Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Ted Williams Story Does Not Change Structural Classism

Below is a Blog Post I wrote about the recent media spectacle about Ted Williams, and the case's relationship to socioeconomic status, capitalism and classism in the U.S.   - Joelle Ruby Ryan

I struggle with writing this Blog.  I certainly don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade.  The Ted Williams story has taken the country by storm this past week.  Ted Williams was a homeless man from Ohio when someone took a YouTube video of him and his “golden voice.”  Williams had done voiceover work in his past and been successful but then fell into poverty and homelessness due to, among other things, substance abuse.  The YouTube video went viral and became an Internet  sensation, and then the mainstream media picked it up, and the rest, as they say, is history.  Williams is enjoying a new-found ride of celebrity and potential economic enrichment.  So what’s wrong with this feel-good public-interest story?

Well nothing, per se.  If William’s life dramatically improves from this, I think it is terrific.  For real.  The problem is more about what the media sensation conceals.  You see, it is no surprise that many people in America love a rags-to-riches story.  It is one of those deeply engrained cultural narratives that countless folks have clung to.  But how common is this narrative, really?  And why does the media spotlight such cases when the vast majority will never have such a meteoric rise up the social and economic ladder?

Classism refers to the institutional, cultural, and individual set of practices and beliefs that assign differential value to people according to their socio-economic class; and an economic system which creates excessive inequality and causes basic human needs to go unmet. (Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice.)  Within the capitalist framework of the U.S., people suffer mightily due to classism.  The gap between the haves and the have-nots grows exponentially wider.  Higher education is harder and harder to access.  People work more to make less.  Millions of people live in this society without any health insurance.  Approximately two million people in this nation are homeless.  While the government bails out the elite banks and companies and create more corporate welfare, the welfare of the human population is lost.  Over the past thirty years, beginning with the infamous Ronald Reagan, the human social safety net that had begin to be sewn in this country has been systematically shredded to bits.  It is not a good time to be poor, working-class or even middle-class.  There is tremendous anxiety about economic futures, and as well there should be.

So, in the face of this economic collapse comes Ted Williams, and the media globs on to him in its typically fervent way.  But Ted Williams doesn’t change the fact that the system, as it is constructed, is inherently unfair to lower-class people.  It doesn’t change the fact that people’s entire lives are destroyed by classism and by the vicious system of capitalism that so many others love to wave their flag to.  It doesn’t change the fact that many American families have been in poverty for generations, and that it has become ever more elusive to even imagine themselves climbing out of that state of poverty.  It doesn’t change the fact in the past few years we have been living through one of the worse red scares in this nation’s history, nor that any attempt to challenge classism is labeled waging “class warfare” by the rich and the powerful and the conservative.  It doesn’t change the fact that attempts by our President to make change, like in health care, has been met with the most ungodly amount of opposition from everyday citizens, as well as the medical, insurance and pharmaceutical industries.  It doesn’t change the particular and salient ways that poverty disproportionately affects People of Color, Women, People with Disabilities, Transgender/Transsexual People and other marginalized groups.  It doesn’t change the fact that the American Dream, if it ever existed at all, is now nothing but a long-lost myth, and that the Myth of Meritocracy continues unabated, even as it is rarely acknowledged or even discussed.  It doesn’t change the fact that class is STILL the green elephant in the living room and that from youth on up we are taught that is gauche to talk about money, salaries and the costs of things.

The vast majority of poor and working-class folks will not be saved a la Ted Williams.  They will continue to deal with the reality of the American class system and its never-ending brutality.  This is not to say that they are victims or that they have no agency.  Nor is it to completely negate the importance of taking some sense of personal responsibility.  It is simply to say that the problem of class in America requires systemic, structural change on multiple levels: individual, familial, community, institutional and cultural.  So if the Ted Williams story gives some peeps more hope or makes them feel good—that’s great.  But let us not be fooled that this is in any way a stand-in for prolonged, militant political struggle.  We have too much work to do, and the people suffering from classism have been waiting for far too long.


  1. I believe Ted Williams is one of the reasons class can be justified in our nation. He grew up and was a middle class man for most of his life until he lost his job. He then turned to drugs and went to jail a dozen times! No wonder he was homeless and lower class; it is his fault. It is great that he was able to get his act together but I feel like in situations such as his when he was a drug addict that couldn't work and being lower class is his fault.

  2. Each nation is so focused on sticking with their narratives that is creates a false perception of what the world really is. The "American dream" has been constructed around the rags to riches idea, but has been instilled so much into our brains that it has become a national obsession.

    Its no wonder America works more and has less vacation days than most other countries.