My first job out of college was in what many would refer to as a working-class town, dominated by a single industry and populated by the kind of regular folks that politicians salivate over in public but stop giving a second’s thought to when the cameras stop rolling. I spent about nine months there – long enough for me to know it wasn’t the kind of place I would ever pass a large chunk of my life in.
I didn’t leave because I disliked the town, though I never really clicked there. I mainly left because of a girlfriend back home. But I would have left, anyway.
The town was Greenwood, South Carolina, located only a couple hours south of where I grew up in the city of Charlotte, but light years away culturally and economically. I was hired as a newspaper reporter at the Index-Journal, which published six days a week.
Greenwood had a population of about 25,000 back then – a small town by U.S. standards. It was still pretty much a textile town, with a big mill operation. This was during the waning days of the South’s once-thriving textile industry, before just about all the jobs moved overseas and most of the mills shuttered. The top dog there was Greenwood Mills, which apparently is still in operation. The town’s population is also still about 25,000.
I had never lived in a small town before, at least one not connected to a university. I landed in Greenwood because it was the early 1980s, and the American economy was in the crapper. I had applied to a bunch of newspapers in urban areas around the country and didn’t get a single nibble. The father of a friend of mine knew the publisher of the Index-Journal, and he recommended me.
So, I packed up my record albums, stereo and clothes, and headed for Greenwood.
It was a learning experience, one of many we have throughout our lifetimes. I was miserable some of the time but also invigorated much of the time, mainly because I liked the work. Socially, I kept to myself. That was partly my own doing, and partly due to a certain vibe I got from the locals that I wasn’t necessarily cut from the same cloth as everyone else.
There were essentially two main demographic groups in Greenwood back then: working-class whites, and working-class blacks. I didn’t really fit into either group, being a recent university grad with brown skin and long, dark, and curly hair. I was what passed for “ethnic” in towns like Greenwood, being one-quarter Filipino, with a last name nobody could pronounce.
I know people looked at me differently – not so much because of who I was, but because I was from somewhere else. You just didn’t find a lot of people from somewhere else. Moving to Greenwood from a couple counties over was considered exotic. This was before the mass migration of Hispanic workers into small Southern towns to fill jobs nobody else wanted.
Did I have any awareness of being looked at as an outsider? Maybe. Probably. Every so often I’d ask someone if they’d like to grab a beer sometime, but I don’t think anyone ever answered in the affirmative, right there, on the spot. One nice family asked me to join them for Thanksgiving dinner. That might have been the only social interaction I had with anyone during my short time in Greenwood.
Truth be told, I was sort of a loner, anyway, so I was used to doing things on my own. It’s not like people weren’t nice – they were nice enough. But they didn’t exactly go out of their way to embrace me, either. I often wondered if I’d had short, sandy blonde hair, light skin, and a last name of “Smith,” whether things might have been different.
There just seemed to be this implicit understanding that we came at life from different points of view – and probably an implicit understanding that I was just passing through, anyway.
Anyway, I split the job and Greenwood after less than a year, and am not sure I ever returned. Nothing against Greenwood. It just wasn’t en route to anywhere I happened to be going in the years since.
But I have never lost the memory of my experience living there, and am reminded of it every time I read about the huge divide in the United States between the educated, urban elite and the small-town working class.
A recurring theme in U.S. politics is that the mostly progressive Democratic party has lost touch with the working class – specifically, the white working class – which used to form much of its base. Meanwhile, the conservative Republican party has captured the hearts and minds of white working-class Americans, mainly by focusing on cultural issues like abortion, guns, immigration, education, and religion.
I’m sure there is truth in all this – that the progressives, huddled in their big cities, have lost their connection with the white working class in small towns and rural areas.
But it’s equally true that the white working class doesn’t necessarily go out of their way to understand the folks in the big cities, either, which is something you don’t hear a lot about. More on that later.
First, let’s get this out of the way: I’m not exactly comfortable with the term “working class.” It just seems like an invented term with no clear definition, designed to advance political causes and nothing more.
A few decades ago, the progressive party tried to build power around the working class. Today, the conservative party does. In both cases, the “working class” has been idealized as the backbone of America, the regular folks who make the country tick but keep getting used and oppressed by the rich and educated.
And both the progressives then, and the conservatives now, use the working class as a prop without ever really digging deeper into what and who the working class really is.
