White Working Class, by Joan C. Williams. (Joan C. Williams)
To all you Prosecco-sipping, kale chip-munching elites out there in Big Law Land, listen up: You bear responsibility for the election of Donald Trump. It’s because of smug, liberal urbanites like you that we are in the mess we’re in.
That’s more or less the theme in Joan Williams’ new book, “White Working Class.” The professional elites (those whose household income is in the top 20 percent and have at least one college-educated family member), Williams argues, not only fail to understand the economic plight of the working class but often treat its members with condescension. And that “class cluelessness” is what fueled resentment and the white flight to Trump.
Williams, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, gives plenty of examples in which the professional class and the working class live on different planets. Here are some of her points:
• The vast majority of Americans do not go to college. Only 33 percent obtain college degrees. To elites, a college education is a given.
• The working class is not the poor, though elites often use the terms interchangeably. (Median income of a working-class family was $75,144 in 2015—though its buying power is steadily declining.)
• Gender equality is largely an elitist construct. “Shattering the glass ceiling means giving privileged women access to the high-level jobs now held almost exclusively by privileged men.”
• Being a stay-at-home mother is an aspiration and sign of success for the working class. (Working moms represent “stress and disruption” to the working class.)
Although Williams doesn’t point her finger just at lawyers, she takes some direct jabs at them. She cites lawyers’ obsession with work and narcissism as the very traits that white working-class folks abhor. For instance, she quotes a litigator who finds holidays disruptive: “Damn, why did I have to stop working to go eat a turkey? I missed my favorite uncle’s funeral because I had a deposition scheduled that was too important.”
Hardly sympathetic, but are lawyers and others in the professional classes truly that awful? I don’t think so—and that’s where I think Williams overstates her point at times. Indeed, Williams’ characterization of the professional/managerial class as unrepentant workaholics seems like a stereotype in its own right.
Moreover, I don’t think the professional class is quite as dismissive and patronizing toward blue-collar workers as she suggests. Some might be self-absorbed and obsessed with the badges of excellence, but I don’t think elites are without empathy. From what I’ve seen, some would very much like to reach across the aisle and begin a dialogue. (This summer, at Williams’ book party at the Penn Club in New York, where the audience was comprised precisely of the people she’s criticizing, one asked in earnest: “How can we reach out to the white working class? We don’t know any!”)
And even if it’s true that some members of the elite unfairly stereotype the white working class (Williams cites the TV character Archie Bunker as a prime example), doesn’t the working class do the same thing, seeing professionals as a bunch of overeducated sissies?
There’s a clear divide between us, but is it fair to put the onus on elites to fix the problem?
“It’s totally fair,” Williams told me. “Some people tell me, ‘but [working whites] insult us,’ but, excuse me, who has the power in this relationship? If you feel powerless, and you’re making $200,000 as an associate or a couple of million as a partner, then you lack imagination.”
Williams is right that elites have the power—yet they are strangely helpless in finding ways to assert their political will.
Perhaps Williams’ book is a good starting point for those hapless elites to understand the divide. There’s no doubt that it’s a timely, provocative and necessary read. You might not like the way she portrays the lawyer class as being a bunch of oblivious snots, but it’s a view we need to air.
Coming up: My podcast with Joan Williams.
Contact Vivia Chen at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @lawcareerist.