Workplace Fairness

Menu

Skip to main content

  • print
  • decrease text sizeincrease text size
    text

America’s White Underclass: When Seeing Ain’t Believing Then Somebody is Blind

Share this post

“White underclass” is a term I’ve used often in my writing, and most American readers seem to know what I mean. They’ve got eyes and live in the same nation I do. But in a sudden burst of journalistic responsibility, I decided that if I am going to throw around the word underclass, then I should offer some clearer, perhaps more scientific definition.

So I started writing this with a pile of published research papers before me. Now they are in the trash can by my side. Looking down on them, I can see the gobbledygook titles, the stuff of which government policy and political platforms are made. They run together in slurry of the language of our society’s commissars: Concerning-Prevalence-Growth-and-Dynamics-Concentrated Urban Poverty Areas- block-level vs. tract-level segregation-800-tract-tables-urban abstracts-Defining-and-Measuring-the-Underclass-from-The Journal of Policy Analysis and Management-statistical-summary-of…

What I find is that nobody in social science seems to agree on the term, or, being firmly placed in the true white middle class themselves, even agree if such a thing as a white underclass exists. You can’t smell the rabble from the putting green. To others, some blacks for example, the term white underclass is an oxymoron, or maybe yet another new white social code word to be deciphered. I can’t blame them for their wariness. You have to be an American to even get these code words. For instance, for all practical purposes and to most Americans, regardless of race, the term “middle class” means “white.” Plain and simple. We all know that, even members of the “black middle class.”

Middle class also has implications of people’s occupations, usually white collar occupations, though it also includes some of the ever thinning ranks of blue-collar workers. But this comes down to describing human beings solely in terms of their jobs in the capitalist labor marketplace, and assumptions about income and whether one takes their daily shower before they go to work or after they come home. By that definition, anyone of working age who doesn’t have a steady job of the right type, for whatever reason, is in some sort of “economic underclass.” In other words, they are the people that middle class folks feel should damned well be working, if they are over age 18 and have a pulse. (“If I gotta do time in this meaningless workhouse of a nation, you do too!”) This underclass includes any people of color seen on the street at midday during the week, single mothers, and paraplegics too, now that the middle class is paying taxes for handicap parking spaces and wheelchair access to the public shitters.

Another way we define underclass is as “losers.” People who cannot talk, think, or act like middle class professional and managerial workers, people who cannot even be posers. There is absolutely no excuse for these people. We’ve got television 24/7 to show’em how to behave. They could learn to act like the blue collar workers we see on the endless reruns of The King of Queens (an American sitcom about a parcel service delivery truck driver.). They could at least be funny and amiable fer godz sake.

From reading the studies, I can see that social scientists dislike plural nouns, and thus shun the word losers. So they call this the “educational underclass.” Either way, it comes down to folks too wooly and uncurried for office water cooler society. Nobody is denying that they all should have jobs, of course, just nowhere near the water cooler.

Yes, eight to eighty, crippled blind or crazy, Americans generally agree that every man or woman in America should have a full-time job, except those women who manage to snag a wealthy man. They are exempt, as are the middle class commissariat’s own beer guzzling spawn keeping the pizza delivery and the all-night video arcade businesses thriving in college towns across the republic.

Then you’ve got your moral underclass. Like the rest of us, they come in two major varieties — male and female. Females who don’t bother to get married before they have babies (the non-technical term is “welfare sluts”), and men who have things more serious on their national police state blotters than a parking ticket. “Non-mainstreamers,” in socio-demographic speak. Many of these are men who say, “Screw it, I ain’t gonna even bother to work my ass off and be treated like dirt for six bucks an hour. I’d rather shoot pool.” Me too.

The unwed mothers come in two varieties. There are those who decide they want children, but are choosy about the husband that traditionally comes with the deal. And there are those who are so young and naive due to cultural circumstance and environment they do not know what this country does to, not for, single mothers. They often find themselves working at least part time (workfare), yet permanently institutionalized into poverty by our social services industry, instead of being lifted out of it. More than 45 percent of U.S. single mothers are poor, compared five percent in Sweden and Finland, where no stigma is attached and substantial public resources are applied to child health and development. But research done in Europe shows that even if U.S. women had a zero rate of single motherhood, poverty among American women would still be higher than in European and other socially advanced nations.

