Social Class Matters

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Social Class Matters

I would get excited when my grandma brought
home hand-me-down clothing from the white
families she worked for as a maid. I would eagerly
sift through the pile to find something I liked.
Although I proudly wore secondhand outfits, my
friends and I would taunt members of a family in
the projects who often rummaged through the
dumpster for castoffs. Even though I knew that the
government housing project where I lived was
restricted to low income families, I do not remember feeling stigmatized. Every year my elementary
school would send “care” packages to needy families overseas. Pleased to help poor children, I would
happily donate small items like a bar of soap, a
handkerchief, or a box of crayons.
I used to wish my family could get surplus
government food like some of my friends’ families.
But Ma’s income was slightly higher than the maximum allowed. Fortunately, her income was low
enough to qualify me for the Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) program. In junior high,
CETA employed me as an assistant to the home economics teacher; in high school, I worked in the guidance counselors’ office. I used my income to start a
bank account and help Ma pay for my school clothes.
Kids in the projects enjoyed lots of recreational activities, thanks to government social programs
that provided facilities, staff, and other resources.
We flocked year round to the settlement house (a
recreation and social services center) to do arts and
crafts, play sports, put on variety shows, and watch
movies. I was a member of the girls’ basketball
team and an award winning drill team. During the
summer, we played in fully equipped and staffed
playgrounds. Thanks to the Associated Neighborhood Centers (a city-sponsored program), I worked
one summer as a day camp counselor, where the
kids nicknamed me “Big Bird.”
Employees who managed the projects scheduled tenants, on a rotating basis, to pick up trash,
mow the lawn, or clean the laundry room in their
section of the huge complex. If members of a household neglected their duties, or if their work did not
pass inspection, they had to pay a fine.
My experiences encompass some of the issues
that I cover in this chapter. My musings show how
class-power dynamics unfold in macrosocietal
structures as individuals engage in everyday micropractices. The fact that my friends and I made fun of
the family who could barely afford clothes demonstrates the enduring nature of class consciousness.
Combined with my home training, the annual charitable drive at my school socialized me to care about
those less fortunate than I. Yet, attitudes toward
class vary according to sociohistorical context.
When I was younger, the media did not bombard me
with advertisements tailored for my age group,
although they had begun to target teenagers. I distinctly remember the jingle for Wrangler stretch
jeans. I begged Ma to get me a pair, and she did.
However, my friends and I were not as concerned
about style and brand names as most young people
nowadays seem to be. Few children who now live
where I was raised would welcome castoffs from
strangers. Due to peer pressure, the hype of brand
names, and fashion trends, most of them are probably more picky than I was about clothing.
Styles of consumption both define and display
class positions. For example, use of space can indicate class. Geographic location can denote class
position, as trailer parks often signify “white trash,”
and “housing projects” are class infused as symbols
of the poor. The familiar saying that the most important aspect of real estate is “location, location, location” implies a class bias. Prices of comparable
homes can vary sharply based on the neighborhoods
where they are located. Most major U.S. cities have
identifiable enclaves of wealthy people, as well as
“the other side of the tracks” (or the “wrong side”)
where poor people reside.
Throughout history, the federal government
and state and local agencies, to varying degrees and
Social Class Matters
Allen, Brenda J. 2004. “Social Class Matters,” in Difference Matters: Communicating Social Identity. Waveland Press, Inc. pp.
2 Social Class Matters
with varying criteria for qualifying for assistance,
have intervened to assist members of lower class
groups. When I was growing up in the 1960s, the
United States was in the midst of social reform. Due
in large part to efforts of social activists, the government initiated programs designated for socioeconomically disadvantaged families, As a result, many
lower income families had jobs, affordable housing,
and food. The programs that employed me as a
teenager helped to reinforce the strong work ethic
my mother instilled in me and to give me a sense of
self-empowerment. My peers and I enjoyed recreational activities that gave us a rich childhood and a
strong sense of community. We were among innumerable beneficiaries across the country of the settlement house movement that offered services to
poor citizens and poor immigrants. Many of us are
proud to be former residents of the neighborhood
we affectionately call “Brick City.” We were fortunate to grow up during a time when public attitudes
toward the needy were benevolent.
My memories imply relationships between
hegemony and social class. For example, income
often dictates where people live. The United States
comprises a class segregated society with poor and
rich people residing in different types of “gated”
communities, with different ramifications. To live in
the projects, we had to follow rigid rules and policies or risk eviction. As I recall, families in the projects never questioned being required to maintain the
I delve into these and related issues in this
chapter to show how power relationships and ideology affect constructions of social class in the United
States. First, I discuss conceptions of class, after
which I explain why class matters. Next, I trace the
social construction of class in the United States.
Then, I explore relationships between class and
What is your social class? If you are like most
people in the United States, you consider yourself to
be middle class. But how did you draw that conclusion? Many people equate class with economic status. However, economics is not the only defining
factor of class distinctions. The word “class” comes
from the Roman classis, a system used to divide the
population into groups for taxation purposes. Since
Roman days, class consistently has been based on
social stratification, the ranking of groups according
to various criteria, with ascending positions afforded more value, respect, status, and privilege than
lower positions. Placement in a class system can
occur through ascription, based on conditions at
birth such as family background, race, sex, or place
of birth, or achievement, as a result of individual
effort or merit such as earning a college degree.
