Sunday, May 15, 2005

Class and politics

There were a few posts about class this week. Class is one of my favorite topics because it is so complicated. I haven't yet read the NYTimes series on class referred to in several of the posts, but I did read David Brooks' column about why the poor tend to vote Republican. Here is Brooks' assessment:

These working-class folk like the G.O.P.'s social and foreign policies, but the big difference between poor Republicans and poor Democrats is that the former believe that individuals can make it on their own with hard work and good character.

According to the Pew study, 76 percent of poor Republicans believe most people can get ahead with hard work. Only 14 percent of poor Democrats believe that. Poor Republicans haven't made it yet, but they embrace what they take to be the Republican economic vision - that it is in their power to do so. Poor Democrats are more likely to believe they are in the grip of forces beyond their control.

The G.O.P. succeeds because it is seen as the party of optimistic individualism.

What I wonder is which view is really true. In looking the graphics from the NY Times series (yes, that's all I've had time for), it seems that there isn't much mobility at the very top or the very bottom. If you're in one of those classes you're likely to stay there. So it seems to me that the chances of someone achieving the American Dream when they start at the bottom are pretty slim. But I'm completely aware of the surrounding culture that tells us otherwise.

My own class story is that I was born into the upper middle class. I married into the middle to lower-middle class and we are now solidly simply middle class. Except according to the NY Times, we're in the upper middle class. Which just seems wrong. We're just missing some of the markers: big house, nice car, lots of vacations. What we have instead is: lots of degrees, multiple computers, lots of books, "enrichment" activities. When we first moved to the area after living in a place where the class structure is pretty flat, I had a hard time adjusting. Here, the upper middle class is seriously upper. There are mansions all around worth millions of dollars. A bmw is considered an economy car when people drive jaguars, hummers, and alfa romeos on a regular basis. When I went to the grocery store, I was regularly confronted by personal-trainer sculpted bodies weighed down with jewelry and fur coats. I had never seen such an ostentatious display of wealth in my life. And I chafed because I had thought that that was my class, but now I was looked down upon in my American car with my jeans, no makeup, no jewelry self. I did not like the feeling of being poor (even though I really wasn't!!).

But then again, I chafe against being upper middle class. Growing up, I went to public school. The district was drawn in a way that I went to school with kids from the projects. That experience made me realize the luck of the draw, the way I had just been lucky to be born to the parents I was born to. Beginning in junior high, I volunteered through my church to work with the kids in the projects. Much of what I experienced led me to believe that there was no way out for them. We weren't doing things that helped them; we were merely distracting them from their plight.

More recently, when I taught at a large urban state university, we did a unit that feature some of the work of Jonathon Kozol. Many of my students identified with the children he described. They walked by liquor stores, bums passed out on the street, and abandoned houses on their way to school. Everything around them told them they were going to fail. And their schools were no different. In talking about their school environment, one student said, "Maybe if we'd had grass on our playgrounds, we would have felt more optimisitc." Another talked about students in high school selling drugs because it was the fast track to the American Dream. It allowed them to buy the cars, clothes and accoutrements they saw their richer counterparts buy. These students had made it to college, but they were well aware of the people they'd left behind. I really loved those students and was very sad to leave them. If I ever taught anywhere again, it would be there.

I think class is very damaging, both psychologically and economically. Though I'd like to believe that anyone can move up, I think we're better off with a more pessimistic view. If the optimistic view means that just a few people make it, it seems the pessimistic view might mean that even more people make it. And I'm not pollyanna enough to believe that class structures will ever flatten out completely, but I do believe that the playing field can only be leveled if we force people to level it. Big business isn't going to do it. It's not in their best interest. The question is, how do we articulate our ideas about class and helping those less fortunate in a way that isn't condescending (which is what I think Kerry did sometimes, even if he didn't mean to). I think we have a long road ahead.

Update: The New York Times is similarly ambivalent: "Blind optimism has its pitfalls. If opportunity is taken for granted, as something that will be there no matter what, then the country is less likely to do the hard work to make it happen. But defiant optimism has its strengths. Without confidence in the possibility of moving up, there would almost certainly be fewer success stories."