The Invisible Class

The Invisible Class

A vast class has all but disappeared from American culture: the working class.

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2m 5sec

the source: “The Dispossessed” by William Deresiewicz, in The American Scholar, Winter 2006.

A vast group has gone inconspicuously missing from American culture: the working class. The population to whom the rusting phrase “blue collar” applies has become invisible largely because class itself isn’t part of a national conversation anymore, con­tends William Deresiewicz, an English professor at Yale.

It’s been a long time since TV shows such as The Honeymooners and All in the Family focused on people who earn an hourly wage and look like they live on it. Working-class characters are all over the place, but they’re usually there to do a job (cop, nurse), not to serve as the focal point. The omissions aren’t confined to the small screen. Mainstream movies are far more likely to depict trailer-trash stereotypes (see Million Dollar Baby) than the nuanced portraits of working-class characters in exceptions such as Mystic River and Good Will Hunting. And whither have gone American literature’s Steinbecks and Dos Passoses?

The reasons the working class is missing in action are no mystery, says Deresiewicz. The creators of main­stream American culture—“journalists, editors, writers, producers”—are children of the middle class them­selves, and suffer from the usual myopias. Further­more, it’s “kind of a bum­mer” to watch the struggles of real working-class life; the movies and shows that do so, such as Roseanne Barr’s Roseanne, are so rare they’re called “edgy.”

In a land where we’re all supposed to belong to one great middle class, sexuality, gender, and, above all, race are the dominant identifiers. That being black is a stand-in for being working class is evident everywhere. When the nation was shown images of Hurricane Katrina’s victims, it saw that they were black, not that they were laborers, wait­resses, and bus drivers.

Class hasn’t entirely vanished from the national discourse. John Kerry’s loss to George W. Bush in the last presidential election has been painted as a drubbing of “blue state” elites by “red state” rednecks, otherwise re­ferred to euphemistically as “ordinary Americans.”

But country music and NASCAR don’t sum up the working-class life, which “breeds its own virtues: loyalty, community, stoicism, humility, and even tolerance.” The middle class talks a lot about the latter, but “working-class people, because they can’t simply insulate themselves from those they don’t like with wads of money, are much more likely, in practice, to live and let live.”

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