False Dichotomies of Class (Part I): Mobility versus Mobilization

By Lisa R. Pruitt

Martha McCluskey wrote a couple of weeks ago here about some questions regarding class that arose at Martha Fineman’s recent workshop, Masking and Manipulating Vulnerabilities, at Emory Law School.  To summarize, McCluskey asked whether it is “problematic to analyze class as a category of inequality without directly engaging questions of labor rights?”

The genesis of that conversation at Emory was my speculation regarding the reasons for resistance to class analysis regarding whites and, by extension, resistance to the vulnerability paradigm.  Like my other recent work on class, my comments at Emory  focused on class mobility and did not engage issues of collective mobilization.  I thus believe the clear answer to McCluskey’s question is “no.”  Class mobility (think class ascension, although the sad trend these days is downward mobility) and class mobilization (as through unionizing and labor rights) seem to me different paths to empowerment of the working class and poor.  I see these as able to reside comfortably, side-by-side, on parallel tracks.  Indeed, now that McCluskey (echoing others at the Emory workshop) has voiced this issue, I find myself surprised that we do not see more law professors writing about class (im)mobility in a way that separates the issue from racism. That is, I am concerned that socially conscious progressives see challenges to upward mobility as stemming primarily, even solely, from bias against minorities.  If this is the case, we are failing to see that whites, too, are increasingly victims of the inequality gap and its attendant barriers to upward class migration.

We socially conscious progressives are attuned to the need to achieve higher educational attainment for racial and ethnic minorities.  We understand the need to facilitate their class ascension, to integrate more of them into the professional/managerial class, to bring them to the big table of law- and policy-making, in part so that we can benefit from what they know from personal experience.  Affirmative action programs have long been aimed at this outcome—and rightfully so.  We don’t just talk about unionizing minority populations, which presumes that they will stay working class, albeit in a materially more comfortable way.  We talk about diversifying the pipeline into the upper middle class, a/k/a the professional/managerial class.  We grieve the fate of minority children who could have become our political and business leaders—if only they had enjoyed something approaching equal opportunity.

Why, then, do we pay so little attention to class mobility among poor and working class whites?  Why would we limit ourselves to working for their mobilization—as in unions—rather than their upward mobility? Perhaps we have taken for granted white folks’ ability to transcend class boundaries because whites are not the victims of racism.  To quote Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting with Jesus:  Dispatches from America’s Class War, we’ve been snookered by the “myth of the power of white skin.”  That is, we may buy into the “unspoken belief that if a white person does not succeed, his or her lack of success can be due only to laziness.”  We recognize racism as among the many factors that impede class mobility for racial minorities, but we don’t credit the structural barriers—or cultural bias against poor whites (see here and here)—when assessing the prospects of working class whites.  Yet many poor and working class whites face the same sorts of structural and cultural obstacles that burden minorities:  crummy schools, inadequate health care, a dearth of educated role models in their communities, and low expectations.

Yes, tragically, racism is alive and well in this country.  But minority status is not the only force that holds back working class young people who have the sheer native ability and ambition to get a college degree—or even go well beyond it.  Socially conscious progressives are smart enough to know this, but I see very few acknowledging it.  Which brings us to the State, hardly an innocent bystander of the “class war” to which so many insist on turning a blind eye.  To pick up Martha McCluskey’s metaphor, of course the different classes are not just layers in a cake with as much do with one another as with the cake pan (a/k/a the State).  No, the inferior education, health care and other dwindling supports to which the working class have access directly implicate the State and its grossly uneven distribution of resources.  Relying on local funding (as opposed to state and federal funding) of myriad services is just one component of this.  As President Obama recognized in his 2010 State of the Union address, “the success of our children cannot depend more on where they live than on their potential.”  Yet sadly it often does.  Read more here and here.    

I admit that I’m interested in class (im)mobility in part because I’m a “class migrant,” one “born and raised working class, who join the upper-middle class through access to … education” (quoting the definition from Joan Williams’ recent book).  But the struggle for class ascension isn’t only supported by anecdote.  Data indicate that upward mobility for the working class is declining—at least as measured by higher education attainment.  In 1970, 61% of college students were the children of parents whose highest education level was a high school diploma or less—that is, they were “first-generation college.”  By 1990, that figure had fallen to 41%, and in 2000, only 22% of those who attended college were the first generation in their family to do so.  Even taking into account the role played by the rising percentage of people (parents) with college degrees over those three decades (though it remains less than 30%), the data suggest that the working class kid who gets to (let alone through!) college is increasingly rare.  Structural impediments bear a significant part of the blame.  Most obviously and recently, these include dramatically higher tuition for tertiary education, even at state colleges and universities.

