White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (2016)
America’s Strange Breed
The Long Legacy of White Trash
Two persistent problems have rumbled through our “democratic” past. One we can trace back to Franklin and Jefferson and their longing to dismiss class by touting “exceptional” features of the American landscape, which are deemed productive of an exceptional society. The founders insisted that the majestic continent would magically solve the demographic dilemma by reducing overpopulation and flattening out the class structure. In addition to this environmental solution, a larger, extremely useful myth arose: that America gave a voice to all of its people, that every citizen could exercise genuine influence over the government. (We should note that this myth was always qualified, because it was accepted that some citizens were more worthy than others—especially those whose stake in society came from property ownership.)
The British colonial imprint was never really erased either. The “yeoman” was a British class, reflecting the well-established English practice of equating moral worth to cultivation of the soil. For their part, nineteenth-century Americans did everything possible to replicate class station through marriage, kinship, pedigree, and lineage. While the Confederacy was the high mark—the most overt manifestation—of rural aristocratic pretense (and an open embrace of society’s need to have an elite ruling over the lower classes), the next century ushered in the disturbing imperative of eugenics, availing itself of science to justify breeding a master class. Thus not only did Americans not abandon their desire for class distinctions, they repeatedly reinvented class distinctions. Once the government of the United States began portraying itself as “leader of the free world,” the longing for a more regal head of state was advanced. The Democrats swooned over Kennedy’s Camelot, and Republicans ennobled the Hollywood court of Reagan.
American democracy has never accorded all the people a meaningful voice. The masses have been given symbols instead, and they are often empty symbols. Nation-states traditionally rely on the fiction that a head of state can represent the body of the people and stand in as their proxy; in the American version, the president must appeal broadly to shared values that mask the existence of deep class divisions. Even when this strategy works, though, unity comes at the price of perpetuating ideological deception. George Washington and Franklin Roosevelt were called fathers of the country, and are now treated as the kindly patriarchs of yore; Andrew Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt descend to us as brash, tough-talking warriors. Cowboy symbols stand tall in the saddle and defend the national honor against an evil empire, as Reagan did so effectively; more recently, the American people were witness to a president dressed in a pilot jumpsuit who for dramatic effect landed on an aircraft carrier. That, of course, was George W. Bush, as he prematurely proclaimed an end to combat operations in Iraq. Left out of our collective memory, meanwhile, are corporate puppet presidents such as William McKinley, who was in the pocket of Big Steel and a host of manufacturing interests. When presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012 responded to a heckler with the line, “Corporations are people, my friend,” he inadvertently became the new McKinley. The “1 percent” were his constituency, and wearing blue jeans did little to loosen his buttoned-up image.
Power (whether social, economic, or merely symbolic) is rarely probed. Or if it is, it never becomes so urgent a national imperative as to require an across-the-board resolution, simultaneously satisfying a moral imperative and pursuing a practical cause. We know, for instance, that Americans have forcefully resisted extending the right to vote; those in power have disenfranchised blacks, women, and the poor in myriad ways. We know, too, that women historically have had fewer civil protections than corporations. Instead of a thoroughgoing democracy, Americans have settled for democratic stagecraft: high-sounding rhetoric, magnified, and political leaders dressing down at barbecues or heading out to hunt game. They are seen wearing blue jeans, camouflage, cowboy hats, and Bubba caps, all in an effort to come across as ordinary people. But presidents and other national politicians are anything but ordinary people after they are elected. Disguising that fact is the real camouflage that distorts the actual class nature of state power.
The theatrical performances of politicians who profess to speak for an “American people” do nothing to highlight the history of poverty. The tenant farmer with his mule and plow is not a romantic image to retain in historic memory. But that individual is as much our history as any war that was fought and any election that was hotly contested. The tenant and his shack should remain with us as an enduring symbol of social stasis.
