Americans like to pretend that we live in a classless society
September 25, 2001 5:59 PM   Subscribe

Americans like to pretend that we live in a classless society but we don't, not by a long shot. I caught this PBS documentary a few days ago called People Like Us (the link is to the companion site) which focusses on class in the US (what it means, how it works) in a refreshing way. I'm sure they'll be replaying it soon. I didn't much care for the companion site, but it did provide a link to this creepy marketing service that tells you what sorts of people live in your neighborhood (based on your zip code) and what products they're likely to buy.
posted by wheat (21 comments total)
I am surprised that you just found this about "equality" in class in America. The Founding Fathers knew about such things way back then...and it has not and will not change. For a nice treatment of the subject in a very readable book try Class (in paper) or it may be titled Class In America, by Paul Fussell.
posted by Postroad at 6:12 PM on September 25, 2001

How many people actually believe that they live in a classless society? I'd wager that very few americans believe this. Is the fact that classes exist bad in and of itself when people can move out of the class they are born to? This was shown in the show by the girl from some backwater who ended up as a journalist in DC. Indeed, the program appeared to make the point that a large part of class structure is self enforced (i.e. people ashamed of getting above their position).

Mobility is harder though when classes break along racial lines.

This was a great show BTW.
posted by phatboy at 6:18 PM on September 25, 2001

Crap. Apparently everyone in my town watches Frasier.
posted by whatnotever at 6:20 PM on September 25, 2001

Apparently my neighbors like to:
* Shop at Wal-Mart
* Go bowling
* Eat Grape Nuts
* Watch QVC Network
* Read Golf

I'm so ashamed. There was some other cluster thing that listed rodeo fans as being in my ZIP code too. At least the rent is cheap out here. I'm still tempted to lie and say I live in 55124 instead.
posted by kittyb at 6:43 PM on September 25, 2001

I watched this show and enjoyed it to some extent, but I think that its premise that class is some big American cultural bogeyman is utter twaddle. It took the stories of a handful of people then tried to use them to reach a bunch of lopsided generalizations about our society as a whole.

That being said, the segment on Baltimore "hons" was fabulous and any show featuring Joe Queenan can't be a total waste of time.
posted by MrBaliHai at 6:46 PM on September 25, 2001

wheat: *You* may have found the link to the marketing service "creepy," but I typed in our zip read the results aloud & my husband & I laughed & laughed! ...Any advertiser who takes this site's advice deserves what it gets, which will be zilch thanks for the fun.
posted by realjanetkagan at 6:56 PM on September 25, 2001

Well, I tried for 'Young Literati', but ended up smack in the middle of middle middle class. Better go buy a TV.
posted by hellinskira at 6:58 PM on September 25, 2001

Wars just aren't really wars these days. Democracy isn't democratic, terrorism is nearly impossible to define and the hierarchy of class is just so difficult to map.

I bet it was easier when you shot the guy across from you in the opposite trench, when leaders wrote their own speeches and you could tell what class a person belonged to by their odor alone. At least we've held onto the concept of revenge.
posted by hug99 at 7:04 PM on September 25, 2001

"Americans like to pretend that we live in a classless society"

sez you pal.

us free-thinkers been knowing about this forever.
posted by jcterminal at 7:36 PM on September 25, 2001

(1) Nobody thinks America has no classes. people do think (with some accuracy) that America does not have a class system with the rigidity and dependence upon birth that characterizes much of the rest of the world, and much of Europe in particular (although maybe less so in the UK in recent decades).

What defines a traditional class system is not the oppression of the poor or the advantages the rich give themselves and their children (which are universal constant) but, rather, the exclusion from the corridors of power and societyof those who do triumph over those universals and rise into the nouveau riche .

