In American society, social class is everywhere and nowhere at once. We know it exists, we talk around it all the time, but we rarely step back and examine class and its implications.
But the outstanding two-hour PBS special "People Like Us: Social Class in America" (Sunday at 9 p.m. EDT) is willing to discuss it, with results both humorous and sad. Naturally, your social and economic status will dictate your reaction to many of the stories here, particularly pertaining to cement lawn ornaments (tacky or attractive?).
"People Like Us" reveals that most Americans consider themselves middle-class, making it easy for most people to laugh at the rich snobs and sympathize with the dirt-poor. But more than anything, this program shows us true characters, amusing people who hang from every rung of the country's social ladder.
There's the elderly lady who complains about white bread ("Absolute putty!' she exclaims, mushing up a piece in her hand. "This is just starch and water and air!") in a vignette on the fight over whether a chain grocery store or a co-op should occupy prime real estate in Burlington, Vt.
The bread lady prefers the co-op, but low-income residents want a regular grocery store. They want the 99-cent white bread and fear the co-op is too expensive. They also feel as if those who run it are trying to force their vegetarian, organic lifestyle upon them.
A more sobering story looks at the life of Tammy Crabtree of Waverly, Ohio, who lives in a dilapidated trailer and walks 10 miles to and from her job at Burger King each day. Her son is embarrassed by her and by his own social class.
While he hopes to get ahead, a segment in Appalachia shows the resentment of locals toward a woman who goes to college and gets a job in Washington. They fear she'll "get above her raisin"' and forget where she's from.
"I don't think getting ahead is a value here," she says. "The most important thing is to stay where you are."
Another segment looks at cliques in a wealthy Austin, Texas, high school, where student Cherish Dobrezinsky rattles off a list of "types," including jocks (football players), preps (baseball players), freaks, goths, dorks, skaters, Mexicans, artsy people, band members, etc.
These are just some of the skirmishes in the class wars that play out in society every day.
"A generation ago, when you sent your kids to private school, it was because you didn't like black people," says social critic Joe Queenan. "Now when you send your kids to private school, it's because you don't like poor people."
In Queenan's segment, the satirist looks at the importance of kitchen gadgets and all things Mediterranean among socially conscious baby boomers.
He says concerns about what others think of them even leads people to buy books they have no intention of reading. "Everybody has 'Angela's Ashes,' but nobody's read it because it's too depressing," Queenan says.
"People Like Us" also looks at social class as defined by race, particularly among African-Americans, whose members of the middle class are considered sell-outs by some members of the working class.
The most amusing part of the program comes in the form of admitted White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Thomas Langhorne Phipps of Long Island. His arrogance and pomposity has to be heard to be believed. He proclaims: "We stand better, we walk better, we dress better, we eat better, we're smarter, we're more cultured, and we treat people better."
The program comes to no grand conclusions on the meaning of class but simply and effectively explores what the classes think of themselves and each other. Though some of the statements may seem obvious ("America is a nation of tribes - people we live amongst, people we feel comfortable with"), this is a conversation we have all too rarely.
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