Thursday, February 16, 2012

At the borders of three social classes

Jason Kuzinicki, at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen, links to a quiz [click here to read it, it's part of a sample of book by Charles Murray] that purports to show--or at least explore--how much the quiz-taker is in touch with "the common person."  The lower the score, the less "in touch" one is.  On a scale of 0 to 100, here are what the scores mean (hint:  the points overlap):
  • 48-99 points:   A lifelong resident of a working-class neighborhood with average television and movie going habits
  • 42-100 points:  A first- generation middle-class person with working-class parents and average television and movie going habits
  • 11-80:  A first- generation upper-middle- class person with middle-class parents.
  • 0-43:  A second- generation (or more) upper-middle-class person who has made a point of getting out a lot.
I scored a 33, which places me pretty solidly in the "middle class" and potentially in the "upper-middle class."  Now, since we live in a small-d democratic age, it's considered poor form not to have empathetic ties to something called the "middle class" or lower, and I could point out to certain assumptions inherent in that quiz that might serve more to stereotype working-class people than to illuminate affective class differences [I really do mean "affective" and not "effective"].  I won't dwell on those, except to say that I purposely biased my answers to make my score lower.  For example,
  • I answered "no" to the question that asked whether I knew anyone in school who, no matter how hard they tried, couldn't get passing grades.  (First, note the assumption that working people not only don't get passing grades, but cannot get them.)  Now, one of my best friends in high school got very poor grades--I won't say he never got passing grades, but mostly they were very poor--and he ended up dropping out and joining the Navy (I think the navy at the time had a requirement that new recruits be at least high school graduates, but somehow he got around that).  I answered "no" to the question because my friend was (and is) quite intelligent, and probably could have gotten very good grades if he had known how, or had the will to, apply himself.  In fact, I hear that he has since gone to school and become a radiologist.
  • I answered "no" to the question "do you have a close with whom you have strong and wide ranging political disagreements" even though I disagree profoundly with the kind of liberalism most of my friends espouse.  I answered "no" because I am probably coming from the same spectrum as they:  like them, I do not support the Republican party and probably will not unless the party makes some pretty radical changes in the constituency it tolerates.  (But unlike (a lot of) them, I don't think that party or Republicans in general are evil incarnate, it's just that the party is at a place that I cannot support it in good conscience.)
  • When the quiz presented a list of movies and asked if I had ever seen them, I almost said "yes" because "True Grit" was on the list.  But then I realized the question was referring to the remake of the John Wayne classic and not the John Wayne classic itself, which my father watched, along with several other Wayne movies, almost whenever they were on television.
  • I said "no" when the quiz asked if I had ever been to a union local meeting because I don't think the Graduate Employees Organization I belong to necessarily qualifies as a union local in the sense that Murray intended it.
  • I said "no" when the quiz asked if I ever had a job where I hurt when I got off work.  Fortunately, my jobs have never really caused chronic pain, and aside from grease burns and small cuts and sometimes aching muscles , I've never been injured on any job.  Still, I have had jobs that were physically exhausting, but I didn't think that counted.
I biased my answers because it was as clear as day the point the quiz was aiming at, and I didn't want to claim an affinity to working-class or less-affluent-class culture that I didn't deserve.

Now, as for the score itself, which places me as a "first generation" upper-middle class person with "middle-class" parents or as a second generation or more upper-middle-class person:  it's counter-intuitive in one way but very accurate in another.

It's counter-intuitive because it's probably fair to say that my family is working class and to some degree my upbringing was working class.  My father was an electrician (a member of IBEW).  My mother has worked a variety of office jobs in what some analysts would call the "pink collar" sector, a term that I personally find condescending but that underscores and underlying truth about the way some jobs are coded as "women's work":  for example, she worked as some sort of information processer for an insurance company (this was before I was born), and while I was in school, she worked as a teachers aid for a local elementary school (although not the one I attended).  For a long time, if I understand correctly, she was also a homemaker without a waged job, and took care of my siblings when they were young.

Most of the rest of my family is probably at least arguably working class, too.  One of my brothers is also an electrician, although for a while he was a project manager for a company and for another while he tried to run his own electricians business (so maybe that history excludes him).  Another brother is a truck driver.  Another is in law enforcement (a profession that while perhaps not "working class" in terms of its members' relation to the "means of production" but which I think most people would identify as a "working-class" job).  Both of my sisters have had a variety of waged jobs in retail and other locations, although now one is running her own business (she finds furniture in the alley, refurbishes it, and sells it) while the other now has a job that might qualify to some people as "middle class."  I'm not sure I understand what she does, but as I understand it, it requires a lot of detailed oriented work and skill, and while some might consider it "middle class," I'd say it is working class at least in the sense that the job is waged labor and that its employees are subject to downsizing threats (she recently faced the prospect of a layoff, but fortunately has been kept on).