And therein lies my problem. What is the “working class?” How do you define it?
My profession, journalism, used to be considered working class. Reporters would start apprenticeships right after high school, just like carpenters and machine workers.
By the time I started a career as a journalist, it had been rebranded as a professional career because you now needed a college degree to do it. I was not considered “working class” at my job, but I can guarantee you that most of the people who were considered “working class” earned more money than I did. I was barely earning a living wage.
I earned mostly crap wages all through my early adulthood, whether it was working as a reporter, bartender, cook, accountant, whatever. It wasn’t until I was nearly 40 years old that I made anything resembling a decent salary with decent benefits. But because I had a college education, and aspired to be a journalist, I was labeled a professional. These days I’m sure I’d be grouped among the elite because of our household’s education, income, and political views.
Really, it’s all such bullshit.
Electricians are considered working class because you don’t need a four-year college degree to become one. Schoolteachers are considered professional class because you do need a four-year college degree – and in many cases, a master’s degree. The median pay for electricians in the United States in 2021 was $60,040 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The median pay for K-5 teachers was almost exactly the same, at $61,350 (that seems waaaaay high, but whatever).
But electricians are labeled working class, and teachers are not.
Plumbers don’t need a four-year college degree and are therefore considered working class. Social workers do need at least a four-year degree and are not considered working class. But the median annual salary for plumbers in the U.S. is more than $9,000 higher than the median annual salary for social workers.
The barista at the hipster coffee shop in ultra-liberal San Francisco is probably lumped into the coastal elite. The master carpenter in ultra-conservative Alabama is probably lumped into the flyover working class. Who do you think earns more money? Who has a bigger house? Who faces more economic oppression?
Calling one person “working class” and not the other seems to imply that one works for a living, and the other doesn’t. Again, it’s bullshit. The assistant bank manager in Seattle might work just as many hours as the mechanic in Fargo, so why is one “working class” and not the other?
I’m not sure how the term originated, though most scholarship around it seems to point to Karl Marx, who lumped workers into the “proletariat” and just about everyone else into the “bourgeoisie.” More than 150 years later, these terms still have the same stranglehold over the political movers and shakers, though they have been rebranded as “working class” and “educated elite.”
A recent article on the Politico website, titled “What Republicans Know (and Democrats Don’t) About the White Working Class,” touched on this subject in some depth. Here’s a highlight:
“As important as this divide is to understanding working-class whites — and in spite of national publicity by big-name scholars and journalists — coastal and urban progressives often seem oblivious to it. This may be because few have any meaningful interaction with either faction of the white working class. Outsiders struggle to grasp the significance of this class war that rages within our nation’s broader class war.”
The main message here is that “coastal and urban progressives” don’t bother learning more about the white working class, so they can’t possibly understand what motivates the white working class politically. This is a standard media narrative that gets repeated ad nauseum – the progressive party has lost touch with the “real” America.
That may be true. But it also misses a larger point, which is that it’s a two-way street. If one side is supposed to learn more about the other, then it stands to reason that the other side should do the same.
But how often, really, do white “working-class” Americans go out of their way to understand others who aren’t exactly like them? How many times have they ventured into the big coastal cities to break bread with the other side? What have they done to advance their understanding of the gay college kid, or the immigrant computer engineer, or the atheist sociology professor?
I used to live in Los Angeles and New York. Invariably, when I told certain folk from certain places that I lived in those massive, bustling cities, they said they could never live there, and wouldn’t even want to visit. They could barely conceal their contempt. And they had never so much as set a foot in either place, not once, not ever,
I was still basically a kid when I moved to Greenwood all those years ago. I didn’t know jackshit about the world, really. But I did learn very quickly that I didn’t fit in with the locals – because they made that point clear in a thousand different ways. I was an outsider, and they showed little interest in connecting with outsiders.
But – and here is the crucial point – I went there. I moved there. I lived there. I set up a home there, worked there, dined and drank there. I later lived and worked in other small towns with large “working class” populations. I’ve experienced the big cities and the small towns.
Those who have only experienced one at the exclusion of the other, yet still feel comfortable passing judgement anyway, should kindly shut the fuck up until they learn more, no matter which tribe they happen to belong to.
And those pushing the tired, false narrative about how one “class” has lost touch with the other “class” should shut the fuck up as well, until they can prove that the class they so passionately defend has done its part to build a bridge instead of a divide.