A New Deal–era mural by Charles Ward celebrating U.S. industry, Trenton, New Jersey (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

The hands of my male kin were calloused and grimed. One of my uncles was missing two fingers. These men woke at night to cough up coal dust and fly ash and tobacco tar, and they treated their joint and back pain with a home remedy of beer and whiskey. They refused to use hearing protection and wore hardhats solely because of employer and government mandates, and by age sixty were prone to ask, “What? Why are you mumbling?” Of course, they refused to wear hearing aids. Many of them were also deaf to the voices of people who had a different skin color or religion. They denied that women should have the same rights as men. And yet, to pay for the higher education of sons and daughters alike, they worked overtime in the mill or factory, which they referred to as “the plant.”

The shared identity of these men remained partially mine even while I was teaching at colleges. I kept close my heritage of pride and stubbornness, loyalty to family and charitable duty to neighbors and friends. Yet well before the working class shed me, I tried to distance myself from it. Like most of my peers in the late 1960s and early ’70s, as a teenager I believed I had outgrown home. I danced in stylish rebellion to musicians selected and promoted by record companies and radio stations, to the Rolling Stones and Beatles and Doors, to the beat of millionaires. In John Lennon’s balladic “Working Class Hero,” the darkest of his songs, the former working-class boy sings with concurrent sympathy and rage of a laboring class kept “doped by religion, sex, and TV”—so it can suppose it is “classless and free.” My friends and I sang along, some of us doped by dope, and all of us half deaf and blind to our family and neighbors.

Most of the women in my family and neighborhood were indeed religious, but they were not drugged by their faith. From church sermons and the Bible they drew some of the strength they needed. The men tended to practice their religion perfunctorily or stayed home while their wives and children attended worship services. As for TV, it was consumed soporifically, the way alcohol was consumed—to relax a sore man as he kicked back in an easy chair in his parlor, still haunted by the racket of industrial machinery or the rattling of coal falling through chutes.

Despite their pride, I never knew anyone in my working-class neighborhood who seemed to believe he or she was “classless and free.” One evening when my father and I were in a town, we crossed paths with a man who was wearing a fine suit and expensive shoes. Dad didn’t know the man, but he spat on the concrete and muttered, “You son of a bitch.”

I thought my elders were insensitive to the suffering of people subject to poverty, oppression, and war, and many of them were, but I now cringe when I recall asking my father whether he would change anything if he could live his life over. He replied firmly, “No.” A welder in a coal-fired power plant near the city of Buffalo, he was in his early forties and had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, which had spread incurably into his pelvis and spine. He was in constant pain and still working at the plant with no intention of stopping while he had a family to support. I asked yet another insensitive question: Suppose the fumes, ash, and dust in the plant had caused his cancer, wouldn’t he go to college and try for a better job if he had it to do over again? “No,” he said again. “My friends work at the plant.” The same plant provided me with summer employment. I shoveled coal spilled from conveyors, vacuumed ankle-deep fly ash from the tops of boilers, and swept black dust and grit from concrete floors. I knew that on the days when my father was in too much pain to work, I could find him in one of the maintenance department storage rooms, where his friends had hidden him as they finished his tasks to keep the plant bosses from discovering that an employee was dying on company time and thus failing to generate profit for the men in fine suits and expensive shoes. 

One morning, my foreman instructed me to spend the day intercepting coal trucks from Pennsylvania as they approached the gatehouse and to weigh them at a trucking company up the road. Some of the drivers had been selling portions of their loads before reaching the plant. One I caught promised he would never again cheat the power company and asked me to misreport the weight of his load. He told me he had a family to support and would be fired if the coal company learned of his dishonesty. When I later told my father that I had refused to lie, he looked at me as if I might be a changeling. Then he grimaced and stood up from his easy chair—a bottle of Darvon within reach on the end table—changed the television channel, and said, as he turned to study me a bit more, “I didn’t care for that show.”


The white working class did its part—knowingly or not—to leave behind people who were anything but lazy.

To most of the men in my family, “working class” meant “white working class.” Black Americans employed in industry, even if they labored side by side with whites on an assembly line or tended the furnaces of a foundry, were not considered the real working class; instead, all Black people were thought to constitute a class of their own, regardless of their jobs, income, or education. Another assumption—in this case correct—was that most labor unions existed for the benefit of white men.

Bigotry was a kind of family tradition. My father’s grandfather was a Welsh-Irish Protestant who settled briefly in Canada and then in Buffalo for the remainder of his life. He was killed in a construction accident, as were two of his adult sons later on, but lived long enough to pass down an ancient distrust and hatred of Catholics. 

