From the Dean: The "Hurts" of Class Division and This Summer's Headlines

August 30, 2016

Over the past century, an important task of the human race has been the identification and confrontation of the “–isms” that imprison our thinking, constipate our emotionality, and stifle our imagination about the kind of common life we might create with each other. We have learned over the century that “–isms” are difficult things to dismantle. Whether it is racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, heterosexism, or ageism, humans have a growing awareness that these “–isms” are interconnected, woven deeply into our cultures and even more deeply into our own consciousness. The surge of racist behaviors after having a black president in office for two terms is just one example of the persistence of these worldviews and attitudes. Purging “-isms” from our society has driven most of the major social movements in the past 100 years, but the difficulty we’ve had in extricating them points to the ways in which these prejudices and blind spots are wired into the architecture of our brains.

In recent months, there has been a renewed awareness and interest in an “–ism” that usually doesn’t get a lot of attention – classism: “the segregation of people by economic and social status.” It is arguably one of the foundation stones for the United States, but more immediately, it helps explain the nasty headlines we’ve experienced this summer in the nation’s presidential election. The activist organization, Class Action, defines classism more precisely as the “differential treatment based on social class or perceived social class (that leads to the) systematic oppression of subordinated class groups to advantage and strengthen the dominant class groups.”

A person’s socio-economic position in life has a profound influence on the kinds of opportunities that individual will encounter throughout a lifetime. Health, happiness, the stability of marriages and relationships, the educational and occupational opportunities for children, and the meaningfulness one ascribes to life are strongly correlated with class location, and recent studies are demonstrating that some people in the lower classes are not only increasingly losing ground in all of these areas, but are also growing more pervasively pessimistic about their future, their children’s future, and the future of the nation. If you are trying to make sense of some of the bizarre behaviors occurring in the audiences of Donald Trump’s campaign rallies and among the people invested in getting him elected, the exploration of classism provides some important insights.

I have to admit that classism is one of the “-isms” I’ve spent the least amount of time pondering. Class differences reach across all American demographics, but I have been particularly indifferent to thinking much about how this particular “–ism” has impacted poor white communities. Ironically, a famous African-American Civil Rights activist, Ruby Sales, recently challenged my oversight. Earlier this summer, I was invited to participate in a small group conversation in the Minneapolis studio of the National Public Radio talk show host, Krista Tippett, about the future of public theology and Ms. Sales was one of the participants. If you don’t know about this powerful woman of faith, you should. She is an inspiration for anyone who dreams of a more just and humane society, and one of the most towering examples I’ve ever met of the human ability to overcome tragedy with a forgiving heart, while still retaining a resolute spirit to address the ills of society.

In August of 1965, at the age of 17, Ruby received a six-day jail sentence in Hayneville, Alabama, for picketing a “white only” store with a group of about 20 other civil rights activists. Among the detainees was a very gifted and privileged 26-year-old white Episcopalian seminarian named Jonathan Myrick Daniels. The jail had no air conditioning, showers or toilets, and the group spent a week of misery in detention. When the authorities finally released them from jail on August 20, Ruby, Jonathan and two others were stopped by Tom Coleman as they walked into a convenience store to buy soft drinks for their friends on that hot Alabama Friday. Coleman, an angry construction worker, was carrying a pistol and a 12-gauge shotgun. Blocking their path, he lifted the shotgun to shoot Ruby, but instead Jonathan pushed her to the ground and used his own body to shield her from the blast. He died instantly.

Despite Ruby’s testimony, Coleman, who pled self-defense, was acquitted by the jury in two hours. And although she could barely speak for months after the shooting, Ruby not only found her voice again – she has remained a significant presence in civil rights movements for more than half a century. As she told the Washington Post around the 50th anniversary of the shooting: “You have to understand the significance of Jonathan’s witness. He walked away from the king’s table. He could have had any benefit he wanted, because he was young, white, brilliant and male.”

Despite losing a friend at the hands of an angry white person, Ruby made a memorable challenge to the largely white group of women and men sitting with her in Krista Tippett’s studio. As Ms. Sales reflected on the ease with which white “progressives and liberals” have spoken in support of racial justice and equality, she asked what they had done to minister to the poor, white uneducated people who seem to flock to someone like Donald Trump as a champion and savior for their pain and frustration. Ruby questioned: “Who has asked [these poor people] where does it hurt and what hurts so much that you find a man like him, with his attitudes and behaviors, a cause of hope for your future and the future of the U.S.?”

