The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association

Middle-Class Poverty:
Race- and Class-Passing Within White America
By Thandeka

September/October 1999

Back Issues
World home page

also related:
White Privilege or White Middle-Class Poverty?


Most middle-class Americans are class-passing by pretending to be what they’re not: well-off. They live in houses they can’t afford, drive cars they don’t own, and wear clothes they’ve bought on credit. Worse yet, toward the end of each pay period, many use their charge cards to buy food. My term for their condition is middle-class poverty. This late-20th century phenomenon has crippled the American soul.

No one has tallied the price for the appearance of upper-middle-class respectability more precisely than Harvard economist and social critic Juliet B. Schor, author of The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer. Schor notes that if debts are subtracted from assets, the typical middle-class American household has a net worth of less than $10,000. This doesn’t give a family a lot to fall back on if its wage earners lose their jobs, a frequent occurrence in an era of corporate downsizing. To make matters worse, 25 to 30 percent of these households are living from paycheck to paycheck; and a third of the families with college-educated heads have no savings whatever. Yet they go on spending as if their lives depended on it. Why? To hide what Schor calls the “dirty little secret of American society”: that not everyone has made it into the middle class. 

Of course, Schor is talking here about white Americans. It’s no secret that most members of America’s marginalized racial groups aren’t middle class. In short, America’s “dirty little secret” refers to something whites are hiding from each other, since whites and not blacks or other racialized minorities in this country are supposed to be middle-class as a racial entitlement. In fact, in her essay “Whiteness as Property” legal scholar Cheryl L. Harris identifies this entitlement to middle-class economic status as the “core characteristic of whiteness.” 

Schor is not so racially blunt. She simply notes that people who have achieved this class status often impoverish themselves to maintain it because class background and income level affect not only the obvious—if and where you go to college, the quality of your children’s elementary school, the kind of job you get —but also your likelihood of getting heart disease, the way you talk, and how respectfully you’re treated by others. . . . At all levels, a structure of inequality injects insecurity and fear into our psyches. The penalties of dropping down are perhaps the most powerful psychological hooks that keep us keeping up, even as the heights get dizzying.

But this class fear of “dropping down” is also a race fear because in America, social distinctions function as a race scale. Looking like a “poor white” in this country usually carries a racial stigma. Thus middle-class whites who overspend to create the illusion of economic success and stability are, in effect, not only class-passing but also race-passing. This becomes even clearer when we consider what it really means to race-pass.

“Race-passing” in traditional American parlance refers to someone’s attempt to shift the public perception of her or his racial identity. In “Whiteness as Property” Cheryl L. Harris tells the story of her African American grandmother, who had “fair skin, straight hair, and aquiline features” and presented herself as a white woman in order to get a job as a sales clerk in a major Chicago retail store. This act of passing had a certain “economic logic,” Harris writes, for being white automatically ensured higher economic returns in the short term, as well as greater economic, political and social security in the long run. Becoming white meant gaining access to a whole set of public and private privileges that guaranteed basic subsistence needs and, therefore, survival. Becoming white increased the possibility of controlling critical aspects of one’s life rather than being the object of another’s domination. 

But Harris’s grandmother paid a high price for the “privilege” of being thought of as white: she lost the sense of a core self (that is, one’s sense of personal history, coherence, and integrity) as a result of having to listen without protest to her white co-workers’ and customers’ remarks against black Americans. Harris says that by remaining silent in the face of these remarks, her grandmother risked “self-annihilation” to ensure her economic survival. In short, the price of whiteness for Harris’s grandmother was “complicit[y] in her own oppression.” 

Two main themes in this story of Harris’s grandmother—her public desire for a better socioeconomic position and the price she had to pay for it in personal integrity—have parallels in the lives of many middle-class whites. Let’s first take class inequality and the resulting desire to move up in class. As Schor writes in The Overspent American, the “classless-society and end-of-ideology literature of twenty-five years ago turns out to have been wishful thinking.” To make it today into one of the few slots open at the top, one must look, act, speak, and dress according to the standards of the upper-middle-class. Taste, Schor notes, “has economic ramifications. You can blow a job interview by exhibiting improper table manners at lunch, wearing the wrong outfit, or using language inappropriate to the station to which you are aspiring. Cultural capital can be used by those on the higher rungs of the ladder to devalue those below.” 