Most social science ideas about class stem
from those of Karl Marx and Max Weber. Although
their perspectives differ, both men based their work
on economics. Marx conceived of two classes related to the means of production: the bourgeoisie,
which includes those who own the means of production, and the proletariat or working class (everyone else). Class attribution initially was based on
objective terms, such as the amount of capital
(accumulated goods and their value) one amassed.
Believing there is more to class than just economics, Weber maintained that stratification is
based on property, power, and prestige (the three
Ps). Property refers not only to ownership, but also
to the control of property. Weber conceived of
power from a “power over” standpoint. He viewed
power as the ability to control resources and behaviors of others, contending that this form of control
and its results are key factors in social stratification.
“Class is about the power some people have over
the lives of others, and the powerlessness most people experience as a result.” Prestige means esteem
or social status. One type of prestige in contemporary society is occupational prestige. Because
amount of income and advanced education and
training can affect the prestige level of occupations,
white- collar occupations generally elicit higher
prestige than blue-collar or pink-collar occupations,
which include service and clerical jobs.
Weber’s conception of class corresponds with
contemporary views that economic factors are not
the only determinants of class; more subtle factors
are involved as well. French sociologist Pierre
Bourdieu elaborated the concept of capital to
emphasize ideological conditions of existence as
well as how people use capital to compete for position and resources. He specified three types of capital: economic capital, which includes financial
assets; cultural capital, which encompasses specialized skills and knowledge such as linguistic and
cultural competencies, passed down through one’s
family or from experiences in social institutions,
Social Class Matters 3
such as an Ivy League education; and social capital,
which consists of networks of connections.”
Here’s a brief example of Bourdieu’s conception of capital. When I won an all-expenses-paid
scholarship for college, I could have gone to any
college in the world that admitted me because I had
earned access to economic capital to pay tuition,
room, board, and travel costs. Because I was clueless about how to select a school, I picked the one
that another black female student (who had won the
same scholarship two years earlier) had chosen. I
was not savvy about the college selection process,
and the guidance counselors at my school did not
offer any assistance. (Research persistently reveals
a pattern of differential counseling according to a
student’s social class.) In essence, because I was a
member of a working-class family whose members
had never attended college, I had not accrued the
appropriate cultural or social capital to navigate the
college admission process. Fortunately, I did
acquire an important bit of cultural capital by virtue
of being tracked according to my IQ and placed in
classes with middle- to upper-class white students
who understood the ropes of getting into college. I
took my cues from them as they discussed the SAT
and the ACT (college entrance exams I did not
know about), and I persuaded Ma to pay for me to
take those tests.
Bourdieu’s perspective on class acknowledges
“linguistic, social and communication processes
that foster class membership and consciousness.”
For example, an increasing emphasis on educational credentials reflects the primacy of cultural capital
in U.S. society. Members of the middle and upper
class increasingly seek access to elite institutions
that signal an educational experience different from
and more valuable than that which has become
increasingly available to the masses. Persons in
higher socioeconomic brackets often rely on “connections” to gain admission to preferred institutions, which illustrates an underlying premise of
social capital: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you
know.” Another example of social capital permeates
the standard practice within elite institutions of
higher education of “legacy admissions,” or giving
preferential treatment to children of alumni. Few
people challenge this form of “affirmative action.”
When I asked you about your social class, what
categories of class did you consider? Although
dozens of classification schemes exist, most charts
refer to variations of “upper,” “middle,” and
“lower” classes. Some designations subdivide these,
for instance: “upper-upper,” “lower-upper,” “uppermiddle,” “lower-middle,” “working class,” and
“poor.” Synonyms for the upper class include “owning,” “capitalist,” or “overclass.” The lowest of the
lower class has been labeled the “underclass.”
These classifications explicitly acknowledge
power relationships. Members of the working class
tend to have relatively little control over their jobs,
and they usually do not supervise anyone. Comprising the top stratum, the capitalist class includes
those who have control over the means of production; only 2 percent of the population falls in this
The preceding ideas correspond with the following definition of social class: “an open (to some
degree) stratification system that is associated with
a systematically unequal allocation of resources and
constraints.” “Resources and constraints” can refer
to various types of capital, including money, savoirfaire or “know-how,” social skills, authority, experience, and clout.
Although class difference and class struggle
represent significant themes in U.S. history, rarely
does anyone discuss social class. Yet, social class
embodies a powerful, persistent predictor of accessibility to resources, potential for longevity and success, and self-esteem. Most people remain in or
close to the class position of their family, which
may affect their personal identity: “estimation of
self-worth, degrees of confidence and feelings of
entitlement or lack of entitlement permeate the
experience of belonging to one class or another.”
Social class also can be “a major determinant of
individual decisions and social actions.”
