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Betrayed American Workers

I

Welfare!” a bricklayer snorts. “Those lazy sluts having kids like it was a factory…. You don’t work, you don’t live, right?” Yet later, talking about his oldest boy: “Why should he bust his balls to go to work, let him take it easy for a while—I’ve done some drifting of my own….”

This seeming contradiction comes from a strong and complicated belief in sacrifice which emerged from long interviews we held with people from 100 working-class families in Boston. The people came from five neighborhoods, all white, but with different mixtures of Irish and Italians and of working-class families and middle-class students. The interviews were conducted in 1970; for the most part, people were interviewed first in small groups and then singly. These people feel that the anxieties they experience in contemporary America, the tensions they have to bear, ought to give them the right to demand that society give something in return, that government and large institutions should not make their burdens any worse. But to them society seems to give back ingratitude. It refuses to acknowledge that their sacrifices give them a claim for respect from the outside world.

Government welfare payments to those who do not work is the most obvious violation of the sacrificial contract; and yet the feelings of white working-class adults are more complicated than current clichés of “backlash” or “working-class authoritarianism” make them seem.

People on welfare, the bricklayer feels, have given up trying to win respect in the social order and have “gotten away with it.” “I work for my money,” he says. “My job is to work for my family.” But hidden behind such familiar sentiments is a fascination with the thought of people on welfare: “They don’t wanna work, they live for nothing but kicks, nothing but good booze and good sex.” The image of the welfare “chiselers” draws him like a magnet; he returns to it again and again, fascinated by their refusal to make his sacrifices. “What kills me are these people that are on welfare and things like that—or like these colored people that’re always squawkin’. Yet they don’t wanta work. I go out, I work sometimes nine, ten days in a row, I got five children. That’s what burns me, when somebody else—like this woman on the street here that collects welfare. She’s a phony, but she can still collect it. She takes a cab back and forth to shop, and we pay for it.”

Yet when asked directly what it might be like to be on welfare, he answers quite differently. He knows very well that most people on welfare are unable to work, that the number of possible chiselers is in fact quite small. The wife of another laborer describes how he comes home drunk four or five times a year, arguing, “It’s not worth it. What’s it all about? Let’s go on welfare.” Although tempted at times by the material advantages that, in moments of passion, he believes those on welfare receive, this man is aware of how such people are actually treated, by the degradation he feels public assistance would bring to himself.

Why does the image of the “chiseler” so excite people? Why is their anger so out of proportion to the number of “chiselers”? The reason is not simply that those sensitive to welfare chiselers tend to equate people on welfare with blacks. In none of the discussions we had did anyone speak about blacks as a group tainted by heredity. The distinction manual laborers made between “good” blacks and “bad” was that the “good” blacks were people whom they saw living and thinking like themselves, while “bad” blacks were the opposite—lazy, sexually insatiable, dropouts who appealed to an establishment contemptuous of the worker. While all welfare chiselers were supposed to be black, few blacks were welfare chiselers.

In much of the recent concern about discontent among white workers in America and in England, blue-collar workers have been described as especially prone to feelings of racism or racial animosity, on the grounds that the challenges of blacks press most directly on them. Careful studies fail to support this notion. Racial attitudes, as Gunner Myrdal was first to point out, followed by Adorno and contemporary writers like Gary Marx, are formed by far more complicated factors than occupation. Distance from a black community, for example: those living farther away tend to fear blacks more, since their picture of blacks comes not through daily contact but through fantasies generated by isolation. Laborers living in neighborhoods where blacks are moving in are more prejudiced than laborers living in already mixed neighborhoods. In one survey, the group most prejudiced against welfare “chiselers” and rioters turned out to be black middle-class women living in black suburbs.

It is not, then, blacks that disturb the workers we interviewed, but the idea of people “getting away with something I never got away with.” Because a man sacrifices, he, if anyone, deserves a break. Welfare chiselers, however, disturb him because they pose a temptation to him: If people refuse to make sacrifices, yet are subsidized by the state, their very existence calls into question the meaning of his own acts of self-abnegation. Since sacrifice is a voluntary virtue, a meaning the sacrificer has created out of material circumstances of his life, it takes only one welfare chiseler getting sympathy and help from the authorities without any show of self-sacrifice to make that willed, created meaning vulnerable.

