Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America by Joan C. Williams - Book Review




In White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America (Harvard Business Review Press, 2017, 192 pages, $15.31/13.49) Joan C. Williams has written a challenging, persuasive book helping to answer questions often asked by people seeking to understand why and how Donald Trump won election as President of the United States by gaining the votes of people who seemed to have been voting against their own interests. In presenting her argument, Williams details how to coalition of liberal intellectuals, workers, and minorities has been broken because of their emphasis on identity issues and their loss of touch with the values and lives of the struggling people in the white working class. More important, she delineates how the Professional Managerial Elite (which she calls PME) has lost touch with the lives of those who do the work, blue collar Americans. Furthermore, she argues, that by dismissing this group as uneducated, fundamentalist, and racist, liberals and progressives have lost their loyalty and denigrated the values and beliefs that once formed the core of our society.

The chapters of this cogently argued lively presentation, carefully supported by numerous citations, and garnished with sufficient anecdotes, personal experiences, and quotations, asks a number of questions that people comfortably ensconced in middle class, professional positions often ask about those whose family values, work ethic, and religious beliefs appear to be cutting them off from the success that the professional elite is enjoying. Chapter headings include:
Who Is the Working Class?
Why Does the Working Class Resent the Poor
Why Doesn't the Working Class Just Move to Where The Jobs Are?
Why Doesn't the Working Class Just Get with It and Go to College?
Thse chapters ask whether the working class is just racist and sexist, explaining that while racism and sexism surely exist, the answers to these questions are much more nuanced and difficult than common argument has suggested. By forming chapters as questions, Williams encourages developing deeper understanding and more wide ranging discussion of how these questions may be answered. She always cites solid research leading to alternative approaches to solving the problems suggested.

While arguing that racism and sexism still exist and are powerful factors in our society, Williams says that Americans are deeply uncomfortable with the concept and discussion of social class - its meaning, economic sources, and effects on our attitude and behaviors. She argues that not until liberals are able to re-connect with white, working class voters will they be able to consistently win presidential elections again. She holds that identity politics strike right where working class people are uncomfortable and afraid. Thus gender, race, sexual identity, and religious conviction stand as difficult touching points. She strongly acknowledges these differences while suggesting strategies for discussing the issues in ways that make crossing of difficult barriers more easy.

She points out that many social and political postures of white working class voters and others are not racism, but fear. Fear of the unknown creates misunderstandings and confusing disjunctions in contemporary society. Especially poignant is Williams' demonstration that racism exists in all of us, but manifests itself differently through the application of class-based stereotypes. Her examples hit home to any thoughtful reader with the genuine power of recognition.

White working class families are more generally associated with more closely knit families, often for economic and convenience reasons growing out of providing mutual support in a difficult and demanding living and working world. Elites, however, place their self concepts and advancement on mobility, college educations, and self-satisfied sophistication setting them apart and above. Basic questions like “Why don't they move to where the jobs are” or “Why don't they go to college, get educated, and move up?” are answered by understanding the values concerning family, religion, and work maintained by those in the white working class. The dilemmas created for those Williams calls “class migrants,” people who move from working class into professional and technical ranks, are heart rending in the descriptions of how people learn social and economic cues that mark them as different from their background, and then must deal with the dis-jointures they discover in being separated from their background and heritage. The term “fly over country,” which passes as sophisticated wit among the elite is deeply insulting to those who see that country as “Home.” By dismissing large parts of the country, and the values and hard-working lives of those who live and seek to work there, the sophisticated coastal elites are simply insulting and alienating those they need to understand most.

Williams examines the kind of educational approaches, short of obtaining a college education, which would lead to appropriate employment in manufacturing for today's working class. She explores several approaches which would involve labor unions, schools and community colleges, and local manufacturers in training and empowering workers to become gainfully employed, while recognizing that older forms of heavy industry dependent on large employee populations are unlikely to return. Williams couples this with the family values and work ethic which would be reinforced by such arrangements. When placing racism, sexism, and fear of both Muslims and Latinos beside the greater fear of the inability to meet family obligations in the face of ongoing layoffs, she argues that its little wonder that white working class Americans were attracted by the promises of Donald Trump, no matter how blue sky they may turn out to be.

Joan C. Williams


Professor Joan C. Williams is a Distinguished Professor of Law, UC Hastings Foundation Chair, and the Founding Director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School, earned a Master's Degree in City Planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and her completed her undergraduate degree in history at Yale University. She has written over seventy law review articles, including one listed in 1996 as one of the most cited law review articles ever written. Her work has been excerpted in casebooks on six different topics. She has been described as having "something approaching rock star status” by The New York Times.

Joan C. Williams in White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America (Harvard Business Review Press, 2017, 192 pages, $15.31/13.49) has written a readable, scholarly book about class, race, and gender. Some might consider that feat to be an oxymoron, but this volume performs a great service for anyone wishing to understand the phenomenon of Donald Trump's election and appeal to the range of voters he attracted. Williams manages this feat with a style that is both thoroughly analytical and warmly human, sprinkling her text with personal anecdotes and well-chosen examples taken from thoughtful people crossing many of the fault lines separating Americans from achieving mutual understanding. Both in the amount of information this book provides and the tone in which it is written, this book provides a service for scholars, policy-makers, and general readers. It make a genuine contribution to the discussion.I received the book as an digital download from the publisher through NetGalley. I read it on my Kindle App.