Both sides of my family attempted to preserve their racial isolation within walls of prejudice, though not always with complete success. My maternal grandparents, who owned a small farm in western New York, were displeased when one of their daughters married a Seneca man who lived on the nearby territory of the Tonawanda Seneca Nation. They loved their German-Seneca grandchildren, and yet, whenever an object was missing from the farm, they lazily assumed that “some lazy Indian” had filched it. My grandmother had a Seneca friend who lived in the Nation, and after her friend’s brother committed suicide, she and my grandfather cleaned the room where it happened. I was spending that weekend on the farm and saw Grandmother out on the lawn, her hands plunged in a pail of sudsy water. I asked her what she was doing. “Cleaning curtains,” she replied, and lifted cloth coated with hair and grey matter. She asked, “Now whoever would have thought Charlie Moses had so much brains?”

Such white working-class bigotry was of course not confined to my family. From schoolmates and neighborhood friends, I learned various slurs against people of other races and ethnicities. My high school football coach—his name today memorialized in the school on its Sports Wall of Fame—never sounded hesitant when he used racial epithets in the presence of his white players. Many in the white working class fell, and still fall, for the dog whistles of politicians who benefit from a divided working class. Back before the permanent closing of factories became routine in the Northeast and Midwest, white workers also fell for the comforting fantasy that any American could get and stay ahead with hard work and that only the lazy were left behind. By believing that myth to be true, the white working class did its part—knowingly or not—to leave behind people who were anything but lazy.

One day my father and I were walking from his car to War Memorial Stadium in a largely Black section of Buffalo to see an NFL game. The sidewalk on both sides of Jefferson Avenue was crowded with white ticket-holders hurrying to the game, some of whom looked unmistakably afraid. One man in a Buffalo Bills sweatshirt kept checking his back pocket to make sure his wallet was still there, so I started keeping an eye on my father’s back pocket. He took me into a fast-food place and bought us hamburgers to eat before we reached the stadium, where the food was too expensive. After we left, he discovered that the Black cashier had accidentally given him too much change. He turned back and returned the money to her. Later he explained to me that “they would have taken it out of her pay.” I knew that by “they” he meant people who lived somewhere else and wore fine suits and expensive shoes. And these days, whenever I think about that moment of decency on Jefferson Avenue, I wonder how much better off this country’s working class would be if class always trumped racial prejudice.


But it is supercilious to confess the sins of others, or to generalize about an entire class of people. Such generalizations too often warrant another kind of bigotry. In any case, the unignorable fact—troubling or comforting, depending on one’s point of view—is that bigotry, an ugly vice, can coexist with virtue. As he was dying, my sometimes-bigoted father limped in and out of the power plant until he could no longer climb the stairs to punch in at the mechanical time clock near the employee locker room. That device must have reminded him twice a day of how little time he had left to live. And my sometimes-bigoted, exhausted mother took good care of him when he was bedridden, injecting him with morphine, giving him sponge baths, rubbing salve on his bed sores, holding his hand as he moaned, emptying the bedpan—all while continuing to cook meals, clean the house, and raise the children.

Nor should I forget that my bigoted high-school football coach was always kind to me and was the only one of my teachers or coaches who paid a visit to my family to express sympathy after notice of my father’s death appeared in the local newspaper. My uncle Al, a steamfitter and the most bigoted of my kin, loaned me money to build an addition and put in utilities when my wife and I were living in a small cabin without electricity or running water. After I made a few monthly payments, he refused to accept more. Then there was my grandfather Phillips, who loved and married a Catholic despite his anti-Catholic bigotry.

By condemning the white working class generally, I would also condemn my neighbor, a retired phone-company linesmen who is not a bigot, and who has a damaged back and worn-out shoulders, knees, and hips and had to cash in his 401k and sell the timber on his property to a logging company to pay off his medical bills. He has made no profit from his small, part-time sawmill because he so frequently mills for people he knows, and says, when they try to pay him, “I don’t take money from friends and neighbors.”

By discounting the sacrifices made by flawed members of my family, I would fail to acknowledge that, while all humans are fallen and some much farther than others, most are also open to love. How can I not forgive my kin for their bigotry? One good answer would be that such forgiveness is not mine to give. So perhaps my question should be: How can I not love them? 


In his essay “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” published in the American Scholar, William Deresiewicz, who had studied and taught in the Ivy League, wrote, “It didn’t dawn on me that there might be a few holes in my education until I was about 35. I’d just bought a house, the pipes needed fixing, and the plumber was standing in my kitchen. There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him.”

