Monday, April 4, 2016

Rurality and recent political attention to the white working class (Part II: White trash)

In Part I of this series, I summarized some recent political attention to poor and working class whites and observed how some of that attention suggests a conflation between this demographic and rural Americans.  I now plan to roll out still more evidence that we are conflating this group with rural Americans.  Exhibit A for this post comes from historian Nancy Isenberg's forthcoming book, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America (Viking, June, 2016).  WNYC interviewed Isenberg last month for a story titled "America's Long (Unaddressed) History of Class."    Implicit in that headline is "whiteness" because what Isenberg is really writing about (as a historian) is what I've been writing about for the last few years (as a law professor and critical race scholar):  that which is at the particular intersection of whiteness (implicit--perhaps foremost--in that:  white skin privilege) and low socioeconomic status (what the headline refers to simply as "class").  Whatever you call "it," it is highly unpalatable.  

Here is an excerpt from the WYNC interview with Isenberg:  
NANCY ISENBERG:  But one of the things that I think most people would find really surprising is that the Southern planter elite, before the Civil War, valued their slaves more than they valued white trash because slaves were at least productive. 
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And actually, the phrase “white trash” emerges around the time of the Civil War, right? 
NANCY ISENBERG: Yes, because it's part of the language that is adopted by the Republican Party when they critique the South and the slave economy. This is when they begin to see the poor white trash as this dangerous offshoot. They see their children as old before their time, shriveled. They are described as a curious species.
And they ask this question, are these really Americans, how could America have produced such people? They are seen as dangerous, a group that, by the eugenics period, it’s not enough to just assume that we can dump them somewhere. Now you have to make sure that they can't reproduce. 
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There is one point in our history, you note, when there was active intervention to actually improve the lives of the poor. You had FDR's New Deal, though it was largely aimed at the white population. 
NANCY ISENBERG: Suddenly, 20 percent of the population is out of work. You can't just blame one group for being an inferior breeder, you can't just blame them for somehow being lazy and idle, because now a large portion of the population find themselves short of their ability to be productive members of society. Suddenly people are willing to listen and think about the poor and look at them in a very different way. And this is one of the things that, you know, James Agee captured so beautifully, when he argued that to understand the poor we have to understand that we, the middle of the elite class who shame them, have contributed to the problems that they face.
On that final point, I do wonder if that is precisely what the "middle of the elite class" were (are) trying to do:  deny they have any part in the struggles of the white poor.  One way to divert attention from the animosity of elite whites toward poor whites is to attribute the lion's share of social problems, of  income and wealth inequality, for example to racism.  Isn't it easier for whites to blame these problem on racism than to acknowledge the toxic intra-race animus at the heart of "white trash"?

Also, I am not sure I agree with Isenberg that the discovery that a fifth of the population might be "white trash" necessarily caused a re-thinking of the term.  Indeed, I fear that the more whites become poor, the more elite whites become comfortable with expanding the definition of the term to include all "other" whites.

The story/transcript is well worth a read in its entirety, but here's the part that most squarely supports my assertion that "white trash" is a primarily rural phenomenon--at least historically, and perhaps still in our national imaginary.  
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Even if squatters weren't particularly respected or trusted, they had to be pandered to every few years, in order to get people elected. And you mention the story of the Arkansas traveler from 1840. 
NANCY ISENBERG: Yeah, the Arkansas traveler tells the story of a rich politician canvassing in the backcountry, and he asks a squatter for some refreshment. The squatter is seated on a whiskey barrel and he ignores him. And the politician is obliged, in order to get his refreshment, in order to get his vote, to, you know, jump off his horse, grab the squatter’s fiddle and show that he can play his kind of music. 
And that, I think, eerily is a, a recurrent problem with our American democracy. What we really have is a democracy of manners, not a real democracy. And what I mean by that is that we accept huge disparities in wealth but we demand that our politicians sound like us or dress like us.
And that, I suppose, brings us to this, with still more "rural" illustrations to explain the rise of Trump.

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