become more three dimensional and less stereotypic. But the stock characters of the working-class male buffoon and the middle-class super-parents continued for the most part unaltered. The overall effect is a consistent and unfavorable contrast between working-class men and their wives and children, and between them and middle-class men.

Middle class men.png
Source: Butsch (2017).

The stereotype of the working class is not a conspiracy of the hegemonic class. Rather it is a predictable consequence of the concentration of symbolic production in the hands of the hegemonic class. Just as Europeans monopolized the representation of all ‘anthropological races’ in the heyday of high racialism as a result of extreme polarization in capabilities at the moment of peak divergence, the hegemonic class has monopolized the representation of all social classes as a straightforward consequence of its monopoly on the means of symbolic production. Put another way, the stereotype persists because of the secular decline of working class institutions; above all, working class newspapers and associations capable of organizing symbolic production at scale. Put yet another way, the persistence of the stereotype is due to the cultural desertification of Middle America.

So much for the preliminary notes. Let’s get on with some data analysis. These days no one, at least no one outside the fringe, would dare confess to outright racism. So social scientists have resorted to ingenious ways to trick people into revealing their implicit racism. Since the rise of Boasian antiracism as the dominant ideology of the hegemonic class, it is not even necessary to mine for actual acts or discourse of racial prejudice. Mere proxies suffice to elicit the familiar tsk-tsk and attendant self-congratulation. The cutting-edge weapon in the antiracist social science arsenal is “symbolic racism.” Survey respondents are asked how strongly they agree or disagree with the following statement:

Irish, Italian, and Jewish American overcame prejudice and worked their way up without any special favors. African-Americans should do the same.

To antiracist ears, which by now means practically the whole of the hegemonic class, anyone who even mildly agrees with the statement is ipso facto racist; whence the terminology. But all that the question is really doing is mining a central feature of the meaning-making of the white working class, of Lamont’s ‘disciplined self,’ that holds self-reliance in high regard and regards handouts or special favors for anyone — including, and especially, ‘hard living’ whites — as morally questionable. To a person or community playing by the script of the disciplined self, yes, blacks too should get ahead with their own hard work. This doesn’t make them racist. Most working class whites hold their own hard working black coworkers in high regard. Indeed, to regard it as prima fascie evidence of racism is equivalent to regarding any departure from the liberal orthodoxy as evidence of racism.

Edsall’s latest led me to the work of Benjamin Knoll (cited in Setzler’s fascinating new paper “Measuring Bias against Female Political Leadership”). Knoll used the 2010 Hawkeye Poll to figure out something quite interesting. I managed to replicate his work using the data to the last reported decimal. All data below is from the Hawkeye Poll obtained from Harvard Dataverse.

As we’ve argued before and is fast becoming orthodoxy among number crunchers, education is the best proxy for social class. From what I argued at the beginning of this essay, it follows that higher education is the strongest proxy for the hegemonic class. Meanwhile, it is unusual for someone from working class communities to obtain a college diploma, although many get associate diplomas and certificates from trade schools. We restrict attention to non-Hispanic whites and throw out the few observations we have of survey respondents without a high school diploma. Our culled data consist of N=601 survey respondents from a nationally representative sample. We may think of the three classes we are working with as the working class, the lower-middle class, and the upper-middle class — the hegemonic class sensu stricto. We have 382 respondents with a high school diploma but without a college degree; 166 with a BA but no more; and 107 with at least an MA. The wider standard errors of the latter below are due to the smaller sample sizes.

“Symbolic racism” is strikingly prevalent in the working class. But note that even in the hegemonic class, a majority responds to the gotcha question in the affirmative.

Percent that somewhat or completely agree with “symbolic racism” question. Error bars are standard errors of the means. N=601 non-Hispanic whites only. Source: Hawkeye Poll (2010), author’s computations.

In the Hawkeye poll, like other social surveys, respondents were also asked an explicit question associated in the literature with nativism. Respondents are asked how much they agree with the following statement:

Some people say that our American culture and way of life needs to be protected against foreign influence.

Answers to this question are highly correlated with responses to the “symbolic racism” question.

4 point scales from completely agree to completely disagree on nativism and “symbolic racism” questions. Error bars are standard errors of the means. Correlation coefficient is Pearson’s. N=601 non-Hispanic whites only. Source: Hawkeye Poll (2010), author’s computations.

