11 Reader Views on Class Prejudice in America

“Economic class determines everything that happens to you in this country,” one writes.

two standalone houses between two apartment complexes
Stefano Ukmar / Redux

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Last week, I asked, “Is there class prejudice in the United States? If so, describe how it works.”

Our first response is from J, an educator who grew up in Texas in a family that was poor at times and middle class at others. At 17, she began living on her own and supporting herself with fast-food jobs. Today, she teaches at an expensive boarding and day school in Europe. She holds some decidedly leftist views––for example, that the logic of every money-making corporation is “exploit, profit, keep the spoils, and send the bill to the public so we won’t have to pay for the clean-up.” She also believes that American progressivism has been captured by classism.

She writes:

The view that American progressivism now takes on societal ills, I believe, is subconsciously aimed at erasing class privilege via class prejudice. Think about it: when conservatives reigned supreme among the wealthy elite, we heard how the poor deserved their status because they were lazy, lacking in a bootstraps mentality, or morally degenerate. Now, wherever progressives gain the upper hand, we hear how it is because the poor are morally degenerate, only now as racists, historically responsible for “white” oppression, or homophobes, Trump supporters, or closet white supremacists.

I see class privilege in a political movement calling itself “the left” in spite of the fact that it does not “call out” class and educational privileges among its elite membership. I see it in how this movement sees “intersectionality” in every entry point for oppression except for wealth, in a vastly unequal society. This is a left with no left left. Marx would be spinning in his grave to hear the righteous elite heap blame for society’s ills on the lower classes.

I see class privilege justify itself with prejudice in the ahistorical way we lately construct and center race. I see it in how we've created a category called “white people,” unimaginable in the age of high racial science, and now, in our discourse, casually attribute evils common to virtually every civilization as byproducts of “whiteness,” a skin color shared by almost a billion people from Sicily to Svalbard—an explanation often proffered, intentionally, I think, with no differentiation between rich and poor, powerful and powerless––offered as if an Irish woman dying of malnutrition and cholera in a workhouse was as responsible for European colonialism as Cecil Rhodes, because both were “white.” As if a farmer in Finland was complicit in the French colonization of Algeria.

Is it not classism that wants desperately to believe that a Polish woman cleaning hotels in Detroit and Woodrow Wilson were both to blame for institutionalized racism in the American South?

Who profits from this reductive narrative?

I see class in how educationally advantaged progressives say the solution to institutional racism is for them to read books, ruminate, and then use their moral achievement to lecture poorer white people on their moral failings. Surely it’s just a coincidence that reading books, ruminating, and blaming yokels are the eternal prerogatives of the upper classes?

The cleaving of material power from moral responsibility is never a mere oversight. Class prejudice doesn't dare to ask who benefits by making society’s ills collective. Collective guilt? The sins of the father? Once again, in other contexts that progressive thinker would say we must not generalize and blame the violence of a society or culture on all its inhabitants. They would talk about agency. Except in this American case, where we should do the opposite. Is it coincidence that class prejudice, blaming the poor for societal ills, becomes okay only in the case where it lets the blamers off the hook? Or at least lowers their tab?

Tellingly, what you will never see the upper classes do, no matter how progressive, is to suggest that we take the endowments from their childrens’ private schools, those linchpins of their privileges and material power, or seize the ill-gotten gains of those Ivy covered destinations, and pay them back as reparations to schools in underserved, minority-dominated neighborhoods. Because class privilege means never having to underwrite your moral righteousness with material sacrifice. Feelings are enough. Some progressives even say that making people have bad feelings is now a form of violence. Maybe even the worst kind of violence. Certainly more violent, it would seem, than letting someone go without medication when their GoFundMe doesn’t meet its target.

The solution to societal evils is righteous condemnation, and the solution, critically, is free.

Class privilege is where progressives “appropriate” the perspectives of whole communities: poor communities, minority communities, women, and speak on their behalf, generate their slogans, their solutions, rename them, assign them to a hierarchy, determine their priorities—all without bothering to poll them on what it is that they want, as a collective, or on how they think of themselves. A breathtaking arrogance, and from whence? Class prejudice is visible in how, when they find out that they are off the mark about “defund the police” or “Latinx,” or how relevant women find the experience of female bodies to their identities, they don’t feel humbled, obliged to reflect, to discuss, to negotiate and listen. They go on insisting. Blame the audience as ignorant or morally vile.

Whence that assuredness of their right to insist?

I see class privilege, above all, in the way progressives use their power to never look at themselves.  

An interaction with the police shaped the way that Mark understands class:

I was living in a rural area in the South. At the time, I was very depressed and heavily involved in drugs. One night I was with three friends (a working-class guy driving, and two lower-class women in the back) on the way to pick up my girlfriend from the house of a known drug dealer. We were all high and most had paraphernalia on us. As we parked, the police pulled up and told everyone to put their hands up and move away from the vehicle.