My siblings' spouses, too, tend to have working-class jobs.  One worked in a nursing home and had her own housecleaning business for a while (i.e., she cleaned people's houses for pay; she wasn't a labor-farmer who contracted out the work of others).  Another has worked various retail jobs and for while had a small cake-making business (it was of such a size that I'd say it was less entrepreneurial and more "working-class," but I can see how one might see it as "middle-class," at least in the petit bourgeois sense).  Another also works in law enforcement.  One, however, has a job in middle-management--and the upper-echelons of middle management, at that--of a very large, national corporation, so that her actual job is probably "middle class" by most standards, even though her own background is quite working class.

My working-class background therefore makes my low score seem counter-intuitive.  Yet, it's more than it might seem given only the background I just noted.  Before I go on, I should acknowledge a few things.  First, most people have a very broad definition of what counts as "middle class."  They seem to want it to mean something like "everyday people who are neither super-rich or super-poor."  (In my less charitable moments, I sometimes think certain people use it to mean "that huge, inchoate mass of people who are not part of the undeserving rich or the undeserving poor, with 'undeserving' being defined as 'someone whom I look down on for being poor or whom I dislike for having more than I have'.")  I personally would prefer a more precise definition, preferably one that stresses a combination of affluence, the ways one earns one's living, and the way one self-identifies as a "class."  It is probably a mistake, however, to impose my conception of class on others.  So, I'll just acknowledge that most people do not mean "middle class" and "working class" as mutually exclusive. 

The real point to Charles Murray's quiz--and, I presume, the book it's extracted from--is not to conjure up a new, theoretically fine schema of class distinctions.  Rather, he is trying to ask the reader to assess how he or she might fit in a spectrum between elite and non-elite.  And now, following what appears to be the spirit of his quiz, I'll explore how my relatively low score has some merit.

First, although I was raised "working class," my upbringing reflected a lot of affluence.  I imagine my parents had a lot less money when they raised my siblings, who are significantly older than I, and they probably had to scrimp and save.  But by the time I came around, I was pretty much the only one they had to take care of, so the proceeds of that scrimping and saving often went to me.  As I child, I was never concerned about whether I would have food or clothing or a place to live; and if my parents worried about such things, I never knew about it.  I may have worn hand-me-downs, but if I did, wearing them didn't bother me, and my clothes were always in good repair, and don't remember ever being self-conscious that I would be made fun of for the quality of my clothes.

Second, my parents were quite avid readers.  They didn't necessarily like much of what most people with a formal education might place onto the canon of what people must read to be educated, but I grew up with the habit of reading.  (And my father read quite complicated stuff, primers on metallurgy and whatnot, that boggled my mind.)  This propensity for reading in itself is not necessarily a marker of "elitism," but it did mean I grew up in an environment in which I would realize whatever aptitude I had for book learning.  My mother got an old set of "World Book" encyclopedias, and I used to just browse them, reading whatever articles seemed interesting to me.  There were counter-currents, too:  my parents were upset that I wasn't into playing  sports (for two years I played little league and hated it), and I think my father was disappointed that I was either unwilling to or lacked the knowledge to defend myself against bullies.  (To be fair, I should say I was not always the hapless victim, and I sometimes provoked the bullies more than my parents or school officials caught on, and in some cases, I was a bully too).  But overall, my scholastic aptitude was at least tolerated, and usually encouraged.

Third, I didn't have to work in high school and probably didn't have to work in college.  Now, I did have jobs.  With one major exception, my freshman year in College, from the end of my sophomore year in high school through the end of my senior year in college, I had a job at one of two fast food jobs.  (In college, I worked one job at school, in Fort Collins, during the school year, and another job in Denver during summer and Christmas breaks.)  Now, those jobs helped me in many ways:  I saved money, gained working experience that gave me an entree to other jobs after I got my BA, and I met people who I might never have otherwise met or socialized with.

