American Class & The Jungle
Some cultural geographics & review of terminology.
In my Peasant Theory, which is a functional class framework, there are only three. 85% of us are Peasants, a few of us are Geniuses, and a tiny set are Rulers. But this is not how Americans like to think about material income class, because we like leagues and meritocracy, which we should. So don’t think of the those as replacements, but overlays.
Here are the ways I think about the material classes, and basically I’m talking about financial status and how that orients you in society. Something that has been done well by Paul Fussell and so I borrow and recast a term of his. My categories are [Indigent / Poor / Working / Middle / Affluent / Rich / Wealthy / X]
But before I go on about the broad American classes, I once did write about the black American classes. These were tied to cultural geography. That was because I knew once I got into my career, I could live anywhere I want. At that point in my youth, I was looking to live in a neighborhood that resembled the sort of black friends I made in college. I didn’t realize it would be so difficult. At any rate, having grown up in black Los Angeles, I certainly knew from black class. In that framework, following Andrew Hacker in his book Money. I used a quintile. [Projects / Ghetto / Hood / Burbs / Hill]. I grew up in the Hood. Smack dab in the middle. You could say this quintile maps fairly closely to the following chart
My first best childhood friend whose dad and mine were college fraternity brothers, lived in the Burbs at the foot of the Hill. In LA that meant Baldwin Hills. Up the hill from Baldwin Hills were View Park, The Dons, Windsor Hills and later on Ladera Heights. Ladera is now probably the wealthiest majority black enclave in the USA, but it is relatively small and also Hood adjacent. It’s really not as safe as one would expect, but that doesn’t change the socio-economic facts. I remember a book written in the 80s called ‘Fear of Falling’ and I sense some of that from Ladera residents. I had a Ghetto girlfriend once, actually two from that place known to the world as The Jungle.
As I’ll probably have no further occasions to consider the Jungle, I’ll give you a brief rundown and then move on. In the 1960s, The Jungle was one of the newest and nicest instant neighborhoods around. After WW2, the Crenshaw Shopping Center was basically one of America’s first malls. Anchored by The Broadway and the May Company stores, at the vertex of a giant L, it was a marvel. By the time I arrived on the scene in the early 60s it was still posh with a Baskin Robbins and a Buster Brown shoe store on one wing and the legendary Karl’s Toy & Hobbies on the other end. The gigantic parking lot had sentries in elevated hooches who shooed us bicycle kids away. Our great temptation lay at the underground docks where trucks would unload merchandise. At each end of the docks lay two giant concrete ramps three stories tall. The challenge was to speed down the downside ramp, avoid trucks and keep up enough speed to get up the upside ramp. The Crenshaw Y lay to the southwest of the giant L and there were more stores, shops and nightclubs like Jerry’s Flying Fox.
Up and behind the shopping center lie a dense sprawl of two story apartments, many in a courtyard style with swimming pools and lush tropical plants. They had names like the Coco Palms, the Lanai and the Tropicana. My mother had a friend who lived in one of the nicer buildings with a pool. I loved going there, except that they all believed in UFOs. After a period of time which would be beginning around 1982 LA’s gangs started dealing drugs including sherm (PCP). That’s when everything started getting truly ugly and middle class blackfolks by and large left the Jungle for good. While there was some Section 8 housing there by 1980 and enough bangers to look over your shoulder, it went downhill fast. The Jungle is the birthplace of the Bloods, an aggregation of smaller gangs who joined forces to rival the Crips.
There may come a day when the Jungle is re-gentrified. I drove through there just a few weeks ago. I think it might be inevitable. But for now, it still looks like it did in Training Day.
I have long been attracted to cultural geography when I learned that I basically made enough money to live anywhere I wanted. My affluent friends and I, making progress on that corporate treadmill spent a lot of time thinking and talking about geographically desirable zipcodes, aka the GDZs. In fact, my roommate and I when throwing beach parties in LA’s affluent South Bay, called ourselves GDZ Productions.
Later on in life I put together one of my first online projects. So here’s a time machine back to the pre-interactive web and some of my social and political concerns of nearly 30 years ago. You know, after I got done with partying.
I have seen your posts regarding demographic information on the Usenet newsgroups and was wondering why you were interested in such information. There are not too many people who have reviewed such demographic and census information as thoroughly as you have and it seems that your work is still continuing. Curious minds want to know. Take care and stay focused.
There are a number of reasons but I'll try to be succinct.
#1. Publicizing this information helps people get a feel for the actual depth of the diversity of african america. it has only been about 12 years since most folks were seriously questioning the myth of the monolithic black community. but there is still not a clear recognition about what that diversity is. this is important for several important reasons.
Way back in the 90s when I wrote all in lower case I knew I was aiming to be more provocative than authoritative. When I think about the citations I made I still find it fascinating the extent to which the interwebz have not become curated by authoritative sources for the benefits of the common websurfer. At least not yet for these subjects although we’re trying to make progress at Free Black Thought. But yeah I guess I still have a thing for black diversity.
This five dollar word I learned from my second white collar job. I interned at the LA County Health Department working for my dad’s old boss. Her plan was to use block grant money from the State of California to implement an HMO style health plan for the medically indigent. We called it the Neighborhood Health Plan (NHP). This was 1982 at the start of the Reagan Era. I was on my way to college and built the interim capitation system prior to the purchase of DEC MUMPS. I did so on an Apple 2 having discovered something called DB Master by Stoneware. Basically the indigent are people who cannot take care of themselves, thus they are society’s most unfortunate. You remember I spoke about the fentanyl addicts in Philly’s Kensington. Those are the indigents. No permanent home. No permanent work. Few or no social and working skills. Kay Beving taught me how to use Visicalc, which was a miracle. She wrote the budget for the NHP and it was her job to report actuals back to the state. Alas the NHP failed because most of its participants will illegal immigrants who presumed the entire enterprise was a scam by the Migra. I learned a lot. You remember I spoke about the fentanyl addicts in Philly’s Kensington.
The poor are always with us and they vote. That’s because they have, most of them, a place to stay long enough when ends meet. But they work hard or hardly work from job to job. They learn hard lessons to survive, lessons that are not easily erased. When you are poor, you know you are poor because everything and everyone reminds you. It’s not just the grumbling of your stomach, it’s the grumbling of your neighbors and your parents. You are witness to the street level and you watch the dead cats bounce. You live above and below the safety nets and you crawl around them all. It’s a very interesting place to be intelligent, and a very dangerous place to be emotionally unstable. The future is what it is. The poor have very little insurance.
The Working Class are the folks who develop a blue or pink collar skill that’s their own. They work as hard as the poor, but generally it’s not a hustle. When you’re Working, you have enough time to see the future and time to think about it. You can get your kid that thing she wants for Christmas, and she had better appreciate it. Working class struggle is a shared narrative that only changes with large economic swings. On the whole it is stable. Army recruits are working class and there is the key. Working class stability depends upon the stability of large institutions that required skilled labor inside and outside of the trades. Once upon a time that was GM, General Electric and steel mills in Fontana, CA. Not so much any more. We’ve gone from blue to pink collar, which I think is sad. Sadder still, I’m not convinced there is a political fix. The smart money doesn’t like blue collar. They would have insurance if only our rulers weren’t so globalist. That could change.
It’s weird talking about the American middle class. It’s not what it used to be. You could say that everyone that is not rich or better or not poor or worse is middle class. That might be true but you couldn’t exchange the casts of any two middle class sitcoms and pretend the middle is all the same. Essentially, what’s middle class is what works such that families can reasonably afford to get through the average set of hiccups that life throws without too much upset. Credit is available. Transportation is available. People can dress appropriate to the season. People can expect to get all of their meals and all of their shots. There’s internet at the house. There’s some amount of social mobility for the next generation. There’s some amount of frustration that things could be better. That’s because middle class people can responsibly manage things within a margin of reasonable expectations. A broken leg doesn’t destroy the family. The middle class has insurance.
The affluent are the middle class on steroids. They pick and choose and make a big deal of their shopping habits. It’s not just a watch it’s that dress watch. It’s not just a car, it’s that car. It’s not just a house it’s that house in that neighborhood. There are degrees of affluence, of course, some of which can be toxic, but for the most part the affluent have disposable time, income and develop not just livelihoods but lifestyles as well. On the whole the fortunes of affluents may rise and decline, but somehow their sense of entitlement seems to stick to them. Just like the poor, they have had opportunities to crawl all around the apparatus of the safety net, breaking a few rules as they do. The affluent get to the trapeze and do somersaults to breathless applause. That kind of liberty sticks to you like it sticks to the poor. You never forget that you get to bend the rules. The affluent pay a lot to insure a lot of unnecessary items and situations.
When you’re rich, you don’t have to work. You can stop today and live a reasonably comfortable middle class life doing very little but enjoying it. If you have to work, you’re not rich. You can be rich and want to work, like a doctor in his 60s but that’s really all about wanting to retire affluent. What I think is most significant about the rich is that it is generally within their wherewithal to get a member of any class below them to the next level. Some very rich people can even make affluent people rich. Most rich people only do so for their children, fighting off various other claims from cousins they don’t respect. There tend to be working rich who make the money and idle rich who live off of it. I think the best part of being rich is the ease with which you may travel through society and the world, and the types of mistakes you can make without suffering too much pain. The rich are in that second way, often self-insured.
The job of the wealthy is to make enough trusted people affluent and rich so that their wealth is not subject to easy predation. One needs to make it in other people’s interest that your interests are assured. That’s the kind of insurance the wealthy need. Once a certain level of wealth is attained, one has any number of avenues from which to choose. I can’t say that I’ve had many of the wealthy confide in me although I’ve brushed by a few of them.
We don’t often think about the X class, and I reckon it’s almost impossible to define, but it must clearly exist. What I’ve mostly been talking about are identifiable classes of Americans, and I haven’t really talked about power in combination with wealth. Yet there are Americans whose combination of wealth and power puts them outside of standard categorizations. Following Fussell who spoke of the ‘up and out of the way’ wealthy people, these are the folks who can move quietly behind their agents. While I don’t engage in conspiratorial thinking, I’m inclined to believe that members of the X class require specific concessions from their governments so that they may operate in their interests. I believe that they get these concessions and thereby lock in their wealth in facilitating their own unique sort of capture. In that way the X have interests similar to the ordinary Wealthy in that they need a kind of legal assent to their hegemony. I imagine the ultimate expression of this would be ‘Mr’ Federal Reserve.
New Money vs Old Money
In both cases, the aim is to stay relevant with the right crowds and not self-destruct. I have discovered that amongst the old money, there is working money and idle money. The sole wealthy family I have come in contact with made that distinction vividly clear. I was friends with the idle money and there was no love lost between the factions.
My interest in all of this, aside from an enduring concern about asserting black diversity within the US, is the examination of what these various class interests facilitate or stifle with regard to whether or not We the People can manage to keep our republic. I need to keep these categories alive, because as someone quoting Kant yesterday reminded me, before you say what ought to happen, you need to first know if it can happen. As an enemy of wishful thinking I need share a clearer idea about the capabilities of various material classes in America as juxtaposed with their functional classes and what we specifically can do with our systems of communications and governance.