I’ve never had Deresiewicz’s problem. My wife complains that whenever a plumber or electrician is called to our home, I waste too much of his time by—as she once put it—“bullshitting with him.” She likes to remind me, “These guys charge by the hour.” I can’t help myself. It’s a little like talking with the ghost of my father or one of my uncles.

The unignorable fact—troubling or comforting, depending on one’s point of view—is that bigotry, an ugly vice, can coexist with virtue.

I suppose I have avoided Deresiewicz’s problem in part because my only experience with elite education came when I was somehow accepted into the Radcliffe Publishing Course, which has since relocated to Columbia University. I had my own kind of communication problem that summer at Harvard. I soon discovered that I didn’t have the slightest idea of what to say to most of my fellow students, few of whom had grown up in working-class families or attended public colleges. I kept to myself and stayed in my room as much as possible. When venturing out to lectures and workshops, I carried a large working-class chip on my shoulder.

One evening I did join several fellow students to share a joint—a social activity that, I assumed, would require no cultured conversation. After the joint had gone round the room twice, one of our group began to hum bars from a symphony by Beethoven. He was soon joined by a second person, who of course was not me. It would not have been me even if I had been familiar with the symphony. It was both hilarious and humiliating to hear these stoned Brahmins humming classical music together. Years would pass before I learned what symphony they were badly imitating.

Later, when I taught at colleges, I got to know several professors who had grown up in the working class. What discreet language of mannerisms and attitudes initially drew us to one another in our Pygmalion roles? At a party thrown by a professor and attended for the most part by other professors, most of the guests were standing and conversing in small groups in the kitchen and Victorian dining room. I settled into a parlor chair to talk with a married couple who were seated on the couch, working-class neighbors of the host. Soon we were joined by another professor, who had grown up in the working class and probably on some level recalled that her kin avoided standing at social gatherings because they were tired and their feet ached.


If you were to accuse me of impoverishing my social and emotional life by identifying so stubbornly with my working-class background, you would have a point. Still, I have my people.

Or do I? In recent years it has been difficult for me to converse with some of my working-class relatives and neighbors without their thrusting their diehard support of our former president between us. There was a time when we rarely talked about politics, but now I feel as though I am always being tested: Are you one of us? And I want to ask them: Who have you become? Why so many in the working class support the man in the big suit and dress shoes—a man whose catchline was “You’re fired!”—is a question the media have tried to answer by sending reporters on cultural safaris into working-class diners and homes or by harvesting tidbits from the research of sociologists and political scientists. The various theories often contradict one another, but most of them imply the same condescending question: Why would these people support a political candidate who will surely work against their material interests? The journalists don’t actually say or write, “How can anyone be so stupid?”—but they don’t need to; it’s in their tone.

I don’t pretend to have a fully formed explanation for the working class’s flight from some of its old values and from the Democratic Party, but I am sure that stupidity has little to do with it. If you draw a line from Bill Clinton’s support for NAFTA to Hillary Clinton’s remark about “deplorables,” that line will run through a lot of other betrayals and slights by Democratic politicians. You can begin to see why, for some of those working-class voters who feel they have lost everything, revenge might taste sweet even when it involves self-harm. 

My father built a small off-grid hunting cabin on land he had purchased in the hills seventy miles south of Buffalo, spending weekends and vacations digging the foundation, pouring the footer, sawing lumber, pounding nails, giving materiality to a dream he’d had for years. One weekend we found that someone had broken in, had emptied a bottle of whiskey, and had trashed the place. “If I ever find out who did it,” my father said, “I’ll do the same to his house. If he doesn’t own a house, I’ll do it to his car.” I pointed out what my father already knew: the police would most likely never catch the vandal, but my father might be arrested and go to jail. He smiled and nodded, and then said, “It’ll be worth it.” I said nothing, but thought, “Not to me.”


So here I am: someone neither rich nor poor who feels alienated from the American middle class, whatever that now means. Someone who identifies with more of the dead than the living. Maybe I’m now what John Lennon seemed to think was impossible—classless and free—but if I am, my freedom is disturbing. The working class I knew is mostly gone. I feel like I did two autumns ago when I undertook a bushwhack through thick forest in the region where I live and was enchanted by the sights and sounds around me until suddenly I realized I had lost my way back home.

Mark Phillips is the author of My Father’s Cabin and Love and Hate in the Heartland.

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Published in the April 2023 issue: View Contents
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