But what about the price that Harris’s grandmother paid in damage to her self? To see the parallels here will require us to get into American social history. Specifically, we need to learn how the European worker in America was forced to become white or perish.

Our story begins in 19th century America, when most of the country’s industrial workers were European immigrants learning their first lessons in being white. The teachers were their bosses, and the lessons were painfully simple for these workers: all they had to do was forget their native languages, cultures, and traditions.  They had to, in a word, assimilate. 

Until recently, the racial element of their assimilation has been hidden because of an error made by America’s labor historians that Herbert G. Gutman and Ira Berlin identify in their essay “Class Composition and the Development of the American Working Class, 1840-1890.” Before Gutman and Berlin, most American labor historians had reduced two stages in labor history to one. According to Gutman and Berlin, the first stage began during the American Revolution and ended during the 1840s, while the second stage took place between 1840 and World War I. Using statistical analysis, they show that in the second stage, unlike the first, at least three-quarters of the country’s industrial workers were immigrants or the children of immigrants—not, as labor historians had assumed, white Americans whose families have lived on this continent for several generations. 

Gutman and Berlin thus opened a historical window, and looking through it they saw, among other things, a long history of attacks on the immigrants’ culture and character that had the exact feel of racism. A few examples:

• In 1859, the Jersey City American Standard called Irishmen who were demanding wages due them from the Erie Railroad “animals” and “a mongrel mass of ignorance and crime and superstition, as utterly unfit for its dues, as they are for the common courtesies and decencies of civilized life.”

•  In 1869, the Scientific American told the “ruder” laborers of Europe who were welcomed to American shores that if they did not “assimilate” quickly, they would face a “quiet but sure extermination.” Indeed, they must change their ways or “share the fate of the native Indian.” 

•  In the mid-1870s, the Chicago Post-Mail characterized its city’s Bohemian immigrants as “depraved beasts, harpies, decayed physically and spiritually, mentally and morally, thievish and licentious,” while the Chicago Tribune granted striking immigrant brickmakers the status of “men” but denied them the status of “reasoning creatures.” 

•  During this same time period, the Chicago Times complained that the country had become “the cess-pool of Europe under the pretense that it is the asylum of the poor.”  It characterized the city’s Slavic inhabitants as descendants of Scythians, “eaters of raw animal food, fond of drinking the blood of their enemies whom they slew in battle, and [men] who preserved as trophies the scalps and skins of enemies whom they overthrew.” And again there was talk of extermination: “Let us whip these slavic wolves back to the European dens from which they issue, or in some way exterminate them.”

The message to the immigrants was clear. Their wages, work conditions, and the use of armed force to put down their labor protests gave a hint of what lay in store for them if they refused the demand that they assimilate. If more hints were needed, these immigrants had only to think of the genocidal treatment of Native Americans and the ongoing lynchings, degradation, ridicule, and violence to which the so-called Negro was subjected as one also deemed to be mentally and morally unfit, thievish, and licentious.

With their talk of animality and uncivilized ways and their calls for mass extermination, the newspaper stories cited above certainly bore the taint of racial hatred. And the immigrants got the message: assimilate or die. Yet for many, assimilation itself represented a kind of death. One immigrant quoted in W.I. Thomas’s 1921 book Old World Traits Transplanted says, “I have been successful. I have property. My children have superior advantages. But I have lost my life.” 

Thomas goes on to explain that the immigrant’s loss involved the “memories of his home conditions, of leisure and festivities, of joys and sorrows shared by an intimate group.” For the first-generation immigrant, Thomas concludes, success can never be complete because he knows what he has lost cannot be recouped: his place in a pre-immigration world of values an esteemed member of his own community. 

These people were colored olive, sallow, peaches and cream. And though assimilation would color them white, the memories they lost weren’t racial but ethnic, not white but Irish, Italian, Slavic, German, Catholic, Jewish, Russian. Their religious and cultural values affirmed a world of relationships that could not be reduced to commercial interests and gain. 