In any event, I don’t see how this focus on class (im)mobility—which has both material and cultural aspects (as I shall discuss further in a future post)—precludes attention to organized labor.  I’m all for unionizing those who will remain in the working class, and I would hope that nothing I say be used to naturalize constraints on workers’ power to act collectively.  However much we increase mobility for some, we will always have workers with us, but they need not be poor.  Clearly, collective action is necessary to improve their material circumstances.

But focusing only on organizing the working class is arguably an insult to the extent that it objectifies and distances “them” from “us,” compartmentalizing them below us in the class hierarchy.  To focus exclusively on unionizing the working class overlooks the potential and desire of some to transcend class boundaries (as through higher education) and join the upper middle class.

Surely we want white class migrants among our ranks—just as we want class migrants from minority groups—sitting at the “big table” at which social progressive brainstorm problems, set priorities, and formulate solutions. I am convinced that they (we) could teach us (you) a few things.  Class migrants can remind those in power what generations of them have known:  like the racial privilege enjoyed by those of us who are white, our class privilege causes us to take too much for granted—and it tempts us to take too much individual credit for our own professional and material success.

Cross-posted to SALTLaw Blog, UC Davis Faculty Blog, and Legal Ruralism.

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8 Responses to False Dichotomies of Class (Part I): Mobility versus Mobilization

  1. Pingback: Faculty Blog | False Dichotomies of Class (Part I): Mobility versus Mobilization

  2. Martha McCluskey says:

    I absolutely agree that the cultural and structural and other barriers to mobility of working class white folks have received far too little serious attention, and it is great that you are among those leading the way to foregrounding this issue in law scholarship and policy. And thanks for your explanation of the relationships between the two prongs of individual class mobility and collective mobilization. Certainly these must work in tandem as cultural class bias is an underlying problem for both, and both together will help reduce that bias to treat people of working class and poor backgrounds with dignity and on their merit rather than on the stereotypes you so well describe in your work. Unions won’t have more power, government support won’t be redirected from the rich to the rest, without addressing the very overt negation of the humanity and public value of those outside of professional and capitalist classes.

    A focus on class mobility sometimes may seem problematic for collective mobilization, however, if it seems to reinforce the idea that there is a meaningful ladder of merit and economic security that would exist if we just got rid of the biases of class along with race, gender, and other identity-based stereotypes. It is not just the poor and working class who need better collective bargaining rights and government support, but also those higher up the ladder — indeed, despite the many privileges of professional or managerial work, that ladder is also illusory and deceptive in many ways, and fast being sawed away further (as Rep. Paul Ryan for example leads the way to destroy Medicare and professionals increasingly lose both income and power at work). I think, for example, of faculty members of working class backgrounds who have excelled in bootstrap-pulling, working unbelievably hard and efficiently to overcome all kinds of barriers to succeed as a professional academic. Yet with a PhD in many fields, even those who get a tenure-track job are likely to find themselves earning the median income or less, with huge debt loads, and with 60 hour or more work weeks if they hope to get tenure, so that many aspects of a middle class lifestyle remain out of reach — though the benefit of health insurance is certainly huge. Further, I worry that conditions of university work (or medical work, or law firm work) have changed in a political economy of privatization, hostility to workers, austerity, and a general culture of meanness and inequality so that the daily conditions of professional work may lack the individual control over work, security, and collegial working environment that was once perhaps more common. After sacrificing family, financial security, and free time for years to achieve tenure (or similar professional or managerial status), for example, the bootstrap-pulling formerly working class academic is increasingly likely to lose her job due to budget cuts, or to face increased workload with less chance of increased pay, in a general context of slashed support for the middle class — so that she will have difficulty supporting her own retirement, paying her family’s medical bills or putting her kids through college. But the answer to this problem of the vanishing security and quality of life in even middle or even upper middle class requires addressing the structural and cultural barriers all along the unsteady and decaying ladder, and recognizing the common political and economic condition and humanity connecting the poor, the working class, and those hanging on to the middle — or even higher, without the benefit of substantial capital assets.

  3. Pingback: Faculty Blog | Elitism and Education (Part III): Working Class Whites and Elite College Admissions

  4. Pingback: Elitism and Education (Part III): Working Class Whites and Elite College Admissions | ClassCrits

  5. Pingback: False Dichotomies of Class (Part II): Material versus Cultural | ClassCrits

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