Jay McLeod’s book demonstrates that racism is an issue which dominates proceedings in more ways than one. The issue of social mobility is discussed extensively in the book as it shows that class consciousness is still very much rife and intrinsic amongst us. McLeod comes up with all the sociological concepts which are part and parcel of our thinking and these include class structure, poverty, the dehumanization of work, etc.
“I ain’t going to college, who wants to go to college? I’d end up getting a shitty job anyway” (p. 3)
This is what an eleven year old boy from Clarendon Heights, Freddie Pinella says when confronted with the issue of going to college. McLeod emphasises the importance of observing roles of the working class people at close quarters and these are instrumental to a better understanding of the book. It is set in a working class neighbourhood in the United States where the lives of two men, one back and one white are traced over a period of twenty five years. McCleod focuses extensively on the life chances of each individual and their respective attempts at making the grade on a social and humanistic level.
The United States differs from other countries such as India and China in the way urbanization takes place and how it has evolved over the years. Principally this is due to the fact that there are a large proportion of immigrants in the US who have always been assimilated into society rather quickly and at several stages at once. McLeod’s book deals with the conflict faced by workers who have to assimilate themselves into a society which is based on class values in a top down situations
Another factor which obviously affects the way the United States has become urbanized when compared to other cities in Western Europe for example is due to the fact that US history is far more recent than other countries where settlement has been going on for thousands of years. One need only compare London and New York as typical examples where one notes the constant urban sprawl in London which by the early 1700’s was already a huge city with over a million inhabitants while New York was just a simple trading outpost with a population of less than 100,000.
“The depressed aspirations of Clarendon Heights youngsters are telling” (p. 4)
Things obviously changed as the decades went by and the massive influx of immigrants towards the US changed population conditions substantially. This could be seen principally in the large population centres such as Philadelphia and New York in the North and Atlanta and Jackson in the South. Comparing these urban population increases and trends with what happened in ancient cities such as Babylon is interesting and intriguing as it does demonstrate that the shifts were substantial in some ways but in others they were not. Basically the older cities took a lot more time to develop and to grow through a much slower process of urbanization when compared with US cities which have practically only recently exploded in the past 100 years or so with some increasing their respective populations by over 1000 per cent.
Another issue which is perhaps overlooked is the fact that transport completely changed the face of urbanization in the United states and this is what really brought about the population explosion in the West. The growth of railroads and the expansion of industrialization did actually bring about a massive influx of workers which eventually hugely increased the population of cities in California such as San Francisco and Los Angeles which themselves saw an incredible population implosion. One could compare and contrast here with what happened in Europe in the Industrial revolution especially in England where large factories sprung up in the big cities which saw a considerable influx from the country towns and villages with these people eventually settling into cities albeit in horrifying conditions. We observe what happens to both characters in their respective working class environments when faced with their work problems and issues.
Another aspect which was different in the United States was the effect of the Second World War. Whilst most European cities were bombed out and had to be rebuilt with different streetscapes and plans, the US saw an influx of servicemen coming back from the war who needed to be housed somewhere. A massive programme of new housing took place over the late 1940’s and the 1950’s which saw an incredible expansion of cities and new ones being built with the concept of suburbia becoming ever more pronounced. The GI Bill provided for housing at reduced rates for returning soldiers and this obviously affected the development of urban cities massively. The formation of personal home lenders such as Freddie Mac and Fanny May also guaranteed home loans at reduced interest rates.
Still the main reason for population expansion in the US was the influx of immigrants which give the country the multicultural society it is today. This can be compared to other cities in Europe which also had an influx of foreign workers who eventually settled there but nowhere is this more pronounced than in the US.
“I’ll have a regular house with a yard and all. I’ll have a steady job, a good job” (p 7)
Mcleod also focuses on the political economy which is obviously an important part of urbanization and how city life develops. Historically cities have always been left leaning in their politics possibly due to the fact that the vast majority of a city’s population is made up of those who come from the lower classes and these would tend to support the left welfare policy.
Obviously cities grow due to the fact that planned policies affect that growth. The rise of industrialized capitalization saw to the population explosions in various cities such as London, Birmingham and Leeds in England and similar growth was also experienced in New York, San Francisco and Philadelphia. A clear example of how political economy affects city life is the impact the developer and entrepreneur Robert Moses had on the growth of New York with his vast public works projects which changed the face of it forever and also brought about population shifts and trends which are still being felt to this day.
“All families living in Clarendon Heights are lower class. For a family of four to qualify for federal housing projects, their income must not be higher than $14,000 annually” (p. 101).
This statement shows the level of income which these families must work with. The Hallway Hangars and Boo Boo are roughly coming from this type of neighbourhood (p. 102).
