The Image Problem of the Working Class
Copyright 2011-2013 by Scot G. Patterson. All rights reserved.
Our society seems to be changing its attitude toward the working class, and the prevailing trend is not good. This transition is reflected in the persistent message that having working-class roots is a plus, but being a member of the working class is not. As we will see in this essay, the image problem does not stem from how the public feels about the working class but from the way the media portrays us.
It’s easy to find examples of people claiming working-class roots. They’re everywhere. Here’s an excerpt from President Obama’s State of the Union address.
“That dream [the American dream] is why I can stand before you tonight. That dream is why a working-class kid from Scranton can sit behind me. That dream is why someone who began by sweeping the floors of his father’s Cincinnati bar can preside as Speaker of the House in the greatest nation on earth.”
The media spin surrounding the 2011 Superbowl echoed a similar theme in the many references to the fact that both teams were from working-class roots. Jennifer Lopez claims to be from the hood. The list goes on. But here’s the catch. Notice that none of these people are still working class. President Obama and the Speaker of the House are part of the elite ruling class, and fame and fortune have enabled the NFL football players and Jennifer Lopez to rise above their humble beginnings. Why then, do these people make references to their working-class roots?
Here’s what I think is going on. It’s popular to claim working-class roots because it implies that you have certain respected values such as honesty, integrity, resourcefulness, and a good work ethic. But it’s only a bragging point if you are no longer working class. It is widely assumed that people accept working-class jobs because they don’t have the education or training to do anything else. In other words, working class is not something you should be, it’s something you should be from.
At first, I thought this view of the working class was a reflection of our society. Then I found some survey data that told a different story. A report by Larry Bartel, Unequal Democracy, asked people to rate how warmly or coldly they felt toward a long list of groups (pg. 137). Working-class people outpolled middle-class people, poor people, and rich people by 5 points, 9 points, and 22 points respectively. The working class was more warmly considered than women, older people, the military, young people, the Democratic Party, labor unions, and the Republican Party. These results suggest that the American public has good feelings about the working class. This assumption is supported by other data as well. Although the American public likes to believe that we are a middle class society, 45% of respondents to a national survey identified themselves as working class. This result falls within the range of estimates by sociologists that 40 to 55% of Americans belong to the working class. Thus, it appears that Americans are relatively comfortable with identifying themselves as working class.
In spite of the fact that the public holds the working class in positive regard, the news and entertainment media tend to cast us in a distinctly negative light. An article by Barbara Ehrenreich, “The Silenced Majority,” points out that the media rarely represent the views or experiences of working-class men and women. The “experts” who discuss issues that affect the working class are often white, professional, middle-class men. Members of the white working classes are portrayed as dumb and inarticulate. Such stereotypes serve to silence the voice of the working class in the media. Social researchers also point out that the media typically focuses on the lives of the middle and upper classes with all of their privileges, but the interests and perspectives of the working class receive little attention. A survey conducted by City University of New York found that in two years of PBS prime-time programming, 27 hours addressed the concerns and lives of the working classes, compared with 253 hours that focused on the upper classes. An article by Richard Butsch, “Ralph, Fred, Archie and Homer: Why Television Keeps Recreating the White Male Working Class Buffoon,” notes that depictions of working-class wives are rare and working-class men are shown as immature, irresponsible, and needing supervision.
It’s difficult to identify the underlying source of this negative bias toward the working class within the information and entertainment media. Perhaps the bias attracts larger audiences and sells more advertising. It is also possible that the privileged class and corporations who own the media outlets are pursing their own social and political agenda.
We are standing at a turning point, and the future of the working class is at stake. Many of us believe that being a member of the working class is the American dream. However, we can only realize this dream if society grants us the status and respect we deserve for working hard, paying taxes, and being good citizens. The question is, will we stand up and tell America what we do and why it’s important, or will we let the media continue to erode our public image?
It’s clear that we need a PR campaign for the working class. I encourage you to join us as we become the not-so-silent majority and make our voices heard.