From womb to tomb, social class can make a
major difference in one’s life. Most working-class
mothers see a doctor for the first time in the last
month of pregnancy, whereas most wealthy women
get top quality prenatal care throughout their entire
pregnancy. As a result, rates of infant mortality,
birth defects, and illness are higher among poor
families. Poor children lack basic resources and suffer debilitating material conditions, such as constant
moving, poor nutrition, lack of warm clothing, and
inferior living conditions, which can constrain their
4 Social Class Matters
potential to learn. Lower-class communities more
often are built in old industrial areas, and residents
are exposed to environmental hazards such as air
pollution, lead paint, and asbestos.
Class is the strongest predictor of achievement
in schools. The higher the social class, the more
likely the student is to succeed academically. Social
class is the strongest predictor of whether or not an
individual will go to college, as well as the type of
college a student will attend. Suburban schools in
wealthy neighborhoods work with budgets two to
three times higher per student than poor urban and
rural schools. Poor students are disproportionately
labeled as low-status and segregated from mainstream students and education. In one poor,
Hispanic district, more than one-quarter of the students were classified as “special education,” and
teachers believed that students’ poverty caused their
failure rates.
Compared to patients in higher-level social
classes, those from lower classes tend to receive
more inferior medical care and have limited access
to care. Injury at work and work-related fatalities
are higher for lower-class workers. Older poor people suffer more from chronic illness, and wealthy
people in general live longer than poor and working-class individuals. These distinctions across
classes are not limited to stark differences between
the poor and the affluent. Throughout the life span,
health declines with each successive class group.
Although social discourse implies that the
United States is classless, class-based stratification
persists. As the preceding paragraph intimates, quality of life varies according to socioeconomic status
(SES), which is determined by the combination of
income, education, and occupation. Even though
the United States is an affluent society in general
(median income for a family of four in 2001 was
$56,061), wealth (defined as total value of money
and other assets, minus outstanding debts) is distributed much more unequally than income.
In fact, the United States has the most unequally distributed wealth and income in the world.
About 40 percent of families have little or no
wealth. In 1999, the annual income of the average
poor family was $9,211. In 1996, the richest 20 percent of the population owned approximately 80 percent of the country’s entire wealth. Economic statistics indicate that the rich are getting richer, and the
gap is widening between the haves and the havenots. In 1980, CEOs of large corporations earned 42
times the salary of the average factory worker; in
2001, their salary was 411 times greater. Between
1992 and 2002, workers’ wages grew 36 percent,
while CEO compensation jumped 340 percent.
Social class matters because it affects the political system. Political candidacy and being elected
are tied to class issues. To run for office requires a
substantial bankroll and extensive social networks.
Most candidates for national office garner funding
from elite corporations, and most congressional representatives are lawyers or established business persons. Between 1979 and 1993, 90 percent of cabinet
members were either members of the upper class or
associated with major corporations. In addition,
political candidates recognize that class matters.
Most of them either tout the fact that they grew up
poor, or in working-class families, implying that
they understand the plight of the poor, or they admit
that they are rich, invoking proof of the American
Finally, a number of startling statistics confirm
why we should concern ourselves with social class.
Approximately one out of four children is born into
poverty in the United States. This rate is 1.5 times
greater than that of comparable democracies in the
world. The United States provides fewer tax-supported services for infants and youths than other
developed countries. Furthermore, 40 percent of
people living in poverty are under 18 years of age.
Approximately 17 percent of children or 12.1 million under 18 are poor by federal standards. Nine
million U.S. children suffer from malnutrition.
Almost two-thirds of poor persons are white.
However, relative to their numbers in the population, a disproportionate percentage of blacks and
Hispanics are poor. Among blacks who live a normal life span, nine out of every ten will have experienced poverty at some point, as contrasted with
five out every ten whites. The highest rate of poverty in 1999 was among American Indians and
Alaskan natives (25.9 percent). Each night, 700,000
homeless people reside in temporary public shelters; among these, 40 per cent are families with children. Comprising two-thirds of poor persons over
18, women represent an increasing proportion of the
poor. These facts reveal that nondominant members
of social identity categories, such as women, children, and people of color, are more likely to be poor
than are dominant members. These numbers illustrate once again that intersections of identity matter.
Social Class Matters 5
Similar to other aspects of social identity we are
studying, current conceptions and conditions of
social class arise from a variety of sociohistorical
Power dynamics related to the social construction of social class are evident in the history of how
the United States was established and built. In early
stages of the country many white male newcomers
arrived with high social and economic status.
Others experienced “shipboard mobility,” simply by
leaving poor circumstances in England to take
advantage of opportunities across the ocean. In the
seventeenth century, over half of English immigrants were indentured servants who worked five to
ten years to pay for their passage to the New World.
Almost one-third of them died before paying off
their contracts. Those who survived were able to
improve their status, though not to a substantial
Meanwhile, few economic opportunities existed for Native Americans, white women, and blacks.
Chances for upward mobility were available primarily to certain white men who capitalized on slavery,
immigrant labor, tenant farming, sharecropping,
farm mortgages, and land grabs from Native
Americans, French immigrants, and Mexicans.
