of sandwiches and cultural exclusion

David Brooks, liberals’ favorite conservative, came out with an(other) entirely Brooksian column today, this one riffing on Richard Reeves’s important, if flawed, book, Dream Hoarders. Reeves essentially argues that there are lots of structural barriers to the bottom 80% of the US income ladder moving into the top 20%, and that we should therefore pay less attention to the 99%/1% division than to the 80%/20% division. (A better version of a similar argument is in Chris Hayes’ fantastic book, The Twilight of the Elites.)

Brooks, though, knows better than all those zoning laws, rigged college admissions, and so on. Really:

I’ve come to think the structural barriers he emphasizes are less important than the informal social barriers that segregate the lower 80 percent.

Okay, well, not to get too academic about it, but what’s your evidence for rejecting the main thesis of the book in favor of, well, every Brooks column of the past umpteen years?

Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.

American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, “You are not welcome here.”

Most of my Twitter sphere has pilloried this (correctly, I think) as mistaking the cause for the expression (or, at most, mechanism) of class-based exclusion. But then there’s a backlash (e.g., here), claiming insensitivity; that cultural capital is “real,” and that those making fun of Brooks are just showing that he’s right.

But here’s the thing. Brooks’ claim isn’t just that cultural capital exists, or that it is one of the ways inequality is expressed. He specifically claims that cultural capital causes the persistent inequality between the 20% and the 80%. That’s utterly implausible, if for no other reason than that learning the names of sandwiches is free (unlike expensive housing and college prep tutors). I believe that people with working-class backgrounds feel uncomfortable in the face of massified sophistication. That doesn’t mean the discomfort causes the inequality.

Other points on the column:

  • It’s not plausible that the sandwich names are “completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class.” Most people, regardless of class background, are able to learn new terms for things (tweet, iPhone, MAGA, e.g.).
  • Because of that, cultural capital is particularly susceptible to “inflation” — today’s highbrow signifier is tomorrow’s Beanie Baby.
  • To wit, those fancy Italian names are kind of passe at this point–at least in my area, it’s stylized working-class food that signifies upper-class hip. Places like Merritt’s Grill and the Saxapahaw General Store.
  • Food is a signifier, yes. It’s also an art form. Like other art forms, its function as signifier can’t be separated from its function as art. That’s the genius of Bourdieu (can’t believe I used those two words in the same sentence). But the way food-as-art is discussed leaves it more open to crudely anti-intellectual/anti-intraceptive positions than other forms of art would be. Could we imagine Brooks claiming that the chief message of Monet is “You are not welcome here?” Of Beethoven, or Hamilton? I’m not saying that whatever second-rate overpriced sandwich shop he went to is the Emperor’s Concerto, but there’s no particular virtue in bad tex-mex any more than in Muzak due to their similar accessibility.

Bottom line: culture matters, and cultural exclusion is real. But structure matters more in reinforcing inequality. If you want a much more serious take on how culture and comparison play in inequality, I’d recommend my colleague Keith Payne’s new book, The Broken Ladder.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

8 thoughts on “of sandwiches and cultural exclusion”

  1. The sandwich argument has me completely mystified. I knew what most of those sandwich ingredients were before graduating high school, despite the fact that I grew up in a vegetarian household–because most of the food sources in my area were Italian. Apparently, Brooks thinks the working-class Italians I grew up with have an unusually high degree of cultural capital. (Mexican, unless you mean Taco Bell, was a much more recent import to the area, and when I was growing up only cultural sophisticates would have touched ceviche or tamales–yeah, it was pretty White. According to Yelp, today there is ONE Mexican joint to about 13 Italian ones in town.)

    So, my point is: geography and ethnicity are also sources of disparities in the type and content of cultural capital, and they overlap with but are not synonymous with class-based disparities. Consider ice hockey: it’s a pretty expensive sport in most of the U.S., but in certain northern areas–and in much of Canada–it’s the sport kids play in the backyard, even if they do with hand-me-down equipment. Only the most elitist/internationalist White people bother to learn the rules of cricket, but in South Asia and the Anglophone Caribbean (and their diasporas) it’s a mainstream passion of the working class. In the US, soccer is something White mothers chauffeur their kids to in Lexus SUVs, but poor kids in Central America and Africa play soccer with whatever ball they can find. Will those poor kids find that their participation in team sports provides them advantages in the job market in mid-life? Perhaps not, but that’s not because they played the wrong sport, it is because of structural barriers.