Armchair sociologist that I am, I have a theory about this: Millions of American women are in poverty because they are paid poverty wages. I could be wrong, I often am, but there seems to be a connection between poverty and money. I started developing this theory when I was in a Melbourne, Australia hotel and learned from a single mother hotel housekeeper there that she made $19 an hour, had government assisted childcare and was going to college at night toward becoming a medical technician. Hmmm Over here we tell single mothers, “Get a six dollar an hour job or get married bitch! Workfare, baby, workfare.” Then too, contrary to the American middle class belief system, out-of-wedlock babies are increasing at all levels of white American society. Even more contrary to popularly held notions, as many of these children turn out to be as well adjusted people as do children of the middle class. But for damned sure poorer in most cases.

And finally we have simple snottiness as a line of underclass demarcation — one’s manner of physical gesture or accent. Believe me from personal experience, a Southern accent in America is no ticket to the top. But even with a Southern accent, if you talk like a college grad, don’t wear bib overhauls or gang banger gear, and appear to know where South America is on a map, Americans will deem you middle class. Actually, if you smile a lot, and sound like any sort of white customer service type, it will fly. It’s called having the appropriate social and cultural skill set. Yeah, right, appropriate to be hired as a telemarketer so you can piss people off by interrupting their dinner hour.

But even if you gather aluminum cans from dumpsters for a living, with effort, you can “pass” like light skinned black folks used to do in this country. As testimony to this, I, who am a high school dropout with a Southern accent, have successfully managed entire magazine publishing groups for a living. (The secret is balls). If I’d been black or Hispanic though, I’d have been distributing the urinal cakes in the rest rooms at night. So yes, there is a slight edge to whiteness, though not nearly as much as minorities assume. Still, you gotta make the most of that little edge.

In the end, race, gender or sexual preference are just moving parts of the class machine, with middle class perceptions setting the standard. You can indeed be black or queer, but with the properly buffed patina of white middle class mojo you can make it to the top, or near to the top of the heap (in America, proximity to the top of our cultural garbage heap is everything. All the rest of us are mere consumer refuse, as the Michael Jackson Morbidity Festival demonstrated. You can even be celebrated as an icon of diversity if you act white and middle class enough. Obama is Harvard white guy enough, Ellen DeGeneres is going strong ten years after coming out, gay Congressman Barney Franks still gets reelected. They’ve all got white middle class mojo. Al Sharpton on the other hand, has cootie mojo. (Tip for Al: They need golf cart drivers at the Congressional Country Club. A year of that and you’d know all you need to know about the white mojo shtick. Because you can watch Obama play golf there).

When it comes to the underclass, there is no arguing that some people are members because they are so damned uneducated they cannot count their toes or read well enough to fill out a job app, the causes of which are too deep and tangled to go into at the moment. Others just don’t care to do the smiling grammatically correct wimp assed customer service zombie thing. They prefer swinging a bigger hammer than that — doing real work, like America used to do. And doing it without kissing ass, which is why they are called the “permanently jobless.” As sociologist Christopher Jencks points out, “There is no absolute standard dictating what people need to know in order to get along in society. There is however, an absolute rule that you get along better if you know what the elite knows than if you do not.” He also cautions that “the term underclass combines so many different meanings that social scientists must use it with extreme care.”

Which is fine. But I’m no social scientist. If in my travels and experience in American life I see that tens of millions of Americans being screwed silly by a handful of chiselers at the top, or if I see one percent of Americans earning as much annually as the bottom 45 percent of Americans, then that 45 percent is an underclass. When I see a 70 year old man on his second pacemaker limping through Wal-mart as a “greeter” so he can pay at least something on last winter’s heating bill this month, then he is part of an underclass. When I see the humiliated single mom waitress tugging downward on the ridiculously short red plastic skirt she must wear at the Hooter’s type joint so her crotch won’t show, she’s part of an underclass of humiliated and socially oppressed people. Screw the hairsplitting about who qualifies as underclass and what color they are. Just fix it. Or reap the consequences.

We’re finally starting to hear a little discussion about the white underclass in this country. Mainly because so many middle class folks are terrified of falling into it. Frankly, I hope they do. We’ve got room for them. All the lousy, humiliating jobs have not yet been outsourced. The Devil still has plenty for them to do down here.