In the US, nouveau riche are the complete equals of those to the manor born in many if not most aspects of American society, are their distinct superiors in a few (where the striver and entreprenuer is lionized, the heir is often regarded with a bit of disdain), and in those few areas where the nouveau riche themselves are a little marginalized, they are free to buy their children in.
posted by MattD at 8:40 PM on September 25, 2001

Even though I'm an atheist, I've always found the term 'free-thinker' problematic. Is everyone else then a 'fettered thinker'? As for the line about Americans liking to think we live in a classless society, that was my take on the show's theme, not an indication of my own beliefs or wishes. I'm fairly doubtful that there could be such a thing as a classless society (the entire goal of socialism). I've studied class a bit, read my Marx and took a trip through neo-Marxism as well. I felt the show did a good job of presenting the complex emotions that people have about class. It could have easily been a dry, pedantic, pseudo-marxist expose. It wasn't, and I'm glad it wasn't.
posted by wheat at 8:46 PM on September 25, 2001

(2) The on-line samples that you can get by plugging your zip code into the demographics engine are laughably broad.

However, if you hire these companies and pay them their high-five-to-low-six-figure fee, you get some truly amazing data, localized down to blocks. They parse public census data and virtually every other public data source (education, crime, age, etc.) and also apply a very broad range of proprietary information, utilizing 100+ indicators of age, income, wealth, family structure, and spending patterns.

These data drive local media buys by advertisers and economic investment to a tremendous extent. Everyone from banks in lending to supermarkets in locating to insurers in risk-rating take them very, very seriously.
posted by MattD at 8:46 PM on September 25, 2001

This guy reminds me of me. Maybe I should be on PBS.
posted by Loudmax at 9:29 PM on September 25, 2001

I had fun with this by putting in today's zip code as well as old zip codes where we used to live back when we were just married - struggling financially and having our first kid. I am proud to say we graduated through several moves from Blue-Chip Blues, Mobility Blues, Gray Collars and Southside City 18 years ago, to Winner's Circle, Executive Suites, Pools & Patios and Second City Elite today. It's the American dream played out in demographics!
posted by JParker at 11:08 PM on September 25, 2001

Holy crap... My neighbors need to learn how to share. Hoarding bastards...
posted by dopamine at 11:20 PM on September 25, 2001

This PRIZM Cluster is most likely to...

Go horseback riding

Buy romance novels

Own a pick-up

Watch nostalgia TV

Read fraternal magazines


Nail on the head for my zip code.
posted by bjgeiger at 11:38 PM on September 25, 2001

Fun also to trace your roots. Where my mom grew up:
36401 - Grain Belt, Rustic Elders, Back Country Folks, Scrub Pine Flats, Hard Scrabble
Where my dad grew up:
39401 - River City USA, Rural Industria, Mines & Mills, Back Country Folks, Scrub Pine Flats
Makes me appreciate them all the more!
posted by JParker at 11:59 PM on September 25, 2001

A zip code is too broad of a criteria. I live in 22180, and by the look of it, by neighbors are really, really well off. Most of them don't look that well-off. (Groups 1,2,3,4)

I saw a show on "class in the US" this Sunday, albeit a different one. The show I saw seemed kinda pointless in the sense that it focused on persuading people that we live in a class-based society, but it did nothing to address a greater issue: how rigid is this class structure? Can one move among classes? Those are the questions that really matter. In my opinion, "class" in the US is mostly mased on cold, hard cash. It is also my opinion that everyone has a shot at making a lot of cold, hard cash. Therefore, although we do live in a "class" based society, it doesn't matter much, as people can move between classes.
posted by Witold at 7:50 AM on September 26, 2001

The thing about class in America is that it isn't as obvious as, say, Britain. The lines of distinction are fuzzier and one's ability to move between classes is more fluid. In other words, while America is not a totally "open" society, it's more open than some.

I think issues of race and gender have taken the front seat in our national dialogues over the years. That's why I thought this program was so interesting. It started to bring the issue to the top.

Growing up in a diverse, multicultural neighborhood (before someone even invented these terms), I'd say that our school groups were cemented more by class than by race (I went to a school that was approx. 1/3 Black, 1/3 White, and 1/3 Latino).
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 8:04 AM on September 26, 2001

My parents were surprised to find out that I am now a Hispanic.
posted by hellinskira at 6:02 PM on September 26, 2001

Taken Outtacontext: About those ingredients. Do you add water and stir, or do you just serve as is?
posted by allaboutgeorge at 5:35 AM on September 27, 2001

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