Consequently, only a few persons accumulated
The so called “New World” was unlike Europe,
which operated under feudalism and a formal class
hierarchy. In contrast, the land that would become
the United States seemed egalitarian, and numerous
authors wrote about abundant opportunities for
mobility. Yet, the offspring of wealthy colonialists
were the main persons who ascended the economic
ladder. During the financial panics in the 1800s,
descendants of the colonial elite survived because
they were in a sound financial position to take
advantage of economic prospects, such as buying
up land offered for sale below market value. In the
mid-1800s, 95 percent of New York City’s wealthiest one hundred persons were born into their wealth.
Thus, class was primarily ascriptive.
Across history, the government and politicians
played major roles in creating, reinforcing, and
changing conceptions of social class, as well as attitudes toward social class. During World War I,
President Woodrow Wilson invoked values of thrift
and savings to persuade citizens to make personal
sacrifices. When times became more prosperous
after the war, political figures invoked and inculcated ideals such as individualism, materialism, and
hedonism. A consumer ethic arose, encouraging
people to acquire material possessions. Mass advertising campaigns sought to convince middle- and
working-class people to use credit or installment
plans to buy products.
After World War I, the government mainly
served the interests of the wealthy. For example, the
tax on earnings of one million dollars decreased
from $600,000 to $200,000. By reducing the percentage of income taxed, inequalities in the incomes
of the rich and the poor became even more pronounced. During the Great Depression (1929-1933),
the gross national product dropped by 29 percent
and consumer spending fell 18 percent.
Unemployment rose from 3.2 percent in 1929 to
24.9 percent in 1933. In essence, “the American
dream had turned into the American nightmare.”
The economic cycle turned again after the bombing
of Pearl Harbor, with the beginning of World War II.
Spending and investment increased in the defense
industry. Once again, politicians implored citizens
to make sacrifices for patriotism.
During the twentieth century the government
established numerous programs to improve economic and material conditions of citizens, including
the Social Security Act implemented in 1935 to provide retirement income for workers, and the GI Bill
of 1944 to benefit veterans of World War II by opening up educational opportunities for young men of
all races from poor backgrounds. By the 1950s, the
country was poised to return to prosperity and materialism. Although boundaries of race and gender
blocked mobility, class lines became more permeable in the 1950s and 1960s. Working-class families
were able to purchase a modest home and car and to
plan for extended summer vacations. Many could
afford to send their children to college. In addition,
the government created opportunities such as CETA
to remove obstacles to class mobility.
Since the 1960s, numerous developments have
affected class location. In the 1980s, under Ronald
Reagan’s administration, the tax structure shifted to
benefit the wealthy and to decrease domestic programs for low-income families and children. In
6 Social Class Matters
1996, Congress passed the Personal Responsibility
and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) and the Temporary Assistance for Needy
Families (TANF) program to initiate welfare reform
that requires recipients to work in exchange for
time-limited assistance.
Across history whenever the federal government created and administered social policies and
programs, they often were responding to concerns
and demands of citizen groups and individuals,
whose attitudes toward poor people and poverty
fluctuated. Early perceptions of social inequality
were imbued with a Christian attitude of benevolence and compassion toward the less fortunate.
This mind-set changed drastically in the late nineteenth century, when most people viewed poverty as
a blight on society. Social programs during those
times distinguished deserving poor, such as the elderly, orphans, and widows with young children,
from the undeserving poor, such as vagrants.
Crimes of vagrancy were punishable by flogging
and even death.
During the late nineteenth century a discourse
arose about survival of the fittest and eradication of
the unfit. This social Darwinist approach to poverty
endorsed the idea of helping nature run its course by
weeding out “undesirables,” for instance, through
sterilization. Included in the lists of undesirables
were persons with disabilities, people of color, and
poor white people. Stereotypes portrayed poor
whites as incestuous, alcoholic, stupid, and “genetic defectives.” White Anglo-Saxon Protestant families who moved West from the Oklahoma dust bowl
during the 1930s were held with contempt and
antagonism. Known as “Okies,” they were called
“dirty, shiftless, ignorant, breeders.” This “white
trash” stereotype blamed the poor for being poor,
and it helps to solidify for middle- and upper-class
whites a sense of cultural and intellectual superiority.
Across the twentieth century societal discourse
fluctuated between portraying poor people as genetically defective and depicting them as helpless victims of macrosocietal economic conditions. By the
beginning of the twenty-first century, attitudes had
shifted yet again, as some analysts contend that
“poverty” has lost its meaning and that most citizens are apathetic toward poor people.
However, grassroots groups are springing up to
narrow the widening gap between the rich and the
poor. The living wage movement, established in the
1990s, seeks to raise wage standards at local levels.
Advocates of this movement encourage cities and
counties to develop ordinances for organizations
that contract city and county services. These ordinances require employers to pay workers enough to
“survive on what they earn and support their families without relying on welfare for emergency
health care and food stamps and other public assistance.” Baltimore (Maryland), Los Angeles, San
Jose, and Oakland (California) have approved living wage ordinances.
Another example of efforts to improve class
positions of citizens is the “I Have a Dream”
Foundation. Philanthropist Eugene Lang created
this remarkable intervention program in 1981 after
returning to the elementary school he had attended
50 years earlier in New York’s Harlem. When the
school’s principal told Lang that three-quarters of
the students would probably never complete high
school, Lang was so moved that he vowed to pay
the college tuition of every sixth grader who would
graduate from high school.