    There are exceptions, of course–rowing crew or sailing are clearly markers of class. But again, it’s the economic resources that prevent kids from taking up those sports, not cultural ones. Working class kids in coastal Maine and Rhode Island used to grow up pretty adept at handling boats, they just didn’t get on to college teams with their trawling skills.

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  2. There are competing explanations – I’m sure fear of embarrassment is an excellent one, as is an aversion to new experiences.

    The argument that “everyone” ought to know what soppressata is, on the other hand, seems to be deliberately missing the very real discomfort such situations can bring about. Hell, I couldn’t have told you what made it special (or that it was salami) before reading the article, and I rather enjoy salami. Ditto pomodoro, though I am less enamored with tomato.

    We shouldn’t forget that the lack of class comfort that lets us shrug and ask what something like Speck or Soppressata is keenly felt. I don’t know wine, but I am comfortable enough in this to simply say so – I have other capital to rely on.

    I don’t think that learning new terms as part of lunch is something everyone expects (or wishes) to do. I also think that if one rarely does this, being faced with it could be terrifying. All this is to say: I don’t agree with Brooks that exclusion is the *intent* of the opaque menus, but I think it is a latent function at the very least.

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  3. Seems worth unpacking this. I really liked Mikaila’s commment because it made me think of low brow Chinese places where a lot of the menu is in Chinese. I feel pretty uncomfortable there because I don’t read Chinese, but that does not mean that the Chinese folks who frequent the place necessarily have a lot of cultural capital. HOWEVER, what IS cultural capital is the elites’ ability to consume food across ethnic lines and claim the ability to define “authenticity” across a wide range of ethnic cuisines that are not from their own ethnic background. It is the “cultural omnivore” phenomenon that is tied to elite status and is used as a mode of class signification and exclusion. The places with snooty waiters and complicated food descriptions are not the same places as the local ethnic enclave places, and a posh place can make you feel really uneasy even if you know what everything on the menu is. However, the cultural omnivores like to be able to drop by the working class places of ethnicities not their own as tourists and sniff out authenticity, and that IS a practice of cultural exclusion.

    I actually agree with Andrew about the importance of structure and material differences, but I think it isn’t that hard to recognize the difference between the exclusionary elite omnivore practices and the fact that specific ethnic groups, including various varieties of working class White people, have their own cuisines.

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  4. I agree that the example is silly, and it’s a questionable take that all barriers are cultural, but what distinguishes the argument Brooks is making here vs. the objections of people who got up in arms over the SAT question about yachting a while back? (was it yachting? i remember it was some distinctively upper-class activity)

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    1. In my opinion, the problem is less that the SAT has a question about yachting–and more that it does not similarly have questions about things which people from poor and working class backgrounds are more likely to be familiar with. Discussions of cultural capital sometimes seem to assume that poor and working class people do not have any cultural capital, when what is really going on is that their cultural capital is not valued.

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  5. seems like this whole argument does not take into account the ways in which “structure” is also “cultural.” That is, given that “structure” is made up of regular and patterned social interactions (plus, if you want to include that, material objects, such as written papers, buildings, land, etc), this distinction falls apart. Think of how organizational practices and culture excludes women, minorities, etc. Is this “culture” or “structure”? If social networks are used to hire for jobs, is it that unrelated to how people eat their sandwitches? Of course, there are different kinds of culture (e.g., Swidler’s explanation of structure as “dead culture”) and this is partly an argument distinguishing those, but this misses the point that structures are also permeated by cultured interactions, and that this means that if “culture” affects inequality, than “structure” probably does too.

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  6. However, the cultural omnivores like to be able to drop by the working class places of ethnicities not their own as tourists and sniff out authenticity, and that IS a practice of cultural exclusion. Discussions of cultural capital sometimes seem to assume that poor and working class people do not have any cultural capital, when what is really going on is that their cultural capital is not valued.

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