Issue #143, September/October 2005
Class Ties That Bind
Review by Kim Fellner
Class Matters: Cross-Class Alliance Building for Middle-Class Activists, by Betsy Leondar-Wright. New Society Publishers, 2005, 192 pp. $18.95 (paperback).
Just as I was completing this book review, Hurricane Katrina blew into all of our lives, catapulting class and race from the political margins into the national headlines. The message was writ large for all to see: Class matters. In fact your life may depend on it. Being poor and black at the same time can out and out kill you. Even in 2005. Even or maybe particularly in America.
That brutal truth about class, especially where it intersects with race, is not explicit in Betsy Leondar-Wright’s fine primer, Class Matters: Cross-Class Alliance Building for Middle-Class Activists. However, the book does much to elucidate the rocky terrain of class, especially on its borderlands with race, gender and sexual orientation. In fact, to a large extent, it treats class itself as an identity, thus offering a different approach to the classic left dispute between those claiming that class trumps identity or vice-versa. Traditional class determinists including plenty of community and union organizers argue that class unites while racial and sexual identities divide; ergo throw your identity baggage into the corner and make a common class interest your focal point. Leondar-Wright suggests that class is in itself an identity that can divide people as well as unite them; and although it is easier to change one’s class than one’s race or gender, it’s still much rarer than American mythology would have us believe. The book expands this concept with sample discussion group and workshop outlines that probe how we identify along class lines, and how that affects our relationships and political work much as “diversity training” has been applied to explore our other personal identifications and their political implications.
I suspect Class Matters will be most useful to young, white, emerging activists, and perhaps to those middle-classers who are called to the work in middle age. Its language is accessible, its layout appealing, and it candidly probes the real-life challenges so many of us face as we try to turn our passion for justice into effective practice in cross-class, multiracial situations. The overview clearly sets out the class definitions that inform the book, and a section entitled “Some Places We Meet,” tackles the tough interfaces between middle-class activists and working-class and low-income colleagues in community organizing, union work, environmental justice coalitions and election campaigns.
Although some pieces felt too short to properly tell their stories, many rang true with my personal experiences over decades as a labor staffer and community organizer. One piece about the heated confrontations in 2000 between progressive supporters of Al Gore and Ralph Nader recalled the vigorous debates we had among ourselves at the National Organizers Alliance. Of our small staff, the split was largely generational, with younger staff favoring the Greens and claiming no difference between the Republicans and the Democrats. But among my African American colleagues, none felt they could afford to waste their vote on Nader when the consequences of having Bush as president were so clearly dire; Nader support was viewed as a luxury of the privileged, whose lives were less at risk. Similarly, many of my colleagues felt that the ability of young, white, global justice activists to roam around the country from one protest to another was also a mark of privilege too often unacknowledged. It caused me an uncomfortable flashback to my college protest days during the Vietnam War, when I confronted my father about why he and everyone else weren’t out there on the streets. “Your mother and I work day and night so you can run around protesting,” he retorted. “If we weren’t helping to support you, you wouldn’t be able to do it.” I’ve never forgotten.
One aspect of the book, both positive and negative, is that the explication is delivered in short, digestible bites. I found this useful for reading on short Metro rides, and it will be good for those with short attention spans. Although I am often in that category, I sometimes found myself wanting a bit more analysis, a bit more connective tissue between individual issues and the overarching ideas.
In a way, the same was true for the diverse group of 40 activists that the author uses as recurring commentators. Leondar-Wright peppers the book with their observations, providing a lively range of anecdotes, opinions and insights. For the most part, it works well, as when she juxtaposes several African American activists with contradictory opinions about the phrase, “Lifting as we climb.” But I wanted a chance to hear from a few of these activists in greater depth, to understand the arc of their experience rather than just the incidents.
Luckily, we get this opportunity with the author herself, providing what was, for me, the greatest pleasure of this book. Unlike most of the guys who populate progressive analysis, Leondar-Wright takes the risk of putting out her own stuff in her own unique and unabashedly female voice. She reveals herself as a person with parents and partners, blunders and successes. She confesses her own sins rather than the sins of others as in “Top These! A few classist things I’ve said.” She admits to sometimes being considered humorless or prim by her colleagues, and yes, the book occasionally feels a bit preachy. But the flaws pale in contrast to the generosity and humanity with which the author infuses the work.
That spirit is perhaps best characterized by Leondar-Wright’s “First Principle of Movement Building” so critical that she repeats it three times: “Anyone who steps out of political passivity to give time to any progressive effort deserves to be honored, appreciated and treated with complete respect. Disagreements, mistakes and oppressive behavior call for supportive feedback; they are not justification for abandoning a respectful stance. Solidarity is our only strength.”
