When “Roseanne” premiered in 1988, I was among the millions of Americans who tuned in weekly to watch the Conners navigate life in the Midwest. Although I was a kid in Los Angeles, thousands of miles from the fictional Lanford, Ill., the show’s humorous, caustic portrayal of a working-class family struggling to make ends meet resonated with me. In the show, I saw my own family’s quest for the American Dream and how, for many living in poverty, it’s often a dream deferred.
In one of my favorite episodes, Roseanne juggles paying the bills by intentionally putting the wrong check in the wrong envelope and telling the utility company the bill never came. In another, Becky is embarrassed when she learns her mother has taken a job as a shampoo girl to provide for their family. I was Becky, not quite fully grasping that we were poor or that money was in short supply. This was the genius of Roseanne — it transcended race, class and political boundaries while appearing not to do so.
The “Roseanne” reboot, rather than working to bridge the class divide and understanding in America, attempts to insert itself into the current political moment by declaring Roseanne a Donald Trump supporter. After the premiere, Trump even called the real Roseanne to congratulate her on the series reboot.
I feel alienated and slightly betrayed by the reboot. Roseanne’s support of Trump — whose Make America Great Again appeal turned out to be a lot more about racial anxiety among white voters than economic concerns — is out of sync with the show’s original premise.
“Roseanne” of the late 1980s and ’90s was deft at pointing an invisible, yet very real, finger at self-interested politicians who failed towns such as Lanford. The enemy was the rigged system that kept families like the Conners from getting ahead, not other working-class families or immigrants. That message appealed to people across racial, ethnic and class lines. Making Roseanne a Trump supporter changes that.
Working-class people and families are more similar than they are different. According to the Center for American Progress, the working class (defined as people who are employed for wages, especially in manual or industrial work, with less than a four-year college degree) constitute 43 percent of all U.S. workers. Collectively, these workers are more likely to earn the federal minimum wage of $7.25 and rely on public benefits such as food stamps or Medicaid, compared with other groups of workers. Regardless of race, these workers are also the most affected when a corporation moves its operations overseas, an industry disappears or a recession depresses the economy.
Whites compose 59 percent of the working class, but by 2032, the majority of the working class is forecast to be minorities. This is not because people of color are taking blue-collar jobs away from whites but because blacks and Latinos are historically overrepresented in the service and retail sectors, which are each experiencing moderate growth. At the same time, industrial jobs where whites tend to be more concentrated, such as mining and manufacturing, are disappearing or have been automated or outsourced.
Economic angst caused by the shortage of good-paying, high-quality jobs with benefits for unskilled or undereducated workers cuts across race and ethnicity. Working-class people and families have been crushed under the weight of stagnant wages and the rising costs of living in both rural and urban settings. A study by the Economic Policy Institute found that the wages of low-wage workers fell 5 percent from 1979 to 2013, while hourly wages of high-wage workers rose 41 percent. Being unable to cover monthly bills and expenses while unemployed or even while working 40 hours per week is not a matter of learning how to budget but about inflation and how the cost of living is out of step with the day-to-day reality of most low-income and poor families.
In the “Roseanne” reboot’s premiere, Roseanne laments the high cost of prescription drugs, Becky considers surrogacy to turn a quick buck, and Darlene has moved back home and has a hard time finding a job — classic “Roseanne.” When we catch up with the Conners, things haven’t changed much, as with many working-class people. This is the reality and truth of poverty: Only a small fraction ever make it to the middle class, regardless of who is president, or one’s racial or ethnic background.
In truth, I can’t figure out if the reboot is an indictment of working-class whites, who overwhelmingly voted for Trump and are getting very little in return, or if it is a nod to a growing narrative that attempts to define whites as the true working class in America at the expense of blacks and Latinos.
Recently, I visited Sevierville, Tenn., home to Dollywood and the Great Smoky Mountains. Thirty-six percent of residents live below the federal poverty line, three times the national poverty rate. Eighty-two percent voted for Trump. While there, I met a white woman, who was employed as a full-time nanny and worked part time as a driver for a ride-sharing company. Her husband was unemployed, and they had fallen behind on their mortgage. I recognized the frustration and resignation in her voice. When I was 12 years old, we too, lost our family home to foreclosure, and my mother was devastated. My neighborhood in Los Angeles looked nothing like this woman’s, but losing your house feels the same, regardless of geography, skin color or preferred presidential candidate.
In this current political and social moment, there is an opportunity to build an economy that works for everyone, and to lift up the most economically vulnerable and marginalized in society. The first step in doing so is recognizing where our realities intersect, not where they diverge. In explicitly making Roseanne a Trump supporter, the show is prioritizing the politics that divide the working class over the thing that unites us: the fact that we have so little.