Not surprisingly, in the process of forgetting their pre-whited selves they began to lose the old-world values that transcended the industrial workplace and its requirements for things like sobriety, punctuality, and docility. Gutman in his book Work, Culture, and Society in Industrializing America chronicles their resistance to the racialized procedure of turning them into industrial workers. Male factory workers in Medford, Massachusetts, for example, quit en masse when they were refused grog privileges. Among Philadelphia ironworkers at the rural Hopewell Village forge, absenteeism was rampant: “hunting, harvesting, wedding parties, frequent ‘frolicking’ that sometimes lasted for days, and uproarious Election and Independence Day celebrations plagued the mill operators.” In the diary of one New Jersey iron manufacturer were such entries as “all hands drunk,” “molders all agree to quit work and went to the beach,” “Peter Cox very drunk and gone to bed,” and “Edward Rutter off a-drinking.” 

Such behavior was typical of first-generation factory workers, native or foreign-born. Work that was routinized and performed without regard to the worker’s mood, and kept discrete from his or her personal interests, family life, and values was alien to pre-industrial peasants. They thus had to learn to separate work from pleasure, means from ends, life and values from the pay envelope. To conform, they had to participate in their own cultural demise. This was the price for white American privilege.

For relief, these newly whited workers gave birth to America’s first national cultural institution: the blackface minstrel show. We should not be surprised by this connection. If European peasants were going to be transformed into white American industrial workers, the premodern self with its pre-industrial desires for things like freedom, enjoyment, control over one’s life, and meaningful work had to be suppressed and thus had to be thought loathsome. 

In the blackface minstrel shows, the lynched desires of premodern European American and immigrant workers thus met the image of the African American, who was permanently locked out of modern America as a thing to be despised. The European workers used the black image to recover feelings that were now “inappropriate” for them as whites but for them as pre-whites had been the hallmarks of their humanity: sensuality, sexuality, free play, whimsy, the premodern home.

When the minstrels blackened up and pretended to be who the workers actually were before their uncomfortable whitening, the workers could simultaneously experience and deprecate their own ethnic feelings. Chronicling this new cultural form that swept the nation, social historian Robert C. Toll reports that night after night, the industrial worker would sit in the audience with other male members of his class and watch self-announced “white” men who had used greasepaint and burnt cork to blacken their faces and hands, put wool on their heads and bulging false eyeballs over their eyes, wore gigantic, elongated shoes with flapping soles, constructed wide, flat noses for their faces, and created carnivorously cavernous mouths with dangling lower lips. Toll adds that minstrels playing black urban dandies with names like Zip Coon or Count Julius Caesar Mars Napoleon Sinclair Brown wore “skintight ‘trousaloons,’ a long-tailed coat with padded shoulders, a high ruffled collar, white gloves, an eye-piece, and a long watch chain, [and like] ‘Dandy Broadway Swells’ . . . preened and pranced across the minstrel stage on their way to ‘De Colored Fancy Ball’ and their other continual parties.” 

The playbills for the shows, as labor historian David R. Roediger notes in The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, “continually featured paired pictures of the performers in blackface and without makeup–rough and respectable, black and white.” In fact, Roediger points out that the European American blackface entertainers were the first performers in the world to present themselves on stage as self-consciously white, as opposed to, say, German or Italian. This was something new in social history.

A hundred years ago, driven by shame, the new industrial workers played black in order to become white. In late 20th-century America, their descendants are pretending to be white and, not surprisingly, feeling like great pretenders. An example: In The Culture of Shame, psychoanalytic theorist Andrew P. Morrison presents a classic account of the self-annihilation entailed in passing in his case study of a “Mr. Relling,” who, writes Morrison, “felt great shame and humiliation over his ethnic background, and expended much effort trying to present himself as a WASP from a prominent lineage.” Morrison adds that Mr. Relling told him

how ashamed both of his parents had been about their ethnic origins, how both had changed their names—including his mother’s middle name, which she altered to suggest a shared lineage with a prominent Yankee politician. “How could I do otherwise?” he lamented. 

Mr. Relling, as someone with immigrant roots, felt ashamed that he wasn’t white enough, and thus he had to construct a fictive identity that would allow him, in essence, to race-pass as a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant.

