Who’s Afraid of the White Working Class?: On Joan C. Williams’s “White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America”


David Roediger in the LA Review of Books:

From its title onward, White Working Class suffers under problems with accuracy-in-labeling. The book is not about the working class in any meaningful sense. Its treatment of race is, at best, fleeting. Regarding the former, Williams arrives at a definition of the working class that is neither traditional and coherent nor usefully innovative. She expels the poor, wage earning or not, from the ranks of the working class and shuts the very rich out of the ranks of those holding it back. Income alone, not the more meaningful measure of wealth, defines her answer to the question “Who Is the Working Class?” The bottom third and top 20 percent are excluded, with an exception made for those making more but not having college degrees. The result is a “class” defined by making $41,005 to $131,962 annually (median: $75,144), and by holding values alternately seen as understandable or wonderful.

Calling this group the “white working class,” rather than the middle class, is strange given that its middle-ness is precisely what defines it. The major US scholar whose work most resembles Williams’s is the late-in-life and rightward-moving Christopher Lasch. But Lasch was careful to call the object of his romanticization and defense the “lower middle class.” Williams explains that she too preferred to use “middle class.” But the book’s editor objected that this was unclear, so Williams decided to use working class. Nevertheless, she invites readers to understand that her object of study is really the “true middle class,” shorn of its snobbish, college-educated professional-managerial eliteness. As a marketing ploy, White Working Class is also not a bad eye-catcher.

The level of confusion thus introduced is very high. At one point, casting about for areas of unity between the working class and the poor, Williams expresses her hope that restaurant owners will oppose Trump’s draconian border measures in order to better secure immigrant labor. For those still trying to keep score, the restaurant owners are somehow working class, while their immigrant laboring employees are somehow not. Nevertheless, at certain junctures Williams cannot resist taking up the cause of “white trash” who are maligned by elites but not, by her own definitions, working class. (In actual working-class families, of course, the lines between the deserving and undeserving, the too-honorable-for-welfare and the dissolute, and even the churched and unchurched are nothing like as clear as Williams supposes. Actual working-class lives usually change — hillbilly elegies and Charles Murray notwithstanding — for reasons having precious little to do with a worker’s character.)

More here.