Call all of this anecdotal evidence. You won’t be the first. I was on a National Public Radio show last year with a couple of political consultants, demographers as I remember. One, a lady, was obviously part of the Democratic political syndicate, the other was part of the Republican political mob. The Democratic expert said dismissively of my remarks, “Well! Some people here seem to believe anecdotal evidence is relevant.” Meaning me. I held my tongue. But what I wanted to say was this:

Sister, most of us live anecdotal lives in an anecdotal world. We survive by our wits and observations, some casual, others vital to our sustenance. That plus daily experience, be it good bad or ugly as the ass end of a razorback hog. And what we see happening to us and others around us is what we know as life, the on-the-ground stuff we must deal with or be dealt out of the game. There’s no time for rigorous scientific analysis. Nor need. We can see the guy next door who’s drinking himself to death because, “I never did have a good job, just heavy labor, but now I’m all busted up, got no insurance and no job and it looks like I’ll never have another one and I’ve got four more years to go before Social Security.” He doesn’t need scientific proof. He doesn’t need another job either. He needs a cold beer, a soft armchair, some Tylenol PM and a modest guarantee of security for the rest of his life. Freedom from fear and toil and illness.

And furthermore, Sister, we cannot see much evidence that other, more elite people’s scientific analysis of our lives has ever benefited us much. When you’re fucked, you know it. You don’t need scientific verification.

I wanted to say that on the radio. But I didn’t. The little white guy mojo voice in my head told me not to. So I just laughed good naturedly. Like any other good American.

May God forgive me.

With ironic gratitude to Christopher Jencks of the Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research at Northwestern University.

 Joe Bageant: Joe Bageant is author of the book, Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War.Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance from the Heartland (AK Press). A complete archive of his on-line work, along with the thoughts of many working Americans on the subject of class may be found on ColdType and Joe Bageant’s website, joebageant.com (Random House Crown), about working class America. He is also a contributor to Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance from the Heartland (AK Press). A complete archive of his on-line work, along with the thoughts of many working Americans on the subject of class may be found on ColdType and Joe Bageant’s website, joebageant.com.

This article originally appeared on JoeBageant.com on July 17th and is reprinted here with permission from the author.


Share this post

Workers’ Rights

Share this post

I n looking back on growing up, I always remember 1957 and 1958 at “the two good years,” They were the only years my working class redneck family ever caught a real break in their working lives, and that break came because of organized labor. After working as a farm hand, driving a hicktown taxi part time, and a dozen catch as catch can jobs, my father found himself owning a used semi-truck and hauling produce for a Teamster unionized trucking company called Blue Goose.

Daddy was making more money than he’d ever made in his life, about $4,000 a year. The median national household income at the time was $5,000, mostly thanks to America’s unions. After years of moving from one rented dump to another, we bought a modest home, ($8,000) and felt like we might at last be getting some traction in achieving the so-called “American Dream.” Yup, Daddy was doing pretty good for a backwoods boy who’d quit school in the sixth or seventh grade — he was never sure, which gives some idea how seriously the farmboy took his attendance at the one-room school we both attended in our lifetimes.

This was the golden age of both trucking and of unions. Thirty-five percent of American labor, 17 million working folks, were union members, and it was during this period the American middle class was created. The American middle class has never been as big as advertised, but if it means the middle third income-wise, then we actually had one at the time. But whatever it means, one third of working folks, the people who busted their asses day in and day out making the nation function, were living better than they ever had. Or at least had the opportunity to do so.

From the Depression through World War II the Teamsters Union became a powerful entity, and a popular one too because of such things as its pledge never to strike during the war or a national emergency. President Roosevelt even had a special designated liaison to the Teamsters. But power and money eventually drew the usual assortment of lizards, and by the mid-fifties the Teamsters Union had become one corrupt pile of shit at the top level. So rotten even the mob enjoyed a piece of the action. The membership, ordinary guys like my dad, was outraged and ashamed, but rendered powerless by the crooked union bosses in the big cities.

My old man was no great follower of the news or current events, but he tried to keep up with and understand Teamster developments. Which was impossible since his reading consisted of anti-union Southern newspapers, and the television coverage of Teamster criminality, including murders, and the ongoing courtroom trials.

All this left him conflicted. His Appalachian Christian upbringing defined the world in black and white, with no gray areas. Inside he felt he should not be even remotely connected with such vile things as the Teamsters were associated with. And he sometimes prayed for guidance in the matter. On the other hand, there was the pride and satisfaction in providing for his family in ways previously impossible. He’d built a reasonable working class security for those times and that place in West Virginia. Being a Teamster certainly made that possible. But for damned sure no one had handed it to him. He drove his guts out to get what he had.