The underclass exists even when they don’t rise to the level of making trouble, fomenting rebellions, joining in riots, or fleeing the ranks of the Confederacy and hiding out in swamps, where they create an underground economy. Those who do not disappear into the wilderness are present in towns and cities and along paved and unpaved roads in every state. Seeing the poor, whether it is in the photographs of a Walker Evans or a Dorothea Lange, or in comical form on “reality TV,” we have to wonder how such people exist amid plenty. As she cast her eyes upon southern trailer trash in the middle of World War II, the Washington Post columnist Agnes Meyer asked, “Is this America?”
Yes, it is America. It is an essential part of American history. So too is the backlash that occurs when attempts are made to improve the conditions of the poor. Whether it is New Deal polices or LBJ’s welfare programs or Obama-era health care reform, along with any effort to address inequality and poverty comes a harsh and seemingly inevitable reaction. Angry citizens lash out: they perceive government bending over backward to help the poor (implied or stated: undeserving) and they accuse bureaucrats of wasteful spending that steals from hardworking men and women. This was Nixon’s class-inflected appeal, which his campaign staff packaged for the “Silent Majority.” In the larger scheme of things, the modern complaint against state intervention echoes the old English fear of social leveling, which was said to encourage the unproductive. In its later incarnation, government assistance is said to undermine the American dream. Wait. Undermine whose American dream?
Class defines how real people live. They don’t live the myth. They don’t live the dream. Politics is always about more than what is stated, or what looms before the eye. Even when it’s denied, politicians engage in class issues. The Civil War was a struggle to shore up both a racial and a class hierarchy. The Confederacy was afraid that poor whites would be drawn in by Union appeals and would vote to end slavery—because slavery was principally a reflection of the wealthy planters’ self-interest. Today as well we have a large unbalanced electorate that is regularly convinced to vote against its collective self-interest. These people are told that East Coast college professors brainwash the young and that Hollywood liberals make fun of them and have nothing in common with them and hate America and wish to impose an abhorrent, godless lifestyle. The deceivers offer essentially the same fear-laden message that the majority of southern whites heard when secession was being weighed. Moved by the need for control, for an unchallenged top tier, the power elite in American history has thrived by placating the vulnerable and creating for them a false sense of identification—denying real class differences wherever possible.
The dangers inherent in that deception are many. The relative few who escape their lower-class roots are held up as models, as though everyone at the bottom has the same chance of succeeding through cleverness and hard work, through scrimping and saving. Can Franklin’s “nest egg” produce Franklin the self-made man? Hardly. Franklin himself needed patrons to rise in his colonial world, and the same rules of social networking persist. Personal connections, favoritism, and trading on class-based knowledge still grease the wheels that power social mobility in today’s professional and business worlds. If this book accomplishes anything it will be to have exposed a number of myths about the American dream, to have disabused readers of the notion that upward mobility is a function of the founders’ ingenious plan, or that Jacksonian democracy was liberating, or that the Confederacy was about states’ rights rather than preserving class and racial distinctions. Sometimes, all it took was a name: before becoming known as a Reconstruction-era southern white who identified with black uplift or Republican reforms, the scalawag was defined as an inferior breed of cattle. The scalawag of today is the southern liberal who is painted by conservative ideologues as a traitor to the South for daring to say that poor whites and poor blacks possess similar economic interests.
And that is how we return to the language of breeding, so well understood in an agrarian age, so metaphorically resonant in the preindustrial economy in which restrictive social relations hardened. If the republic was supposedly dedicated to equality, how did the language of breeds appeal as it did? To speak of breeds was to justify unequal status among white people; it was the best way to divide people into categories and deny that class privilege exists. If you are categorized as a breed, it means you can’t control who you are and you can’t avert your appointed destiny.
Breeding. The erstwhile experts in this socially prescriptive field of study interpolated from the science and widespread practices of animal husbandry. The mongrel inherited its (or his or her) parent’s incapacities, they said, just as towheaded children with yellowish skin were produced through living on bad soil and inbreeding. In these ways, negative traits were passed on. Scrubland produced a rascally herd of cattle—or people. Breeding determined who rose and who fell. The analogy between human and animal stock was ever present. As Jefferson wrote in 1787, “The circumstance of superior beauty is thought worthy of attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man?”
