07/20/2010 11:34 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Class Creeps Into Our Times

What a difference a generation makes. William Kristol's replacement on The New York Times' editorial page, Ross Douthat, brings a class consciousness that has been lacking in the Times for as long as I can remember. In his column yesterday, Douthat reports on a study by two Princeton sociologists, Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford. They found that college admissions at eight highly selective institutions gave a boost to the applications of people of color, and that "downscale, the rural and the working-class" whites were most disadvantaged.

The Princeton professors suggest this is a money-saving tactic, as institutions save their financial-aid dollars to help people of color. Douthat, following the analysis of another conservative commentator, points out that Middle American whites are disadvantaged for cultural as well as economic reasons: while most extracurricular activities increased the odds of elite-college admissions, holding a leadership role or winning awards in organizations like the R.O.T.C. or the Future Farmers of America actually hurts your chances of admission.

How odd to have conservatives pouring over the class implications of college admissions to elite institutions, while progressives give the whole subject a pass. This points to a deeper truth: that the social conscience of liberals, around 1970, shifted away from the working class, towards issues of race, gender and sexuality.

Don't get me wrong. I am a feminist, and am not arguing that progressives have wasted our time. Mainstream progressives had plenty to learn about social inequality by paying close attention not just to white working-class men (think On the Waterfront, The Grapes of Wrath, WPA murals, and on and on) but also to women, people of color, sexual minorities, and individuals with disabilities.

But social inequality also affects whites. While our attention was elsewhere, the wages of white working-class men plummeted 23% between 1979 and 1998, according to Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers in America's Forgotten Majority. Working-class wives flooded into the workplace to keep incomes from falling, but meanwhile salt-of-the-earth Americans became far more vulnerable to abrupt wipe-out, as documented by Joseph Hacker in The Great American Risk Shift (not to mention the recent recession).

Not only were progressives not paying attention. They were doing what privileged people tend to do when they are not, diligently and self-consciously, self-policing to ensure that they respect the claims of the less privileged. While we fault Shakespeare for depicting ordinary folks as "clowns" (recall the Pyramus and Thisbe play in Midsummer Night's Dream), we do much the same ourselves. What is Archie Bunker but the self-satisfied depiction of racism and sexism as the domain of white working-class men? Comfort food for the elite. What is Homer Simpson but a casual class affront: one need go no further than Wikipedia to recognize that he "embodies several American working-class stereotypes: he is crude, overweight, incompetent, clumsy, thoughtless and a borderline alcoholic." It's not that these characters aren't funny. It's that they are modern day step-n-fetch-its. We have learned enough to taboo similarly hurtful stereotypes of women and people of color. Interesting that we don't feel self-conscious laughing at caricatures based on class.

What's the matter with Kansas? Maybe it's not that oafish Kansan clowns have been manipulated by their evil masters, but that conservatives have listened to white workers during an era when progressives' attention has been focused elsewhere. It's absurd, and dangerous for progressives to cede to conservatives attention to the hidden injuries of class.

The first step is to forge a new vocabulary. A shocking number of thoughtful, progressive people I know, who make incomes in the six figures, refer to themselves as middle class. As Heather Boushey and I pointed out in The Three Faces of Work-Family Conflict, this is woefully inaccurate. Here's the class structure as we see it: the bottom 30% of families, with a median income of $19,000, are poor. The top 13%, with a median income of $148,000, are privileged. The 53% of American families, neither rich nor poor, have a median income of $64,000. We call them the Missing Middle, a term adopted from Theda Skocpol's 2000 book by that name.

At a recent talk based on my forthcoming book, Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter (Harvard, fall 2010), a friend in the audience gave me some feedback. "Joan," she said, "your argument was really interesting. But it made me uncomfortable. I don't like thinking of myself as elite."

Having to acknowledge privilege is always unsettling. But, as progressives, we feel an ethical mandate to admit racial privilege, gender privilege, heterosexual privilege. Don't leave it to conservatives to acknowledge class privilege. For the sake of the Republic, let's acknowledge it, and begin to think through its implications for our lives... and our politics.

(c) Joan C. Williams