America's Dirty Little Secret

09/27/2011 12:09 pm ET | Updated Nov 27, 2011

Old joke: An Oxford professor meets a former student and asks what he's been up to. The student tells him he's working on a doctoral thesis about the survival of the class system in the United States. "I didn't think there was a class system in the United States," the professor says. "Nobody does," the student replies. "That's how it survives."

Some years ago an experiment was conducted to gauge people's recognition and response to social "class." The experimenters set up two cars -- a shiny new Cadillac, and an old, beat-up Ford station wagon -- at a traffic intersection. The drivers of both cars were instructed not to move when the light changed to green, but to wait for the car behind them to honk their horn.

They then timed how long it took for the motorist behind each vehicle to begin honking. The results were revealing. The experimenters found that while the overwhelming majority of the drivers began impatiently honking at the beat-up Ford almost immediately, these same drivers waited, on average, more than twice as long before honking at the shiny new Cadillac.

So what did this prove? Because the experiment was done quasi-scientifically, it didn't really "prove" anything. Still, if we had a gun to our head and were forced to draw a conclusion, we might say it revealed (1) how quickly people make judgments regarding economic status, and (2) how disdainful (or, if you like, "unsympathetic") we are of the lower class.

Instead of cutting the guy in the beat-up Ford a little slack, these motorists did the exact opposite; they showed they were far more willing to rouse the "poor" car than the "rich" car. Would it be wildly reckless to suggest that this speaks to the same dynamic underlying the public's contempt for groups like janitors, nursing assistants and sanitation workers when they seek higher wages?

Typically, when we see janitors marching in front of an office building, carrying placards demanding a raise in pay, we not only don't reflexively root for the marchers, we tend to be put off by the whole spectacle. Unskilled workers demanding $14 an hour? How dare they? (Incidentally, if you work 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, at $14 per hour, it computes to $29,120... before deductions.)

Yet when we read about hedge fund managers earning billions of dollars through the hocus-pocus manipulation of exotic financial instruments, we're fine with it. No problem. While most of us couldn't explain -- not even with a gun to our head -- exactly how these Ivy League grifters make their money, we have nothing but respect and admiration for them. Why? Because they're rich.

Correspondingly, when it comes to folks who actually work for a living -- who do something we can understand, like mop an office floor, run a machine, drive a truck -- it's an entirely different story. We look down on these people. We like to pretend we don't, but we do. We like to pretend that any job, no matter how modest or menial, can be worthwhile if it's done with dignity and pride, blah, blah, blah, but we don't believe that rhetorical crap for a minute.

There are two reasons we bristle when "class warfare" is mentioned. One is because the notion of social-economic conflict suggests something vaguely ideological -- something unpleasantly Marxian and subversive -- and the other is because it flies in the face of what is supposed to be our unique, egalitarian national identity. In short, we regard the phenomenon as un-American.

But in truth, we are just as snobbish as the next guy. That's not an indictment; it's merely a statement of fact. Indeed, we Americans are every bit as class-conscious as Victorian England ever was. The only difference between us and those stuffy Victorians is that they weren't hypocrites.

David Macaray, an LA playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor"), was a former union rep. He can be reached at