There were rules, and log books and all the other crap that were supposed to assure drivers got enough rest, and ensure road safety and fairness for the truckers. Rural heartland drivers saw it for the bullshit it was, but it was much better paying bullshit. For a little guy hauling produce from Podunk USA to the big cities, it still came down to heartburn, hemorrhoids, and longer hauls and longer hours than most driver’s falsified log books showed. And sometimes way too much Benzedrine, or “bennies.”

Bennies were a type of speed commonly used by truckers back then because of the grueling hauls. As a former doper who has done bennies, I can avow they are some gritty nerve jagging shit. Their only virtue is making you wide awake and jumpy, and after you’ve been awake on them a couple days, which many drivers were, crazier than a shithouse rat. Nearly every truck stop sold bennies under the counter. Once while hallucinating on bennies Daddy nearly wiped out a roadside joint. He recalled “layin’ on the jake brake, down shifting, and watching hundreds of the witches like in The Wizard of Oz come down out of the sky in the dark.” Somehow he got 30,000 pounds back onto the road while several folks inside the diner were pissing themselves in the windowside booths.

My daddy ran the eastern seaboard in a 12-wheeler — there were no 18 wheelers yet. It had polished chrome and bold letters that read, “BLUE GOOSE LINE”. Parked alongside our little asbestos sided house, I’d marvel at the magic of those bold words, the golden diamond and sturdy goose. And dream of someday “burning up Route 50” like my dad.

Old U.S. Route 50 ran near the house and was the stuff of legend if your daddy happened to be a truck driver who sometimes took you with him on the shorter hauls: “OK boy, now scrunch down and lookinto the side mirror. I’m gonna turn the top of them side stacks red hot.” And he would pop the clutch and strike sparks on the anvil of the night, downshifting toward Pinkerton, Coolville and Hanging Rock. It never once occurred to me that his ebullience and our camaraderie might be due to a handful of bennies.

Yessir, Old 50 was a mighty thing, a howling black slash through the Blue Ridge Mountain fog. A place where famed and treacherous curves made widows and truck stops and cafes bloomed in the tractor trailers’ smoky wakes. A roadmap will tell you it eventually reaches Columbus and Saint Louis, places I imagined had floodlights raking the skies heralding the arrival of heroic Teamster truckers like my father. Guys who’d fought in Germany and Italy and the Solomon Islands and were still wearing their service caps these years later, but now pinned with the gold steering wheel of the Teamsters Union. Such are a working class boy’s dreams.

I have two parched photos from that time. One is of me and my brother and sister, ages ten, eight and six. We are standing in the front yard, three little redneck kids with bad haircuts squinting for some faint clue as to whether there was really a world out there, somewhere beyond West Virginia. The other photo is of my mother and the three of us on the porch of that house on route 50. On the day my father was slated to return from any given run we’d all stand on the porch listening for the sound of airbrakes, the deep roar as he came down off the mountain. Each time my mother would step onto the porch blotting her lipstick, Betty Grable style hair rustling in the breeze, and say, “Stand close, your daddy’s home.”

And that was about as good as it ever got for our family. Daddy’s heart later gave way from a congenital defect and he lost everything. He was so scrupulously honest about debts he could never recover financially. Unable to borrow money, uneducated and weakened for life, he set to working in car washes and garages. After his union trucking days were over, we were assigned to the margins of America, a million miles from the American Dream, joining those people never seen on television, represented by no politician and never heard from in halls of power.

Now it was only a little house by the side of the road with not enough closets and ugly asbestos shingle siding. But it was ours, just like the truck and the chance to get ahead that it offered. And we had felt like we were some small part of America as it was advertised. All because of a union job during the heyday of unions in this nation.

It was also a period of Teamsters Union corruption, replete with criminal moguls such as Dave Beck, George Meany and Jimmy Hoffa. Yet the history of the few top lizards on the national rock of greed is not the history of the people.

If a few pricks and gangsters have occasionally seized power over the dignity of labor, countless more calculating, bloodless and malevolent pricks — the capitalist elites — have always held most of the cards, which is why in 1886 railroad and financial baron Jay Gould could sneer, “I can always hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.” And why a speaker at the U.S. Business Conference Board in 1974 could arrogantly declare, “One man, one vote has undermined the power of business in all capitalist countries since World War II.” And why that same year Business Week magazine said, “It will be a hard pill for many Americans to swallow — the idea of doing with less so that big business can have more. Nothing in modern economic history compares with the selling job that must now be done to make people accept this new reality.”