Modeling our ideals is critical to our personal and political survival. Yet, having been on both the giving and receiving ends of intra-movement carelessness, I know that in the heat of struggle, it is sometimes hard to remember how very much we all need each other. Leondar-Wright does her best to make sure we don’t forget.
Like Betsy Leondar-Wright, I have been exploring my early lessons about class. My family was hard to classify. My mom never finished elementary school, my father went to graduate school. We were low middle class in terms of income, I suppose, but professional class in terms of aspiration. Leondar-Wright was so candid and personal in sharing her background that I felt I owed a little sharing of my own to do the review.
Like so many others on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in those far away 1950s, our household was shadowed by the unspoken lessons of the Holocaust. My parents had come to this country with little beyond their smarts and their respective trades, my mom as a dressmaker, my dad as an opera conductor. My mother’s parents were concentration camp victims, my paternal grandfather had died in an internment camp, and my surviving grandmother, who lived with us, was a gray shell lamenting over her pots and pans. Although my parents never dwelled on these losses, they instilled the moral of their experience: that we were accountable for our own behavior and responsible for the general well-being of the larger community values that, as it would turn out, were frequently incompatible with the free market economy.
Since my mother was a professional seamstress, she occasionally sewed my clothes. But her time was money and she couldn’t spend it all on me; as the smallest in the supply chain, I got an endless string of hand-me-downs, at least a season or two out of vogue. My mother, though not unkind, was seldom swayed by my protests. When I pestered her for saddle shoes, she informed me that just because everyone else had them was no reason that I needed them, especially when I had two perfectly good pairs of shoes in the closet. And when we finally exhausted the supply of hand-me-down coats, my mother insisted on buying the last parka on sale, a hideous red and green plaid that I despised every day I wore it, and still think of with loathing today, decades after its demise.
Actually, my mother could never quite make up her mind about money. She didn’t like having to worry about it, but she wasn’t a striver either. When our temple decided to move from across the street to across town, she threw a fit. “They’re only moving to the East Side to get a richer congregation,” she asserted. “They’re supposed to stay here where they’re needed.” And she refused to have anything more to do with them. My mother also maintained a Robin Hood mentality in her dressmaking business, charging wealthy women handsomely for her work, so that she could make concert gowns at a discount for starving young singers. She may not have finished primary school, but she understood the principles of income redistribution.
Thus are our lives studded with lessons about money and values which together pretty much boil down to economics. Time is money. You don’t have to keep up with the Joneses. If you can’t afford the latest fashions, make it yourself, or make do. Search out the bargains. There are some things you shouldn’t do for cash. Take from the rich to give to the poor. Moms rule. And you don’t go into debt for a pair of saddle shoes.
The Home House Project: The Future of Affordable Housing
David J. Brown, editor, 2005, The MIT Press, 128 pages, $24.95 (paperback). http://mitpress.mit.edu
This book, and the traveling museum exhibition it catalogues, is the result of a national competition that challenged designers and architects to imagine a world in which environmentally friendly materials, technologies and techniques are considered important elements of housing for low- and moderate-income families. The text includes essays on connecting democratic values to quality of housing, a critique of American excess and insights on the social responsibilities of architects.
Affordable Housing: Designing an American Asset
Urban Land Institute and The National Building Museum, 2005, 126 pages, $29.95 (paperback). www.uli.org
An extensively illustrated book, showcasing 15 projects designed by some of the nation’s most gifted architects, that proves that affordable housing can be durable, environmentally sensitive, comfortable, attractive and economical to maintain.
Toward Sustainable Communities: Resources for Citizens and Their Governments, Revised Edition
Mark Roseland, New Society Publishers, 2005, 256 pages, $22.95 (paperback). www.newsociety.com
The third edition of this classic text offers practical suggestions and innovative solutions to a range of community problems including energy efficiency, transportation, land use, housing, waste reduction, recycling, air quality and governance.
The Great American Jobs Scam: Corporate Tax Dodging and the Myth of Job Creation
Greg LeRoy, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2005, 250 pages, $24.95 (clothbound). www.bkconnection.com
An investigation into the ways that large corporations have received huge tax breaks and subsidies in the name of “jobs, jobs, jobs.” The special favors granted to businesses often come with few strings attached, so corporations remain free to lay workers off, run away or outsource. And, less taxes leads to crowded schools, crumbling infrastructure and poorer public services, while tax breaks for big-box retailers like Wal-Mart fuel suburban sprawl, cannibalizing sales from small merchants and even killing regional malls. Along with in-depth case studies, the author also offers common-sense reforms that will give taxpayers powerful new tools to deter future abuses and redirect taxpayer investments.