from the archives

The Souls of (Lower-Middle-Class) White Folk

Photo: New York Magazine

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the September 15, 1969, issue of New York. We are republishing a selection of Gloria Steinem’s writing from our archive to celebrate her 90th birthday.

This country gave a chance to immigrants like me [or my parents, or my grandparents]. ‘Don’t knock it.’
A man might get drunk once in a while, or hit his wife. But a man pays his bills. A man never goes on welfare. 

New is good; old is bad. That goes for clothes (matching outfits for Easter Sunday and family weddings); also for wall-to-wall carpeting, all cars and TV sets, marriageable girls (who should be young and virginal), and family providers (if your living comes from muscle, you worry about age). 

It’s good to be a union man. The union takes care of its own. 

A man has to know how to fight. 

I don’t see the colored working like I work. N——s want something for nothing. 

Rich people can’t understand us. Most politicians are for rich people. 

Anybody who has lived in a “working-class” neighborhood (that is, among people who still have to make a living with their backs, not their educations) will recognize some or all of the above as Life’s Rules, each one as rationally supported by tradition and experience as anything the upper classes have produced. (Maybe more so. Among the factory workers of
Toledo, Ohio, where I grew up — as in Corona or Red Hook or any of the neighborhoods in Procaccino Country — people don’t get into bad moods for no reason. Irrationality is thought to be as much the mark of self-indulgent rich people as tennis, nap-taking, and psychoanalysis.) Traditionally, political scientists have left the study of such rules to the sociologists, lumping almost all of the white lower middle class together as “ethnics” who could be counted upon to bloc-vote for the Democrats and waiting patiently for the unseemly lower-class culture to disappear.

Probably they would still be waiting, were it not for two things: (1) the lower middle class is messing up the political scientists’ paternalistic plans to help and/or quiet down the Negroes. (“Those damn do-gooders,” said a Pittsburgh steelworker last week. “They want us to risk losing our jobs to Negroes, but they wouldn’t risk fat suburban property values by getting a colored family next door.”) (2) With their tax load going up, the dollar’s buying power going down, and more public sympathy going to blacks and students than to the struggling white worker, the “ethnics” are beginning to revolt, either by taking over the Democratic Party (locally, as with Procaccino, Yorty, and Maddox) or by defecting in sizable national chunks to the Republicans.

The last possibility, heralded by all Nixon’s campaign attention to the Forgotten American, has been expanded to a full battle plan by Kevin Phillips, young Nixonian intellectual now working in the Justice Department, in an obscure book called The Emerging Republican Majority. That is, it’s obscure in New York. In Washington, everybody in both parties is plowing through the demographic dullness that shows how the New Deal coalition can be realigned, leaving the young, the Blacks, and the Eastern liberals to the Democrats (Mein Kampf seems poorly thought out and idealistic by comparison) and making Republican much of the South and the heart-of-America white working class.

The South’s drift toward Republicanism isn’t in dispute. (The only difference of opinion among Democrats is that the Humphrey-Muskie camp still dreams of hanging on to the South, Kennedy-McCarthy-McGovern reformers are more willing, as Robert Kennedy said, “to write it off.”) Neither is the Democratic-last-resort of the Negroes or the young, whom the Republicans are even happier to write off. The swing group is the white lower middle class — “the blue-collar whites,” Kennedy called them — to whom he appealed, miraculously, almost as much as he did to the Blacks.

“I’ve come to the conclusion,” Robert Kennedy told reporter Jack Newfield in Indiana, “that poverty is closer to the root of the problem than color. I think there has to be a new kind of coalition to keep the Democratic Party going and to keep the country together … We have to write off the unions and the South now, and replace them with Negroes, blue-collar whites, and the kids … We have to convince the Negroes and poor whites that they have common interests. If we can reconcile those two hostile groups, and then add the kids, we can really turn this country around.”

Kennedy made that reconciliation almost by accident, through discovering that the potentially Republican or Wallace-ite working man and the Negro had the same reaction to his feisty, big-hearted Irish style that seemed to know what a life of drudgery, Black or white, was all about. There may be another such personal catalyst on the national scene, but no one’s counting on it. The hard work of presenting issues so that they are clear as the bedrock concerns of all the poor and working class hasn’t begun on a national level, and is just being talked about in New York.

Introducing natural allies is what the Mailer-Breslin slogan, “Power to the Neighborhoods!,” was meant to convey. It’s what the Black Panthers and some of the SDS theorists mean by a “coalition of the oppressed,” though God knows they have even more of an image problem, and therefore more trouble getting serious message across, than Mailer-Breslin. It’s probably what Herman Badillo had in mind (though he didn’t go too far with the risky Black-white coalition idea) when he talked about decentralization of the neighborhoods.

At the moment, it’s what’s in the planning stage at the New Democratic Coalition of New York State (that loose amalgam of Democratic reform clubs, welfare and community organizations, McCarthy and Kennedy people that numbers about 40,000 and, having given a shaky endorsement to Lindsay, is now deciding what kind of political role it will play). Like some of the NDCS in other states — Maryland, for instance — members here realize they must make white working-class coalitions if they aren’t to be isolated as a holier-than-thou pressure group. The question is how, and the thinking, though far from formalized, or even voted upon at the moment, goes like this:

(1) Stop turning everything into a Black-white referendum, thereby defeating the issue (Blacks aren’t going outnumber the opposition on much of anything by themselves) and ruining some perfectly good terms. “Police review board” was one. Whites would have benefited from the board, too, but liberals made it a pro-Black code phrase, then went self-righteously on about “backlash” when the predictable defeat arrived. “Decentralization” was another. Ocean Hill-Brownsville was never properly paired with a white neighborhood, and the press was at fault, too, for not publicizing what white experiments there were.

(2) Emphasize the issues that really concern the neighborhoods (essential services, pollution, transportation, small loans, credit, getting poor Polish and Italian kids, as well as Black and Puerto Rican ones, into state universities — the list is long and rewarding) and phrase those issues as the neighborhoods phrase them.

(3) A new awareness, a little “radicalizing” and education here and there. That means trying to remove the divisiveness of old issues (i.e., welfare isn’t the high-tax issue—the military is) and to research the real concerns under the racist code words. (“The working-class white man,” Pete Hamill explains, “does not care if a Black man gets a job in his union, as long as it does not mean the loss of his own job, or the small privileges and sense of self-respect. I mean it; I know these people, and know that they largely would not care what happens in the city, if what happens at least has the virtue of fairness.”)

It also means calling the bluff of divisive politicians like Procaccino, who have written off the Black vote. (But not the Puerto Rican vote. Procaccino knows, even if Lindsay does not, that many Puerto Ricans are incipient Italians-Catholic, conservative, worried about a Black takeover in their schools.) And it means calling the bluff of politicians who, like Procaccino, offer lower-middle-class whites the exquisite pleasure of being betrayed by one of their own. Most of all, it means a large turning-around of liberal heads inside the NDC and elsewhere.

Lindsay aides are reported to talk about “forcing integrated housing projects down the throats of” white working-class neighborhoods — something they wouldn’t think of saying if it involved Blacks.

Political and commercial structures that benefit, indirectly or otherwise, by the divisions of the working class and poor— say, Albany and the real-estate firms — are not going to give up easily.

“It’s like asking Jewish liberals to forgive the people who called them ‘Christ-killers’ when they were growing up,” said one doubtful NDC member, as he helped plan a big conference on this subject to be held in a white Brooklyn high school in December.

“It’s worse than that for the rest of us,” said another. “It’s like asking us to forgive our working-class parents — to go home again.”

The Souls of (Lower-Middle-Class) White Folk