Graduate students in my Cross-Cultural Perspectives class at the University of Massachusetts Boston, which has a predominantly working-class student population, usually do not know what I mean by "riding class" when I talk about power politics in the United States. Some are suspicious or hostile--who are these people? And of course most share in the ignorance or denial of class that is widespread in the United States. I address the issue directly, and find television and film a big help.
In class, I explore with students how elites built class power from the outset on indentured servitude, slavery, and genocide, and how their successors benefited from ideologies such as that of the "American dream" and the myth of meritocracy. We explore U.S. arrangements of ownership, distribution of goods and services, and regulation of institutions, and consider how capitalism relies on the formative power of culture to maintain its logic and practices, and make them seem natural.
I use a simple grid to aid in understanding class. Economic class pertains to one's income and especially to wealth or capital. Cultural class has to do with taste, education, and lifestyle. And political class concerns the power that individuals and groups have to control the workplace and the larger social order. To examine economic class we look at distribution of wealth, using the U.S. Census (http://www.census.gov) and research by organizations like the Economic Policy Institute (www.epi.org), with a particular focus on its annual publication The State of Working America. Realities of inequality and power (e.g., how the rich and their allies have remade the tax system since 1970 to strengthen class hierarchy) emerge from discussion of the numbers. Films and documentaries help bring those realities to life.
We view Michael Moore's 1989 film Roger & Me, which clearly illustrates the economic power of the rich in Flint, Michigan, over the working class and working poor in the community, in an economic depression after the local collapse of General Motors. To explore cultural class, we view PBS's 1999 documentary People Like Us: Social Class in America, which looks closely at the lifestyles that differentiate one class from another. I sometimes contribute personal stories, for instance how while I was growing up I learned about the rich as a caddy at the local country club as well as through TV shows like Dallas, Dynasty, Falcon Crest, and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
Thinking about how these shows affected me at a young age, I decided in one class to have students form small groups and select a show on television about the rich and analyze it. As TV has recently been obsessed with the upperclass, in particular reality TV, I offered the following list: Beverly Hills 90210, The OC, Lipstick Jungle, Gossip Girl, My Super Sweet Sixteen, Cribs, Dirty Sexy Money, Privileged, Watching Rich People, Exiled, The Riches, The Hills, The Real Housewives of Orange County (and of New York), Entourage, Brothers and Sisters, The Simple Life, Secret Millionaire, Big Shots, Rich Girls, Cane, Keeping up with the Kardashians, Laguna Beach, Newport Harbor." The Real Orange County, Arrested Development, Family Jewels, Meet the Osbournes, and any soap opera of their choice. I also recommended the 2003 HBO documentary Born Rich, in which Jamie Johnson, the 22-year-old heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, interviews his wealthy friends, including the offspring of the Trumps, Bloombergs, and Vanderbilts. q-hey candidly talk about their privilege and about the ups and downs of being loaded.
The following week, each group presented its findings. They commented that the best road to wealth is the old trusty route of inheriting it. They also talked about the general dysfunction of wealthy people in these shows as being "self-obsessed," "materialistic," "shallow," and "full of deceit." As one put it, "In these shows, the upper class is portrayed as dishonest, manipulative, and devoid of family values. …