How We Think About Class
by Joshua Michtom
In his memoir, the late Christopher Hitchens offered the following pithy summation of class in the United States:
An old joke has an Oxford professor meeting an American former graduate student and asking him what he’s working on these days. ‘My thesis is on the survival of the class system in the United States.’ ‘Oh really, that’s interesting: one didn’t think there was a class system in the United States.’ ‘Nobody does. That’s how it survives.
This should come as no surprise in the country where everyone, rich or poor, sees herself as middle class. But a recent experience reminded me that class is real, we can have strong assumptions about it, and talking about it can get heated and personal almost as quickly as talking about race.
A couple weeks ago, my girlfriend, my kids, and I were eating at a restaurant in our neighborhood in Hartford, Conn. Because our neighborhood is overwhelmingly Hispanic and Spanish-speaking, the waiter was Hispanic and Spanish-speaking, and we are Hispanic (my girlfriend) and Spanish-speaking (both of us), we ordered in Spanish. (Spanish makes up about 50% of the communication in our home and appreciably more of our interactions with neighbors and local businesses.) When my girlfriend ordered a beer, the waiter told her that there had been a delay in renewing the restaurant’s liquor license, so they couldn’t serve alcohol for a few days, but then said he could serve us but it would have to be in a cup. She said that was fine, but he ended up just bringing the bottle to the table, and we figured that was that.
After we had ordered, another party came into the restaurant and sat in the next booth. They were two couples in their forties, noticeably not from the neighborhood: white, dressed in name-brand skiing outerwear, the women tastefully and subtly bejewelled, and everyone’s hair looking just-so. Oh, and they arrived in a very shiny late-model BMW. (By way of background, here are the demographic data for our zip code, and keep in mind that the 36% living below the poverty level is skewed down somewhat, and the percentage of white people is skewed up, by the presence of Trinity College right in the middle of the neighborhood. Also note that our metro area is number two on the list of most economically segregated, which means that discernibly wealthy white people really stand out in our neighborhood.)
The waiter gave the newcomers the same explanation about the liquor license (in English), without the proviso about serving them in a cup, and the men in their party ultimately went out and bought a sixpack at a nearby bodega, while we sat there sheepishly and hoped they wouldn’t notice the single bottle on our table. From what we could observe, the service they received was in all other regards pleasant.
I related this on Facebook prefaced by the phrase, “offered without comment,” and the responses were numerous and emotional, and varied widely. There was a contingent that saw some simulacrum of social justice in the story — the idea that at least within the economically isolated Hispanic ghetto, some advantages accrued to the generally oppressed group (putting aside the tremendous irony of having me, a white, American lawyer, stand in for the oppressed just because my Spanish can sound Puerto Rican when I want it to). Then there was a contingent that saw an injustice in mistreating the swankier-looking, English-speaking patrons based solely on their nationality and apparent wealth. While everyone agreed in principle that it is generally not desirable to judge people based on their appearance, we diverged on whether judging people based on apparent wealth is as bad as judging them based on, say, race.
My position, which I offer up to be discussed, attacked, and possibly torn down, is that class-based judgments are fundamentally different and less morally repugnant than race-based judgments. Why? Because there is an element of choice in outward manifestations of wealth that does not exist in race. When a person has a late-model BMW, I feel safe (but not certain!) making certain assumptions about what she does for a living, about the importance to her of material possessions, and frankly, about the likelihood that she is involved in some economic activity that prioritizes the advancement of monied interests over the interests of working people. Of course, as a commenter pointed out last week, a person’s fancy car could be borrowed or heavily financed, but even if the person is fronting, it tells us something, I’d argue, about her values and priorities.
So I ask you, readers: do you make class-based judgments of other people? How easily are they overcome by getting to know those people? How are your judgments affected by your own economic past and present, and the moral compromises you may have made to get to where you are? Is it OK to make judgments like these, and does your answer change depending on whether you’re judging the poor (who presumably have enough miseries to deal with already) or the rich (who will probably be just fine no matter what you think)? (Two rules for commenters: (1) Before anyone brings up the “poor people with expensive handbags” line of argument, read this piece by Tressie McMillan Cottom; (2) Before anyone brings up the predictive value of race with regard to crime or economic indolence, read this piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and this one, and also everything he’s ever written on the topic of race; or at least read my brief explanation of why you aren’t doing statistics right.)
Here’s Lake Street Dive’s cover of Hall & Oates’ classic, “Rich Girl,” to listen to while you contemplate and comment on these weighty questions:
Josh Michtom is a public defender in Hartford, Connecticut. He spends way too much of his spare time decorating his children’s school lunch bags.
Photo: Robert Donovan