The Mainstream and the Underclass: Why are the Differences so Salient and the Similarities so Unobtrusive?
Thomas D. Cook · Northwestern University Thomas R. Curtin · Northwestern University
In this chapter, Cook and Curtin take on an issue of intergroup perception, an issue with intriguing policy implications. After exploring ways of establishing the fact and extent of an underclass in American society, the authors examine survey and archival data to determine just how different the mainstream and the underclass really are, and how different they are perceived to be, especially by members of the mainstream. They conclude that although the underclass is indeed different from the mainstream with respect to some behaviors in areas of schooling, the work place, family life, and peer culture, the two social categories are very similar with respect to many aspirations and values. Yet members of the mainstream tend to see major differences between themselves and the underclass in aspirations and values as well as in behaviors, probably linking the psychological and behavioral level causally (e.g., the attribution that members of the underclass are unemployed because they don't want to work). Cook and Curtin explore the roles of interpersonal contact, media context, salience of deviant behavior, and avoidance of social comparisons in this discrepancy between perception and reality of the underclass. They emphasize a general need on the part of the relatively advantaged to distinguish themselves from the deprived in their interpretation of this discrepancy and argue for a reorientation of relative deprivation theory, which views perceived similarity as a dependent variable. They also argue that relative depri|