Sitting in the office in Minneapolis, it shocked me to hear a woman who had witnessed the murder of a friend at the hands of an angry white man from a backcountry place like Hayneville show such concern for poor working class whites. Some of them were, in the minds of many after all, the ideological kin of a Tom Coleman.

Ruby’s challenge to me and the group occurs at the same time that two books have ignited a renewed discussion of the issues of class in America, and the ways in which class conflicts, particularly with white Americans, have marked, limited, and deformed our culture. Nancy Isenberg’s, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, and J.D. Vance’s, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, share the common goal of trying to explain the low income white culture that has moved in and out of the nation’s field of view since before the American Revolution. Considering the recent studies showing the rise of heroin addiction in poor white culture, a surprising decline in life expectancy for uneducated white males and the white crowds of angry people complaining about their disenfranchisement at the Trump rallies, make these texts timely for interpreting a distinctive sign of our times.

Isenberg, a professor of history at Louisiana State University, is interested in tracking the roots of the white underclass in America. By the 18th century, she maintains, the lower classes in the Colonies had already been branded by upper class elites as “incurable, irreparable ‘breeds.’” These poor and uneducated people became known by numerous derogatory and vulgar terms, such as “lubbers,” “rubbish,” “clay-eaters,” “squatters,” and “crackers,” long before they become marginalized with more contemporary terms like “trailer trash” and “rednecks.” By analyzing the political and religious rhetoric over the past four centuries, Isenberg paints a disturbing image of the colonial era’s vision of creating “one giant workhouse” that would be staffed by the “waste people of England,” where the new world would convert them from “surplus poor … into economic assets.” Aware of this part of American history, the Chicago Sun-Times columnist and humorist Mike Royko once wrote a column in which he noted that the inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty: “send me your poor, tired, huddled masses …” should have included the line: “especially those willing to work for 25 cents an hour and 18 hours a day.”

Isenberg demonstrates that many of the early leaders of the United States questioned the role that the poor and uneducated immigrants should play in the fledging nation. Within the first decades after the Revolution, this challenge became more acute as lower class Americans began moving westward as part of a great migration of the impoverished and uneducated looking for opportunity. As these people “squatted” in large numbers on land located between Appalachia and the Mississippi River, they gave birth to a hillbilly culture that is still very much alive. The backwoods squatters held fierce family loyalties, suspicion of education and the other, but a remarkable loyalty to the United States of America and a certain understanding of freedom characterized by little critical thinking or reflection. As later settlers moved west and started founding cities and towns, the original squatters showed little interest or temperament for assimilation into civilization. The crude, boastful, and ill-tempered Andrew Jackson became the first presidential spokesperson for this class of Americans, while other personalities made these poor, uneducated roots something to boast about, such as backwoodsman Davy Crockett, who became a popular and influential Congressional leader, proudly lacked the refinements of education and social position that many expected of national leaders. 

Isenberg’s text brings alive the evolutionary origins of American mythology of the off-grid lower class culture that coexisted during a rapidly industrializing nation. She also explains how this hillbilly world broke into the broader culture with a sense of acceptance and even mystique. The good ole country boy making good political narrative was used by both Lyndon Baines Johnson and Bill Clinton. A number of popular cultural icons like Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, and television evangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker had what Isenberg calls 20th century “white trash makeovers.” Popular situation comedies that focused on working class, uneducated whites such as The Andy Griffith Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, The Dukes of Hazard, and Gomer Pyle, USMC made backwoods culture fashionable and relevant. Against the backdrop of Isenberg’s history, the white adoring crowds flocking to the political rallies of figures like Sarah Palin or Donald Trump begin to make sense.

J.D. Vance’s memoir provides a unique perspective of what it feels like to come from the marginalized class of Americans that Isenberg stalks through history by providing an insider’s view of a 21st century family system. He identifies himself as “a Scots-Irish hillbilly at heart,” but he is also a Yale law graduate, and now serves as a principal in an investment firm located in Silicon Valley. He grew up in a poor Ohio steel town that “has been hemorrhaging jobs and hope” for decades, with multiple fathers, a biological mother with chemical dependencies and mental illness, and a dozen step-siblings. His childhood was marked by suspicion of anyone outside the family, mixed messages about the opportunities he had in life, and violent behavior.

