Review – White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America by Joan Williams
This review first ran in the June 19 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.
Harvard Business Review Press
“Although its steel and manufacturing-based economy gave Hamilton its ‘Steeltown’ moniker, students need not be deterred by images of an industrial wasteland.”
This is how Maclean’s kicks off McMaster’s profile in its 2017 Canadian Universities Guidebook.
I’m a university grad who was lucky to spend part of my career in Steeltown’s “industrial wasteland.”
I worked with good people who took real pride in their work, the company and our community.
They made steel and built strong and stable middle class lives for their families. They also made Hamilton better for everyone by donating more money than any other local employer and volunteering countless hours to community groups and local causes.
Respect was the company’s core value. None of us in the main office were under any illusion that we were better than the people in the plant. Everyone worked hard and shared in the success.
That mindset is getting harder to find among professional and managerial elites and it’s fuelling populist movements, warns Joan Williams, author of White Working Class and a distinguished professor of law and Hastings Foundation chair at the University of California.
“Over the past 40-odd years, elites stopped connecting with the working class, whom prior generations had given a place of honor,” says Williams. “Class consciousness has been replaced by class cluelessness and in some cases, even class callousness.
“During an era when wealthy white Americans have learned to sympathetically imagine the lives of the poor, people of color, and LGBTQ people, the white working class has been insulted or ignored during precisely the period when their economic fortunes tanked.”
Hamilton’s not immune to this trend. When we convene summits and conferences to dream up ways of recruiting and retaining 20-somethings, we’re not talking about millennials who work in skilled trades. And the claim that professionals hate riding buses but love taking trains wins the prize for dumbest argument yet made in support of spending a billion dollars of taxpayer money on Hamilton’s LRT project.
Williams considers the working class and the middle class to be one and the same. They’re neither poor nor rich, with family incomes ranging from $41,000 to just over $130,000 with a median income of $75,144.
“When progressive policymakers talk about guaranteeing things like paid sick leave or a higher minimum wage, they often frame them as issues that would help working families,” says Williams. “But neither offers what my father-in-law had: a steady job that yielded his vision of a middle-class life. That’s what the working class still wants.”
Williams does a masterful job of responding to the clueless and callous questions that professional and managerial elites like ask themselves when diagnosing what’s wrong with the working class.
Why do they resent the poor and professionals yet admire the rich?
Why doesn’t the working class move to where the jobs are, go to college and push their kids harder to succeed?
Is the working class just racist and sexist?
Why don’t they understand that manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back?
Why don’t working class men take pink collar jobs?
And why don’t the people who benefit most from government help seem to appreciate it?
“The working class doesn’t want to be examined like some tribe in a faraway land,” says Williams. “They don’t want the kind of pious solicitude the wealthy offer the poor. They want respect for the lives they’ve built through unrelenting hard work. They want recognition for their contributions and their way of life. They keep our power lines repaired, our sewers functioning, our trains running. They give the mammograms that save our lives and pick us up off the street when we’ve been injured. They demand dignity – and they deserve it.”
@jayrobb lives in Hamilton, serves as director of communications for Mohawk College and has reviewed business books for The Hamilton Spectator since 1999.