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What we learn about the middle class by studying the rich

Anne Helen Petersen talks to sociologist Rachel Sherman about class, inequality, and what it means to be a “good” rich person.

Vox Conversations

Do you think of yourself as middle class? If the answer is yes, then I’d ask ... why? Are you middle class because of your actual income? Or does it have more to do with how you think of yourself: not poor, not rich. Not too unfortunate, but not too privileged either?

Over the last few months, I’ve been immersing myself in thinking about the idea of the middle class. It’s an identity that most Americans claim, but we’re really bad at talking about it honestly. And when we can’t have an honest conversation about class identity, it’s a lot harder to even begin tackling this country’s vast inequality.

Rachel Sherman’s work has given me new ways of thinking about it. She’s a professor of sociology at the New School in New York who delves into class identity.

Her latest book, Uneasy Street, is one of the most illuminating I’ve read about the middle class — even though it’s actually about the rich. Rachel conducted dozens of interviews with rich New Yorkers, and found that many of them expressed significant anxiety about their own wealth. Not that they were going to lose it, necessarily, but that they had it in the first place. Her interview subjects seemed to be constantly trying to figure out what it meant to be a “good” rich person, which often meant attempting to erase the lines between them and middle-class people.

So for this week’s episode of Vox Conversations, Rachel and I talked about those interviews and about what those people’s anxieties reveal about American class status and class identity today.

And I hope what you’re about to hear will help you think about the stories we tell ourselves about class — and how those stories often work to obscure, or at least perpetuate, inequality. Listen to the entire conversation here:

In the tradition of Ezra Klein’s conversational and intimate interviews, Vox Conversations brings you new weekly discussions between the brightest minds and the deepest thinkers; conversations that will cause listeners to question old assumptions and think about the world and our role in it in a new light. It’s also your go-to spot for five years’ worth of Ezra’s conversations with guests from Barack Obama to Isabel Wilkerson.

If you have thoughts about the show or suggestions for future guests or guest-hosts, email us at voxconversations@vox.com.

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