Vance describes a family with roots in generations of severe rural poverty taking advantage of a post-World War II opportunity to transplant to a manufacturing community offering decent middle class salaries. But, he also explains how his grandparents brought with them a cultural legacy that included substance abuse, early pregnancies, unstable marriages, lack of understanding about how the systems of society work, and violent, uncontrollable tempers. Initially, opportunities created by FDR’s New Deal, LBJ’s Great Society programs, and the booming economy after World War II provided enough stability for migrating hillbilly parents to dream of their children finding more stable and prosperous futures in white collar professions, however, the possibility of family advancement unraveled with the decline of the manufacturing industry in the 1980s.

Vance’s story describes a mixture of family and cultural attitudes that seem inconsistent, if not at times contradictory. A sense of loyalty and dedication in the hillbilly family system and an abiding love and loyalty to the United States as a land of unequaled opportunity coexist with a sense of social isolation from the “untrustworthy” outside world and dysfunctional relationship patterns heightened by rage, guns, financial insecurity, a crisis in masculine identity, and an increasingly anemic religious belief system that was heavy on emotional rhetoric, but light on social responsibility and social action.

So, in light of Isenberg’s research and Vance’s personal narrative, how can one contribute to lessening the challenges facing lower class whites? What is the most appropriate way to ask some of these poorer, uneducated members of the American population the poignant question that Ruby presents: “What hurts so much?”

Vance sees the problems facing his community as an intersection of issues related to family, faith, and culture. Reflecting on his own life, he is aware that many people took enough interest in him to place “a thumb on the scales” to compensate for the deprivations in his life, and gave him incremental opportunities to discover himself and his gifts. This included imperfect family members, teachers, Marine Corps officers, and friends. In his estimation, more kids from lower class culture need caring people to put a thumb on the scales for them. Because poor working class families are often so close and devoted, many people who get the lucky ticket to a better life stay connected with siblings and cousins and can offer help to the entire extended family system.

But, as a social conservative, Vance is also hard on his own people. He believes they need to channel the bravado they use to defend and protect themselves and their families and get tough enough to take responsibility for their decisions and accept the obligation of preparing their young people for the real world. They also need to come to terms with the dark side of their Scots-Irish heritage, which is too prone to solving problems with anger, violence and various other forms of escapism.

There are also more systemic ways to address the negative effects of classism. In 2001, Jennifer Ladd and Felice Yeskel, two women who grew up on different sides of the socioeconomic track, founded Class Action: Building Bridges Across the Class Divide to help American culture overcome its long history of prejudices across class differences. Ladd and Yeskel were inspired to begin the organization after conducting a “cross-class” dialogue between four people from upper-class backgrounds and four from poor or working class backgrounds. The net worth of the individuals in the group ranged from $10 million to zero. Yet, despite this economic and social chasm, the group was changed forever by their discussions on how money and class impacted them personally, culturally, and institutionally.

In this way, perhaps the most effective strategy to combat any “-ism” is working slowly, incrementally and faithfully at the local level, where relationships can create the opportunity for changes in worldview and new habits of behavior. The same year Ladd and Yeskel created Class Action, Ruby Sales began The Spirit House Project, an organization committed to helping communities draw on cultural and spiritual resources to continue to struggle for racial justice and healing. The Spirit House Project logo is the camel, signifying patience and endurance. These animals take great journeys and suffer many transgressions, yet remain strong, calm and resourceful. They also never travel alone, rather, they slowly plod together toward their destination.  

Fifty-one years after she saw her friend brutally murdered in front of her, Ruby Sales is still working for the vision of the beloved community that she and Jonathan Daniels shared as young people. Regardless of what “-ism” we are drawn to address, it is going to take her kind of tenacity and Jonathan’s breed of courage and self-sacrifice to make a permanent dent in these worldviews and attitudes that limit our ability to build a better common life.

Let’s hope and pray more of us can develop the dedication of people like Ruby Sales and Jonathan Daniels, whether our convictions result in a short life, like Jonathan, or the long journey through the desert like Ruby. The human race has made it this far because every generation has had enough people like them to never forget we can do much better than we do.