They questioned each of us individually. When I showed my ID, the officer seemed to recognize my name (he likely recognized my family name and knew who my parents were) and asked why I was there. I replied I was picking up my girlfriend, who had called and said she needed to be picked up immediately. I was warned this was a “bad place” and I should avoid this neighborhood. Meanwhile, everyone else was asked to consent to a search. They did and the two women were arrested for drug paraphernalia. I was dressed like and talked like an educated, upper-class person. No one attempted to search me. Once they had a reason for me to be there, they ignored me. My name was never put over the radio. The others were all checked for warrants. I was (naively) surprised at how we were treated differently based on our perceived class. I gained a lot of understanding for the less fortunate because of this and other encounters.

Jim thinks his class cost him a job:

I grew up working class and poor, especially after my dad died when I was 10. I attended the University of Wisconsin Law School and was near the top of my class. During the summer of 1970 I clerked at [a large Midwestern law firm], and the team I worked for recommended hiring me. The hiring committee decided not to, and I later learned through a friend who was hired that they reasoned I wouldn’t be well received by their corporate clients. I believe class privilege is usually so subtle that it is hard to spot, much less prove.

Fred’s views were shaped by a move his family made:

Of course there's class prejudice in the United States, and anyone who tries to tell you differently is likely some politician trying to take away even more of the little comfort and dignity this country offers you when you’re not in the upper 10 percent of the economic bracket.

I was born into a small steel-mill town in southern Ohio, and lived there for the first 13 years of my life. During that time, my father finished his college degree and was hired to work on the Apollo program, so we moved to Cocoa Beach, Florida. I began attending school with the children of people who were rocket scientists, children whose mothers as well as fathers had college degrees. The difference in my social milieu and the possibilities now open to me were only available due to our change in social and economic status. The school system was like nothing I had experienced. It was a world I had never seen or had any inkling even existed for people outside of TV shows I watched.

We moved just in time. In 1968 the steel mill, the foundry, the factories were all going pretty strong in my little town in Ohio. Then, in 1971, the steel manufacturers shut completely down. What was done to help those people? Nothing. Not a single thing. The town lost about 30 percent of its population since I moved, and the people who live there are beset by all the ills attendant on generational poverty. Why? All the people there were working class, and I guess there was no political or monetary gain to be had by helping.

Times were tough when the Apollo program shut down as well; there is footage from 60 Minutes around 1971 or ’72 showing street after street after street of empty houses in Titusville, Florida. But there was plenty of infrastructure for other programs; the military began to devise some uses for the place as well. The area took a hit, no question, but it bounced back and is still going strong because there are a lot of people (politicians) interested in helping the engineers and the technicians and all the college-educated people who were accustomed to earning middle- and upper-middle class wages.

Economic class determines everything that happens to you in this country, even if you're an immigrant. Immigrants who attend the schools populated by the children of the professional classes fare much better, both in the quality of their education as well as the opportunities that follow. The social class a person is born into or manages in one way or another to infiltrate determines about 99 percent of what kind of life you can expect to lead. I still can't believe that there are people who seriously think that America is a classless society.

Margaret offers an international perspective:

I grew up in England, and class was fundamentally important to how the country functioned. When I meet anyone from England I immediately categorize them by their class. One was brought up to be proud of one’s class, whether working class, various categories of middle class, upper class, or aristocracy. Different classes had power of their own.

I do not pick up the clues so much in the U.S.––it is probably more based upon money. Race is another confounding factor. Very different than in the U.K. I lived in rural Florida for a while and was told there were 3 classes where I lived, black, white, and professional, who could be either. I agreed with that assessment. With the huge emphasis on race here, I suspect that class is underestimated as a factor. Race is viewed so simplistically too, often just as black and white, while there are so many ethnicities living here. From my observation Native Americans are treated the worst of any of the ethnic groups. Mostly they are not even seen and Americans haven’t even started to process what was done to them––genocide and enslavement, followed by cultural genocide.

Joshua’s comparative experience of class was in Italy:

Growing up the son of a college professor who took two Fulbrights overseas during my 3rd and 8th grade years (in Devon, England, and Piemonte, Italy, respectively) I had a really interesting insight into what kind of class system America has, compared to Western Europe. My experience was enhanced by the absence of TV, internet, and any outside influences by virtue of the timing of these trips in the 1960s. With the exception of [international newspapers], I had no exposure to American news or culture (based on more recent trips to Europe such pristine isolation would be impossible today).

My mother was extremely uncomfortable with the "in your face" class barriers in rural England. We rented a house and land from an aged pair of spinsters who insisted on calling their "help" by their last names, only, and treating them worse than their beloved pets.

