For all of his working life, my dad wore a shirt with his name on the pocket. His mom died when he was a boy, and he completed only eighth grade before he had to drop out to make his own way. He could fix anything and figure out everything, though, including how to make a living and raise a big family. The jobs included running a convent laundry and the boiler room of a high school — which put him squarely in the great tradition of the working-class, blue-collar American worker proudly scrapping his way into the middle class.
Sometimes they come right out and say “white working class.” And even when the adjective is left unsaid, it’s often assumed. (Think Ronald Reagan’s mythical “welfare queen” to understand how this works.) In a country and an election year that pit the image of poor people with no work ethic against those who never had a break yet managed to make it on a factory floor or construction site, this shorthand color coding matters.
While listening to pundits parse voting blocs during primary coverage, I realized I have seldom heard the phrase “black working class.” It’s as though it doesn’t exist. I thought of my dad and all the women and men living in neat rowhouses in my Baltimore neighborhood who trudged home exhausted every day.
Held back by union rules and company practices that discriminated, they settled for what was left while fighting for more. Many remained the working poor, another description that doesn’t fit the stereotype.
The official name of the 1963 event that drew a quarter of a million people was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was chaired by civil rights leader and union organizer A. Philip Randolph, who had used plans for a similar march in 1941 to pressure President Franklin D. Roosevelt into issuing an executive order banning discrimination in the defense industry and set up the Fair Employment Practices Commission.
Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns” describes the Great Migration of 6 million African Americans from the South for much of the 20th century, citizens looking for opportunity.
Their marches and movements demanded jobs, the vote, good schools and equal opportunity, but never food stamps, despite the mantra that translated into a South Carolina primary win for Newt Gingrich, a historian who should know better.
My late father was proud that his hard work sent his children off to college; it’s the American way. And despite easy political posturing, whenever someone pays tribute to the people who do the work in this country, it’s his face I see.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR and Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at the New York Times, the Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3.