In her book, Bridging the Class Divide, Linda Stout mentions an incident when low-income activists created a brochure that included the quote, “Something has got to be wrong when the government spends so much money on the military and nothing on me!” Somewhere in the production process, the quote was “corrected” to read, “I don’t understand why the government spends so much money on the military and nothing on me.” When the creators of the brochure saw the change, they were angry: “What do you mean we don’t understand? Of course we understand! Do you think we’re stupid or something?” (p. 119).
When middle-class activists approach organizing with the assumption that they need to enlighten and educate the duped and the unaware, they may be contributing to the class divide that exists in current social change movements.
As David Croteau, an academic from a working-class background, argues in Politics and the Class Divide, “Workers are aware of the existence of significant social and political problems and issues.” But social movement activists do not “fully recognize this awareness on the part of workers” (p. 151). He quotes an activist as saying, “If you’re really gonna understand [the issues], you’ve got to read a lot of alternative sources.” In his excellent study of “working people and the middle-class left,” Croteau shows that “this is not necessarily true. Workers have a good grasp of major issue areas and recognize the need for change in the political sphere” (p. 152).
Linda Stout, one of the founders of the Piedmont Peace Project, a grassroots organization based in low-income communities in North Carolina, describes middle class organizers going door-to-door with her as being “surprised to discover that folks in our area paid close attention to national issues. When we asked them what they thought was the biggest issue facing our country today, many of these low-income folks said that military spending and government waste were the cause of our local problems. We didn’t have to explain the connection to them. They had already made the link, while many middle-class people miss those connections” (pp. 108-109).
What makes someone middle class? The term refers not just to income, but to the level of decisionmaking power a person enjoys in his or her work, which brings with it the reward of a certain amount of power, privilege, and perks in society. A better term for “middle class” may be “coordinator class” (see the work of Michael Albert). Stout and Croteau use “middle class,” however, and so for the purposes of this commentary, I will too.
Authored by progressives from working-class backgrounds, both of these excellent books help illuminate the class divide that is typical in today’s social change movements.
What else, besides middle-class people assuming that working-class people “don’t understand,” contributes to the class divide?
Trying to build on disillusionment and despair
When David Croteau interviewed middle-class peace and justice activists, he found that “the shock that activists felt at `discovering’ injustice served as a strong catalyst for action” (p. 54). Many of these activists naturally assume that others will find the same shock and subsequent disillusionment and anger to be motivating as well. But the working people that Croteau talked to had never “bought the `bill of goods’ about democracy that was being sold to them by teachers, politicians, and the media.” Rather than being motivated by injustice, working people respond to it with a “weary fatalism” (p. 55), says Croteau.
Focusing on knowledge rather than action
Perhaps hoping to replicate in others their own experience of discovering injustice, middle-class activists focus too much on education. Linda Stout says, “Many groups give educational programs without any actions assigned, believing that knowledge about a particular issue is enough to make people work for change. But I believe that if folks leave a program without understanding what to do with the knowledge they have gained, they frequently feel even more disempowered” (p. 138).
Meanwhile, David Croteau argues, setting up educational forums to reveal to people all the terrible injustice in the world is akin to asking people to learn the details of horrible but fixed aspects of life — things we have no chance of changing, like the weather. “A lot of times I don’t like the weather,” says one worker that Croteau interviewed, “but I don’t wrack my brain trying to think up a way to change itâ€¦ If it’s rainingâ€¦I go inside. I don’t try to stop it from raining.”
Insufficiently valuing effectiveness
Perhaps middle-class social change movements do not focus enough on what they do manage to win and so they appear even more ineffectual than they actually are.
David Croteau asked Tom, a telephone company line worker, what might motivate him to get involved in a social change organization. He answered, “I suppose if I thought it would make a difference, I might. But I’d really have to see how it would work — how it was gonna change things. I’m not one to go out and do things just to make myself feel better, you know. I need to see some results. With what I know about these kinds of things, they usually just kind of fade away. Nothing really gets changed.”
Linda Stout agrees that a challenge for progressives is to find ways to show people that change is possible, that it is a realistic goal. “It is important when reaching out to low-income folks, or anyone else for that matter, that meetings be about accomplishing something. It is important to give people an `action’ assignment in every meeting. Low-income people especially need to see concretely that they are making a difference before they will believe it” (p. 138).
Settling for the “good fight” as opposed to winning
It may not be obvious to many middle-class activists to be this goal-oriented since, as David Croteau discovered, for many of them, their political work offers intrinsic rewards. They say that activism is “fulfilling,” “interesting,” and just plain “fun” (p. 123). “To put it bluntly, much of middle-class politics is comfortable. That is, since participation brings its own rewards and middle-class activists generally are not working for their own immediate interests, it often makes little difference whether such movements are always a success for those who choose to participate. To outsiders like the workers I interviewed, however, continued pursuit of apparently futile efforts can seem baffling. Not participating in social movements is similar to not voting. It is, in part, the realization that such activities will not provide benefits” (p. 125).
Stout’s and Croteau’s books were published in 1996 and 1995 respectively, but the insights they yield are not reflected in how middle-class peace and justice movements orient their activism. In this commentary, I offer only a small portion of what middle-class activists can learn from these books. I urge activists to buy them and study them and incorporate their lessons.
People will find various ways of taking these lessons forward into their work, but a key question to ask yourself is whether you have a way to listen to what working-class people are saying. Many middle-class activists do not. Or they actively block out the message because it doesn’t fit with their agenda. This is one of the ways social change movements are classist, and therefore one of the ways we dehumanize our own movements and decrease their chances of success.
Bridging the Class Divide and Politics and the Class Divide provide activists with a way to begin to listen to working-class voices.