My mother was horrified by the flagrant use of class by the British upper class. While I didn't experience it much at the tiny Council school I attended, I did get a taste of it on the ocean liners (the SS UNITED STATES on the way over and the RMS QUEEN MARY on the return). It was one of the few times I remember class being so obvious, with those who could afford to travel on ocean liners to Europe being very different than those who couldn't. Lower-cost jet airliners put an end to this kind of travel within a few years.

But my year just outside Torino in 1966 really brought it home. Italy had just started experimenting with a universal, unified secondary education system where ALL students attended, regardless of their parents’ social standing or whether they'd end up on a “university track” or not. I attended the “Scuola Media Statale Angelo Mosso” in Chieri, an ancient small city outside Turin, and although it was a public school, all my classmates were boys. The kids in my class could generally be divided by what their fathers did, almost all being associated in some fashion with Fiat, headquartered in Torino. Most of the students’ fathers were operai—literally “operators” or, in American-speak, factory workers. A minority of boys’ dads’ were industriale—industrialists. The boy who became my best friend, named Enzo, had a father who worked on the Fiat assembly line.

What many Americans cannot fathom is the high regard and status of a professore in Italian social culture. It outranks even dottore. I recall some of the industrialists’ kids coming to me and telling me how inappropriate it was for me, the son of a professore to be consorting with the child of an operai. At this point I was 13, I had read Vance Packard's book on social classes in America, and I was really horrified by what was probably a well-meaning approach. I informed my classmates that where I was from there were no titles of nobility and anyone could, in theory, become anything, and that I would choose my friends, and it would never have anything to do with their family's social status.

A reader who asked not to be named confesses to engaging in class prejudice in a dispute with a neighbor:

I witnessed something profoundly inappropriate happening in my neighbor’s home when both of our windows were open in the hot summer. I feared my daughters would see if it was not addressed. I confronted the neighbor, albeit in a passive aggressive manner.

It led to discord and mutual resentment for many months.

We live in a more upscale borough in a Rust Belt town that most people forgot about 50 years ago. Comparatively the school district was better and the housing stock in better condition than surrounding wards. Overall though it was well below the standards in nearby Pittsburgh, where I spent my college years. When my neighbor first moved beside us, I asked why they decided to move. His response was that they couldn’t pass up the opportunity. They previously lived in a poorer neighborhood of the same city. At the time I was perplexed as to what opportunity he was referring to, but we lived side by side amicably, despite them exhibiting unjustified attitudes of superiority and entitlement with no apparent desire to improve their character or lot in life, until that day.

The disharmony was hard, most especially on my wife who hated the tension. I don’t use social media, but learned my neighbor was a prolific poster, especially in regards to right-wing tropes, and had posted upsetting and threatening messages about my family. My wife feared his erratic behavior and worried he would resort to violence to exact revenge. She did not want me to escalate the situation. But I knew that the neighbor didn’t work by choice, and in order to bring the conflict to a head, I wrote a message, “Real Men Work,” on the back of a picture my wife had in our window, hoping my wife wouldn’t know what I was up to so that I could resolve it without her involvement.

Several days later, I knew he had seen my message when a book was taped to the middle of his window across from us. To his credit it was funny, but my wife then knew something was up. I had to come clean. I’d broken her trust by escalating the situation. With a letter explaining just how easy it was to, even inadvertently, see in each other’s very nearby windows (as evidenced by his response to seeing the sign in our window), we were able to reconcile and at least have a civil, although not great, relationship as neighbors.

Was my approach petty? Yes. Was I being manipulative to achieve my ends? Sadly, yes. Was it my proudest moment? No. However I knew he wouldn’t be able to post about it on Facebook because it would alienate him from his right-wing universe that he was trying so hard to be a part of, in which people are looked down upon for not working.

I was only able to resolve the conflict by taking advantage of class prejudice. Their family was looking to avoid being associated with the class below them, thus the opportunity they referred to when we first met. However they still carried the vestiges and sensitivities of that class they were trying to escape. By myself engaging in class prejudice, I was able to exploit theirs in order to achieve resolution. I was wrong in acting in the way that I did. The end doesn’t justify the means. In my own moral failing, I took advantage of a social structure that allowed for me to manipulate another. I am not trying to equivocate, a wrong is a wrong, but what if others use the same vulnerability to extract hundreds of millions of dollars from people just like my neighbor? I hope that if something like that were to happen they would [be held] to account.

Matt argues that classism may be America’s biggest problem:

I’ve often thought our culture has more of a classist problem than a racist one. Almost every time I hear a news story about people in a more affluent neighborhood fighting against affordable housing or certain public/private school issues, it comes off as if they are being racist. There is a bit of an argument there, but more so it seems what they really don’t want is people below their class getting too close to them. To me classism is the more systemic and embedded issue because it is what keeps shifting money into the hands of those who already have too much, and out of the hands of the bulk of citizens.