Do the “chiselers” have some secret he doesn’t know about? No, that would leave him with absolutely nothing; even sacrificing himself would then fail to give strength. If women on welfare are free, if they can receive money from the state to support themselves and their always present but never seen men, then he has become superfluous as the provider for his family, his sacrifices are no longer essential to his wife and children. Yet the working-class fathers we spoke to believe only sacrifice makes a person “worth” something to those he loves.

Those who refuse to sacrifice must therefore be the incarnation of evil, the denial of anything a decent man does, evil not simply unto themselves, but destroyers of his own powers. They, with their reputation for good sex and boozing, show the kind of freedom that comes when you stop trying to perform. The immediate result is that blacks receiving public assistance—whom most studies show to hate living on welfare as passionately as employed workers—meet a wall of anger and desire for revenge.

II

The same anger directed at the betrayers of the contract of sacrifice reappears, however, when the threat comes not from below but from above.

Fred Gorman, a television repairman, yields to no one in his dislike of “lazy” people on welfare. Yet his anger is equally great toward two of his fellow workers who are graduate engineers but could not survive the depression in the aerospace industry that began in the late Sixties. (Precipitous declines like this occur, according to one estimate, to about 13 percent of professional workers.) Now they are repairing TV sets just as Gorman does. Why does a fall from respectability so rare as this earn Gorman’s scorn?

I just don’t like people like them among us,” he says. “I mean, they got education.” By his ideals of personal independence, educated men should not be changing TV tubes. He has become reconciled in his own way to his own position—“I just hack around”—but it is hard for him to accept the idea that the social order could sacrifice such men as these. Educated men are supposed to have an inner, unalienable freedom, to have developed within themselves the kind of power no one else can take away. If even they prove weak, it means there is no security, no freedom, no possibility of escape for himself or for his children; it means his sacrifices are empty of their meaning. Thus he rebels at any interpretation of the fate of these men that would imply that they were not in control, and insists that they must have perversely decided to “hack around,” troubling men like himself and making them feel afraid. Having such men as coworkers appears to Gorman to be not only a travesty of the social order but a personal insult. Their decline to equality with him is a kind of betrayal.

The anger many workers feel toward students springs in part from the same root. A refusal to sit comfortably on the throne of ability and privilege seems a personal insult to those who are denied this seat. If a privileged kid doesn’t want to stay respectable, how can I believe there is any escape from my own privations? They embody the future, and the future is betraying me.

At the same time, over and over again in our talks, people expressed great resentment against “being treated like nothing,” “being treated like you was dirt,” “like you are part of the woodwork.” How is a man to make himself visible?

So there’s these people down the street, who act like they got no self-respect…I mean their kids is in rags almost and they’re livin’ it up…parties and all…the house is always a mess, they don’t make no effort…. Yeah, it makes me mad, ‘cause you know we’re watchin’ our step, we’re trying to make a decent home, and you get people like that, they’re ruining things in the neighborhood.”

The anger here is expressed by a white butcher toward a white fireman, where both families stand about equally in the world. Using the tool of his own self-discipline as a yardstick, the speaker can set himself apart from the “trash” down the street who have no self-respect. Sacrifice is the last resource for individualism, the last demonstration of competence. It is always available to you, because your desires are always part of you. It is the most fundamental action you can perform that proves your ability to be in control, the final demonstration of virtue when all else fails.

Sacrifice, then, legitimizes a person’s view of himself as an individual, with the right to feel anger—anger of a peculiar, focused sort: In setting you off as an individual, a virtuous person compared to others who are less forceful, self-denial makes possible the ultimate perversion of love: it permits you to practice that most insidious and devastating form of self-righteousness in which you, oppressed, in your anger turn on others who are also oppressed, rather than on those intangible, invisible, impersonal forces that have made you all vulnerable.

The trouble is that investing one’s social position with moral meaning through sacrifice is a desire bred in its turn by forces beyond a person’s control. Society forces men to translate their social position into images of personal worth. The social genesis of feelings of betrayal we can perhaps make clearest by quoting in full and then interpreting one of the more dramatic discussions of our formal interviews.

III

This conversation, like most of our discussions, occurred at our office; the participants were six women whose children attended the same nursery school. The school serves an Italian community composed mostly of manual-laboring families. At the height of the discussion an argument broke out between Dolly Sereno and Myra Gould, neighbors with a similar Italian background, both Catholics, about the oldest cliché in race relations: intermarriage between blacks and whites.

Dolly Sereno asked, “What would you do, Myra, if your Alice brought one home to marry? If she brought a black man home to marry?” Myra replied, “You know this”—and stopped to smile—“every bigot asks that question.”

