Monday, March 23, 2015

Class Structure in America

Are you doomed to live the lifestyle of your parents?  No, of course not.


Two recent articles caught my attention.  The first, from The Guardian a few years back, laments a "recent" trend that people are tending to date and marry in their own class:
The rules of discussing class in Britain are, pleasingly, very like those of cricket. Once you know them, they seem incredibly obvious and intuitive and barely worth mentioning; if you don't know them, they are pointlessly, sadistically complicated, their exclusivity almost an exercise in snobbery in its own right. Nowhere is this more evident and yet more tacit than in relationships: people marry into their own class. It's called "assortative mating".
Of course, Britain has always had a well-defined class structure, as anyone who has watched Downton Abbey or Sense and Sensibility can attest to.   In fact, their social structure is quite rigid and even codified into law.   You are either a Royal, a Lord, or a Commoner, and until recently, social mobility in this regard was largely non-existent.  So I think the idea that the Brits are becoming more class conscious today is kind of funny.

The second thing that struck me, was that this reminded me of a quote from those Freakonomics dudes who have a penchant for stating the obvious - and then drawing the wrong conclusions from it.  They note that (big surprise here) you are very likely to date and marry someone from your own social class.   Why is this?  Well it is simple logistics, really.   The person you date or marry is more likely to be someone you met at work, school, or other social activities involving someone in your social or work environments.

And note I said, "likely" as some folks will find opportunities with people they meet randomly, or perhaps today, online.   Or your social class may change.  My late sister, for example, decided to chuck her finishing-school education at Sweet Briar, and dump her MIT PhD boyfriend.   She got a job as a waitress and married a cowboy - a decision she later told me she regretted.  Sometimes marrying outside of your social class can be disastrous.

In other words, the fact you tend to associate with people of your own kind is not some amazing anomaly, but a predictable outcome.  And how we detect and perceive our own social class and type is really not hard to figure out, either.   Very (or not-so-very) subtle cues in dress, behavior, and speech, determine how we mark ourselves as being of one class or another.

In the 1930's and 1940's, it was typical for "upper class" people to talk with this annoying patrician accent.   If you watch old movies from that era, you will hear people (particularly women) talking this way.  Katherine Hepburn was a classic example.  How you spoke determined your social class.  And even among regional accents, the more pronounced the accent, the lower down the social scale you were.

Today in Georiga, we see this all the time.   The lower classes demarcate themselves with thick Southern accents.   More affluent Georgians speak with a less pronounced accent.   Politicians tweak their accent depending on which audience they are speaking too.   When giving a stump speech in Ludiowici, they pile on the Southern hambone.   When talking to prospective contributors in Atlanta, they almost sound like Damn Yankees.  No, it isn't just Obama who plays games with speech patterns, conservatives do it too.

I mentioned before about a friend of mine who grew up in a trailer park in West Virginia.   She wanted more out of life and she moved to the big city, changed her name and took diction lessons to lose the WVa twang.  And it worked, too.  Today she is a successful businesswoman, which she likely wouldn't be, if she kept her accent.

And it is funny, if you think about it, that it is the lower classes who adopt these thick accents, whether it is the "wicked good" sound of a Mainer, or the flat tones of a Bostonian, the various shades of Southern Drawl, or the nasal twang of a Jerseyite or a Long-a Islander.  In each case, these regional accents are usually spoken by the lower classes.

And if you think about it, with our nation wired with 24/7 cable television news channels, the folks speaking these dialects must realize that their accents differ from the standard Midwestern "norm" adopted by most networks.  They know what "normal" accent-free speech sounds like, yet these accents persist.  Why is this, in an era of modern communications?  One would have thought such accents would have disappeared long ago.

Again, I think it is a way for people to distinguish themselves - separate themselves - from others.   And this likely is a self-destructive force. 

We recently celebrated the anniversary of the march on Selma, Alabama.   One of the goals of that march was integration - of schools, of lunch counters, of all areas of life and all opportunities.   Yet, decades later, we find that self-segregation is a very powerful force.  Most high schools throughout the South have separate black and white prom nights.   Kids in the cafeteria sit amongst their "own kind" and woe be to the child of either color who tries to sit with the other.

In a similar manner, I think the use of accents and other social cues is a way the lower classes distinguish themselves from the upper.   You would think it would be the other way around.   After all,  don't the snobs in the upper class want to make sure that rednecks don't get into the country club?   Yet it is the rednecks who distinguish themselves and isolate themselves through speech patterns and accent.   And this goes for all the lower classes.  It is a fascinating phenomenon.

And all you need to do to "pass" for a sophisticate is to drop the trappings of lower class, rather than adopt the trappings of upper classes.  But of course, the poor person who does this, risks alienating the members of his own social class.   In Black culture in the past, this was considered to be "rising up above one's level" whereas today, it is decried as "acting white" or "being an Oreo".

Among rednecks, of course, it would be considered "acting gay" if you dropped your accent, clothing, and monster pickup truck.   And in both black and redneck cultures, the penalties for being different are often severe and in the past, even deadly.

The poor engage in a lot of self-destructive and self-defeating behavior, and this is one example of it.

A second, more disturbing article from MarketWatch, describes how differences in class affect the future of children.  And by the way, thank you MarketWatch for not equating the "American Dream" to granite countertops and stainless steel appliances.   The "American Dream" is social mobility, not over-mortgaged mini-mansions.

The article is alarmist, but it is also something the Freakonomics guys covered as well, again confusing correlation with causation.   The big shocker is, again, that if you come from a poor family you are likely to remain poor.   And in this instance, the graphs and charts use high school versus college grads to show that those high school grads are a bunch of rotten shitheads who don't properly rear their children.

