Al Franken relates a story wherein Jesse Jackson said once that he was ashamed to admit that when he walks down a dark street at night and hears footsteps behind him, he’d feel relieved if it were white man. I’ve always thought this was strange; if I was walking down the street and heard footsteps behind me, and saw that it was one of the white men from Deliverance, I would not be relieved. I would much prefer a black man in Brooks Brothers.
The point being, the class indicators of the person are relevant, if not solely determinative. I don’t think I’d feel differently about a white guy or a black guy in a pink polo shirt with flipped up collar jabbing on a Bluetooth. Now if I had a choice between Paul Wall and apl.de.ap, I’d rather be followed by apl.de.ap,though there is a chance that seeing him out of the corner of my eye would cause me to laugh to death.
Let’s put it in clearer terms. I used to work at a cafe, the sole person on my shift. This was up on Belmont near Clark, at the tail end of its stretch as a seedy area, when there were still lots of homeless street kids in the alleys, and heroin addicts nodding off on the curb. We also got some of the many homeless folks who still wandered the neighborhoods north of Lakeview, victims of the shutdowns of federal shelters in the 80s.
If I was working late, from what I remember we closed at 11, I’d get a little fidgety at least if some grimy dude with glassy eyes sauntered in, ruminating on the menu before ordering our coffee and a toasted bagel special for a $1.50, which they’d sit over for an hour. As opposed to, say, some weirdo but well-groomed artist type who came in to sketch in their moleskine.
All told, we’re much more likely to be comfortable around people reliably from our social class (or slightly above or below) than someone far outside it (whether above or below). The same way that terrifying hillbilly up there would put us off our feed, leaving us with assumptions that they were dumb or somehow threatening, so might we see someone way above our social class and assume they were pampered or sheltered or spoiled or snobby. Part of growing up and going to and fro in the world is shedding yourself of these preconceptions–which I won’t even begin to deny I’ve held, as someone who had a huge chip on the shoulder to shed.
Class is the one identity marker that we’re still somewhat comfortable discriminating on. Now of course there is the fact that adopting a fashion style that deliberately obscures your actual class is quite prevalent. Even those cases, though, you can usually tell.
I’m not advocating wearing blue overalls like they did in Oceania or just accept class bias, in fact I’m not making any moral or value statement at all, I’m just saying: class, more than any other factor–though it’s probably neck and neck with gender–animates our prejudices, biases, fears, and social connection.
My rational conclusion? Let’s profit from it! I want to pitch a show to Fox News Channel. My friend Ned Resnikoff once twitter-pitched them a show called “Aaaaah! Foreigners!” I think that program (which would clearly be a smash hit) could serve as a lead in for my show idea, “Eww! Poors!”
The format of the shows would be generally similar, kind of like how The Office and Parks and Recreation share an aesthetic. I envision “Aaaaah! Foreigners!” would be a standing talking head talking about various terrifying things that foreigners were doing, then press a button on a big machine behind them that then “played” the clip; when the button was pressed, a sped-up and distorted bit of audio recorded at a slaughterhouse would play before the clip launched. It would sort of be like The George Michael Sports Machine, if it had been invented by Mark Steyn. I’ll defer to Ned, but I propose that it be hosted by Samuel “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher.
“Eww! Poors!” on the other hand would be more like that Mad Money show with Jim Kramer. The host would scream and stomp around and press various buttons to launch clips that showed poor people of all races doing stupid or gross things. I’d insist producers limit clips from daytime talk and court shows to two per episode. It would have a tag-team hosting situation: Rick Santelli and Ivanka Trump. Santelli could angrily denounce the poors for being poor and irresponsible in allowing themselves to get poor, and then clomp his paw on the various big red buttons in the room, and then Ivanka Trump would say something snotty about them, like, “God, why don’t they just sell some property or something?”
I think “Eww! Poors!” would be a big earner for them, meanwhile serving the useful purpose of reminding everyone that people with much less than money than them are worthy of scorn or pity, neither of which does anything to change things but does plenty to make them feel better about themselves. Pity of course may generate a trickle of charity, but more importantly it puts some people in the position of being able to make themselves moral through their feelings or instances of generosity, regardless of the reasons for their own “fortune” and others’ “misfortune.” Have you ever received pity–not empathy, but pity–and felt good about yourself? Pity turns pretty quickly into scorn: if the object of your pity is ungrateful, say, or if you find out that the object of your pity had some habit or history that “brought” their own misfortune down on them. Of course, most people are in their social class because their parents were in the same class or in an abutting class, because of the opportunities that were not available to them, and while they may have different tastes than you, probably don’t work any less hard or feel pain any differently. After all: to someone, you’re kind of a poor.
As you ponder my pitch and gather your thoughts for the letter you’ll be writing in support of the idea, I’ll leave you with one last image.