Well, I’m asking it,” Dolly replied. “I might be a bigot!”

There was a pause, then Myra said, “You know, because they feel that we don’t like them—“ But here Dolly cut her off and asked more sharply, “But what would you do yourself, Myra?” The other women began to smile and nod their heads in approval of Dolly’s prodding.

Myra said, “What would I do? First of all, first of all, if you want to go into it, I’d be very happy to. ‘First of all, my children are associated with many blacks—you know, in Roxbury [a black ghetto in Boston]. Okay, fine, I would not push my daughter to date…my children know exactly how we feel on this stand. I wouldn’t particularly care for my daughter to date or marry a Negro, a black person.”

Dolly asked, “Why?”

Not because of the fact that they’re black. Because of society. I wouldn’t want her to be hurt by bigoted people. But I will say this: if she met a, well—I’m not sure how to say it—a black person who was like a ‘beautiful’ person, you know. And she took him home, I think—I hope I would have the courage. I’m not saying I would, because I don’t think you can ask a person something like that, but I hope I would have the courage to be able to see this person as a human being. A person that God Himself made. And I wouldn’t, you know—look, years ago, Dolly, if I brought home an Irishman, my mother woulda thrown me through a pane-glass window.”

I realize this. I realize this. Yeah, but you said previous that you hope she doesn’t marry [one] because of society.”

Society is ignorant, okay?” Myra replied. “Years ago, if you saw a black and a white person walking in Boston, you’d stare at them until they’d almost faint in the ground. Today it’s just a matter of—you say, oh well. You don’t really think too much about it, it doesn’t hit home. I don’t happen to live where black people live, so that chances of my children even meeting with blacks, on that level….”

Kathy, an onlooker to this exchange, challenged Myra: “Yeah, but you just said they were involved with them.”

Myra answered, “Oh, yeah, they know a lot of black kids, but they’re not living with them, you know. Ask me a question like, would I mind renting to a black person or would I mind living next door.”

Interviewer: “Would you?”

Myra: “I certainly would[n’t mind], I’d rent to a black person in five minutes. Wouldn’t bother me in the least. I would live next door to them, I would be friendly to them, I mean, I have—and I don’t see that they’re any different!”

Dolly Sereno ventured tentatively, “I—I just wouldn’t want any of that…I’ll tell you right now, truthfully.”

It became Myra’s turn to question: “Why? Well, tell me why?”

Still hesitating, Dolly said, “Because I just don’t…I—“ Myra interrupted her in a tone of satisfaction: “You don’t think they’re good enough!”

Dolly said, “Now, I’m not saying that they’re not good enough, ‘cause I know a lot of people that—black people that are better than some white people I know.”

Myra: “Right. Okay. If your daughter brought one home—“

Dolly: “I would die!”

Myra: “Why?”

Dolly: “I’ll tell ya the truth—“

Myra: “Why, though?”

Dolly: “I would die!”

Myra: “Yeah, but you can’t just say you would die. You have to have a reason why you would die.”

Dolly: “Because I wouldn’t want her to marry a black person. First of all, I wouldn’t want to have grandchildren from that…thing.”

Myra: “What thing?”

Dolly: “From that union. I don’t know what word I want. I wouldn’t want grandchildren, ‘cause those grandchildren—“

Myra: “Their skin would be black.”

Dolly: “Not necessarily. Half would be black, half would be white. But, I would like to see my grandchildren brought up—“

Myra: “Your daughter could marry a dark Italian, you’d have darker kids than some of the black people.”

Dolly: “All right, but I’m just saying…. But it’s still not a black person.”

Myra: “It’s a white!”

Dolly: “Right.”

Myra: “That’s where you draw the line.”

Dolly: “You bet your life.”

Myra: “Well, then, you’re bigoted.”

Dolly: “Well, maybe I am a bigot!”

Myra began to calm down and replied almost to herself, “Well, that’s the first thing you’d have to say.” At this, Dolly looked hurt: “I mean, I know what you’re saying—but you yourself wouldn’t…don’t say you’re not gonna…you wouldn’t die if Alice brought—“

But here Myra replied in a far-away voice, “No, I wouldn’t die”; and suddenly Dolly erupted, shouting at Myra with real scorn, “Oh, Myra, don’t say that!”

