Down Under and Forgotten
Vintage, 251 pp. $1.50
I first met Mike Dombrowski when we caddied together at a Chicago country club in the summer of '68. Now Mike shovels coke for $2.88 an hour at the big U.S. Steel South Works plant in South Chicago. Current sociology tells us that Mike should be "embourgeoised", satisfied with his job, bought off by the great material advances of the post-Depression era.
But Mike hates his work. It's monotonous, and it simply doesn't pay--Mike's real wages, never high, are declining because of inflation. Like most young workers, he is resigned to the draft. Air pollution from the mills will get him if the draft doesn't.
He spends his spare time working on cars: something that adds meaning to his life beyond going bowling and getting drunk on weekends. But he knows the same dead-end schools will educate his children, who will follow him into the mills just as he followed his father and grandfather. Which is as good a reason to get drunk as any.
The White Majority is a collection of essays about the Mike Dombrowskis of America, the blue- and white-collar workers of the white lower middle class. Caught between poverty and affluence, they are the forgotten Americans patronized by Richard Nixon and George Wallace.
The book builds to several conclusions: the white working class has been ignored by society, even by those who claim to be liberal. Partly for this reason and partly because of actual work and living conditions, the white majority is becoming alienated. This alienation is amorphous at present, but the anger it arouses could be a catalyst for basic change. The white working class is not the reactionary force it is sometimes portrayed as being, but barriers to class consciousness exist which presently hamper the possibility for widespread, socially beneficial activities.
Selections by columnist Pete Hamill and Yale political science student Michael Lerner show that little attention is paid to the white majority. Although television is finally beginning to portray blacks, the white working class is still on the outside looking in. Daddy always goes to the office, never the factory. Books and magazines similarly lack working class references. What few references exist are usually derogatory. ("Greasers" are Neanderthals and "dumb Polacks" have replaced "coons" as the butt of jokes). An uninitiated observer would think that the American people are either suburban white professionals or inner-city blacks.
Such general cultural oversight is mirrored by a lack of understanding in academic and administrative circles. Lerner's article, "Respectable Bigotry", shows how academic liberals serenely espouse a double standard; empathizing with blacks and proud of their own lack of racism, their understanding seems to disappear as they sneer at police and factory workers as 'fascist pigs' and 'ethnics'. Black dialect is 'cool', while white ethnics are inarticulate fools.
These attitudes have vast implications. The liberal reformer's preoccupation with blacks further alienates working class whites who have very real problems of their own. The white majority sees programs established to send blacks to college while their own kids attend the same rotting urban school systems--but go straight into the factories. That the promises of such programs for blacks greatly exceed the results is not well publicized. The white majority sees itself as being alternately ignored and sneered at by those in power.
The combination of such treatment with the conditions of working-class work and life is what alienates the white majority. The illusion of an affluent society mocks members of the white majority whose real wages are falling, who are getting deeper in debt, and who face a lifetime on an assembly line or in a mechanical white collar job.
Industrial capitalism gives no meaning to work; factories are hierarchical and not democratically administered. One of the demands in last year's auto strike was that a group of men be allowed to construct an entire car together instead of each having to tighten one bolt on an assembly line. Only 21 per cent of steelworkers interviewed in a study for the book said they would keep the same job if they could start all over. Such people are coming to see little future for their children. Mike Dombrowski is the third generation of his family to work for U.S. Steel.
Youthful members of the white majority are becoming particularly alienated, for while their fathers may have been content with the security of a steady job, they have not experienced a depression. They look with horror at the prospect of forty years of bolt-tightening and shoveling. Drugs, long hair and other forms of middle class alienation are spreading to the working class. More substantially, wild-cat striking and rejection of union negotiated cantracts have been rising exponentially in recent years, actions primarily initiated by young workers.
This alienation suggests the possibility of massive social change, but the reaction thus far seems to be largely inchoate and sometimes misdirected. Several reasons for the weakness of class consciousness are imbedded in the structure and ethos of American society.
The primary reason is the American egalitarian ideology. Several studies in The White Majority show how workers believe in social mobility and tend to blame themselves rather than the system for their lack of status, wealth and power. Even though the hypothesis of such social mobility contradicts the white majority's everyday reality, the old myths die hard. The widespread beliefs that America is an open society where everyone has an equal chance and that failure is because of individual weakness and not system bias greatly impede working-class development and militant action. Thus is the system constantly reinforced. Horatio Alger has been replaced by John Wayne, but the concept still remains. If you're tough and resourceful, you will succeed. Failure is your own fault.
Faith in individualism is reflected in the lack of organization among the white majority. Only about 25 per cent of the work force is unionized, primarily in the blue-collar mass production sector. This degree of unionization is one of the lowest in the West. White-collar clerical, governmental and other service positions, filled primarily by the white majority and in an expanding sector of the economy, have resisted unionization almost totally. Although recent improvements in organization in this sector have been evidenced by wild-cat police and postal worker strikes, much work needs to be done.
The primary evil of this lack of organization is the absence of a more militant class consciousness; it has other implications as well. The strong mass production unions are able to win wage increases from the power structure. But the industries in question--auto, steel--consist of powerful oligopolies who simply shift wage increases into price increases paid by consumers. As consumers are workers and lower class people during off-hours, the only income distribution that occurs is a shift from the unorganized to the organized working-class sectors. The ruling class simply acts as a transfer agent, profits being the price of the transaction.
Although racism on the part of the white majority is exaggerated, (in the words of Brendon Sexton, a contributor to The White Majority, "Big factories are probably the most integrated work-places in society"), it is still present. But it is present as a result of social-economic conditions. Scapegoating gives a perverted sense of status and meaning to the lives of many steel-workers. In addition, the often tenuous economic position of the white majority is thought to be threatened by black advances. It is easier to direct alienation against what seems to be a visible threat than to confront the more fundamental but also more remote and impersonal capitalist power structure.
The reasons given above illustrate why the increasing alienation of the white majority has not resulted in a cohesive attack on the social-economic system that causes that alienation. But the belief in many quarters that the white majority is totally reactionary and impotent is far off the mark.
Labor unions are the most powerful institutional force on the left in America today. Powerful labor support for civil rights legislation and the Haynsworth and Carswell defeats indicate an openness for reform action. Labor support for the Indochina war is more a function of loyalty to labor's dying sons than it is support for an imperialistic foreign policy. McGeorge Bundy and Lyndon Johnson started the war, not Walter Reuther or George Meany.
Members of the academic community and others on the left have a key responsibility in effecting a change of white majority consciousness. We must demonstrate that the existing social-economic system is the cause of working class alienation. The cure is not Nixon or Wallace but a socialistic participatory democracy. Organizational work must be done in blue-collar communities to achieve this goal.
Working class people must first be seen as individuals and not stereotyped as hopeless, ignorant racists. The greatest virtue of The White Majority is its portrayal of the actual life-style of the white working class--one very distant from Harvard's. In the words of Gene Cappelli, a 29-year-old hospital attendent who makes $101 a week to support a family of four, "If a lot of these higher-up people discussed some of this and tried to see it like the lower class people, it might help."
Capelli deserves an answer and a commitment, for if change comes to America, it will come not only for impoverished blacks and alienated students. It will also come for Polish steel-workers like Mike Dombrowski, people who face a shit-shoveling steel mill life, without hope for a tomorrow different from today. We can't just help the oppressed of our choosing.