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LATELY, THIS word that we usually don't hear much is popping up in the national conversation.


Not class as in "schoolroom." Not class as in "high-toned" or "a dame with . . ." No, class as in class warfare. As in rich vs. poor. As in "the beleaguered middle". . .

In the heated debate over national income-tax changes we had "Preppie Prexy" George Bush insisting "we are not going to be divided by class," and other Republicans complaining about Democrats attempting "class warfare." We heard shouts to "soak the rich" and countershouts from people making $200,000 denying they were rich.

And, as Reagan's reign ended, the richest people's share of the wealth grew, while the poorest people's share shrank.

Meanwhile, a number of new books about class have been catching the attention of people who read these kinds of books, such as: Benjamin DeMott's "The Imperial Middle: Why Americans Can't Think Straight About Class"; and Barbara Ehrenreich's "Fear of Falling, the Inner Life of the Middle Class."

What's it all mean?

Maybe, after years of drifting along with the American myth that we live in a classless society, the concept of class isn't dead after all. Maybe it even has some use for understanding who Americans are, in almost-1991.

Not that there's complete agreement on a meaningful, contemporary definition of class. We went looking for one among sociologists and found many shades of differences. We also found widespread agreement on some important points. Such as:

Americans are very class-conscious. But while they have evolved lots of "code words" that clue into class -- preppy, greaser, yuppie, cracker, old-boy network, Eastern establishment -- it is widely considered bad form today to admit to being class conscious.

Class has become a much more complex combination of elements than in years past. The familiar common definitions (upper, upper-middle, middle-middle, lower-middle, lower) were first made in the 1930s. Then, notes sociologist Herbert Gans, a Columbia University expert on American society, most American women stayed home, few people went to college, men had blue- or white-collar jobs. Most people didn't have much. The better off lived on the white side of the tracks. And rarely did anyone work or play across ethnic lines;

If the lines today are fuzzier, however, class consciousness has become not weaker, but stron ger.

The fact that the issues of class are often so confused gives Americans their can-do optimism, but in other ways leads to a lot of unfairness.

The elements of class include, in some configuration: money, occupation, power, education, lifestyle. Money stands above all -- but it isn't all.

Americans may not talk about class, but they are certainly aware of it. Stereotypes about class abound on TV, for example. Blue-collar families are usually portrayed as loutish, crude or stupid ("All in the Family"; "Roseanne"; "The Simpsons"). The lower-middle-class family of "Married with Children," in which Dad's a shoe salesman, is no better. Meanwhile, the upper-middle-class Cosbys or families on "thirtysomething" have more dignity.

So why are Americans often uncomfortable admitting that class is important? And why are they often confused about what class means, and which class they belong to?

Because, sociologists say, they like to think of themselves as "individuals." They like to think they achieve because of their own strengths, and that their tastes and leisure activities and occupations also are individual choices.

Those from backgrounds of privilege don't necessarily like to admit that those backgrounds give them an advantage, while those from backgrounds of deprivation like to believe they have a good chance for success.

To an extent, that's a plus, argues author DeMott: It enables Americans to be optimistic, self-confident, achievement-oriented.

And it's not all wrong, either. America is a country where nobody is born in a cast-in-iron caste; we have no history of hereditary classes.

On the other hand, we do have stacked decks.

University of Washington sociologist Paul Burstein says recent studies show that it's no easier to get ahead here than in Europe, despite the continent's history of hereditary classes. "It's the same general process here and there: It always helps to start with money, have well-educated parents, live in the right neighborhood, go to the best schools."

In fact, he says, "the gap between ordinary workers and people who run the company is greater here and growing than in many other countries."

Primary reasons, says Seattle University sociologist Charles Lawrence: The wealthy are taxed there more, and the bosses make less than they do here.

Another reason Americans downplay class, DeMott says, is that most Americans like the idea that they can get along and fit in with all kinds of people. He notes that upper-class folks will make a point of mentioning the lowly jobs they did as youngsters; that Bush brags of eating pork rinds with hot sauce and listening to country music; and a time-worn sitcom situation is a famous star, through some twist, popping up in the living room of the "ordinary" TV family.

But, he and others argue, while there's a good side to the national misunderstanding of class, there's a downside, too.

First, if people don't perceive the "stacked deck," it makes people on the lower rungs unfairly blame themselves for not getting ahead, when in fact it's darned hard to do so.

And, Lawrence says, it blinds people to "the tremendous concentrations of power we have at the top."

It also can blind people at the bottom to the way "the system" -- political and educational -- may be weighted against them, the sociologists say, and to how they might change it.

A most glaring recent example, they say, is how the Social Security tax has grown, rather than the income tax, and that Social Security, as a regressive tax, falls heaviest on the less wealthy.

Or, take the popular income-tax deduction for a home mortgage, which benefits the middle class. Unlike, say, food stamps, which benefit the working poor, a mortgage deduction carries no stigma; it's not considered welfare. At the same time, government housing for the lower class is considered a kind of welfare, and the government says it can't afford much.

The same thinking, they say, led to the policies -- such as student deferments -- that sent the working class and minorities to Vietnam while middle-class whites stayed home.

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