Dolly Sereno later remarked to us privately that what made her so angry was Myra’s refusal to admit that her own feelings were like Dolly’s; Myra was “putting something on.” And when we spoke separately to the other women, they reacted in the same way. They sided with Dolly because they thought Myra was “striking a pose,” was trying to “put them down.” Myra’s private feelings about this argument fitted the opposite side of the mold. To her, Dolly, whom she liked and respected, was “acting in a silly, unthinking sort of uneducated way.”

In this conversation, a hidden, silent authority—the interviewer—had a kind of magnetic pull on Myra: she often looked at the interviewer while she was ostensibly speaking to Dolly, seeking approval for her enlightened views. One of the other women later observed that they had never known Myra to talk this way privately. The change was not so much in her beliefs, Kathy said, as in the manner in which she spoke, the eagerness with which she forced Dolly to announce herself as a bigot. The other women felt betrayed by Myra, seeing her as “putting something on” in an effort to differentiate herself from the rest.

In fastening onto the interviewer’s presence, in performing for the outsider to show that she too was educated and “enlightened,” Myra had brought to this discussion the weight of a whole lifetime of experience that made her feel obliged to prove she was “worth something” to those “above” her.

The people in the group around Myra believed she was arguing for the “right” thing, the enlightened and educated thing, just as they believed she was saying the morally right and educated thing when she condemned the war in Vietnam, hunger in America, and the like. But she makes them have a problem with such views. For while on the surface her words express love of mankind, they also express a shaming and rejection of them. Since Myra is emphasizing these opinions to gain the approval of an outsider whom she sees as upper-class and educated, and in so doing to stand out from the others, the other women cannot help questioning the sincerity of her sentiments, because she is not being considerate of them. If she is really so tolerant, why does she use her tolerance to betray them?

In the argument between Myra and Dolly, something else comes into play. When Myra says Dolly is acting in a “silly…uneducated way,” she is shaming Dolly by trying to classify her; Dolly disappears as the person talking to her right here and now. The idea of the “hard hat”—the superpatriot, the racist workingman—serves the same purpose: a hard hat is a thing, with an empty head hidden beneath, a part of a crowd over which the “educated” or “enlightened” person towers. The gestures of enlightenment and civility become, in the magic mirror of class, the means for an individual to make others part of a crowd.

Class in this scene is characterized by the same qualities that create the fearful attraction to welfare chiselers or the hatred of those engineers who, by a seeming perversity of will, wind up as TV repairmen. Class in all three instances is imagined as the system by which individuals have or have not the power to set themselves free from the mass of people around them. The people we interviewed, who had seldom gone past high school, used education as a yardstick of this power. Education was not merely a ticket to better jobs; in their eyes, it was a symbol of inner rational and moral development which these workers secretly feared they did not possess.

They perceive a society in which relatively few individuals get the chance to develop inside enough so that they can force anyone else to respect them. If only a few have the power to command respect from all, then the many occupy a defensive and anxiety-laden middle ground, feeling their dignity constantly in jeopardy, half achieved, appalled by the outcasts at the other end of the social spectrum who have ceased to care about earning respect yet have gained the sympathy the educated will not accord to themselves. The same considerations of talent and dignity cause Gorman to be insulted because educated men like the engineers might not have used their mental powers, their “advantages,” to avoid falling into the ranks of the ordinary.

To escape from the uncertain half-light of respect that falls on those around her, Myra seeks for personal recognition from the interviewer as a silent authority or judge. To gain recognition she is willing to turn on Dolly, to sacrifice their friendship, so that Dolly, in talking to her about race, becomes embroiled in feelings of shame and rage that have nothing to do with intermarriage.

IV

Personal sacrifice intervenes in, but does not create, such destructive forces. Take, for another example, Michael Bowers, a young man recently returned from Vietnam. He lives with his father, a bricklayer, and attends a two-year commuter college on the GI Bill. In Vietnam he came to detest the war he was fighting; but he says that the more he came to hate the war, the more he also came to hate the war protesters at home:

They’re your real suburban liberals, those people. They think they can sit in judgment on what other people do. I had to fight over there…I mean, I grew up with all the patriotism, the VFW crap, and like, it hurt to change. I went through hell…. The war protesters are spoiled because they make moral judgments on others without going through that hell. Their advantages, you know, wealth, education, the suburbs, all that, make them think they can be more moral. They can understand you with all their fancy words, but you can’t understand them, ‘cause you’re just a part of the scenery. Well, actually nobody can understand them, they think, you know, ‘cause they each got their individual problems, their shrinks, they’ve always been special.