Lang’s program has blossomed. Across the
country, local groups adopt an entire grade from an
elementary school or an entire age group from a
housing development and offer a variety of services
and support systems to children and their families
from elementary school through college. Most
“Dreamers” who go to college are the first in their
families to do so. The U.S. Department of
Education has developed a replication of the model
called GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and
Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) which
employs partnerships committed to serving and
accelerating the academic achievement of cohorts
of students. GEAR UP promotes academic preparation.
This overview samples a multitude of historical developments related to social class in the
United States. Inherent in this history are dominant
ideologies related to class in the United States.
Social discourse often portrays the United
States as a classless society. Compared to the class
system in England and the caste system in India,
Social Class Matters 7
systems that are ascriptive, the “classless” United
States certainly would seem preferable to most people. However, an irony infuses this myth of classlessness. As feminist scholar bell hooks observes,
“for so long everyone has wanted to hold on to the
belief that the United States is a class-free society—
that anyone who works hard enough can make it to
the top. Few people stop to think that in a class-free
society there would be no top.” Furthermore, the
language we use to denote class differences implies
hierarchy as well as power differentials, as seen in
the terms “upper class” and “lower class.”
From its colonialist inception, the United
States was vaunted as the land of opportunity. This
image, etched into the psyche of many people,
helped to generate the fundamental class-based ideology of the American dream: “an American social
ideal that stresses egalitarianism and especially
material prosperity.” This premise arises from a culture of individualism and autonomy that affirms that
anyone can get rich in a society that is open and
competitive. This ideology rests on an achievement
orientation to success rather than ascription. The
concept of equal opportunity implies that individuals are responsible for success or failure: “wealth is
seen as the result of superior individual effort and
talent and poverty as the product of deficiencies in
these areas.”
The rags-to-riches myth valorizes the few people who manage to beat the odds. Popular since the
seventeenth century, this recurring narrative promotes a picture of the United States as a utopia. It
focuses on individuals and their potential, claiming
that everyone can participate and advance equally, if
only they work hard enough. This narrative associates success with virtue and merit. Thus, this perspective ignores the fact that a person’s starting
point can affect success and overlooks the point that
success often depends on access to books, health
care, education, professional jobs, travel, and other
forms of economic, social, and cultural capital. The
rags-to-riches perspective fails to acknowledge
structural barriers and systemic obstacles to
employment, housing, education, and health care.
Related to this, the “culture of poverty” ideology contends that poor people collectively exhibit
traits that keep them down. This perspective on
class blames the poor for their plight and ignores the
fact that many wealthy people have inherited their
wealth and resources or that they were better positioned to attain the American dream. This ideology
does not acknowledge that economic, cultural, and
social capital can tilt the playing field in favor of
those who have accumulated wealth, knowledge,
and/or connections. Instead, victim-blaming narratives and cultural deprivation stories ascribe persistent intergenerational poverty to immorality and
family dysfunctions.
Belief in the dream seems to be alive and well:
94 percent of Americans think that “people who
work full time should be able to earn enough to
keep their families out of poverty.” Many people in
the United States also seem reticent to even entertain the topic of social class: “if we identify and recognize a class system in the United States, we are
challenging and questioning the very fiber of
democracy. To some of us it may even seem unpatriotic to consider an American class system.”
Enmeshed in the preceding overview of the
social construction of social class are several issues
related to labor. By the late nineteenth century, due
to the development of large corporations and railroads, the United States had established itself as a
capitalist society. Capitalist expansion was a major
force in class formations as the industrial revolution
provided opportunities for thousands of workers to
produce a multitude of goods. Due to industrialization and urbanization, more people became dependent on wage-paying jobs for food, clothing, and
shelter. Rapid industrialization fostered the rise of a
large class of white-collar workers. By the end of
the 1920s, corporations controlled almost half of
industry and two-thirds of industrial wealth was
owned by publicly financed corporations.
During the depression, job discrimination escalated for women and blacks, 50 percent of whom
became unemployed. Desperate for any type of
work, whites took over so called “Negro” occupations such as bellhop, street cleaner, and elevator
operator. This type of response recurred across the
history of labor in the United States: “the roots of
ethnic and racial antagonism usually lie in economic inequality and conflict. . . because subordinate
racial and ethnic minorities represent an economic
threat to many members of the dominant majority.”
As the number of factories rose due to industrialization, workers’ safety and health were often
8 Social Class Matters
threatened. Also, factory owners did not have to pay
workers the wages they deserved because a large
labor pool provided a steady supply of employees.
Consequently, workers began to organize to acquire
safe working conditions as well as reasonable compensation. They formed labor unions and took
actions such as strikes and organized protests to
secure their demands. To retaliate, some capitalist
owners took coercive measures. They enlisted the
assistance of local or federal law enforcement
groups who used physical force against the workers.
Many persons were killed or injured during these
interventions. For instance, in 1937, National
Guardsmen killed eighteen strikers and arrested two
hundred in my hometown (Youngstown, Ohio).