A second example: Social scientists Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb in their 1972 book The Hidden Injuries of Class attempted to explain the inner turmoil of ethnic blue and white-collar workers, one of whom they describe as follows:

Frank Rissaro [a pseudonym], a third-generation Italian-American, forty-four years old when we talked with him, had worked his way up from being a shoeshine boy at the age of nine to classifying loan applications in a bank. He makes $10,000 a year, owns a suburban home, and every August rents a small cottage in the country. He is a man who at first glance appears satisfied—“I know I did a good job in my life”—and yet he is also a man who feels defensive about his honor, fearing that people secretly do not respect him; he feels threatened by his children, who are “turning out just the way I want them to be,” and he runs his home in a dictatorial manner. . . . [Rissaro also] feels passive in the midst of his success because he feels illegitimate, a pushy intruder, in his entrance to the middle-class world of neat suburban lawns, peaceable families, happy friendships. Despite the fact that he has gained entrée, he doesn’t believe he deserves to be respected.

In Frank Rissaro and other whited ethnic workers, Sennett and Cobb discovered what they call a “hidden anxiety” stemming from the workers’ belief that they aren’t fit even for the modest rung they have attained on the American ladder of success. The two social scientists call the social environment that produces this anxiety “a morality of shaming and self-doubt” and argue that it makes the workers feel they have no one to blame for their failures except themselves.  Much to Sennett and Cobb’s chagrin, the workers accept the arbitrary limits on how high a status they can attain as legitimate—even though they also disapprove of the division of America into the haves and have-nots. 

While the two social scientists discovered that the workers used a strategy of “self-accusation,” which led them to reason, “If only I had been a better person, I could have made it,” they report that the workers also know that they never had a chance. Sennett and Cobb conclude that these workers have internalized their class and mirror internally the class structure in which they live, which offers no respect for those at the bottom. An internal class war is thus being waged inside workers who damn themselves for being workers. 

Sennett and Cobb, however, miss a crucial point when they fail to note the white racial identities of these workers. They do note that urban renewal projects have intruded into these workers’ “ethnic” enclaves and stripped them of their local church, ethnic political machine, and other traditional institutions that gave each neighborhood its own particular cultural and ethnic signature as well as its political clout in the larger white world. But they fail to notice that these workers, their ethnic communities crumbling, have been forced to become white. Instead, they suggest that this “forced integration” in which the Irish or Poles or other ethnic groups were melded into one group has resulted in their becoming “laborers” or “workers,” a new identity that is shameful and humiliating for these men because they lost their ethnic “specialness.” The end result of this homogenization, Sennett and Cobb argue, is thus an “average” unexceptional American. Not quite.

For if these workers were not white, they would not have been able to get housing in the white residential area where they now live as “Americans.” Their ethnicity plays no role in their ability to fit in there. Rather, they are newly “whited” workers—at least a part of them is. And this is, of course, the problem. Part of them is white, and part of them is “ethnic” (hence Frank Rissaro’s description of himself as an intruder in his own suburban neighborhood). Sennett and Cobb also note that the bosses of these workers and the schoolteachers of the workers’ children humiliate them because they lack the “privileges high culture bestows.” They have made material gains that are supposed to “melt” them into the American middle class, but they are continually barraged with “impudent snobbery,” “shaming,” and “putdown.” This abuse is meted out because these workers are not white enough. 

Without fully realizing it, Sennett and Cobb give a vivid example of this ethnic rating system that determines racial standing within white America when they describe a class at a school attended by white workers’ children:

In this class there were two children, Frank and Vincent, whose appearance was somewhat different from that of the others: their clothes were no fancier than the other children’s, but they were pressed and seemed better kept; in a class of mostly dark Italian children, these were the fairest-skinned. From the outset the teacher singled out these two children, implying that they most closely approached his own standards for classroom performance. To them he spoke with a special warmth in his voice. He never praised them openly by comparison to the other children, but a message that they were different, were better, was spontaneously conveyed. As [an] observer watched the children play and work over the course of the school year, he noticed these two boys becoming more serious, more solemn, as the months passed. Obedient and never unruly from the first, by the end of the year they were left alone by the other children.

