Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Reason #10--American Concepts of Class are Useless (If Not Dangerous)

We have all been indoctrinated with subjective concepts of class (based, for the most part on behavior) that divide families who live side by side in a typical American neighborhood. It’s both ironic and revealing that today’s politicians pounce on any reference to class as divisive and destructive to America. They get away with this to the extent that they do because of the fuzzy concepts of class we tend to share. After all, to Americans "class warfare" sounds like neighbor fighting neighbor, or block fighting block, or eastside fighting westside. Without any concrete meaning for the term class, we remain blind to the forces controlling our lives.

The way we are taught to think about class, at best, is confusing. "Our country is unique in that it has no social classes," my high school American history teacher told us back in the 80s. Students have been told this for generations. And those same students have smelled a lie in such claims. After all, we've been taught about classes all our lives.

The way we’re taught about class in America is subjective, a matter of perception. My mother disliked Elvis because he was "greasy." The family on the corner was "trashy" because they had too much junk in the yard. Trashy people didn't cut the lawn as often as we did. Some people park their cars in a garage, others in a carport, others in the street, and others on the lawn. While we may say all of these people are "middle class" in any given American neighborhood, our cultural prejudices make these distinctions every day.

Looking back, I think I was particularly aware of this difference because my family was usually the odd one in our social context. We were isolated because of the American dream of class mobility. My father was the first male in his family to get a college education. His friends and family back home consistently, if gently, teased him for having lots of book learning but not knowing how to fix his own car.

My mother’s grandfather lost his plantation and the family plunged economically. Her father (a "banty Irishman," he was called with disdain) died young, so her mother worked a series of secretarial jobs. Yet Nana clung to her manners like someone who sensed her very identity depended on it. Thrown into poverty as a child, she bristled around my father's side of the family because it was too loud, and therefore of a different class. She taught me how to pronounce words, hold a fork and sit at the table in the "proper" way. These were all signs of the class I should aspire to be part of. Her influence emphasized the differences between my family and other families.

I was generally perceived as softer than my friends, and I suppose I was. Many of my friends, the ones I most wanted to be like, were either rednecks or poor or both. They talked tougher than me; they were wilder and cooler. They were my mentors in all my teenage rites of passage, from smoking to ducking a fight, and I felt a great solidarity with them. But deeper forces kept us apart.

In high school, being around the family of my best friend, Paul, made very plain to me just how wide the gulf within our class could be. They lived on a country road called Nigger Gap. Paul's mother worked nights in a hospital, and his father was a welder. The kids took care of two invalid grandparents who lived in the home. Paul was learning to be a welder, too, and never voiced a thought about going away to college. Their friends were hard laborers, raised to take their places in a world different from the one I was being raised for. All of them but Paul greeted me with suspicion; Paul’s sister used to tease me in a way that was flirtatious but had a bite, like she assumed that I thought I was better than she was. After I went away to college, Paul, too, became more remote with each visit. The last thing I remember him saying to me was, "It's like we don't have anything to talk about any more."

Both my family and Paul's family were really working class--mine more white collar and his more blue collar, mine with an illusion of security his didn't have. But our society is great at dividing working people into a wide variety of subjective groups.

Among the poor, just a couple of paychecks from where either of our families might be, Americans think of the working poor and those who look for work as one class, and those who've given up looking as another. There are the "salt-of-the-earth" poor and the "good-for-nothing." All of these divisions distinguish between poor people of quality and "trash."

More to the point, these romantic (as in subjective and arbitrary) distinctions distinguish between how we see ourselves and the ways we see others, often as less than fully human. Someone else is always trash. If you’re white, that someone else may be black, and if you're black, that someone else may be darker than you are or might be rednecks or white trash. The divisions between self and trash cut as many different directions as imaginable; they are bound not by laws but only by imagination--for this version of class is a fantasy.

This is the opposite of class-consciousness; it is class confusion. The way we view class is worse than not being able to see the forest for the trees. It amounts to not being able to tell that two trees are both pines because they don't have branches in the same places. The objective conception of class Marx uses is simple, clear and practical.

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