Under a related form of logic, Manifest Destiny became a desirable means to open land routes and squeeze bad breeds out of the country, presumably through Mexico. In 1860, Daniel Hundley imagined that poor white trash would magically march right out of the United States. The old English idea of colonization required that the poor had to be dumped somewhere. The population had to be drained, strained, or purged. The very same thinking fed social Darwinism and eugenics: if tainted women bred with regular people, they would undermine the quality of future stock. Either nature would weed out inferior stock or a human hand would have to intervene and engage in Galton’s notion of controlled breeding, sterilizing the curs and morons among the lowest ranks.
It was just as easy to ignore inequality by claiming that certain breeds could never be improved. As W. E. B. Du Bois explained in 1909, southern politicians were lost in the vacuity of illogic. They had fallen to arguing that any form of social intervention was pointless, because man could not repel nature’s force; some races and classes were invariably stuck with their inferior mental and physical endowments. The South’s claim to be protecting the public good by endorsing the existing regime that rewarded the already privileged was inherently antidemocratic. Blaming nature for intractable breeds was just a way to rationalize indifference.
While President Reagan loved to invoke the image of the “City upon a Hill,” his critics were quick to point out that membership in that shining city was restricted, as much in the twentieth century as it had been in the seventeenth. Under Reaganomics, tax rates for the moneyed class were drastically cut. Governor Mario Cuomo of New York related the problem in memorable fashion as keynote speaker at the 1984 Democratic National Convention: “President Reagan told us from the beginning that he believed in a kind of Social Darwinism, survival of the fittest … [that] we should settle for taking care of the strong, and hope that economic ambition and charity will do the rest. Make the rich richer, and what falls from the table will be enough for the middle class and those who are trying desperately to work their way into the middle class.” Cuomo’s stark language echoed Du Bois, his anti-Darwinian inflection a reminder of the mind-set that justified dividing stronger from weaker breeds. It wasn’t enough to preserve the status quo; inequality could be expanded, the gap widened between classes, without incident and without tearing the social fabric. In 2009, the 1 percent paid 5.2 percent of their income in state and local taxes, while the poorest 20 percent paid 10.9 percent. States penalized the poor with impunity.1
Class has never been about income or financial worth alone. It has been fashioned in physical—and yes, bodily—terms. Dirty feet and tallow faces remain signs of delinquency and depravity. To live in a shack, a “hovel,” a “shebang,” or in Shedtown or in a trailer park, is to live in a place that never acquires the name of “home.” As transitional spaces, unsettled spaces, they contain occupants who lack the civic markers of stability, productivity, economic value, and human worth.
Job opportunities for all—the myth of full employment—is just that, a myth. The economy cannot provide employment for everyone, a fact that is little acknowledged. In the sixteenth century, the English had their “reserve army of the poor” who were drummed into the military. Modern America’s reserve army of the poor are drummed into the worst jobs, the worst-paid positions, and provide the labor force that works in coal mines, cleans toilets and barn stalls, picks and plucks in fields as migrant laborers, or slaughters animals. Waste people remain the “mudsills” who fill out the bottom layer of the labor pool on which society’s wealth rests. Poor whites are still taught to hate—but not to hate those who are keeping them in line. Lyndon Johnson knew this when he quipped, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
We are a country that imagines itself as democratic, and yet the majority has never cared much for equality. Because that’s not how breeding works. Heirs, pedigree, lineage: a pseudo-aristocracy of wealth still finds a way to assert its social power. We see how inherited wealth grants status without any guarantee of merit or talent. To wit: would we know of Donald Trump, George W. Bush, Jesse Jackson Jr., or such Hollywood names as Charlie Sheen and Paris Hilton, except for the fact that these, and many others like them, had powerful, influential parents? Even some men of recognized competence in national politics are products of nepotism: Albert Gore Jr., Rand Paul, Andrew Cuomo, and numerous Kennedys. We give children of the famous a big head start, deferring to them as rightful heirs, a modern-day version of the Puritans’ children of the Elect.
