Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Are poor rural whites a cultural minority?

In examining the cultural backdrop of persistent poverty counties (re: PPC Blog), it became evident that persistent poverty in rural areas is often heavily associated with the oppression of a minority group within that area. Usually this oppression results from the racial stratification of power but two of the regions overwhelmingly affected by rural persistent poverty are populated primarily by white households; Appalachia and parts of the upper highlands of the south or also known as the lower Ozarks of the Appalachia (Arkansas, Missouri and eastern Oklahoma). The experience of the multi-generational impoverished whites in these two areas repeatedly begs the question of whether rural white poor people can be distinguished from the dominant white majority as their own cultural, or even "racial", demographic.

What else defines whether a group is a racial or cultural minority? Generally, a cultural minority might have a shared history or experience, possibly a shared language or dialect and sometimes a shared locational similarity. Race can be further defined as sharing a common racial or ethnic identity or heritage. It may be hard to distinguish white rural poor people as their own racial minority. White poor rural poor people still share the racial identity and heritage of the white majority and though some historical examples support poor white persons as their own race (as discussed later), it may be more appropriate to consider rural poor whites as their own oppressed cultural, not racial,minority.

Myrtle Reul of Michigan State University brings attention to an array of rural poor minorities of diverse races in her book The Territorial Boundaries of Rural Poverty (1974) including recognizing the struggles of the mobile migrant rural poor populations and forgotten white poor populations outside of Appalachia, like minority religion Amish or Mennonite poor populations. Within politics of power and oppression, racial minorities are restricted from power and access to resources through oppression by the dominant race or class. Acknowledging this pattern, Reul describes that poor rural whites could be considered a minority in and of themselves because the "whites who live in rural poverty..are isolated from full participation in the dominant society."(pg.182)

If lack of access to participation defines majority/minority status, then impoverished rural whites, especially with spatial isolation as a common trait of rurality, could be viewed as a minority group based on their heavily oppressed access to the resources and powers enjoyed by the dominant group.

My home state of Oklahoma is one of the less than half of the states in the country to include persistent poverty counties. Unlike the other PPC regions, Oklahoma lacks a solid cohesive historical experience to easily define what cultural oppressions led to such generational persistent poverty. The persistently poor counties in Oklahoma are mostly in the eastern edge of the state.

Like most of Oklahoma, these areas have been drastically affected by both the forced relocation of Native Americans and the Land Rush that opened up Oklahoma to settlement by what was usually the poorest of poor whites. Alvin Turner, in his historical essay in Alternative Oklahoma:Contrarian Views of the Sooner State (Joyce 2007), describes the complicated histories of Native American oppression specific to the Oklahoma counties in question (pg.156). These stories of genocide and assimilation are similar to the rest of the experiences of tribal persons across Oklahoma, and this racial experience certainly contributes to the persistent poverty of the area. But Native American populations are spread throughout the entire state, and the PPC experience is limited only to the eastern edge of the state.

The counties in question shared a similar southern share cropper history more closely related to neighboring southern states than the rest of Oklahoma as evident from old agricultural maps in The Geography of Poverty by Richard Morrill of the University of Washington (1971,pg.119-138). This agricultural experience could be the cause of the mostly white persistent poverty in this area. As well, these counties are located in one of the parts of Oklahoma that experiences spatial location due to the Ouachita mountain range. Like their isolated Ozarkian and Appalachian peers, these counties experience the deprivation of isolation associated with persistent poverty and are also mostly comprised of white populations.

These counties also share a common history amongst the rural white populations, a history that includes their previous generations being considered white "racial minorities". In an earlier compilation by Joyce titled An Oklahoma I had Never Seen Before (1994) numerous scholars discuss the history of Scotch Irish settlement in Oklahoma, especially the eastern counties (pg.6). One of these contributors, Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz is a UC academic and longtime activist,feminist, and historian. In most of her books, including RedDirt and Outlaw Woman, Ortiz uses her mixed ancestry family as an example of the multiple racial experiences of poor rural Oklahomans. Specifically, she often speaks to the shared cultural experience and oppression, the shared dialect, language and appearance and share identity and history of Scotch Irish poor whites who were allowed to colonize what Native American land was left during the early 1900s. This provides one example of how poor rural whites in the past have been socially viewed as their own "racial" minorities.

