We’re Not Sure What Class Is, But We’ll Know It When We See It

Some days, I don’t know whether to bang my head on my monitor or laugh when I read what’s being written about social class in the blogosphere.

Today, I’m opting for head banging.

For example:

This blogger takes a break from offering advice on fashion to educating her readers about social class in the U.S. in this surprisingly detailed post in which she explains that

a) most people who graduate from high school are middle class (including, one would presume, all of those high school graduates working at McDonalds and Walmart?)

b) brick laying is a low class occupation because brick layers need brawn by not brains (I’d recommend popping Mike Rose’s The Mind at Work into those shopping bags to read during latte breaks at the mall) and

c) the “ultra wealthy are described as those making more than $200,000 a year”. It would seem that when shopping, those subtle differences between being in the top quintile and being in the upper class are merely trivial semantics.

More free-lance class analysis can be found in the commentors on this post on the shifting middle class as they deliberate about whether they are or are not middle class based on little more than their own feelings about their relative economic circumstances. To be fair, though, some do reference the interactive tool published on the NYT website a few years ago (which, contrary to what our shopping class analyst above asserts, is not a “scientific” tool to determine one’s class, but at least is better than idle speculation).

And then there’s Steve, one of many bloggers who has jumped on an article written for the London Times (also posted here) asserting that disproportionate admission of the elite to selective colleges is explained entirely by difference in IQ between high and lower status people. Steve and his fellow ” we knew that they were dumber than us” bloggers ignore the imperfect correlations between IQ and academic achievement, between IQ and personal ambition, and IQ and eventual adult success.

Does IQ correlate with social class? Yes. But does that explain class stratification in higher education? No.

Steve, your argument is essentially the same as saying that since the data show that it’s less likely to rain in June than in November, planning an outdoor event in June guarantees that the sun will always shine on the picnic.

In the US, as Peter Sacks writes, mediocre students from high -income families are more likely to attend college than high achieving students from low-income families. Meritocracy? Right.

So again, I wonder:

How do we begin to move toward a more informed discourse on class in this country?

5 thoughts on “We’re Not Sure What Class Is, But We’ll Know It When We See It

  1. Jeanne May 24, 2008 / 7:30 am

    How do we begin to move toward a more informed discourse on class in this country?

    Changing one heart at a time.

    It’s painfully slow, but each heart we change then changes two more, and it hopefully becomes exponential.

    I’m doing Will’s step-forward exercise at a local Quaker gathering this weekend and as I’m talking with people about the issue, it’s stirring them deeply.

  2. Naomi May 27, 2008 / 9:30 am

    “How do we begin to move toward a more informed discourse on class in this country?”

    Class focused dialogue is tricky as “social class” is not an easily isolated factor. Class happens in the context of race, ethnicity, legacy, gender and many other aspects of culture. I think that integrating class issues with ongoing dialogue focused on race, gender and other well-established topics would be a start.

    If you haven’t already, check out Racialicious’s four part series on class and race: http://www.racialicious.com/2008/05/09/has-class-trumped-race-part-4-the-question/

  3. janevangalen May 27, 2008 / 9:51 am

    Hello, Naomi,

    I agree completely that talking about class at the intersections of other facets of identity is vital. I’ve written here about how rare it is to find a solid inclusion of class in discussions of race or gender or religion or geography — and so was delighted to see the series on racialicious.

    In my field, it’s pretty common to find courses on race and ethnicity and courses on gender (or at least major treatment on syllabi), and almost impossible to find much substantive conversation about class.

    In some of the best “critical” texts for teacher interns, for example, the few references to “social class” in the index will take you directly to just a few pages on poor urban kids of color — hardly the intersectionality that you and I are both looking for.

    Thanks for reading.


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