When I worked for a local nonprofit, which was a donor-based preservation group, many of the people who ran the organization and were board members or donors treated staff members in a very dismissive way. I’ve worked in a variety of types of places, in low level jobs, but that was the only time in my life where I was treated like and felt like someone’s servant. My race, age, and education had nothing to do with my treatment (good or bad) as much as my not being part of their society did. They have enough money to opt out of caring about other people's problems and they act accordingly.

Regular correspondent Jaleelah weighs in from Canada with her impressions of America:

Many Americans would agree with the statement, “If you have very little money, you are lower-class. If you have lots of money, you are upper-class.” Many left-wing Americans would agree that “lower-class people face more challenges in society, and the government should be sympathetic to their struggles.” Many right-wing Americans would agree with the statement that “America is a meritocracy. It is a place where poor people can raise their class through hard work and determination. The government has no obligation to bail out lower-class citizens.” But even though these statements are widely accepted, I don’t think they form an accurate picture of how Americans actually view class.

A certain kind of lower-class American has always garnered sympathy from the right. The “noble” poor American is a man who works in a factory or a field and comes home to his wife and three children with dirt underneath his fingernails. Contrary to their supposed commitment to meritocracy, the right bails these people out all the time. Republicans restrict immigration to eliminate competition for “noble” lower-class jobs. They place high tariffs on imports to ensure that American steelworkers and dairy farmers have an easier time selling their products. Republicans only want to withhold welfare from what they regard as the “lazy” poor people: the men who flip burgers instead of standing on assembly lines, the single mothers who “deserve” to face the consequences of their poor decisions, and the blue-haired Millennials who demand free gender studies degrees. Left-wing Americans, on the other hand, treat poor people like children. When you insist that an entire group of people is incapable of thinking or acting for themselves, you're unlikely to hold them accountable when they do bad things.

I don’t think “class prejudice” is a unified form of discrimination. Americans from all over the political spectrum treat different groups of poor people differently. Race, religion, and aesthetic are the main factors used by upper- and middle-class people to determine how they feel about any given group of lower-class Americans.

SG shares his experience of class in the music business:

There’s TERRIBLE class prejudice in this country. To give you a couple examples from the classical music world, where I have played violin for 25 years, there’s weddings and high-end performances. When I play for the wedding of a rich person, usually I am treated like a musical vending machine. I don’t care about that on an emotional level. It’s not like I have any connection to the wedding party other than being employed by them, but it's not unusual to be treated in a distinctly different way. Am I seated in the shade, with lighting, information, a place to put my things, basic stuff like that? Maybe not and how dare I ask. At a wedding once in the Hamptons, I had been using the extremely fancy real-bathroom-like port-a-potties that were closest to the ceremony (where I was playing, after all, in a fancy outfit). Somewhere along the line, I was yelled at (by a guest? a planner?) that I needed to use the outhouses much further away, where the catering staff were relegated (I can't even imagine how they are treated). T​​his was a $1 million wedding with hundreds of guests, and there were four of us. And I don’t remember what we were paid, but I’m guessing it was 0.01 percent of their budget.

Musicians are often looked upon as non-human: our skills and bodies don’t need to be accommodated or compensated appropriately because we don’t eat or pee or pay bills, and what we do appears out of thin air as “talent.” We exist to create an experience for the wedding guests, and have no business even chatting with anyone there, as in, being humans. The HELP in any field knows what it’s like to be treated as less-than your employer.

And Jeannie reflects on the mores of her youth:

I’m in my 70s. When I was younger I always took the trouble to look "decent" when out in public. I'm less concerned with that now. However I never have or never would wear skimpy, revealing clothing, junky jewelry, flip-flops. Nor would I ever drive a “beater” or allow my house to become overrun with weeds and claptrap. I did not come from wealth or the educated class and for a stretch in my younger years I would qualify as low income, but I was always determined and optimistic. My friends are mostly artists and former booksellers (as I was). I think class is more a matter of how you see yourself and how you wish to be seen as well as the influence of major role models in your life.

Speaking of class and flip-flops, I was once in Poughkeepsie when a group of women I was with suggested that we go to a bar. When we arrived there was a velvet rope and a doorman who wouldn’t let me in because I was wearing flip-flops. I pointed out that it was 90 degrees outside, that I was with three women, and that it wasn’t a fancy bar, but he was unmoved. Then one of the women said, “You don’t understand; he’s from California.” The doorman looked skeptical but I quickly produced a California driver’s license, at which point he said, “Oh, that’s different,” and apologetically let me in. I wasn’t low class or disrespecting the place, he seemed to conclude; I was just from a flip-flop culture!