June 27, 2022

Awareness of Social Class

Todd SchoepflinBy Todd Schoepflin

I was once asked about when I gained awareness about social class. It struck me as an interesting question. My answer focused on my middle school years when I began meeting people from an affluent part of my hometown.

My childhood was mostly contained to a small radius around my working-class and middle-class neighborhood. When I made new friends in 7th grade, it was easy to observe they lived in bigger homes that were further apart than in my neighborhood, affording people more privacy. A few of my friends in my neighborhood had above-ground pools, whereas new friends had in-ground pools. Yards had wood fences rather than the less expensive chain link fences that I was accustomed to on my street. We learned to jump those chain link fences if we hit a ball into someone else’s property or if we were running through yards when being mischievous. Being around peers with parents who had higher incomes and seeing up close that money flowed more freely for these friends, raised my social class awareness.

I have a specific memory about social class from childhood. I can recall a baseball game at the park where I grew up playing. When the team arrived, most of the kids didn’t have gloves, so we shared our gloves with them when they played defense. It hadn’t occurred to me that a kid wouldn’t have their own glove. In those days you could buy a good quality glove for $20 or $30 and get it repaired to make it last longer at a local store called Cinderella Shoe Repair.

I lived one block from the park, so I walked or rode my bike. One of my sons plays baseball now at a field that isn’t within walking distance of our house. He and his teammates pile out of SUVs onto the field. Every kid on his team has their own baseball bag to fit their helmet, mitt, batting gloves, and bat. Bats at Dick’s Sporting Goods range from $60 to $400. Whereas most of my baseball life took place at the park near my house, my son’s team travels to a bunch of fields within an hour’s drive time. We also enjoy an out-of-town tournament that doubles as our family vacation. Last year’s was Cedar Point in Ohio (with beautiful turf fields at a sports park), and this summer ww will be in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. We organize chicken barbeques and other fundraisers to defray the costs. Cedar point
When I contemplate social class, graduate school comes to mind, when I was learning about cultural capital in the classroom and developing it too. At school I was learning the norms of academia and how professors conducted themselves. Outside of school, friends taught me to use the subway system in New York City, which was one hour from school. I gained familiarity with a variety of neighborhoods and learned to navigate the city.

It was on a date in grad school that I ate sushi for the first time and learned how  to use chopsticks. My date expressed surprise that I’d never eaten sushi before. I had a lot of new experiences during those graduate school years on Long Island, like visiting the Hamptons and being blown away by the immense wealth. I had friends who worked for a party supply company. Sometimes I’d tag along with them and help set up parties at lavish homes. Living on Long Island was expensive, so I needed student loans to pay the rent.

Even as a New York State resident attending two relatively reasonably priced state schools for my undergraduate and graduate education, I accumulated $50,000 in student loan debt. For years after graduation I was only paying interest. A good friend advised me to double the monthly payments to make headway on the principle, but it wasn’t in my budget. This is the year I’m done paying off the loan, just a few months shy of my 50th birthday.  (If you’re following the debate around student loan forgiveness, check out this issue brief by Charlie Eaton and colleagues about how student debt cancellation is a progressive policy, along with a recent op-ed by Tressie McMillan Cottom on how a vehicle sold to us as social mobility has transformed into a debt machine.)

Since graduate school I’ve been back in my home region of Western New York. My parents still live in my hometown of Niagara Falls, and I teach at Niagara University situated just outside the city of Niagara Falls, so I’m still connected to the place where I grew up. Tourists congregate at the majestic falls and enjoy a thrilling ride on the Maid of the Mist but drive through the city and you’ll see a lot of vacant buildings, closed factories, dilapidated housing, and poverty concentrated in sections of the city.

Nabisco NF esb
Nabisco factory, Niagara Falls

There’s a casino on the American side in downtown Niagara Falls. I remember promises of economic spinoff when it was built twenty years ago, but those promises were never realized. In the shadow of the casino is a former Nabisco Shredded Wheat plant, which has a fascinating history in my hometown. I know what it’s like to come from a stigmatized place. I hear people make insulting remarks about Niagara Falls, and a local radio show uses the Niagara Falls police blotter in a segment mocking the behavior of residents. It angers me, and I like to point out that the people of Niagara Falls didn’t ask for the decline of manufacturing and the resulting loss of jobs, nor is it their fault that Main Street deteriorated, and the residents of Love Canal certainly didn’t ask for a corporation to dump chemicals in their neighborhood, destroying their community.

Main street NF
Main Street, Niagara Falls

I’m always thinking about social class. I think about questions like what’s in your refrigerator, how many refrigerators are in your home, and do you have access to quality grocery stores? I’m troubled by horror stories about people who amassed much larger student loan debt than I did, along with harrowing stories of overwhelming medical debt in our country in which millions of people don’t have health care. Meanwhile the superrich find new status symbols like so-called trophy trees and billionaires have flown to the edge of space. Elon Musk, the 200 billion dollar man who might become the world’s first trillionaire, is apparently the next owner of Twitter after securing $44 billion to buy it.

NF lottery sign esbMy last example of social class awareness, one intertwined with race, is the fact that I’ve been treated with respect and not made to feel out of place in nearly all of my public interactions. In an article, Karyn Lacy discusses research she conducted about middle-class Black people who deliberately dress and speak in ways designed to highlight their class status in an attempt to be treated fairly. As Lacy concludes, it’s exhausting to live in a society when you encounter racism and stereotypes on a regular basis.

From my relatively advantaged standpoint, I’ve been disrespected on the basis of social class so few times in my life that I can only recall two times when it happened. Once, when walking into a furniture store, and another time, when walking into an outlet store selling expensive purses and handbags, I was looked up and down by workers as if to signal “You don’t have the money to afford what’s here.” But those are exceptions to how I’m normally treated as a customer. Lacy’s article mentions an investigation by Newsday that shows evidence of housing discrimination against Black people. The investigation, published in 2019, provides a clear example of the persistent and pernicious existence of racism and classism in contemporary society.

How have your life experiences informed your understanding of social class, and how has your awareness developed over time?

Photos courtesy of the author

Comments

Yo, good stuff Todd! I really like that you explore the idea of stigmatized places!

Hey Todd, fantastic stuff! You explore the topic of stigmatized areas, which I really appreciate!

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