I muse on the nature of Class in America
September 12, 2015
My grade school best friend’s dad was a steamfitter (a man who worked with metal at a shipyard), his mom a former secretary turned homemaker. My dad was a milkman, who lived next door to a butcher and down the street from a railroad baggage handler. It was a working class neighborhood for sure. My mother, the teacher, was an exception.
In the early 1980s, my wife and I were in Portland at Christmas time. We had decided to attend a black tie New Year’s Eve party in downtown Portland. I was wearing a tuxedo, she was in a gown. We were sitting in the kitchen at Beech Street. Mom had a buffet on the table. My friend dropped by. He was in his work clothes, a plaid shirt and blue jeans. He ate, we chatted.
Then he said, seemingly out of the blue,” You look like a traitor to your class, dressed in the clothes of the oppressor.” I took it to be a joshing remark, since he had a smile on his face, but still I found it interesting. He had chosen to follow his father into the metalworking business, making elaborate metal door and window treatments for a living. He was not a traitor to his class. But he was also a graduate of the University of Oregon with a masters’ degree in English. T had always been a bit of leftie (he support Eugene McCarthy for president in 1968), so I wasn’t completely surprised by his uttering a piece of Marxist/socialist cant. Still, it’s been 30 years and I still remember the remark. It didn’t bother me; I was proud to have been upwardly mobile, to have risen out of the economic class of my birth. Tom could have been upwardly mobile (he had the education for it), but chose not to be.
At least that’s how I viewed it. Class is a very flexible concept in the United States. We kid ourselves by saying we are a classless society, but of course there is no such thing. When Americans say that, we simply mean that Americans are not necessarily destined to spend their lives in the social class into which they were born. Alas, there are all kinds of statistics indicating that class mobility in the United States (at least as measured be economic quartile) are lower than they have been in decades, but that wasn’t the case during my youth.
The popular conception of Great Britain, for example, is that they have much clearer class lines which are much more difficult to cross. I am an Anglophile, so I am fascinated by the situation in the United Kingdom. I acknowledge that the plural of “anecdote” is not “evidence,” but I have 1.5 anecdotes about British class mobility. My friend B was born working class in England. As a boy, he worked for the Labor Party. He once sang me a verse of The Red Flag, the semi-official anthem of the party:
It suits today the weak and base,
Whose minds are fixed on pelf and place
To cringe before the rich man's frown,
And haul the sacred emblem down.
Not exactly Happy Days are Here Again, the semi-official anthem of the Democratic Party. In any case, B managed to get what amounted to a scholarship so he could attend Cambridge University. He graduated, and went down to London to try and find a job in finance. His lower-class accent, he told me, precluded him from consideration. Only posh, public-school boys need apply. He went to work for an American company, where accents didn’t matter so much. Eventually he got a transfer to America, where he made a wonderful discovery: Americans are blissfully unaware of the class significance of British accents. To us, all British accents are the same. Actor Michael Caine, for example, has commented on many occasions that his accent marks him as working class in England, but is revered as “classy” in the United States. B told me once that a significant minority of his public speaking engagements seem to stem from his accent as much as his content.
Accent is one signifier of class; an important one in Britain, not so much in the United States (although I, personally, find southern accents tend to make me question the speaker’s intellect).
But there are many signifiers of class in the United States. These include accents, where you were born and raised, your parents occupations, their education, your education, sometimes religion, often ethnicity, and to an extent income.
Actually, that last one is interesting. In January 1976, while I was at UPI, I wrote a story, based on a study by the Joint Center for Urban Studies of MIT and Harvard that analyzed class. It was the most widely printed story I ever wrote for UPI, splashed across dozens of front pages across the country. To oversimplify grossly, Americans judge each other’s class not by how much money they make, but how they spend it. A garbage man making $40,000 a year who spends it on beer and bowling is considered working class, while a professor with the same salary who spends it on brie and Chablis is considered at least upper middle class if not upper class.
I can think of some other signifiers; if you wear a uniform, you are probably working class, especially if it has your name on the pocket and your company logo on the back. Like my father’s dairy uniform.
My parents considered us upper middle class because of our income (dad worked a lot of overtime) and my parents’ educational achievement. When dad graduated from high school in 1951, only 58% of high school students graduated. Mom, the first person in either family to graduate from college, did so at a time when only 10% of the U.S. population achieved that status. She earned her degree after receiving a General Equivalency Diploma from high school, since she dropped out as a sophomore to marry dad and give birth to me.
In fact, we were probably working class. It was not a class in which I wished to remain. Dad encouraged me to get out of it, telling me once as I was assisting him on the route, “If you ever take a job involving physical labor, I’ll break both your legs.” I am fairly sure he was kidding. I have never forgotten a quotation attributed to a labor leader on the subject: “People who speak of the dignity of labor have generally never done any.”
My goal, since the age of 12, was to have an air-conditioned indoor job that did not involve getting my fingernails dirty. I succeeded. I never worked retail, and never did any physical labor for a living—in fact, rarely did any physical labor period. Not only was I the first Schindler in 500 years not to earn my living from physical labor, I was the first in my direct line to graduate from college. Maybe my parents were right and my upbringing was upper middle class. But whether or not that is true, I surely rose to the upper class in adulthood.
I was the son of a milkman who was the son of a milkman who emigrated from Switzerland when he was 18. My mother was the daughter of a skilled laborer who was the son of an unskilled laborer, although she herself graduated from college and became a high-school teacher. We lived in a bungalow (1,500 square feet) in a working class neighborhood. The first sign of my departure from the working class was my graduation from MIT. (I hung out there with people whose background was clearly NOT working class; one father ran a movie theater and an A&W Root Beer franchise, another was an auctioneer.)
By age 26, I was already leaving the working class behind; not just in the physical labor aspect, but by income. My dad never talked to me about his income, but when I told him in 1978 (I was then 26, he was 44) that I was making $17,000 at the Oregon Journal, he told me I was out-earning him.
Growing up Episcopalian in Portland, Oregon meant that I did not have to struggle against a couple of the minor signifiers of American class. There are “low-rent” religions, but the Episcopal Church wasn’t one of them. There are “low-rent” accents, but mine was barely perceptible. The Pacific Northwest accent is “remarkably close to the standard American accent,” according to Wikipedia. I can’t find confirmation, but in the 1960s, adults told us that, during the Second World War, air traffic controllers from the Pacific Northwest were used all over the world by the military, because their “unaccented” English could be easily understood by all Americans.
I learned the vocabulary and manners of the upper class. I learned the dress code, although I was slightly affected (I wore nothing but French-cuff shirts from the age of 28 onward, at a time when such shirts were increasingly uncommon). I owned my own tuxedo. I literally did not wear blue jeans between 1978 and 2008. My father owned one suit and two ties; I owned a half-dozen suits, a half-dozen sports coats and 50 ties.
I spent my money on books and foreign vacations. By comparison, my mother left the United States only once; my dad never had a passport. I did not spend my money on beer, bowling or recreational vehicles.
Ethnicity? My family was almost purely Swiss on my father’s side, Irish on my mother’s side. Although the Irish had met with some prejudice during the 19th century, that was mostly a thing of the past by the 20th. So far as I know, the Swiss, like most northern Europeans, were never subject to any animus based on ethnic background (unlike southern and eastern Europeans, Africans, Asians and Jewish people). Harvard never had a Swiss quota; there was never a “Switzerland Exclusion Act.”