Resistance in the form of organized protests
and strikes is an extremely important part of the
labor history of the United States, as these activities,
usually initiated by unions, resulted in changes in
opportunities for economic mobility. Efforts of
labor union movements helped to garner such
important aspects of employment as an eight-hour
workday, a forty-hour workweek, occupational
safety laws, wage minimums, unemployment benefits, and so forth. However, many union groups
engaged in racist and sexist practices by barring
racial minorities and women from their membership. In addition, corporate bosses sometimes used
class and race antagonisms to secure consent to
domination. Henry Ford mounted a conscious campaign of racial division between black and white
workers. To dissuade blacks from joining unions, he
reminded them of the United Auto Workers’ opposition to black membership.
On the other hand, groups also formed interracial coalitions. These groups realized that economic
opportunity and political and civil rights were interrelated. Predominantly white members of the
unions representing automobile workers, electrical
workers, and garment workers joined with the
Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters to donate
money and organize members to travel to
Washington, D.C., in 1963 to march for jobs and
A pivotal figure in the labor movement was
former migrant worker Cesar E. Chavez. In the
1960s, he and Dolores Huerta founded the United
Farm Workers union and worked tirelessly for
almost three decades to gain better pay and working
conditions for laborers. Basing his efforts on
Ghandi’s nonviolence approach, Chavez went on
extended hunger strikes and coordinated numerous
boycotts. In 2000, California made his birthday,
March 31, a paid holiday for state employees. A
campaign is under way to create a paid federal holiday to honor Chavez.
Members of society use communication to disseminate and internalize ideologies and myths about
social class. Power dynamics operate as “those in
control of linguistic and communicative resources
use these to manage the impressions of others.” In
essence, communication is a fundamental aspect of
class formations, and the experience of class occurs
primarily through communication. Individuals consciously or subconsciously “read” one another’s
appearance and behaviors to discern class position.
We look for cues such as clothing, accessories,
speech style, mode of transportation, and so forth to
make decisions about other people’s class location.
And, we perform class by our (conscious and
unconscious) choices of clothing, accessories,
speech style, manners, food preferences, home
decor, mode of transportation, and so forth. Persons
in similar class positions usually share similar symbols and language systems.
Most organizations reflect the class system of
society. Class dynamics are evident in organizational structures, practices, policies, and norms. For
example, “in institutional settings, stratification is
built into organizational structures, including lines
of authority job descriptions, rules, and spatial and
temporal segregation” to identify and delineate
organization members who have/don’t have power
and prestige. The workplace is a crucial site of class
production and reproduction: “Of all places where
practices, languages, and relations are lived and
shared by individual class members, of all places
where consent is important to dominant-subordinate
relations, of all places where hegemony is constructed, the most important place must be at work.”
Within organizations, classism occurs in numerous
Organizations tend to exercise varying degrees
and types of control of employees depending on
their location in the hierarchy. Lower-level workers
usually have to account for when and how they
expend their time. In contrast, higher-level employ-
Social Class Matters 9
ees may be less accountable. Because I am a professor, I can come and go freely on campus. I do not
have to fill out a time sheet or punch a time card,
and I do not have to take timed breaks. If I do not
feel well, I can cancel class without consulting anyone, and my pay for that period will not be affected.
Yet, most nonfaculty staff members at the university have to call their supervisor by a specific time in
order to be paid for sick leave; they also might be
required to provide proof of illness.
Organizational hierarchies are necessarily
class based, and some are more explicit about distinctions between levels than others. The federal
government designates occupations according to a
grade system that divides civil servant employees
into eighteen ascending categories. Usually, the
higher one’s position in a hierarchy, the greater that
person’s status and access to resources, including
compensation, benefits, leave policies, parking
privileges, bathrooms, dining facilities, and even
office furniture. According to author Paul Fussell,
furniture salespeople know the hierarchy of office
desks: oak is at the bottom, then walnut; mahogany
represents the upper middle, and teak is the ultimate
Physical aspects of the workplace also signify
class distinctions and forms of control. For example, “space is deliberately ordered to give signals
about hierarchy and status.” The higher one is in the
hierarchy, the more space one is usually allocated,
and vice versa. Within office buildings, space is
usually allocated according to class location.
Executives tend to occupy larger, private offices
furnished with more expensive or status-loaded artifacts. Consider, for instance, the symbolism of the
corner office or the key to the executive washroom.
Lower-level personnel not only tend to have
less privacy but also less control over their work
space. Higher-level employees are more likely to
have window(s) and door(s), individual light
switches and even a thermostat, whereas lowerlevel employees tend to have limited (if any) control
of ambient conditions. Yet, employees sometimes
challenge or subvert control mechanisms by altering
their spaces or creating new ones. For example, two
women in adjacent cubicles cut a hole in the partition that separated them in order to talk with each
Class biases suffuse many routine practices in
organizations. Employee recruitment processes
often occur through social networks based on class
similarities. In some organizations, hiring criteria
favor recruiting Ivy League or private college graduates, an example of more obvious class discrimination. As mentioned previously in the discussion on
race, interview expectations for certain jobs value
dominant language codes, which usually correspond with speech styles used by dominant group
members, who tend to belong to middle or upper
classes. Requiring employees to pay for items needed for doing the job, such as uniforms, may prohibit some individuals from taking a job. Other examples of practices that reflect class bias include
requiring employees to pay their business travel
expenses in advance and be reimbursed later or
issuing company credit cards, possibly excluding
persons with bad credit histories.
