Since I began writing for the Observer a little over two years ago, I have done very little posting here on my own site. It seemed to me to be superfluous to write here for free when I could get paid for my writing.
However, on occasion, I stumble upon a topic that perhaps is better suited to my blog than for professional publication. And on this Labor Day, I would like to share an experience I had yesterday that seems to be a very appropriate topic for this holiday.
Recently, I moved to a new community in order to be closer to my day job, as my company is moving here in a few weeks, and I wanted to spare myself a dreary 45-minute car commute each way. I have been in the process of getting to know my new neighborhood. Part of that process, naturally, involves finding a good place to get breakfast on a Sunday morning, so I walked over to a little diner not far from my new home and sat at the counter, where a friendly young woman took my order.
The server was engaged in conversation with another customer, a middle-aged, white, male businessman, and she mentioned that when she had left work the previous day, she had forgotten to take her paycheck with her.
The businessman responded: “When you get into the professional world, there is this thing called direct deposit.”
I’m sure he meant nothing untoward by it and was oblivious to the many notions packed into such a statement. For those of us who are tremendously privileged, as he and I are, it is often easy to say things like that without thinking twice about it.
I don’t know the man’s background, but I do know mine. I grew up among union steelworkers, secretaries and servers. And I have never known any of them who are not in “the professional world.” They are engaged in professions for which they get paid; ergo, they are professionals.
But this man’s statement spoke volumes about how those of us in the white-collar world think about those who aren’t. It was dismissive. It carried the idea that if you wait tables, mop floors, drive nails (or paint nails), or do anything that doesn’t involve sitting in an office, you are less than a professional. You are less than.
His statement also carried the weight of the presumption that blue-collar jobs are just a weigh station in life until the “smart ones” find their way into the “professional world.” This is the exact sentiment that fuels opposition to a living minimum wage. “Oh, why should we pay McDonald’s workers $15 an hour? They’re just kids working their way through school.” This, of course, flies in the face of data showing that the average age of a food-service worker is nearly 30 years old.
The young server at the diner yesterday may well be waiting the counter now while she pursues an education that will enable her to enter into a white-collar career. Or she may not. She appeared to be about college age. She almost certainly was not a high-school kid waiting tables on the weekend, because she had an intricate tattoo on her upper arm, and California, like most states, does not allow individuals younger than 18 to be tattooed without parental consent. At any rate, this may or may not be a temporary career endeavor for her. It is possible that she will work this job or another service job for the bulk of her life. And if that is her choice, it deserves better than to be implicitly and thoughtlessly disrespected by someone who looks down his nose at what she does.
A lot has been said and written in recent months about the feeling of alienation that blue-collar people feel in our society. I think that to a great degree, this sentiment has been overused for the purpose of excusing or overlooking the blatant racism and sexism that helped propel Donald Trump to the presidency. That said, the disconnect between the white-collar and blue-collar worlds is palpable, as is the disdain that the former too often holds for the latter.
In America, we too often judge people to be successful based on whether they work with their hands or not. If you’ve gone to college and landed an office job, you are thought to be smart and successful. If not, you are often considered to have failed, or to be stupid. Well let me tell you something: the guy who fixes my car is not stupid. The older woman who cuts my hair has worked hard for years to perfect her craft. The server who keeps multiple orders straight while dealing with her share of difficult customers is quite talented. And the people who build the roads and the bridges and the trains we use to get to our comfortable offices know what they’re doing. They work hard every day to keep this country running. They do vital jobs. But we treat them with tremendous disrespect.
If we want to bridge the chasm between the white-collar world and the much larger blue-collar America—where the overwhelming majority do not earn bachelor’s degrees—it starts with those of us in the white collars respecting every person and every profession equally. If we can’t do that, we shouldn’t be surprised when they manifest their resentment in the most inconvenient places—such as the voting booth.