But I didn't have to work.  In high school, my parents didn't expect me to contribute to rent or to my upbringing.  My tastes were pretty tame, and they might have outright given me an allowance if I had asked for one.  In college, working was necessary to offset having to take out loans, and I was fortunate to have scholarship that paid for most of my tuition, leaving me to cover only living expenses.  Yet, there were three points.  First, during Christmas and summer breaks, I stayed at my parents' house, rent free.  Second, I knew that if things got really bad, I could ask my parents for help and that I would probably get it.  Third, taking out student loans was always an option:  it was easy and partially subsidized credit that was available to me.  I'm not saying there aren't problems with the student loan system and that there is no exploitation in the way the system operates, but it is a resource provided at taxpayer expense, and it was open to me.

Fourth, I had the chance to go to graduate school.  And that process acquainted me with people whose tastes definitely put them on the elite side of Murray's spectrum.  I remember that in my MA program, I knew at least two people who had grown up with a maid in the house, and two people whose fathers were Harvard professors.  In both my MA and PHD programs, I encountered that strange creature I'll call the "PLACA," or the private liberal arts college alumnus/-a.  Almost all of these PLACA's, most of the time, have been almost nothing but nice to me and treated me almost as if I were one of their own and thereby gave me the social and cultural capital I might need to negotiate the rough waters of professionalism and middleclassness.

As my fourth example suggests (in what I hope is taken as a gentle, tongue-in-cheek nudge and not as a declaration of class war against my friends who graduated from private liberal arts colleges, not all of whom were from affluent backgrounds...I know one professor at such a college who said many of his students can't even buy books until their student loans come through), I think there are limits to my membership in the elite.  Among my friends in academia, I usually feel self-conscious....not necessarily "inferior," but very aware that I went to a state school and that neither of my parents went to college.  I of course knew and know other people in grad school who have more challenging backgrounds than mine ever was, so I risk claiming too much.

But I remember feeling a sense of alienation, jealousy, and envy when, as a MA student in Colorado who had never ridden an airplane, I heard people mention quite casually that they had friends in some part of the country (San Francisco, Georgetown, Chicago, New York City) and they might go visit them this weekend.  I remember a similar feeling when my classmates criticized Coloradans as provincial hicks (at least, that was my interpretation of a lot of what they said....I freely admit 1) that I placed a certain chip on my shoulder and purposely over-interpreted what were innocuous statements and, probably, expressions of homesickness for wherever it is my friends came from and 2) that I can be just as prone as the next guy to regional bigotries.)

Even now, when I ought to know better, I think to myself as a non-elite person in an elite sea.  For example, I find NPR annoyingly condescending, even to the point of getting angry when I hear someone listening to "All Things Considered" on the radio, even though I know I'm in the wrong there.  I take certain statements that were not intended as insulting or as slights and interpret them as a remark against the class I allegedly came from.  This may be one reason why I get very offended, very fast, when I hear people, especially professional, well-educated people, criticize evangelical Christians as if the latter were just some barbarous lumpen who can't be spoken at.  (I used to self-identify, kind of, as an evangelical Christian, even though I was raised Catholic and never formally disavowed Catholicism until I became an agnostic, but that's story for another day....)

I do feel then, rightly or wrongly, that I'm on the border of something called "working class" and something called "middle class."  I say this even as I realize the immense privileges I have enjoyed throughout my life, and they are more than I listed above, too.  I say this even as I realize that some people who I consider more solidly in the middle class and who I know personally had or have even fewer resources than I am accustomed to.

Yet my low score on the quiz suggests that not only am I in the "middle class," but I'm also at the cusp of the "upper class."  And in some ways I am.  I know a few people who qualify (in my book, at least):  the rentier capitalists who do worthwhile jobs and run their own charities, but who when push comes to shove would probably call in the army to protect their wealth.  I say this not as a judgment and not solely as a statement of envy:  these people seem unhappy, and if their wealth and status is not the cause of their unhappiness, it doesn't appear to help them.

I'm not sure what conclusions to draw from all this.  Perhaps "class" as a construct is clumsy, too clumsy to make valid generalizations from.  All I can really say is that I should be wary before I claim some sort of affective understanding or "authenticity" based on my background.


    lindsay said...

    you've written a fascinating autobiography! If that quiz weren't so time consuming and complicated I would tell you my score.


    your "elite" cousin

    Pierre Corneille said...

    Thanks, Lindsay! By the way, when I mentioned people who would "call in the army" to safeguard their wealth, I wasn't thinking of you :)

    For what it's worth, I think I underplayed the extent to which I truly am a product of privilege.

    Nice to hear from you. 'Hope all is going well.