So far, so good. Now what Knoll wanted to show was that, contrary to the expectations of the hegemonic class, instead of people under-reporting their nativism for fear of being judged racist, they over-report their nativism. In other words, unlike the woke, people don’t want to appear unpatriotic, and therefore overstate their nativism when they answer the explicit question reported above.  The answers to the explicit nativism question display the familiar class gradient.

Percent that somewhat or completely agree with the explicit nativism question. Error bars are standard errors of the means. N=601 non-Hispanic whites only. Source: Hawkeye Poll (2010), author’s computations.

In order to show his counterintuitive result, Knoll used a clever trick. In order to mask the question, all respondents were given a battery of four issues (known to be uncorrelated with nativism) and asked how many of them, without identifying which ones, they were worried about. A control group were given only these four, while a treatment group was given an additional question, the one testing for nativism, but again, only asked how many of them they were worried about without revealing which ones. Because they were asked the same for questions, and given a large enough sample, the average on the first four questions is expected to be the same for the control and the treatment group. The difference in the means between the treatment and control thus measures implicit nativism not confounded by reporting bias. Knoll showed that the implicit nativism thus measured was 20 percent smaller than when respondents were asked the explicit nativism question. I easily replicated his result. But I wanted to restrict attention to non-Hispanic whites and look at the class gradient for the same. The next figure displays the estimates. As it turns out, the hegemonic class is more nativist than the working class; although, to be sure, the difference in means is not statistically significant. In any case, there is no evidence to suggest that the white working class is racist.

Implicit nativism, computed as described in the accompanying text. Error bars are standard errors of the means. N=601 non-Hispanic whites only. Source: Hawkeye Poll (2010), author’s computations.

What the evidence does suggest is that working class respondents feel greater pressure to appear patriotic and thus over-report their nativism. Meanwhile, your woke hegemonic class under-reports its nativism. The difference is statistically significant. (And yes, I have used the correct standard errors.) See next figure.

Over and under-reporting of nativism, computed as the difference between explicit and implicit estimates of nativism. Error bars are standard errors of the difference of means. N=601 non-Hispanic whites only. Source: Hawkeye Poll (2010), author’s computations.

Table 1 displays the exact estimates.

Table 1. The class gradient of nativism and reporting bias. 
High School BA MA or higher
Implicit nativism 0.475 0.413 0.566
std error 0.122 0.184 0.192
Explicit nativism 0.719 0.579 0.500
std error 0.025 0.041 0.054
Reporting bias 0.243 0.167 -0.066
std error 0.125 0.188 0.200
Computed as described in the accompanying text. N=601 non-Hispanic whites only. Source: Hawkeye Poll (2010), author’s computations.

The data speaks on its own so I won’t belabor the point. The takeaway for me is that Boasian antiracism is just the tip of the iceberg. Because the hegemonic class owns symbolic production, freeing oneself from its all-encompassing reference frames is very, very hard. But if we want to get to the bottom of the impasse of elite-mass relations, there is no choice. We must plow ahead. Even though the ideology of the hegemonic class is literally baked into every one of our analytical tools, we must learn to see through them.

I have been warning fellow progressives that the all-in wager on inequality, equivalently, boundary-making against the financial elite, enjoys little purchase in the working class. Now that both of our barrels are empty, it is time to go back to the drawing board. Both the Trump phenomena and the Biden tendency are symptoms of our failure. What is the nature of this failure? What is the real reason for the breakdown of elite-mass relations in the United States?


4 thoughts on “Notes on the Myth of Working Class Racism (1)

  1. I submit that Marx got the forecast right, that capitalism will lead to concentrations of wealth and income, but got the forecast wrong, i.e., “socialism” or “Communism.”

    The problem originates with the old joint stock company, i.e., the modern corporation; and, as Marx pointed out, the ownership of the means of production. Until labor is lawfully entitled to a share of profits, the problem will persist.

    Your read on the working class is right on, IMHO. Keep up the good work!

  2. “In another introductory text we find that the ‘lower-blue-collar’ person is ‘reluctant to meet new people and new situations, to form new social relationships, and above all, to initiate contact with strangers. On the contrary, he values and seeks out, more than anybody else, the routine, the familiar, the predictable.'”

    Even if and to the extent that were true, I can imagine a perfectly rational reason why that might be the case.

    The lower class person has more to lose from novelty, and less ability to buy his way out of any consequences stemming from that novelty.

    The rich guy might have to tap his savings. The poor dude gets evicted from his apartment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s