The Lines That Divide America

Americans are increasingly segregated by socioeconomic class—and have forgotten that all citizens deserve a shot at moving ahead.

Think of waiting in a long, slow-moving line, like the security lines at an airport. What’s your emotional reaction when you see someone cutting ahead of you, or shifting into a faster-moving line that you are not allowed to join? What if you are pulled aside for extra questioning, for no apparent reason?

Lines can bring fairness and order to what might otherwise be a free-for-all. There’s even a science, called queuing theory, that examines the optimal ways to make lines move equitably and efficiently. But they don’t always work that way; sometimes, they can operate to institutionalize unfairness and inequality. That’s why Arlie Russell Hochschild uses lines as a metaphor for the challenges facing contemporary American society in her book Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.

Hochschild argues that, for many years, America’s economic and social class structure resembled an orderly queue. The promise was that if you worked hard and honorably, you would make progress toward the American Dream. This meant a settled life, grounded in a job that paid wages sufficient to own a nice home, raise a family, spend time with friends and family, find community in neighborhood and church, and live a life of dignity. For decades, America’s economy allowed people with a high school education and few specialized skills to take their place in a line that provided a steady pace of upward mobility.

This dynamic has changed, in Hochschild’s account. Access to the line that delivers the American Dream in exchange for hard work is now both limited and unevenly granted. Worse yet, white working-class citizens perceive others—mainly minorities and immigrants—to be unfairly cutting ahead of them in line. And members of the white working class believe the government, rather than enforcing the fair process they had come to expect, is increasingly aiding and abetting these line-cutters. Their strident opposition to welfare programs—which, in their view, support those who don’t work—and policies like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)—which, to them, encourage illegal immigration—are akin to the loud protests we hear when people cut ahead of us in a line.

Adding further insult to injury, when they protest about these line-cutters, they are subjected to moral scolding—called bigots, racists, and rednecks. Having lost confidence that the government will help them, they place faith in their church, friends, and family, which makes them appear even more parochial and rigid. “It has to be said: The line-cutters irritate you,” Hochschild writes. “They are violating rules of fairness. You resent them, and you feel it’s right that you do. So do your friends.”

As I read Hochschild’s analysis, my thoughts turned to a different sort of resentment the white working class is feeling. Even as it stews over people cutting into its ever slower-moving line, it also envies another faster-moving queue: the special one reserved for people with means—the ones who travel business or first class. The affluent people in this line believe they have earned their preferred status through a meritocratic process that has assessed and rewarded their ambition and enterprise. This group becomes accustomed to its special privileges and comes to expect them everywhere, from legacy admissions to college for their children to special seating at sports events to VIP treatment at theme parks. It begins to believe that there should be a special line for innovators and pioneers who have sacrificed time with friends and family to achieve their personal best—those who want to reach for the top, to be number one. Yet even preferred status is not enough; those on any fast track can always see a still-faster track. If the first-class line is short, flying on a private aircraft from a terminal with no security lines is even faster.

People on the fast tracks don’t always empathize with the complaints of those in the working-class line. They see this group as resistant to change and unwilling to adapt to the requirements of the new economy, which demands higher education, technical skills, and geographic mobility. They see them as clinging to outdated traditions and becoming more and more out of touch with changing realities. Recall the uproar over candidate Obama’s 2008 remark about how economically-disadvantaged, small-town Americans “cling to guns or religion.” The folks in the working-class line, meanwhile, believe those in the privileged lines have rigged the system in their favor. While they lose jobs and their place in line, the privileged get bailouts and golden parachutes, protected even from their own failures.

Ironically, those in the working-class line feel most resentful towards those who have no place in line at all. These are the immigrants who get into the country, sometimes through abusive middlemen, and are then preyed upon by employers who barely pay them minimum wages and rarely give them benefits. These people are afraid to even get in line for fear they may be deported. They wait for the government to provide them amnesty, and with it a legitimate opportunity to stand in line.

Beyond immigrants, there are other groups whose principal hope is to simply get into the working-class line. These include minority groups that live in impoverished neighborhoods, send their children to schools known as failure factories, rely on food stamps, and too often end up in police line-ups. They feel they have no chance without external help—from the government or local nonprofits. People from these groups who can find their way into the working-class line are resented as line-cutters who found their place through affirmative action or some other government policy. And for each who succeeds, there are 10 others who don’t.

Class lines are nothing new, of course, but in many parts of American life, they have become far more distinct and visible in recent years. Not long ago, even though people grew up on different sides of the tracks and in different parts of town, they met at the grocery store, the bank, and the post office. This gave them an opportunity to develop at least a modicum of mutual understanding. Now there are fewer and fewer opportunities for people in different lines to ever encounter each other in person. They go to different schools, shop at different stores, and rarely interact. Yet they are hyper-aware of each other due in part to the ubiquity of social media and television. You can gawk at the lives of the privileged on Instagram, tap into the resentment of the white working class on Brietbart, and see the plight of the disenfranchised on Vice. This ready visibility has unleashed a range of emotions, including resentment, entitlement, envy, and despair—and it’s tearing America apart.

These emotions have a pernicious and corrosive effect on American ideals. What makes America’s culture special is that it celebrates positive emotions—ambition, hope, doggedness—that have been sustained by a shared belief in the promise of social mobility, the opportunities people have for moving ahead in line or from one line to another. Over the last few years, research has pointed to the reduction of social mobility in America; increasingly, the line into which you are born seems to determine your life prospects. The key to reducing the divisiveness in America lies in restoring shared confidence that everyone who is willing to work toward upward mobility can still credibly aspire to it.

To restore that confidence, Americans need to understand and empathize with those who are in lines different from their own. For me, that responsibility starts close to home. Many regard Harvard Business School, where I serve as dean, as offering its students an all-but-guaranteed path into the lines for the privileged. That places a particular burden on us to ensure our students understand their responsibility to create value before they claim value, and their need to foster economic opportunities and a better life not just for themselves, but for others.

We also try to make it easier to gain access to the line. Last year, for example, we matriculated almost a hundred students who were first in their family to go to college, and we actively recruit students from a range of employers, including social enterprises and the military. Once they’re here, we expose students to cases that describe the challenges of the working class and the impoverished. Through intensive, small-group, field immersion courses, our students pursue projects whose primary aim is to help them develop genuine empathy for and an understanding of those whose lives are different than their own. In our narcissistic age, this virtue doesn’t always come naturally, but we use various means to encourage them to understand that true leaders are not those who claim that title for themselves, but who are looked to for leadership by others.

These efforts are imperfect, but Hochschild’s book makes clear how necessary they are—and how much more we all have to do to better understand those who may not be in the same line as us. Americans must search for ways to restore a sense of fairness, reduce the time we spend gawking at those more fortunate than us or resenting those who are less fortunate—and prevent the divisions between these lines from hardening any further.