When organizations schedule mandatory
events such as training or retreats during off-hours,
employees responsible for children or other family
members may incur family care expenses (e.g., for
their children or elderly parents). Organizations
may presuppose possession of cultural capital as
members expect employees to attend and participate
in social events such as black-tie affairs in country
club settings. Even though these events may not be
mandatory they can be important sites for networking. Employees who do not attend because of general apprehension or because they do not have funds
to purchase the proper clothing and/or to pay child
care costs, or those who do attend but are unsure
about etiquette, may not accrue networking advantages.
Lower-status organization members, such as
custodial staff, often perform their work backstage
and/or after-hours, which renders them invisible.
Even when they are visible, others in the workplace
may tend not to acknowledge them. However, some
of these employees note that being backstage allows
them some autonomy and independence and limits
the potential for demeaning interactions with other
Formal and informal dress codes also signify
class. The common distinctions of “blue collar”
(less formal: clothes might become soiled on the
job) and “white collar” (more formal: clothes are
likely to retain a clean, pressed appearance) illustrate a class distinction connected to appearance.
Newer labels combine status and other aspects of
social identity. For instance, “pink collar” designates clerical workers and implies a female focus.
10 Social Class Matters
“Brown collar” refers to low-level, physically
demanding occupations, such as domestic workers,
farm workers, and low-level machine operators in
which Latino/a workers are severely overrepresented. Thus, “brown” refers to the ethnicity of the disproportionate number of Latino/a workers who are
employed in those types of jobs.
Mode of dress often signals the wearer’s status
in the organization. In most corporations, executives are expected to wear business suits or business
attire. Many organizations require employees to
wear uniforms, which can reveal and conceal statuses, certify legitimacy, establish conformity, or suppress individuality. Uniforms “vary in legitimacy
and prestige, conferring different degrees of honor
upon members.” Military uniforms may evoke different responses than working-class uniforms. In
addition, “the very existence of a uniform implies a
group structure.” For example, uniforms clearly signify the hierarchy of armed services personnel.
Among working-class employees such as hotel
maids or bellmen, a uniform signals a person’s role
to customers, clients, and patrons. For members of
the working class, a uniform forces conformity and
constrains individuality of dress among an occupational group. It also highlights the wearer’s status
and differentiates the wearer from other people in
an organizational setting. Author Katherine Boo
contends that working-class uniforms are not made
for the workers, but rather for “the rest of us.” Boo
reports that a backlash about dress is building
among the working class, following members of
occupations who have substituted uniforms for
street clothes. Nurses report an increase in respect
from both patients and doctors when they wear
clothing other than their white uniforms, and
anthropologists repeatedly find that persons wearing business suits evoke more respect and better
responses than those who wear other clothing.
However, working-class individuals may resent
people whom they call “suits” because “the business suit represents the ability of members of the
middle class to command respect for their kind of
work. The business suit in our society loudly proclaims that the wearer is involved in dignified
In contrast, a working-class uniform may
invoke a different response. Parking attendant
Jimmy Killens asserts that he would not accept an
invitation to go after work to dinner at a fancy
restaurant in Washington, D.C., because he fears
that patrons would disdain him: “I wear a uniform,”
he declares, “so it does not matter that I make an
honest wage. I’m looked down on in this town. A
uniform—it says you’re nothing.”
Health Care Settings
Social class dynamics affect power relations
between and among communicators in a variety of
organizational contexts. Examples of these dynamics are evident in research on health care environments. In those settings, patient-provider interactions constitute important communication
scenarios. Providers must acquire information to
facilitate diagnosis and treatment, and they must
persuade patients to comply with treatment plans.
Patients need to feel comfortable and respected
enough to share personal information and to accept
recommendations from providers.
A small, growing body of literature on patientprovider interactions suggests a relationship
between patient characteristics, such as social class
and race, and provider attitudes and interaction
behaviors. Patients of higher socioeconomic status
(SES) tend to receive better medical care and to
have more access to medical care than those with
lower SES. Some providers subscribe to negative
stereotypes about poor patients that mirror those of
society at large; for instance, they believe that poor
patients are lazy, ignorant, and noncompliant. In one
study “upper-middle-class patients received more
physician time, more information, more positive
talk, and more talk overall than did patients from
lower social classes.” Another project reported that
physicians were less likely to discuss diet and exercise with lower-income patients, but they were more
likely to discuss smoking with this group than with
middle-class patients.
Because psychotherapy entails speech systems
based on dominant language competencies, psychiatrists may differentially treat persons who do not
have those communication skills. Psychiatrists may
assign more optimistic prognoses to middle-class
patients than lower-class patients. In addition, hospital workers tend to treat middle-class psychiatric
patients better than lower class ones.
