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Continuing our current temporary practice, today we have included last
night's ZNet Sustainer Commentary from Cynthia Peters -- The Class
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And now, here is last night's commentary...
The Class Divide
By Cynthia Peters
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
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"
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 it... If
it's raining...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
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.
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