The new reality is here, and has been since 1973, the last year American workers made a wage gain in real dollars. Hell, it’s been here so long we accept it as part of America’s cultural furniture. Only about 12% of American workers are unionized and even with a supposedly union friendly Democratic Congress, unions are still fighting to exist (although government employees are unionized at 36%, because the Empire allows some leeway for its commissars). In fact, things are worse than ever. Employers can now force employees to attend anti-union presentations during the workday, at captive audience meetings in which union supporters are forbidden to speak under threat of insubordination. Back in 1978 when I was working to organize the local newspaper, the management was not even allowed to speak to the workers on the matter until after the union vote results were in.

Then there’s President Obama, the guy soft headed liberals think is going to turn this dreadful scenario around. He talks a good game about unions, when he is forced to. But Obama is working on the things that will “create a legacy,” such as health care (which is simply a new way to pay the insurance industry’s blackmail) or the economy (by appointing the same damned people who fucked it up to fix it), and immigration reform, a nicely nebulous term that can mean whatever either side of the issue wants it to mean. Obama’s not going to publicly ignore the unions. But he’s not going to sink much political capital into this corporatized nation’s most radio-active issue either. For him, union legislation is just a distraction from the “legacy building” of a very charming,savvy, and ambitious politician. That is the assessment of Glenn Spencer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of the most anti-union institutions in America. (Many thanks to Washington writer Ken Silverstein for publishing Spencer’s astute observations).

Things are changing though. Union membership climbed 12 percent last year. Twelve percent of twelve percent ain’t shit, but at least it’s forward motion. At that rate it will only take us 21 years to get back to the 1956 level of union membership. We can expect no miracles, top union leaders are still among the Empire’s elites. And they are still technically accountable to whatever membership will still have jobs when the 2012 elections roll around. The least they could do is make it harder for Obama to lick off those millions of hard earned union support dollars from the top of the campaign contribution ice cream cone as he did in ’08.

But who can be sure? Because the new union elites and their minions are lawyers and marketing professionals. They’ve never come down off the mountain with both stacks red hot, or gathered on the porch of a crappy but new roadside bungalow, proud because they owned it, and stood up straight because, “Boys, your daddy is coming home.”

I’m not going into the current brouhaha about the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) or the “card check” bullshit here. Because what it’s gonna take to restore dignity to laboring America, ain’t gonna be more legislative wrangling. What it takes won’t be pretty, maybe not even legal in this new police state, and sure as hell won’t be “within the system.” Because the system is the problem.

So it will be up us, just like it always has been … the writer, the Nicaraguan janitor, the forty year old family man forced to bag groceries at Walmart, the pizza delivery guy, the welder and the certified nurse…the long haul trucker and the short order cook. And they will snicker at us from their gilded roosts on Wall Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.

Some people are bound to get hurt in the necessary fight. In fact, people need to be willing to get hurt in the fight. That’s the way we once gained worker rights, and that’s the way we will get them back. The only way to get rid of the robbers’ roost is to burn the fucker down.

Anyone got a match?

About the Author: Joe Bageant is author of the book, Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War.Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance from the Heartland (AK Press). A complete archive of his on-line work, along with the thoughts of many working Americans on the subject of class may be found on ColdType and Joe Bageant’s website, joebageant.com (Random House Crown), about working class America.  He is also a contributor to Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance from the Heartland (AK Press). A complete archive of his on-line work, along with the thoughts of many working Americans on the subject of class may be found on ColdType and Joe Bageant’s website, joebageant.com.

This article originally appeared in Counterpunch on June 19, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.


Share this post

Follow this Blog

Subscribe via RSS Subscribe via RSS

Or, enter your address to follow via email:

Recent Posts

Forbes Best of the Web, Summer 2004
A Forbes "Best of the Web" Blog

Archives

  • Tracking image for JustAnswer widget
  • Find an Employment Lawyer

  • Support Workplace Fairness

 
 

Find an Employment Attorney

The Workplace Fairness Attorney Directory features lawyers from across the United States who primarily represent workers in employment cases. Please note that Workplace Fairness does not operate a lawyer referral service and does not provide legal advice, and that Workplace Fairness is not responsible for any advice that you receive from anyone, attorney or non-attorney, you may contact from this site.