Well, that's not how they put it, exactly, but that is the thrust of the message.  The reality is, of course, that if you come from a home that values a new snowmobile over  a new book, you likely won't advance very far in life.   My Mother, in one of her "save the world" efforts, worked with Head Start to try to teach kids to read and also to give away free books to young children in poor households.   Often, the books they gave away (Richard Scarry's Busy, Busy World, for example) were the only book in the house when she visited their homes.    And usually these homes were trailers, with two or three snowmobiles parked out front, a bass-boat, a Camaro (on blocks, of course) and a monster pickup truck.  The value system of the poor is based on acquiring consumer goods - preferably gasoline-powered ones - over acquiring an education or advancing socially.

And it is hard, too.   If a kid from that environment professes an interest in education and learning, he will end up getting beaten up - often by his own parents.   Parents claim they want a better life for their children, but I can tell you firsthand, this is not necessarily true - at any social level.   Parents often feel threatened, not proud, by children who do better than they do, in life.

So, with all this doom and gloom, does this mean we are all doomed?  It is a popular trope - that the lower classes are reproducing like animals and pretty soon, they will take over the world.  This idea was put forth during the Irish potato famine in Europe, after the Civil War in the US, during various immigration crises in the US (including today), and of course in Europe today, with the huge influx of largely poor and unemployed Muslims.   They're going to take over the world!  Oh me! Oh my!

What these statistics don't consider, however, is personal freedom and personal choice.   As I noted in an earlier posting, people can climb from one social class to another - up or down.   My own family is a prime example.   Go back a few generations on either side, and you find utter white trash.  Zoom backward and forward, and you find near royalty.   Social mobility is indeed possible.   My friend from the trailer park in West Virginia proved this, as did my friend from South Philadelphia.

Is social mobility easy?  Well, the downward kind is - just smoke a lot of pot and you'll find yourself there in no time.  Whee!  like going down a water slide.   Going up is a lot harder.   Harder, but not impossible.

And if you think about this, it makes sense.  If it was easy to climb up the social ladder, then everyone would do it and there would be no poor people left.   But our social scale is like a casino - it is damn easy to get into a Casino (indeed, many use conveyor belts to drag people in) but damn hard to get out (exits are hidden to dissuade you from leaving).    Similarly, if you want to go down the social ladder, it is almost automatic - just stop trying entirely and indulge yourself with poor financial choices, self-pity, and drugs.   Climbing up requires an heroic amount of work, but it is possible to do.

When the Irish (which are some of my ancestors) came to the US in the 1800's in droves, they were at the very bottom of the social and economic scale.  And the largely Protestant upper classes in America were alarmed at how many there were and how they were "taking over" areas of our cities.  These are the exact same arguments made about Hispanics today - that they form gangs and are involved in crime, and have no morals or whatnot.

One-hundred years later, we have an Irish Catholic President - at least for a few years.   And the Irish, once outcasts, are now firmly part of the American landscape - and in South Boston, protesting against the newcomers to their neighborhoods.  The circle is completed.   From outsiders to status quo, in just a few generations.

So yes, on a statistical level, most people end up trapped in their surroundings and upbringing.   But on a personal choice level, some people strive to get ahead - and succeed.   No, not every Irish immigrant in the 1800's had a descendent that ended up as President.   That does not mean it is impossible, or indeed that it never happened.

The good news is, that on an individual level, you do have choices and since they are often choices your peer group won't make then making them is a lot easier.  I have mentioned before that if you live in a poor neighborhood, the best thing you can do is leave and go live somewhere better, even if it is a struggle to afford to live there.

Now some wags point out that, "Well, if everyone followed that advice, no one would be left in the poor neighborhood!" while other bleeding-heart types say, "Why should people be forced to leave their homes?" which falls into that emotional thinking trap of equating a place to live with a "home."

People in Ferguson, Missouri complain that the nearly all-white Police department is harassing them, and according to the Justice Department, this is true.   So why live there?   If you can escape, why not leave?  As a group choice or a societal choice, is it not an answer, of course.  But as an individual choice, it is probably the best option for getting ahead.   And is it a crime to want to better yourself?  Or should you stay in places like Flint, Michigan, and sacrifice your personal future to help a "community" that will not likely improve in your lifetime.

So what's the point of all this?  Perhaps none.   But perhaps that yes, social classes do exist in America (like, duh) and that we distinguish ourselves from one another on purpose - and that the poor go out of their way to demarcate themselves as being from a lower social class.   But most importantly, while the social class you are born in is a good statistical indicia of where you are headed in life,  it is not determinative, either.   If you are smart and you want to get ahead, there are opportunities.   Saying that the "American Dream is Dead" because of some graphs and charts, is to negate freedom of choice, and to denigrate the choices and accomplishments of those who choose to choose.

1 comment:

  1. Some might say that it is the rich who demarcate themselves from the poor with their accents and other socially normative cues. I disagree.

    If you look across this country, you will see that the poor are not homogenous. Whether it is inner-city blacks, southern rednecks, impoverished New Englanders or whatever, they all have a distinct lower-class accent, different from other regions of the country.

    The upper classes? Pretty much the same "normal" unaccented way of speech (except perhaps in Texas - but even there, upper class Texans have a less pronounced drawl than the lower classes).

    And even things like dress, behavior, and what cars you drive are really not something the rich have adopted so much as the poor. The wealthy "preppy" types in the Northeast don't wear flashy or gaudy expensive clothes, but rather fairly inexpensive things like izod shirts, topsiders, and tattered blue blazers.

    It is the poor that seek out the flashy and expensive and brand-name goods far more often than the rich (and the middle class which REALLY seeks them out).

    No, it is the poor that goes out of their way to demarcate themselves as poor. Whether this is intentional or subconscious is another question. I think the latter.

    ReplyDelete

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