Even Oklahomans descended from the white minorities who have since shed their country of origin accents and other "racial" markers over generations, can still experience social isolation or stereotyping as "Okies." "Okies" could be considered a white cultural minority in the least, if not even possibly a racial minority due to the shared identification, relocation and oppression of poor Oklahoma rural white populations during the Dust Bowl.

All of these examples coupled with the overwhelmingly shared experiences of rural white poor people despite the specific location of their experience strongly encourage that the rural poor white experience is one so limiting and unique that it should be differentiated from the experience of the rest of the white majority population.


Jen Wickens said...

Your post raises a lot of great points about the stratification of white America. However, as we discussed in class, poor, rural whites can more easily migrate between economic and social classes because their skin color isn't an automatic tell. While class migration probably is not that common among the white rural poor, it is certainly an advantage.

N.P. said...

I tend to agree to a certain extent with Jen's comment - because of the nature of their skin color it gives them some sort of authority or position that perhaps a minority in a similar position would not have.

Nonetheless, I think there is a tendency to neglect to assess class within studies of white America. Of course this occurs when assessing any type of ethnic minority, but rather than considering stagnant notions of class, race, or gender separately - I feel like this post is further asserting the need to assess all three together somehow.

Dusty said...

Like you both seem to be addressing with your comments, there isn't an easy answer to this question. I also struggle to accept "white" minorities as a racial minority, and lean towards more acceptance of white rural poor as a cultural minority position. People who are percieved to be white in social interactions will benefit from more power and less oppression than a similarly situated person of color. What continues to return me to the issue of whether poor rural whites could be considered a different race is the historical context of a variety of white "minorities" being considered "non-white" during the colonization of the US. Many of these "non white" white populations were the generational predecessors of much of todays rural white poor populations. Racial identity is more complicated than both skin color and history. It also speaks to a location of origin, shared cultural or social context, implied position of power (or lack there of), and many other characteristics used to generalize about what creates a racial class. I still don't think of rural poor whites as a racial minority, but I am definetly thinking a lot more about the similarities between these oppressed minority groups in the context of history, isolation, poverty and identity definition.

Dusty said...

Its also important to mention in this discussion that these “non white” white minorities in the past were often charged with and intentionally sought out to colonize and assimilate the local persons of color. So even though in the historical context these populations were considered “non white”, they still maintained the privilege of middle minority status and continued the efforts of colonizing people of color.

RH said...

Wow, this is a really interesting discussion. When you talk about "non-white" whites throughout history I can't help but think of the Irish immigrants to the U.S. after the potato famine in the 1800s. They were hated, and were a clearly separate "race" to the people of the time. Although a lot has changed since then, it seems very plausible that certain white cultures are still very much viewed as an "other."

Anonymous said...

I think it is an interesting discussion. My Father and Mother came from a generational poor white family. They lived in Louisiana. And both families originally lived throughout the southern states. The pattern I noticed, Is abandonment and substance abuse was very common on both sides. Many of the male family members hardley worked while there wives did work. My father left and went to college. His 5 other siblings also were able to get out of poverty. My mother married several other times. And now lives in a Rural area in Texas and she still lives in poverty. My belief is that for many generations it becomes a part of life and you have no urge to change. And many of my relatives lacked formal education. Many could barley. Luckily for me and my other siblings, My dad and his siblings broke out of poverty. I wonder has anybody done a study to see if abandonment and Substance abuse were common among this cultural group? also is there lack of formal education? Just curious.

Anonymous said...

First, I take issue with the homogeneity of the words, "poor rural whites". That is a problematic and misleading designation being given to a plethora of distinct people and cultures. Cajuns, Appalachians, and Pennsylvania Dutch, to name a few, are unique groups that deserve to be recognized as such, and not bundled together under the umbrella of 'rural white'. In fact, in doing so you only undermine the struggles and challenges faced by these specific groups of people. So no, I don't consider "poor rural whites" to be a 'cultural minority'(although they are all oppressed) because I don't consider them to be a 'culture'. I do however, consider the distinct populations that comprise rural whites to be cultural and ethnic(perhaps not racial) minorities that face severe discrimination in modern America that is comparable to most other racial and religious minorities. Take a look at these groups when they migrate to urban areas. You will find that they do not generally assimilate with mainstream Whites instead forming there own separate communities. I suppose it's similar to the Gullah and Low Country peoples in relation to typical Black Americans, being the same in appearance but having very different cultures, histories, and dialects. In any case these groups certainly deserve recognition and representation as much as other minorities.