Friday, September 16, 2011

Class in America

There are three social classes in America: upper middle class, middle class and lower middle class. Miss Manners has never heard of an American's owning up to being in any other class.

-- Judith Martin, Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior

As usual, Miss Manners manages to condense my perceived reality into a couple of crystal-clear sentences.* I, too, have never heard anyone describe themselves as anything other than middle-class (possibly because Americans think of this country as a meritocracy), though we will occasionally talk about our "blue collar" forebears in oddly romanticized language. Those TV folk in particular speak as if they are addressing a country made up entirely of middle-class families.

This is completely at odds with reality; the truth is that our country is incredibly classist. The economic disparity between the rich and the poor in this country is more pronounced in the U.S. than it is for our international peers. Sociological Images has some great summaries of how we stack up internationally, and of how the gap between our rich and poor is growing rather than shrinking. If you move beyond simple economic classes, you find additional discrimination based on race, religion, gender expression, and sexuality.

I'm not quite sure, though, what language would be preferable. I hesitate to describe myself as "upper class" because I'm afraid of sounding like I think that's some sort of compliment, rather than an honest assessment of my economic privileges. (On the other hand, it also brings to mind debutantes and weekends in Martha's Vineyard, and it would be useful to stop equating wealth with these practices.) But we do need a better way of discussing class, because thinking of this country as filled with middle-class people sweeps real economic disparities under the rug.

And yeah, my references are all from Sociological Images. That is an amazing site, y'all.

*Then again, Martin and I seem to have led similarly privileged lives.


  1. I'm surprised that no one is commenting on this - apparently Americans really don't care about 'class'. That people, even the poor, seem to think a) that the daily struggle to keep going is how things ought to be and b) that you really get rewarded for hard work and talent; shows a remarkable victory by the propaganda machine.

    PS: to me, 'upper class' means you never have to work if you don't choose to. Not many of those.

  2. Martin, the propaganda machine has been chugging along since before the first Horatio Alger stories. You could argue that it began with the first European settlers even. New life in the New World and all that.

    And even the wealthy prefer to present themselves as middle class. Consider the politicians obsessed with being seen as 'somebody you can have a beer with' and ensuring photo-ops of them doing 'middle class' things. Kerry was mocked mercilessly for being an elitist windboarder, and Obama attacked as an elitist for asking for arugala. Middle Class is the only class that matters.

  3. I am, of course, reminded of that wonderful yearly contest held in England for Upper Class Twit of the Year: