In all coverage that discussed Obama’s candidacy as “post-racial,” that noted how he transcended the race-based politics of the civil rights-era black leaders, it was rarely stated overtly that in most every way save skin color, the Obama who appeared on the national stage fit neatly into the perception in middle-class America—journalists included—of who its leaders should be. He went to Columbia and Harvard. He is affluent. He speaks like we do. No matter the uniqueness of his story, he is familiar to us. He is the embodiment of the truth that white, middle-class America—thanks in part to The Cosby Show—has attained a level of comfort with the now-substantial black middle class. But what about poor and working-class blacks? There the story gets a whole lot more complicated.
As always, there were exceptions. The Wall Street Journal’s Jonathan Kaufman got beneath the surface with a number of pieces he wrote about class in the campaign, including one particularly sharp article that dealt with the class divide in the black community. But as the Cosby Show article reminds us, class still doesn’t register in any broad or meaningful way in our mass media. However uneven and incomplete the conversation in the press was about race during the campaign, it was far more robust and evolved than the conversation about class, which was barely audible.
In fairness, the reporter who wrote the Times story probably had a day to do it and very little space to air out much complexity. But that is at least part of my point: How can we expect reporters who have little or no background with working class people—or poor people, or racial and ethnic minorities—to get beyond one-dimensional portrayals dominated by middle-class stereotypes if they aren’t encouraged to do so by their editors? If they aren’t given the time and the space to overcome their blind spots? Note to Bill Cosby and to Bill Keller: the well-intentioned reporter can only get so far by tugging on his own bootstraps; some institutional and systemic help is in order.
John Russo, who runs the Center for Working Class Studies at Youngstown State, says the resentment of the press among members of the working class is similar to the resentment of politicians. “Every four years they come to get their stories just like the politicians come to get their votes,” he says, “and then they’re gone.” The story of Obama’s victory in many of these “blue-collar hamlets” of Ohio and Pennsylvania says as much about the people there as it does about Obama. If the national media would spend a little more time exploring what happens in these parts of America between presidential campaigns, they might do a better job of explaining them when it comes time to hit the trail again.