A Lesson In Class: It Isn’t Classy

stay class america

Recently at a dinner party the discussion deteriorated to mocking those with lesser educational attainment — people who “only” received a high school diploma (or less.)  Of course this wasn’t the intent of the conversation; it was only to laugh at photos of people that dress and behave differently. Regardless, this conversation seemed like a type of veiled racism, even if the subject matter shared the same skin color as me.  The conversation was uncomfortable, I found myself becoming defensive, and after some days of rumination I was moved to blog about my thoughts.

Perhaps I was identifying with the lesser educated — I, the lowly entrepreneur, was the lowest degreed person in a room full of Masters and Professional Degrees, including Doctorates. I was the least educated of the group. I remembered, however, once reading how most of American society is not degreed, but only “diplomaed”.

bachelor degree attainment in US

What percentage of adults do you think have a bachelor’s degree or higher? Here are the average US education attainment stats for adults 25-44:

  • High School Diploma: 87% (highest 96% North Dakota, lowest California 81%, Georgia 86%)
  • Associates Degree (or higher): 40% (highest Massachusetts 54%, Nevada 28%, Georgia 37%)
  • Bachelor Degree (or higher): 31% (highest Massachusetts 46%, Mississippi 21%, Georgia 30%)
  • Graduate/Professional Degree: 10% (highest Massachusetts 18%, Arkansas 6%, Georgia 10%)

Let’s be clear — less than 1/3 of American adults have attained a bachelor’s degree or higher. When I share this stat with my social networks, they are surprised; they consistently think it’s “about half of adults.” That number is even wrong when you consider associate’s degree or higher.

Recently, my Facebook discussion group The Coffe House had a posting from the Atlantic — “Class Now Trumps Race As The Great Divide in America.”  Written by Robert D. Putnam, author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, the article discusses how the class gap is growing while the racial gap is shrinking.

You say poverty to most ordinary Americans, most ordinary voters, they think black ghettos. However, class, not race is the dominant — and becoming more dominant — dimension of difficulty here. Relatively speaking, racial differences controlling for class are decreasing while class differences controlling for race are increasing in America. Non-white folks with a college education are looking more and more like white folks with a college education and white folks who haven’t gotten beyond high school are looking more and more like nonwhite folks who haven’t finished high school.

At this dinner party this became clear. It was considered tacky and improper  to judge someone based on race. But on educational attainment, however, the gloves were off.  The less the educational attainment —  no high school diploma GASP! — the more frequent the verbal jabs.  These fellow humans were rudely referred to with pejorative, albeit race-free, terms such as “white trash” or “trailer trash”.

These terms hit close to home.  When my parents immigrated to the US fleeing political turmoil from their homelands, they lived in a trailer park for some time. After several years of working hard, and at the demands of my mother, they purchased their first home together where I would spend the first 12 years of my life.  Were my parents “trailer trash”, too?

I frequently experience class discrimination (“classism?”) in my everyday life. In my own profession of Internet marketing — one in which it still is very difficult to provide a collegiate education on due to the sheer pace of change — I’m often asked what degree my employees attained. In fact, it’s not the question “What degree did they obtain”, but rather the assumptive question “What university did they attain their degree?” When I started my first web software development company in 1999, I had just started my bachelor’s degree the semester before, paid in full with Georgia’s HOPE scholarship. My educational attainment had little to do with the company’s success other than that the first round of employees were mostly students I met while at the University of Georgia. Most of these employees, however, were self-taught; our best programmer was a Finance major!

I’m not immunce to classism. I have spent plenty of time with the guilty pleasure of laughing my way through the People of Walmart web site.  The video below is a mash-up of sophomoric lyrics, country-tinged acoustic music, and People of Walmart photos.

Blogger Renee Martin of the blog Womanist Musings, however, points out how The People of Walmart shames those less fortunate.

Whether the owners of The People of Walmart realise it, there is also a class aspect to this site.  Individuals shopping at Walmart do not exist with class privilege.  These people usually range from the working poor to the middle class.   Those that have limited resources are often held up to ridicule and shamed, even though the system is designed to assure their failure.   Before the very first picture was taken, the owners of The People of Walmart,  had already decided to shame based in class.

Do you experience classism in your social network? Do you call it out for what it is — ignorant prejudice — as frequently as other forms of discrimination such as racism?

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2 thoughts on “A Lesson In Class: It Isn’t Classy

  1. First of all – wonderful essay. Given my past 5 years, being an ex-pat puts me in a strange caste system that is less related to education and more about the educational and language background you come from. Here, there are 3 distinct classes: Local, Western, Labor. Do I socialize outside my group? Not particularly. Not because the laborers are uneducated, mostly because it has to do with me being a western woman. Additionally, while I might be curious to interact with Qataris, our social options are very limited – no common language and it’s unlikely we’ll ever work in the same place. Do people look down on the laborers? I’m sure they do. Does it have to do with their place of birth more so than their education level? Yes. Was I in an interview this morning with two people dedicating to improving lives of migrant workers in Qatar? Yes. So, we don’t sit around and crap on the service people in our lives. Anyone can see they’re working hard.

    I am not above being classist and have been frustrated by certain cultural groups here, however, I also take pride in the fact one of my friends and colleagues is a Yemeni – one that is educating himself by taking college courses online. He is someone I see and feel incredibly lucky and that I shouldn’t be wasting my college credentials. He is not alone – there are many here who sacrifice everything, live in terrible conditions, work long hours, just so they can send money home. Why? To support their family. (There are some inherent issues involved with this cycle, but that’s a story for another day).

    All this said, I know some PhDs and JD recipients who might have all the book smarts in the world, but lack all common sense. I get as frustrated with them as I do those from another ‘class.’ Being in academia here in Qatar, I think it’s different. It’s not staff vs. faculty, it’s ‘we’re all ex-pats and in this sand box together.’ While there is room to judge, at the end of the day, I take great pride in knowing my social circle extends to many forms of education levels and different upbringings around the world. In fact, my husband is known throughout his company as being someone who is fair to everyone (from the tea boy all the way up to country director). Employees from different stations have actually commented that he treats people fairly and they would like to be a part of his team.

    • I, too, have a soft spot in my heart for those that work their way through an education. I was so absolutely fortunate to receive the GA HOPE Scholarship. Currently, the cost of tuition for a degree from UGA is $9,842/year, or $39,368. That’s in-state tuition; out-of-state tuition is $112,208. Furthermore, tuition is only half the cost of attending university. The other half is for room and board, living expenses, and transportation, which is estimated at another $42,200 across the degree.

      If someone offered you nearly $40,000, or over $100,000, what would you do? The least I could do as a university student was study and keep the scholarship.

      And the reality is that life events can make retaining that scholarship very, very difficult. Perhaps you struggled in high school, either academically or with one of many life events? Perhaps you had to work 40 hours at night to help the family meet financial needs? Or perhaps you had some type of medical malady, brought on from a car wreck or genetic disorder? Or perhaps you had no support system; parents that were alcoholics that abused verbally, emotionally, or physically?

      When I consider all the possibilities of what could have detoured me in my degree, I can only be humble, and thankful, that my environment was so very conducive academic achievement. Really, all I really had to do was sit down, study, and apply myself.

      It’s awareness like this that helps me understand that classism needs to exposed for the discrimination that it is. A measure of a human should not be their wealth, education, race, or sexual orientation; it should be their character, compassion, and what they do with their talents and fortune.

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