In Thomas Jefferson’s formulation, nature assigned classes. Nature demanded a natural aristocracy—what he termed an “accidental aristoi.” The spark of lust would direct the strong to breed with the strong, the “good and wise” to marry for beauty, health, virtue, and talents—traits that would be bred forward. One significant difference between Jefferson’s master class and the eugenicists of the early twentieth century was the former’s singular focus on the male making his selection, and the latter’s urging the middle-class woman to carefully inspect the pedigree of the man she hoped to marry. Marriage has always been connected to class status: today’s online dating services are premised on the eugenic notion that a person can find the perfect match—a match presumed to be based on shared class and educational interests. In 2014-15, a series of television commercials for eHarmony.com was sending the same message: that no “normal” middle-class applicant has to be stuck with a tawdry (i.e., lower-class) loser. And as the historian Jill Lepore has pointed out in the New Yorker, the entrepreneurial Dr. Paul Popenoe began his career as a leading authority on eugenics, before moving on to marriage counseling, and eventually launching computer dating in 1956. Some dating services have been quite blatant: the website Good Genes promised to help “Ivy Leaguers” find potential spouses with “matching credentials,” by which was meant a similar class pedigree.2
The rule of nature was supposed to supplant artificial aristocracy with meritocracy. At the same time, though, it allowed people to associate human failures with different strains and inferior breeds, and to assign a certain inevitability to such failure. If, in this long-acceptable way of thinking, nature ruled, nature also needed a gardener. The human scrub grass had to be weeded from time to time. That is why squatters were used as the first wave of settlers to encroach on Indian lands, then were chased off the land when the upscale farmers arrived; in time, policing boundaries extended to segregation laws, and after that to zoning laws, separating the wheat from the chaff in the creation of modern suburbia. Class walls went up in the way property values were modulated in carefully planned towns and neighborhoods.
It was easy for nineteenth-century Americans to equate animals and humans. Stallions were like elite planters, and naturally given the best pastures; the weak tackies, like white trash, lazed about the marshlands. While it is not discussed very often, our society still measures human worth by the value of the land people occupy and own. The urban ghettos, no less than the trailer parks on devalued land on the city’s edges, are modern representations of William Byrd’s Dismal Swamp: an unsafe, uncivilized wasteland that is allowed to fester and remain unproductive.
Location is everything. Location determines access to a privileged school, a safe neighborhood, infrastructural improvements, the best hospitals, the best grocery stores. Upper- and middle-class parents instruct their children in surviving their particular class environment. They give them the appropriate material resources toward this end. But let us devote more thought to what Henry Wallace wrote in 1936: what would happen, he posed, if one hundred thousand poor children and one hundred thousand rich children were all given the same food, clothing, education, care, and protection? Class lines would likely disappear. This was the only conceivable way to eliminate class, he said—and what he didn’t say was that this would require removing children from their homes and raising them in a neutral, equitable environment. A dangerous idea indeed!
We have always relied—and still do—on bloodlines to maintain and pass on a class advantage to our children. Statistical measurement has shown convincingly that the best predictor of success is the class status of one’s forebears. Ironically, given the American Revolutionaries’ hatred for Old World aristocracies, Americans transfer wealth today in the fashion of those older societies, while modern European nations provide considerably more social services to their populations. On average, Americans pass on 50 percent of their wealth to their children; in Nordic countries, social mobility is much higher; parents in Denmark give 15 percent of their total wealth to their children, and in Sweden parents give 27 percent. Class wealth and privileges are a more important inheritance (as a measure of potential) than actual genetic traits.3
Lest we relegate discredited ideas to the age in which they flourished, we can admit that eugenic thinking is not quite dead either. The poor can starve “a little,” says Charlotte Hays, and there are surely others who feel the same way. The innocuous-sounding term “fertility treatment” enables the wealthy to breed their own kind, buying sperm and eggs at “baby centers” around the country. Abortion and birth control, meanwhile, are for evangelical conservatives a violation of God’s will that all people should be fruitful and multiply, and yet this same fear of unnatural methods of reproduction does not engender opposition to fertility clinics. Antiabortion activists, like eugenicists, think that the state has the right to intervene in the breeding habits of poor single women.
Poor women lost state-funded abortions during the Carter years, and today they are proscribed from using welfare funds to buy disposable diapers. To modern conservatives, women are first and foremost breeders. This was tellingly displayed during the Republican primary debates in 2012, when candidates boasted about the size of their families, each trying to outdo the last, as the camera panned across the podium. The Republicans were mimicking the pride of the winners of the “fitter family” contests held at county fairs in the early twentieth century. A reporter joked that Jon Huntsman’s and Mitt Romney’s children should breed, “creating a super-race of astonishingly beautiful Mormons.” There remains in America a cultural desire to breed one’s “own kind.” As with the nepotistic practices that continue in a variety of fields, class is reproduced in ways that are not dissimilar to the past.4
Some things never change. More than one generation has deluded itself by buying into the notion of an American dream. A singular faith exists today that is known and embraced as American exceptionalism, but it dates back centuries to the projections made and policies put in place when the island nation of Great Britain began to settle the American continent. It was Richard Hakluyt’s fantastic literature that graduated to a broader colonial drive for continental domination. The same ideology fueled the theories of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson. (Meanwhile, London economist William Petty’s idea of political arithmetic gave force to a long fascination with demographic growth.) Teddy Roosevelt had a dream, too, of rewarding parents with large families, encouraging eugenically sound marriages, and recognizing the American as the healthiest member of the Anglo-Saxon family.
This brings us to the slavery/free labor corollary. It was James Oglethorpe in Georgia who first put into practice a sensitive and sensible idea: allowing slavery to thrive would retard economic opportunity and undermine social mobility for average white men and their families. In this way, racial dominance was intertwined with class dominance in the southern states, and the two could never be separated as long as a white ruling elite held sway over politics and rigged the economic system to benefit the few. We now know, of course, that slavery and repression of Afro-American talent was tragically wrong. So why do we continue to ignore the pathological character of class-centered power relations as part of the American republic’s political inheritance? If the American dream were real, upward mobility would be far more in evidence.
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Let’s get it right, then. Because there was never a free market in land, the past saw as much downward as upward mobility. Historically, Americans have confused social mobility with physical mobility. The class system tracked across the land with the so-called pioneering set. We need to acknowledge that fact. Generally, it was the all-powerful speculators who controlled the distribution of good land to the wealthy and forced the poor squatter off his land. Without a visible hand, markets did not at any time, and do not now, magically pave the way for the most talented to be rewarded; the well connected were and are preferentially treated.
Liberty is a revolving door, which explains the reality of downward mobility. The door ushers some in while it escorts others out into the cold. It certainly allows for, even encourages, exploitation. Through a process of rationalization, people have long tended to blame failure on the personal flaws of individuals—this has been the convenient refrain of Republicans in Congress in the second decade of the twenty-first century, when former Speaker of the House John Boehner publicly equated joblessness with personal laziness. Another former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, captured headlines at the end of 2011 when he seemed ready to endorse Jefferson’s Revolutionary-era solution to poverty by making schools into workhouses. Gingrich: “You have a very poor neighborhood. You have students that are required to go to school. They have no money, no habit of work… . What if they became assistant janitors, and their job was to mop the floor and clean the bathroom?” It was only in the midst of the Great Depression that the country fully appreciated the meaning of downward mobility. At that time, when a quarter of the nation was thrown out of work, the old standby of blaming the individual no longer convinced anyone.5
For the most part, daily injustices in average people’s lives go ignored. But that does not mean that poor people are numb to the condition of their own lives. Politicians have been willfully blind to many social problems. Pretending that America has grown rich as a largely classless society is bad history, to say the least. The “1 percent” is the most recently adopted shorthand for moneyed monopoly, bringing attention to the ills generated by consolidated power, but the phenomenon it describes is not new. Class separation is and has always been at the center of our political debates, despite every attempt to hide social reality with deceptive rhetoric. The white poor have been with us in various guises, as the names they have been given across centuries attest: Waste people. Offscourings. Lubbers. Bogtrotters. Rascals. Rubbish. Squatters. Crackers. Clay-eaters. Tackies. Mudsills. Scalawags. Briar hoppers. Hillbillies. Low-downers. White niggers. Degenerates. White trash. Rednecks. Trailer trash. Swamp people.
