Race and The Unavoidable Illusion of Ehrenreich’s Working-Class Persona

In last semester’s 20th Century British Literature class, we repeatedly discussed the class division and tension in British society and how it came to a head specifically in the Thatcher era. We mentioned how it’s something of a badge of honor there to be a member of the working-class, to be a union worker and a Northerner, for example. In the midst of this debate, the comment was made that class does not have as much weight attached to it in New York or in the US in general, and that people here tend to strive for and include themselves within the middle-class.

Though I agree with the latter part of this statement, the first part sat with me the wrong way. It took an entirely white-centric approach to viewing class, and seemed to relegate the obvious general class divide between ethnic minorities and middle-class whites in New York to simply a matter of that—ethnicity and race. Barbara Ehrenreich’s dismissal of NYC and LA as appropriate settings for her experiment, therefore, struck a certain chord with me. It was a smart observation, because it identified the correlation between race and class in the city. Implied within this, more importantly, was a general understanding that surfaces a number of times throughout the introduction and first chapter: that she was never going to truly experience “the bottom,” and that—for reasons even beyond her education—she was always going to be a step ahead of somebody.

In the context of the startling statistics and experiences that Ehrenreich introduces very quickly, the extent of the “unskilled” workers’ struggle becomes magnified for minorities. Though she doesn’t focus on this angle of poverty too much, it is certainly palpable in the way she describes the West Indian workers. There is the one noteworthy instance where Stu, the manager, assumes a sort of white bond and begins to spew xenophobic rants that most likely are influenced by the workers’ race as much as their immigrant status. The living conditions that Ehrenreich reports for the West Indians are perhaps a bit more crammed and unfavorable than the rest of the already poor situations of her fellow employees.

It’s interesting to consider the context of these conditions with the point that Ehrenreich makes not longer afterwards, that she had allowed herself a “start-up cost fund of $1300. As mentioned before, this money belongs to her for several different reasons; her education and job likely are more responsible for her having this “fund” than her race or her citizenship. In the context of the immigrant workers (especially black immigrants), we must consider that they are not only operating in a meritocratic and capitalistic system but one that is still imbued with racial and ethnic undertones. Add in the fact that they are likely not coming from any sort of wealth in their home country (which usually motivates migration), as well as the difficulty that Ehrenreich herself had with finding a reasonably cheap and convenient living space, and you begin to really wonder how even that first part, the start-up money that she maybe even takes for granted a little bit, could even be possible for the migrants. If the rest of the book keeps on a similar trajectory and her struggles continue, the effect of this struggle can be compounded for the people we know are living even worse off.

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One thought on “Race and The Unavoidable Illusion of Ehrenreich’s Working-Class Persona

  1. Good point. It’s often said that, in the US, “race is the modality by which class is lived/experienced.” And I think you’re saying something similar. And this presents challenges, and always has, for labor and political movements trying to build solidarity/consciousness around class when “class” doesn’t exist for folks in nearly as a powerful and emotionally resonant a way as race/ethnicity/language/culture.

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