April 12, 2011

False Dichotomies of Class (Part I): Mobility versus Mobilization

Martha McCluskey wrote a couple of weeks ago on the ClassCrits Blog about some questions regarding class that arose at Martha Fineman’s recent workshop, Masking and Manipulating Vulnerabilities, at Emory Law School.  To summarize, McCluskey asked whether it is “problematic to analyze class as a category of inequality without directly engaging questions of labor rights?”

The genesis of that conversation at Emory was my speculation regarding the reasons for resistance to class analysis regarding whites and, by extension, resistance to the vulnerability paradigm.  Like my other recent work on class, my comments at Emory  focused on class mobility and did not engage issues of collective mobilization.  I thus believe the clear answer to McCluskey’s question is “no.”  Class mobility (think class ascension, although the sad trend these days is downward mobility) and class mobilization (as through unionizing and labor rights) seem to me different paths to empowerment of the working class and poor.  I see these as able to reside comfortably, side-by-side, on parallel tracks.  Indeed, now that McCluskey (echoing others at the Emory workshop) has voiced this issue, I find myself surprised that we do not see more law professors writing about class (im)mobility in a way that separates the issue from racism. That is, I am concerned that socially conscious progressives see challenges to upward mobility as stemming primarily, even solely, from bias against minorities.  If this is the case, we are failing to see that whites, too, are increasingly victims of the inequality gap and its attendant barriers to upward class migration.

We socially conscious progressives are attuned to the need to achieve higher educational attainment for racial and ethnic minorities.  We understand the need to facilitate their class ascension, to integrate more of them into the professional/managerial class, to bring them to the big table of law- and policy-making, in part so that we can benefit from what they know from personal experience.  Affirmative action programs have long been aimed at this outcome—and rightfully so.  We don’t just talk about unionizing minority populations, which presumes that they will stay working class, albeit in a materially more comfortable way.  We talk about diversifying the pipeline into the upper middle class, a/k/a the professional/managerial class.  We grieve the fate of minority children who could have become our political and business leaders—if only they had enjoyed something approaching equal opportunity.

Why, then, do we pay so little attention to class mobility among poor and working class whites?  Why would we limit ourselves to working for their mobilization—as in unions—rather than their upward mobility? Perhaps we have taken for granted white folks’ ability to transcend class boundaries because whites are not the victims of racism.  To quote Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting with Jesus:  Dispatches from America’s Class War, we’ve been snookered by the “myth of the power of white skin.”  That is, we may buy into the “unspoken belief that if a white person does not succeed, his or her lack of success can be due only to laziness.”  We recognize racism as among the many factors that impede class mobility for racial minorities, but we don’t credit the structural barriers—or cultural bias against poor whites (see here and here)—when assessing the prospects of working class whites.  Yet many poor and working class whites face the same sorts of structural and cultural obstacles that burden minorities:  crummy schools, inadequate health care, a dearth of educated role models in their communities, and low expectations.

Yes, tragically, racism is alive and well in this country.  But minority status is not the only force that holds back working class young people who have the sheer native ability and ambition to get a college degree—or even go well beyond it.  Socially conscious progressives are smart enough to know this, but I see very few acknowledging it.  Which brings us to the State, hardly an innocent bystander of the “class war” to which so many insist on turning a blind eye.  To pick up Martha McCluskey’s metaphor, of course the different classes are not just layers in a cake with as much do with one another as with the cake pan (a/k/a the State).  No, the inferior education, health care and other dwindling supports to which the working class have access directly implicate the State and its grossly uneven distribution of resources.  Relying on local funding (as opposed to state and federal funding) of myriad services is just one component of this.  As President Obama recognized in his 2010 State of the Union address, “the success of our children cannot depend more on where they live than on their potential.”  Yet sadly it often does.  Read more here and here.    

I admit that I’m interested in class (im)mobility in part because I’m a “class migrant,” one “born and raised working class, who join the upper-middle class through access to ... education” (quoting the definition from Joan Williams’ recent book).  But the struggle for class ascension isn’t only supported by anecdote.  Data indicate that upward mobility for the working class is declining—at least as measured by higher education attainment.  In 1970, 61% of college students were the children of parents whose highest education level was a high school diploma or less—that is, they were “first-generation college.”  By 1990, that figure had fallen to 41%, and in 2000, only 22% of those who attended college were the first generation in their family to do so.  Even taking into account the role played by the rising percentage of people (parents) with college degrees over those three decades (though it remains less than 30%), the data suggest that the working class kid who gets to (let alone through!) college is increasingly rare.  Structural impediments bear a significant part of the blame.  Most obviously and recently, these include dramatically higher tuition for tertiary education, even at state colleges and universities.

In any event, I don’t see how this focus on class (im)mobility—which has both material and cultural aspects (as I shall discuss further in a future post)—precludes attention to organized labor.  I’m all for unionizing those who will remain in the working class, and I would hope that nothing I say be used to naturalize constraints on workers’ power to act collectively.  However much we increase mobility for some, we will always have workers with us, but they need not be poor.  Clearly, collective action is necessary to improve their material circumstances.

But focusing only on organizing the working class is arguably an insult to the extent that it objectifies and distances “them” from “us,” compartmentalizing them below us in the class hierarchy.  To focus exclusively on unionizing the working class overlooks the potential and desire of some to transcend class boundaries (as through higher education) and join the upper middle class.

Surely we want white class migrants among our ranks—just as we want class migrants from minority groups—sitting at the “big table” at which social progressive brainstorm problems, set priorities, and formulate solutions. I am convinced that they (we) could teach us (you) a few things.  Class migrants can remind those in power what generations of them have known:  like the racial privilege enjoyed by those of us who are white, our class privilege causes us to take too much for granted—and it tempts us to take too much individual credit for our own professional and material success.

Cross-posted to ClassCrits, SALTLaw Blog, and Legal Ruralism