In this passage Sennett and Cobb have described the teacher’s racial child abuse of his darker students, whose appearance did not fit into color and neatness categories that mark off a racial pecking order. But they miss the racial component of the teacher’s behavior and of the middle-class culture it exemplifies, and thus they never fully understand the structure and nature of the “identity crisis” they observed in the suburban workers, who are now “trying to find out what position they occupy in America as a whole.”

Sennett and Cobb do not seem to realize it, but they’ve uncovered a white ethnic identity crisis as well as a class crisis in these lives of these workers, who feel racial shame about having been turned into whites who are not white enough to merit more respect. Norman Podhoretz, the neoconservative pundit and editor-at-large of Commentary magazine, describes the same predicament in his autobiographical book Making It. Making it, for Podhoretz, meant faking it. Becoming, in his words, a “facsimile WASP.” Why? Because it was demanded by the American reality he faced as a lower-class Jewish student from Brooklyn who wanted the class privileges of gentile American high culture. But learning to be a facsimile WASP also meant learning to be ashamed of his parents’—and his own—Eastern European Jewish manners, mannerisms, speech patterns, and lifestyle. 

Podhoretz is hardly alone in this. Race-passing for European Americans almost always entails the destruction of their ethnic identities. For most European Americans, then, becoming white designates both a class (upper-middle) and an ethnic group (Anglo-Saxon). And “dropping down” from this ideal means reverting to a non-Anglo, low-class type—the kind vilified in the 19th century popular press as the non-acculturated, lower-class European immigrant.

Most European Americans are thus forced to pass as a class or ethnic type they’re not. The compulsion comes not only from economic inequalities, as Juliet Schor argues, but also from ethnic shame fueled by a history of racial derision aimed at the European immigrants and their progeny who wouldn’t or couldn’t conform to the rules of whiteness. 

And if these immigrants needed a further reminder of what would happen to them if they didn’t become white, they had only to review the fate of most Native and African Americans. The irony, of course, is that today’s overspenders are neither wealthy nor white enough to make the grade. The tragedy is that they impoverish themselves and thus turn themselves into yet another group of race victims in white America.

What can Unitarian Universalists do to help end middle-class poverty in white America?

First, read. Start reading groups in your local congregations that will help you figure out how to talk sensibly about the links between race-passing and class-passing. Learn how the creation of the so-called “white” was a means to exploit the labor of the newly whited worker. Discover what white Americans have in common with other people of color and work on a new vocabulary that takes into account the fact that the racial socialization process in this country tends to make racial victims of us all.

Second, empathize. Learn to replace moral judgment with loving compassion. All of us have made decisions and acted in ways that compromise our moral integrity in order to “make it” in white America. Bring the message home to your own congregation. Use our collective power as a religious movement to help us heal our crippled ability to relate with the full integrity of our humanity. Create new rituals in your Sunday services that allow you and other congregation members to feel the healing power of a beloved community as you face the real fears and vulnerabilities you hide when you race-pass and class-pass. Create lay-led services that talk about why people resort to race- and class-passing. Form support groups to do this work in your congregation.

Third, act. Using your new vocabulary and your enhanced ability to empathize, add a social-action component to your reading and support groups. Work with other such groups on local problems like inadequate schools or public services—problems that people often ignore when they’re spending their energy on race- and class-passing. 

We have the power to transform America through such work. All we need is the moral courage to practice what we preach: the congregational polity that makes possible interdependent communities and the UU purposes and principles that call upon each of us to affirm the value, dignity, and worth of us all.

Thandeka is associate professor of theology and culture at Meadville/Lombard Theological School. This article is adapted from her new book Learning to Be White (Continuum, 1999), which is available from the UUA Bookstore.

Back Issues
Send a Letter to the Editor
Subscribe to World

World magazine is the journal of the

Unitarian Universalist Association
25 Beacon Street, Boston, MA 02108 -- Telephone (617) 742-2100 -- Fax (617) 367-3237

Mailbox Information

This page was last updated November 4, 1999 by the World webmistress.
All material copyright © 1999, Unitarian Universalist Association
There have been accesses to this page since September 3, 1999
Address of this page: