Wednesday, September 7, 2016

More on "white trash" and rurality in the context of this campaign season

The media continues to devote significant coverage to poor and working class white voters and their inclinations this election season.  Yesterday, linguist Geoff Nunberg appeared on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, commenting on the wide range of derogatory terms for poor whites, with one mention of rurality.  The headline is "A Resurgence Of 'Redneck' Pride, Marked By Race, Class And Trump."  Nunberg notes that the New York Daily News has called Trump's supporters "bigots, bumpkins and rednecks" while the New York Post has labeled them the "hillbilly class" and "white trash Americans."  Here is an excerpt.  
Back in 1989, the historian C. Vann Woodward said that "redneck," is the only epithet for an ethnic minority that's still permitted in polite company.  He could have said the same thing about "hillbilly" or "white trash."   
* * * 
Over the years, Americans have probably coined more epithets for poor whites than for any other group, even including blacks. Rednecks and hillbillies, white trash and trailer trash, Okies and Arkies, peckerwoods and pinelanders, crackers and clay eaters, mudsils and ridge-runners and dozens more.
Like others before him, Nurnberg observes that Americans don't find class-based prejudice as problematic as racism.  He goes on at length about "redneck" in particular, linking it to the rural. Noting that "redneck" initially suggested a white laborer from the South, "it soon became a label for uncouth working-class racists from any rural region."

And then there is the migration of the term not just from the South to other regions but also from rural places to urban settings.  This second type of migration is addressed by J.D. Vance in his NYT bestseller, Hillbilly Elegy.  That rural-to-urban migration is also suggested in this Nunberg piece, at least implicitly, where he talks about white-collar jobs--and how some doing those jobs may be (re)claiming the "redneck" terminology.
 In his 1983 song "Just a Redneck at Heart," Ronnie Milsap explained that wearing a suit and tie to your corporate job didn't disqualify you from being a redneck as long as you kept a copy of Field & Stream in your desk. 
Nowadays, everybody is eligible — a few years ago Donald Trump Jr. told an interviewer that his love of fly fishing and bow hunting made him a closet redneck. At that point, redneck isn't a class, it's a lifestyle choice. 
But whoever is claiming the label, redneck pride is always infused with attitude. When you call yourself a redneck you're not simply proclaiming your authenticity — you're calling out the scorn and condescension of the people who use the word as a slur. 
That's why the word always sounds a little belligerent, and why it encapsulates the populist anger and resentment that the Trump campaign has stirred. As the Los Angeles Times' columnist Gregory Rodriguez put it, "You know you're a redneck when you're mad as hell and you just want to spread it around."

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