A Tour Guide Who Takes You Across Class Lines
April 10, 2005
Betsy Leondar-Wright has just published “Class Matters: Cross-Class Alliance Building for Middle-Class Activists.” In this 160-page book from New Society Publishers, which contains brief interviews with numerous activists, Leondar-Wright takes us on a tour of many of the pitfalls and possibilities discovered by those who have worked to build organizations and coalitions across class lines.
She describes the book as intended for middle-class activists, and much of it is devoted to improving the ways those activists work with low-income allies. A smaller section focuses on working with wealthy allies. The book will almost certainly be found equally useful by people from any of these classes trying to bridge these divides.
I confess to never having much tried to build solidarity with the wealthy. I’ve asked them for money or for proxies to shareholder meetings. But build solidarity? Never. I’ve more often found it useful to blame the wealthy. Leondar-Wright calls them the owning class. I generally call them robber barons. I’m attracted to the idea articulated well by Michael Zweig that the vast majority of us belong to a single working class, distinguished from the overclass by our relative lack of control over our time and power over others.
Leondar-Wright has encouraged me to rethink my attitude toward those with what I call unconscionable wealth. And, as she points out, the idea that wealth belongs to those who work and produce, but not to the parasites who invest and exploit, is an idea that excludes those who do not work, who may be unable to work, or who work by raising their children. There are groups of our brothers and sisters in this country who do not have regular employment, and we cannot build a political movement with them without knowing and respecting them.
In fact, the differences between those whom Leondar-Wright calls the working class and whom others have called the working poor or the lower middle class, on the one hand, and the higher-income, more formally educated, professional middle class, on the other hand, are far too great to ignore. And, as we see in this book, trying to ignore them can lead to unnecessary conflict, in-fighting, and the collapse of movements for positive change.
Addressing class issues, this book suggests, must be part of not just our internal organizing, but also a major goal of our work. This means, among other things, being able to see healthy, heterosexual, white, Christian, men as victims of oppression. This, in turn, means learning to see past the horrible stereotypes about white rural poor that remain all too acceptable in circles where we have made great strides in overcoming racism, sexism, and homophobia.
The majority of the poor in the United States are white. But when asked to think about them, many of us on the left picture ignorant, racist, right-wing fools. This image is horribly off, but perpetuating it helps to alienate workers from the left. When over a third of unionized workers vote for George W. Bush for president, and a significant majority of the non-unionized do, the time has come to learn how to talk to those whom we maintain we are trying to help. And the way to learn this, beyond following Leondar-Wright’s tour, is to sit down with working people and ask them. We need humility, and we need it without mindless reverence for the authentic voice of the poor – another danger Leondar-Wright warns us against.
I had a progressive young person the other day tell me that we could get rid of the electoral college now that a high enough percentage of Americans were literate. If we can’t recognize that you can be illiterate and still highly intelligent and informed, we’re done for. As long as we can launch something called liberal radio and then attach a name like Jerry Springer to it, and not see what’s wrong with that, we’re done for.
Reading a book like “Class Matters” is not easy for those of us who like to think we are not prejudiced in any way. But it’s far more pleasant than making an insensitive comment in a meeting and having someone call you a classist, racist pig. And this book is so well done that it’s a pleasure to read.
On a minor note, I find the over abundance of pull quotes and excerpts and headlines annoying. It took me a few of the tiny chapters before I figured out which types of quotes I had to read because they weren’t anywhere else in the text, and which I could ignore because they appeared twice on the same page in different font sizes. But there’s a general consensus that this is how you get busy people to read a book, and if it works for this book, then I’m all for it.