These biases and their related communication
behaviors may stem from disparities between health
care providers and their patients. Physicians from
lower SES backgrounds may be more effective
Social Class Matters 11
communicators with lower SES patients. Recent
recruiting practices for medical schools tend to
focus on applicants from the middle and upper
classes. The students with lower SES who graduate
from medical school and become physicians provide a disproportionately higher share of care to
minority, poor, and Medicaid patients.
In addition to health care contexts, educational
systems are primary sites of social class dynamics,
as a 1999 research study reports:
The educational system replicates the
class structure and corporate system of
capitalist societies. That is, schools prepare a labor force to assume the tasks
demanded by the corporations. Some
schools, dominated by low income and
minority youth, teach the skills of punctuality needed to maintain the assembly
line. Other schools, populated by majority
and high-income youth, teach the skills of
independent thought and personnel management necessary for higher levels of the
Basically, educational experiences “from preschool to high school differentially prepare students
for their ultimate positions in the workforce, and a
student’s placement in various school programs is
based primarily on her or his race and class origin.”
For instance, school personnel counseled students
to enroll in either college preparatory or trade-technical courses on the basis of students’ social class
and assumptions of their parents’ ability to pay for
their education.
Because members of the middle and upper
classes have always controlled educational systems
and content, their values suffuse curriculum structures and materials and placement procedures.
Consequently, the process of education differs for
children according to their social class, and these
differences help to reproduce inequalities.
Most children attend schools segregated by
race, ethnicity and class, and poor children still
attend inferior schools. Even when schools are integrated, students often are resegregated by tracking
or ability grouping. Lower-track classes tend to consist mainly of working-class and minority students.
As the quote at the beginning of this section implies,
separating and segregating students by social class
can perpetuate class distinctions and socialize students regarding “their place” in society. For
instance, while working with lower-class students,
teachers often apply an approach known as a “pedagogy of poverty,” which stresses teacher control
and student compliance. In this approach, teachers
offer direct instruction to an entire class; they
expect all students to comply and respond in similar
ways. Under this model, teachers do not employ
alternative methods such as cooperative learning,
student-devised learning contracts, individualized
instruction, or peer tutoring. Instead, they assign
students repetitive, nonintellectual tasks as opposed
to giving them problem-solving and/or other
group/team-oriented or creative classroom activities.
Children from upper-class families tend to
enjoy an educational advantage over other classes,
because children with higher SES can afford opportunities for enrichment outside of the classroom.
They usually come to school better prepared, and
better socialized to be educated. Their access to cultural and social capital places them in positions of
privilege. Working-class or poor students do not
always fare well on standardized tests that are written in language more commonly geared toward and
used by higher SES members. Therefore, how well
someone speaks and understands white, middleclass English erroneously becomes a common
measurement of intelligence, and students not proficient in standard English may have limited opportunity for advancement.
Class differences may also affect parent
involvement, a pivotal factor for student success. A
review of literature concludes that “low-income
parents and working-class parents, as compared
with middle-class parents, receive less warm welcomes in their children’s schools; their interventions
and suggestions are less respected and attended to
and they are less able to influence the education of
their children.” The study cites repeated reports of
teachers and administrators who discount and
devalue any information that working-class parents
might try to share.
However, many teachers in low-income
schools strive to develop relationships with lowincome parents. Educator Bernice Lott offers recommendations to improve parent-teacher relation-
12 Social Class Matters
ships that have obvious communication implications. They also imply effects of power and ideology Lott believes that schools should take the initiative in building relationships because they have the
advantage of resources and power. She advises
teachers to encourage informal communication
rather than focus only on scheduled meetings that
frequently do not correspond to the lifestyle of
working parents who may not be able to take time
off work, or who may work during nontraditional
hours. She also recommends that teacher training
programs help prospective teachers to communicate
effectively with parents from varying class backgrounds.
A variety of educational reform initiatives seek
to change conditions related to class differences.
Many school systems are involved in restructuring,
which entails strategies such as untracking courses,
forming heterogeneous classrooms, redesigning and
streamlining curriculum, revising assessment methods, and decentralizing administration. In an indepth, three-year study of school restructuring in
one city, educator Pauline Lipman concludes
Although restructuring schools and teachers’ work may be necessary for fundamental change, it will take a profound and
protracted engagement of ideas and values, and ultimately a significant challenge
to the power of dominant ideologies, to
transform education in the interest of all
Social class encompasses a socially constructed category of identity that involves more than just
economic factors; it includes an entire socialization
process. Across history attitudes toward social class
have varied, as have the communication processes
that create, reinforce, and challenge class distinctions. Although the United States purports to be a
classless society social class distinctions have
become solidified, due in part to dominant ideologies such as the culture of poverty and the American
dream. To achieve the American dream, many
groups have organized and fought to improve
important aspects of employment, including equitable pay and safe working conditions. Their efforts
have had significant, positive impacts on the quality of work life for many people. However, organizations of all types, from schools, to factories, to
health care facilities, to corporations, continue to be
sites where members reproduce dominant perspectives on social class. Consequently, a strong need
exists to identify and develop strategies for reducing
blatant and subtle forms of classism and its effects.


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