Three books explore the white working-class experience in America.
© Robert Neubecker
Political polarization poses a special challenge for Unitarian Universalists. Our commitment to worldly change draws us into the partisan fray, increasingly on the liberal side (as Tom Schade described in “There Is No Going Back” in the last issue of UU World). But our Universalist heritage rejects a vision that divides the country into good people and bad people; it calls us to resist the all-too-human temptation to cast opponents as enemies.
As the national polarization gets ever more bitter, we must work all the harder not to stereotype those who disagree with us according to their race, class, income, or other demographic category, no matter how closely such traits may correlate with ideas we oppose. The more tempted we are to write people off without a hearing, the harder we should be working to understand them.
Many Unitarian Universalists, who are on average more highly educated and who live in higher income neighborhoods, take our privilege for granted. As a result, few segments of American society are harder for UUs to reach out to than the lower economic reaches of the white working class, which we often associate—not always unfairly—with nativism, racism, homophobia, ignorance, and violence. Fortunately, two current books (and one slightly older) can help us improve our understanding of who these people are and the life experiences that shape their views.
White Trash, Nancy Isenberg (Viking, 2016)
Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America sets the stage by exploding treasured “fables we forget by.” Even for whites, the United States has never been a classless society or a meritocracy in which any plucky individual can rise to the top. We may romanticize the early European colonists as a single class of pioneers and homesteaders, but contemporary English society drew a sharp line between aristocratic holders of royal grants and the “waste people” it wanted to offload lest they become criminals or vagrants. Each subsequent American generation has had its own version of waste people: corn crackers, clay eaters, squatters, hillbillies, trailer trash.
Though continuously with us, they have repeatedly been forgotten and rediscovered, sometimes as objects of pity or fear, sometimes as repositories of homespun wisdom. But like the magic Negro, the canny backwoodsman is less an end in himself than a narrative device serving the needs of a more sophisticated audience.
Over the centuries, the continued existence of such an underclass (when it was recognized at all) has inspired multiple explanations, united mainly by the assumption that the flaw is within them rather than the larger society: They come from poor breeding stock or have inbred among themselves. They are lazy, undisciplined, or simply stupid. They perversely prefer the simplicity of their possessionless lives, spurning opportunities to better their lot. From Ben Franklin’s belief that the hostile frontier environment would winnow out the bad blood, to the more invasive eugenics movement of the twentieth century, harsh diagnoses have led to harsh prescriptions.
Isenberg herself offers no solution to the American class problem, but sees her work as prerequisite to any progress: we cannot go forward until we stop lying to ourselves about where we’ve been and stop hiding our class issues behind our no-less-valid racial issues.
J. D. Vance puts a present-day face on Isenberg’s “trash” in Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Vance, who can trace his roots to the Hatfield-McCoy feud, claims his hillbilly heritage with some pride, tempered by an appreciation of his people’s dysfunctional and sometimes self-destructive ways.
Hillbilly Elegy, J. D. Vance (Harper, 2016);
After World War II, a factory job draws his grandparents north to Ohio, but the true family center remains in the hill country of Kentucky. He grows up in a factory town (Middleton) that is devastated when its factory closes. Isolated in Middleton, Vance’s family is a rope that frays down to a single strand, barely holding long enough for him to climb to a new life. His father abandons him, his mother’s addictions make her increasingly unreliable, and none of her subsequent husbands or boyfriends lasts long enough to gain Vance’s trust. After his grandfather’s death, he has only his grandmother to depend on: a strong-willed “scary hillbilly” who is nonetheless aging, frail, and relatively impoverished. That adult support turns out to be just enough to launch Vance on a trajectory through the U.S. military, Ohio State University, and Yale Law School.
Vance’s personal history informs his social conservatism. Realizing how close he came to having no one who cared about him, he values traditional notions of duty—holding a marriage together, taking responsibility for children—over individual fulfillment. His feelings about government come not from the military or the state university that helped him, but from the foster care system that he feared would take him from his grandmother and give him to strangers. When as a teenager he reconnected with his father, he found a man who had converted to conservative Christianity and established a new family blessedly free from drinking, daily screaming arguments, and violence. Vance’s adult religion, though conservative, seems to be less about theology or salvation than about the hope of establishing such islands of peace and sanity in an unstable world.
Vance’s memoir of danger and isolation contrasts with Barbara Jensen’s account of a large and loyal extended family in the white working-class suburbs of Minneapolis. In Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America, she uses stories from her own life and family, supplemented by accounts from her students and clients, to illuminate what might otherwise be an intimidating summary of academic research. (That research does not specifically focus on whites, but the book’s autobiographical elements tilt it in that direction.)
Reading Classes, Barbara Jensen (ILR, 2012)
Jensen portrays working-class culture as different from professional-class culture, but not necessarily better or worse. Its values are more communal and less individualistic. It prizes loyalty over achievement, colorful verbal imagery over a large vocabulary, and storytelling over analysis.
Like Isenberg, Jensen deflates the myth of social mobility, despite being a “class crossover” herself. (She entered the professional class in adulthood by getting advanced degrees and becoming a psychologist.) But rather than tell her story as a well-deserved climb up the meritocracy, or as an anybody-can-do-it morality tale, she recognizes the role played by random circumstances. Her classroom experiences had made education seem irrelevant and distant, but a high school friend happened to have a sister in college, who drew Jensen into the Vietnam War protest movement. From there she found feminism, and only then—in her late twenties—a love of ideas that pulled her back into formal education.
Much of her book criticizes the educational system, which in theory is the engine of advancement in American society but in practice helps the class system replicate itself. She portrays school as largely a continuation of professional-class child-raising, but a profound culture shock to working-class children.
“Is it really necessary,” she asks, “to learn that everything a child knew before school about language is nothing more than bad English and ignorance?” Rather than validate a system that marks their families and friends as inferior, working-class students are driven to resist teachers’ visions rather than seek their approval. Jensen tells a particularly heartbreaking story of quitting the school choir, which she enjoyed, rather than appear on stage in front of her outcast working-class friends, surrounded by approval-seeking professional-class students.
Explore class and classism through a Unitarian Universalist lens.
Both Jensen and Vance describe the special pressures faced by class crossovers, either to reject their working-class roots or to live two parallel lives, each hidden from the other. These chapters may be of special interest to UU congregations, many of which, I suspect, contain more class crossovers than they realize. Class background may be the hidden diversity in Unitarian Universalism. By revealing and celebrating that diversity, we might simultaneously enhance our understanding of each other, and of elements of the larger society that may seem more distant than they actually are.
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Doug Muder is a contributing editor and columnist for UU World. His articles have also appeared in Religious Humanism, The Humanist, and Public Eye. He blogs at The Weekly Sift and Free and Responsible Search, and is a member of First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts.
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