Joan Williams on Understanding the Working Class

Published on: Author: Scott Dodson

My illustrious colleague Joan Williams has published a new book with Harvard Business Review Press called White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America. The book is an expansion of her widely shared (more than 3.5 million times!) essay on the working class and the 2016 presidential election. In the book, Professor Williams offers an account of working-class folks: how they think, how they live, and why they are different from the poor and from professional elites.

Her timing couldn’t be better. In an America of echo chambers, interclass understanding—especially understanding bridging the working class—is at a nadir. Professional elites used to getting their news from MSNBC, NPR, and comedy-news programs receive a vision of the world that resonates with them. Working-class people, meanwhile, focus on sources that reflect and reinforce their own values. Lack of understanding becomes misunderstanding, often in disparaging ways. These are the underground sources for the Venus-and-Mars differences between, say, a black coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts and a double-tall-soy-caramel macchiato from Starbucks.

The book tries to bridge the class gap, and it is largely effective for three reasons. First, it offers a compelling descriptive account that deepens understanding of the working class and of American class polarization today. Second, it is highly accessible to readers who aren’t social scientists, even though Professor Williams relies on hard social science as foundation for much of her analysis. Third, it is compact, topping out at just over 130 pages of text, meaning it can be read in just a couple of hours.

Read the book, whether on the bus on the way to work or over a glass of Pinot in a cushy chair by the fire.