People Like Us: Social Class in America
Directed by Andrew Kolker and Louis Alvarez (1999)
Produced in 1999, this video long predates the systematic destruction of the middle class that began following the 2008 global economic crash. Thus many of the observations it makes about social class are no longer strictly accurate.
Nevertheless the claim that that bias against working class people is the last acceptable prejudice* still rings true – as does the filmmakers’ premise that separation into social classes (eg preppies and dorks, nerds, goths, ghetto and other losers) begins in high school. The assertion that the vast majority of working class Americans consider themselves “middle class” seems less relevant with the galloping poverty the US has experienced over the last 12 years.
I am also skeptical of the filmmakers’ claim that all Americans feel more comfortable surrounded by members of their own social class. After 32 years of working professionally with people across all social classes, I’ve always agreed with sociological studies describing a district working class culture** placing high value on community, extended family, loyalty and emotionally intimate relationships. I’ve also found that working class people tend to have better social skills – owing in part to childhoods spent playing in the street (while rich children attend piano, dancing and soccer lessons) and in part to greater ease expressing strong feelings.
In contrast, I’ve found that competitiveness, status seeking and difficulty expressing strong emotions turn social relationships in society’s upper echelons into somewhat of a mine field.
I’m also leery about the way filmmakers emphasize style of dress (with rich people wearing more expensive designer labels) in distinguishing rich from low income Americans. For some reason they totally fail to acknowledge the current trend (starting in the mid-80s) for wealthy Americans to affect a grunge/punk dress style.
For me, the most interesting part of the film concerns a battle in Burlington Vermont over a city council decision to favor a locally owned food coop over a Shaw’s chain supermarket. It was interesting to see the city’s working class residents express their lifelong frustration with their more well-to-do counterparts trying to impose their tofu-oriented lifestyle on them. In the end, the coop won the permit but began stocking white bread to appease Burlington’s working class.
I also found the section on social class in the Black community extremely enlightening.
*Eg, Hillary Clinton referring to them as “deplorables.”
**See Working Class Culture
Anyone with a public library card can view the film free on Kanopy. Type “Kanopy” and the name of your library into your search engine.
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