White Working Class by Joan C. Williams – Here are my five lessons and takeaways

White Working ClassIn 2018, (Joe) Biden — who favors biographies and volumes on comparative religion — became obsessed with two books: “How Democracies Die,” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, and “White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America,” by Joan C. Williams. He carried both everywhere, scrawling notes on the pages and pulling out well-worn copies to share passages.
“He marks up books very profusely,” White House communications director Kate Bedingfield said. “He writes in the margins and highlights and underlines.”
Ashley Parker: Weightlifting, Gatorade, birthday calls: Inside Biden’s day, from the Washington Post

My own most fervent hope is to communicate one key message: if you care about climate change, or abortion rights, or immigrants, or mass incarceration, you’d better care, too, about good jobs and social dignity for Americans of all races without college degrees.
Instead, I focus on a simple message: when you leave the two-thirds of Americans without college degrees out of your vision of the good life, they notice. And when elites commit to equality for many different groups but arrogantly dismiss “the dark rigidity of fundamentalist rural America,” 6 this is a recipe for extreme alienation among working-class whites.
One of the goals of this book is to help broaden the conversation of identity to more deftly include class.
My strongest message is this: business-as-usual isn’t working.
Joan C. Williams, White Working Class


I recently presented my synopsis of White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America by Joan C.Williams at the Urban Engagement Book Club in Dallas.  When I more recently read that President Biden had carefully read this book, I understood why he did so.  This is a very good book.

Yes, it is about the white working class.  But it is also about the way our world has changed, is changing, and will continue to change. And these changes have an impact on real people.  And that impact presents real problems and challenges.

As I always do in my synopsis, I ask What is the point of this book?  Here it is for this book: When progressive policymakers talk about guaranteeing things like paid sick leave or a higher minimum wage, they often frame them as issues that would help “working families.” But neither offers what my father-in-law had: a steady job that yielded his vision of a middle-class life. That’s what the working class still wants. 

And I ask Why is this book worth our time?  Here are my three reasons for this book:

#1 – This book identifies the very real class differences between groups in America.
#2 – This book especially helps the “educated” understand why they are so blind to these differences of class.
#3 – This book points to a very real problem:  the financial (and overall) wellbeing of the 66% of the people who do not have a college degree (and, will not have a college degree).

I always include many Quotes and Excerpts from the book – the “best of” Randy’s highlighted Passages.  Here are a few of the highlights I included in my synopsis: 

From the Foreword by Mark Cuban:
Joan Williams’s book is truly enlightening. It describes the values I was raised with: self-reliance, hard work, stability, and straight talk.
But here’s the fact: not everyone is an entrepreneur, and not everyone has a direct path to a job that can pay their bills.
• Resistance to my message in the United States has been fed, too, by a narrative that posits a zero-sum game between race and class. Interestingly, there’s no sense that one can’t support both trans rights and racial justice, or both immigrant rights and gender justice.   
• The challenge is to explain to the white working class that they have gotten screwed not because they are white but because they are working class. The sooner we start, the better.   
• Soon 60 percent of jobs will be at least partially automated. 
• If we were to commit to providing good jobs for noncollege grads, that would help communities of color as well as working-class whites.
• But the upshot is simply this: during an era when wealthy white Americans have learned to sympathetically imagine the lives of the poor, people of color, and LGBTQ people, the white working class has been insulted or ignored during precisely the period when their economic fortunes tanked. 
• Empathy—something well-heeled and well-intentioned liberals often call for as a way to cross the class divide—often reads as condescension. 
• Elites often pride ourselves on merit, and point out we work very hard. But so do hotel housekeepers. Let’s not forget that. 
• A central way we make class disappear is to describe virtually everyone as “middle class.”  
• A recent Bloomberg story quoted an amusement park worker earning $ 22,000 a year and a lawyer with an annual income of $ 200,000, both calling themselves middle class.
• The working class is wise to such people: to working-class minds, lawyers (and doctors and bankers) aren’t middle class. They are simply rich.
• Hard work for elites is associated with self-actualization; “disruption” means founding a successful start-up. Disruption, in working-class jobs, just gets you fired.
• Working-class African-Americans differ from whites in an important way: African-Americans understand the structural nature of inequality.  
• Remember: class isn’t just about money. Everything we do is class-marked. Especially today.  …• Today, the professional elite sends their kids to private schools, shops at Whole Foods, and reads Slate instead of watching Fox. 
• You can’t provide child care for your grandchildren via Skype.
• In the past three decades, college graduates’ earnings have climbed to 60% higher than those of high school graduates, but the proportion of Americans who completed four-year degrees has not risen substantially. A slight increase in the percentage of women who graduate was offset by a decrease in the percentage of men.  
• The American higher education system operates as a “caste system: it takes Americans who grew up in different social strata and it widens the divisions between them,” concludes public policy expert Suzanne Mettler. 
• Wage inequality has increased among college graduates. Today, a top-earning male college graduate earns 90% more than a low-earning one; in 1979, that figure was 60% for women and 70% for men.
• An increasing number of male college grads end up in low- or medium-skilled jobs.
• Elite kids’ Taylorized…  …leisure time helps them develop the skills required for white-collar jobs: how to “set priorities, manage an itinerary, shake hands with strangers, and work on a team,” “work smoothly with acquaintances…
• Nonelite women got more callbacks than the elite women. Class privilege helps men at work; it seems to hold women back. Why? Because elite women are seen as a “flight risk,” people who will opt out of work to engage in the all-or-nothing elite battle to get their kids into a top college.
• LET’S STATE RIGHT UP FRONT that racism is an issue in the white working class, and it goes back a long way.
• “[O]ne marker of having progressive politics is displaying oneself as antiracist, and this can, at times, unfortunately manifest as a demeaning of and distancing from white working-class people, who are constructed as stupid and racist.”
• The Workplace Experiences Survey shows that not only people of color but also women and individuals with disabilities report they have to prove themselves over and over again, much more so than majority men. Addressing prove-it-again bias through structural reforms will level the playing field for everyone.  
• Many working-class women have the same kinds of pink-collar jobs their mothers did, but their husbands don’t have the blue-collar jobs their fathers did.
• “We laugh about how white perpetrators of mass murders manage to be captured alive time and time again,” wrote a friend describing her reading group of 12 black women, while African-Americans meet death at the hands of the police for selling cigarettes.
• At the same time, police have a stressful and dangerous job, and most work hard to do a tough job well. We need to change destructive organizational cultures in both the military and the police, but at the same time we must respect the women and men who do the difficult and dangerous jobs that keep the rest of us safe.