No one can really “understand,” in the way Bowers has come to understand, the meaning of war just by sitting back and analyzing. Yet the elite who have developed their minds think that, with their expertise, they need not risk any sacrifice of their lives in order to understand.

People against the war did not set out to make Bowers angry—quite the reverse. Nor did Myra Gould set out to make Dolly Sereno angry; she only wanted to win the approval of an outside authority, the interviewer, and became blind to Dolly’s feelings in the process. Yet if you are a working-class person, if you have had to spend year after year being treated by people of a higher class as though there probably is little unusual or special about you to catch their attention, if you resent this treatment, and still feel that it reflects something accurate about yourself, then to try to impugn the dignity of persons in a higher class becomes a real, if twisted, affirmation of your own claims for respect. The terrible thing about class in our society is that it sets up a contest for dignity. Class seen as a problem of day-to-day living rather than as an abstraction contains much hidden content in a great many social issues, so that while people like Myra and Dolly seem to be fighting over general principles, they are in reality fighting for recognition of their own worth from each other as well as from the interviewer.

Who can assign “blame” to either side? War protesters and middle-class radicals genuinely mean well—so does Myra. In this fight she was truly afraid that her friends were trying to “drag her down” to their own level; she knows racism is wrong, and Dolly’s claims to equality made her ashamed in front of the interviewer. Even so, she needs peers like Dolly, she needs them in order to stand apart from them.

The Enlightenment philosophers told us that human dignity is a possession of all men, that there exists what they called “common humanity.” If I believe that the man I call “Sir” who calls me by my first name started with an equal fund of those powers that make a man decent, do not our differences, do not all the signs of courtesy and attention given to him but denied me, do not his very feelings of being different in “taste” and understanding from me show that somehow he has improved himself more than I have? How else can I explain inequalities? Institutions may be organized so that he wins and I lose, but this is my life, this is thirty or forty years of being alive that I am talking about: and what I have experienced in school, and at work, is that people are supposed to understand what happens to them in life by what they make of themselves. I see this man, whom I know to be better than me, being treated better by others—even I treat him that way. Much as I know it isn’t right, much as I rebel against his putting on airs and trying to act superior, there is a secret self-accusation implanted in me by my very beliefs in our basic equality.

In a society that professes belief in equality, yet is also arranged in hierarchical classes, to assert the humanity you share in common with all men can move you in two directions. In the first, you make an individual effort to place yourself on a par with those you believe to be above you; in the second you attempt to destroy inequality between yourself and the persons you perceive above you by attacking their integrity.

We have long celebrated in America the individual as a hero because he has been portrayed in our literature and more recently in our movies and television as alone in being specially honest or courageous or true to himself. But to celebrate individualism in a class society has a perverse, if unintended effect. In such a society, the moment individuals are praised, subterranean fears of betrayal and shaming are set in motion. The war between Myra and Dolly, the resentment Bowers harbors toward people united with him intellectually in opposing the war, these are the logical products, the necessary images of desertion prompted by celebrating individual self-development. One person’s individual achievement becomes betrayal for the others.

For the betrayed, what is the alternative to individualism? You assert a common humanity, equality, you desire to get those who are in higher social positions to admit the worthiness you share with them, you want them to stop treating you as an object. But what if you believe that your social position is of your own making, a burden you have to carry, a matter of your character? How then can you legitimize such an assertion of equality?

Michael Bowers does not feel his anger at suburban liberals is illegitimate: because he denied himself for his country, he now feels the right to condemn individuals in it. The justification of anger and equality occurs more commonly in a less dramatic form. Fathers holding down extra jobs so that they can save some money for their kids’ schooling, mothers who also work or who by strict discipline keep the family finances and social order functioning, working-class kids who avoid the temptations of the street and stick it out in school, braving the envious scorn of other children, all are earning by their regimentation the right to demand respect.

Family, work, and warfare can lead to the same result: the more they make a man feel he has denied himself for the sake of others, the more he feels he has the right not to submit to the moral domination of anyone else. The feeling of having acquired this right is, however, complex. Neither Bowers nor Myra is thinking about doing away with the class structure. They are concerned with their right to be exempted personally from shame and indignity. In turning people against each other, the class system of authority and judgment-making goes itself into hiding: the system is left unchallenged as people, enthralled by the enigmas of its power, battle one another for self-respect.

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