They are blamed for living on bad land, as though they had other choices. From the beginning, they have existed in the minds of rural or urban elites and the middle class as extrusions of the weedy, unproductive soil. They are depicted as slothful, rootless vagrants, physically scarred by their poverty. The worst ate clay and turned yellow, wallowed in mud and muck, and their necks became burned by the hot sun. Their poorly clothed, poorly fed children generated what others believed to be a permanent and defective breed. Sexual deviance? That comes from cramped quarters in obscure retreats, distant from civilization, where the moral vocabulary that dwells in town has been lost. We think of the left-behind groups as extinct, and the present as a time of advanced thought and sensibility. But today’s trailer trash are merely yesterday’s vagrants on wheels, an updated version of Okies in jalopies and Florida crackers in their carts.
They are renamed often, but they do not disappear. Our very identity as a nation, no matter what we tell ourselves, is intimately tied up with the dispossessed. We are, then, not only preoccupied with race, as we know we are, but with good and bad breeds as well. It is for good reason that we have this preoccupation: by calling America not just “a” land of opportunity but “the” land of opportunity, we collectively have made a promise to posterity that there will always exist the real potential of self-propulsion upward.
Those who fail to rise in America are a crucial part of who we are as a civilization. A cruel irony is to be found in the aftermath of the Hollywood film Deliverance, a gruesome adventure that exploited the worst stereotypes of white trash and ignored the poverty that existed in the part of the country where the movie was made. One actor stands out who was not a trained actor at all: Billy Redden. He played the iconic inbred character who sat strumming the banjo. He was fifteen when he was plucked from a local Rabun County, Georgia, school by the filmmakers because of his odd look (enhanced with makeup). He didn’t play the banjo, so a musician fingered from behind, and the cameraman did the rest. Interviewed in 2012 to mark the fortieth anniversary of the film, Billy said he wasn’t paid much for his role. Otherwise, the fifty-six-year-old said, “I wouldn’t be working at Wal-Mart right now. And I’m struggling really hard to make ends meet.”6
The discomfort middle-class Americans feel when forced to acknowledge the existence of poverty highlights the disconnect between image and reality. It seems clear that we have made little progress since James Agee exposed the world of poor sharecroppers in 1941. We still today are blind to the “cruel radiance of what is.” The static rural experience is augmented by the persistence of class-inflected tropes and the voyeuristic shock in televised portraits of degenerate beings and wasted lives in the richest country that has ever existed. And what of Billy Redden? In 1972, a country boy was made up to fit a stereotype of the retarded hillbilly, the idiot savant. Today his mundane struggle to survive can satisfy no one’s expectations, because his story is ordinary. He is neither eccentric nor perverse. Nor does he don a scraggly beard, wear a bandana, or hunt gators. He is simply one of the hundreds of thousands of faceless employees who work at a Wal-Mart.
White trash is a central, if disturbing, thread in our national narrative. The very existence of such people—both in their visibility and invisibility—is proof that American society obsesses over the mutable labels we give to the neighbors we wish not to notice. “They are not who we are.” But they are who we are and have been a fundamental part of our history, whether we like it or not.