Here are a few key points I highlighted from the book:

  • This book is about one thing: the white working class.
  • And, helping us think about the white working class.
  • the white-working class has felt betrayed and abandoned. 
  • Maybe the dominant concern in the book – what about the lesser-educated? (And, the lesser-educated you will always have with you)
  • two-thirds of Americans don’t have college degrees).
  • The “plight” of the white working class:
  • The typical white working-class household income doubled in the three decades after World War II but has not risen appreciably since.
  • The death rate for white working-class men—and women—aged 45-54 increased substantially between 1993 and 2013.
  • Front and center with these concerns:
  • There are two reasons I think we have to try to replace it with a healthier one. The first is ethical: I am committed to social equality, not for some groups but for all groups. The second is strategic: the hidden injuries of class now have become visible in politics so polarized that our democracy is threatened.
  • Why Does the Working Class Resent the Poor?
  • the poor got health insurance, while some Americans just a tiny bit better off saw their premiums rise.
  • subsidies are largely nonexistent for the middle class. — 30% of poor families get subsidies; very few working-class families do (about 3%).
  • For working-class Americans, maintaining two full-time jobs and a settled life is a significant achievement, one that takes unrelenting drive and rigorous self-discipline.
  • A word about Religion differences:
  • “set in cement” vs. find your own “mixture” (on pursuit of “self-actualization”)
  • Looking down on religion is a commonplace form of modern snobbery.
  • Why do elites seek out novelty while the working class seeks out stability? For one thing, elites can afford it—
  • “What do you do?” – the question not to ask the working-class person…
  • “What do you do?” question to a classmate. The classmate’s face got very red as he came right up into Jim’s face and hissed, “I sell toilets.” — This helps explain why, in working-class communities, attention often shifts from what one does to who one is—to character. 
  • Order Givers vs. Order Takers
  • The professional-class values of sophistication, boundary breaking, and creativity are all useful for getting and keeping a job if you’re an order giver who has to signal initiative.
  • Working-class whites value stability and dependability—dispositions useful for getting and keeping a job if you’re an order taker.

And, I always end my synopses with my lessons and takeaways for the book.  Here are my five lessons and takeaways from this book:

#1 – There are deep and abiding class differences between groups in the United States.  We need to learn what these are, and how to recognize them.
#2 – Two thirds of the people in the United States do not have a college degree; and that number will most likely never change.  We have to think about the needs of, the fears of, and the realities facing, the lesser-educated.
#3 – Yes, there is racism; and sexism; among the white working class. We have to learn how to communicate in the midst of this reality.
#4 – We all need to engage in a little more consciousness-raising and empathy building.  Exposure to books like this can help.
#5 – We must beware of any kind of rejection of a whole class of people. This includes being aware of the dangers of ridicule; condescension; and condemnation.

I think our country is undergoing some changes, and something of a reckoning.  This is one of quite a few books I would recommend that you read to understand what we are facing at thise moment in our country.


  • For further reading:

This article from the Harvard Business Review went viral, and provided the foundation for this book:  What So Many People Don’t Get About the U.S. Working Class by Joan C. Williams.

The Urban Engagement Book Club meets every third Thursday.  We are currently meeting over Zoom, at 12:30pm, for these sessions.  Click here to see the line-up of books for the remainder of 2021.

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