Government obviously has an important role in urbanization not only in the way plans are made to increase and develop housing but also in social regeneration policies for depressed areas. This may mean that certain areas will require more funding than others to be regenerated but if this occurs then the full potential of certain areas will perhaps be achieved. This is unfortunately not always the case. Still living in a vibrant modern city can also be a life enhancing experience as the assimilation of cultures and practices have a refreshing influence on one’s way of life. Social participation is also far more pronounced in the city where rural life can tend to leave a person isolated and ignorant of certain political aspects.
“The lad’s nonconformist cultural innovations which ultimately contribute to the provision of class structure are often complex and contradictory” (p 20)
In conclusion, governments and real estate institutions play a pivotal role in the life of any city. Policies determine if the city will swim or sink while the town planners are ultimately responsible for making the city a better place. Observations by Engels in books such as ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’ only serve to exacerbate the poor side of city development.
This book focuses principally on the theme of social class divisions within education and how this is differentiated within various social classes who try to get the best sort of education for their children. Her observations are interesting as she splits schools according to their social class and one can note the striking differences in teacher attitudes and other aspects of the educational stream.
“The doorway and the area immediately outside it are the main activity areas of the Hallway Hangers’ (p 25)
McLeod’s description of what he terms as the working class school is instructive. Here he describes the fact that the procedure is intrinsically mechanical, there is no real room for imagination or departure from the rigidly set norms. Students are not allowed to intervene much in class and this obviously leads to a lack of enthusiasm and empathy with subjects and the actual curriculum. This type of approach obviously reflects the way children from the working classes are treated by society, they are deemed not to have too much opportunity on the life chances ladder so they are left to their own devices and are also emarginated in a sense. Thus students have little way of making it in the world and this approach is reflected in the way the two main characters react to their background and upbringing.
The description of the middle class schools also calls for some scrutiny. Here there is some more leeway in the way children are treated and there is a little more imagination in this respect. Although the teachers appear to be rigid and sometimes rather strict in what they attempt to do, the children can experiment with certain roles although again this is quite restricted and their opportunities for advancement are also a bit limited. McLeod explains that in these type of schools, ‘work is getting the right answer’ so one has to study profusely to achieve this aim at the end of the day.
In the affluent professional school we began to see a certain leeway in the manner with which students are treated. This is obvious as the parents here have a little more knowledge on what should be going on in schools so their input is much greater. McLeod describes the fact how students are allowed much more creative input into proceedings and the concepts applied to the classroom are also in themselves much more creative. Liberty at these type of schools is also much more pronounced with several children allowed out of the classroom at the same time and this is indicative of a laissez faire attitude consonant with the parent’s wealth and social status.
McLeod then moves on to the Executive Elite School where the children practically have the run of the place and are pretty much allowed to do whatever they want. The rapport between teacher and student is much more informal as the teachers are also in their sense, highly paid professionals who have their own initiative and can also do what they wish as long as the child improves analytic powers. In fact, he argues that these types of schools are much more focused on the children’s analytic powers and their eventual improvement. This perhaps is the school with the most potential for young children and it is an excellent opportunity to observe what social class differences can do.
McLeod would place himself in the affluent professional class sector due to the fact that she is intrinsically a professional with considerable experience in observing the class differences and social strata which are differentiated in the various types of schools. Her social commentary indicates the almost racial segregation in the school system which was actually tried and tested in the Deep South in the 1970’s when affluent white parents set up their own schools and foundations so that their children need not mix with black pupils in public schools. Obviously this type of segregation is not really present in this analysis but still, the children from the higher classes are shielded and insulated from the others and inhabit their own sheltered world where they consistently excel in every way.
Stereotypes are intrinsically wrong as they create an image of a person which apart from being incorrect, may incite others to violence. Racial stereotypes remain the most harmful of all as can be seen in the case of the Jew Leo Frank who was lynched by a mob of men in Marietta, Georgia in 1916 due to the fact that it was assumed that he was guilty of the murder of the child Mary Phagan due to the stereotype inflicted on Jews, that of lustful, money minded, brutal rapists. Unfortunately America still has some stereotypes ingrained in its society and these will not go away easily as past history has taught us on a regular level. The racial stereotyping which is subtly demonstrated throughout the book shows that life cannot be taken for granted and that if you are born into a certain sector of society it is rather hard or actually impossible to arrive at a successful level of life enjoyment.
McLeod’s book is a powerful indictment of the upper classes dominance viz a vis the working class. The fate of the two central characters is instructive as they do not have much chance of improving their class situation which leaves them chronically unemployed and on the fringes of society.