How does a culture that says it's a democracy, that prizes equality of opportunity, explain away its persistently marginalized people? With the hallowed American Dream, we try to convince ourselves that social mobility is more than a slogan, and that it has magically erased class as a barrier to success. Yet over time, America has seen more downward than upward mobility, and migration often substitutes for actual class security. Americans continue to tell themselves they believe in social equality, but history tells a different story.
The language used to describe classes and the poor can be traced back to the forceful imprint left by British colonization. Before it became that fabled "City upon a Hill," America was, in the eyes of 16th-century English adventurers, a foul, weedy wilderness — a "wasteland," they called it, where the Old World could unload the idle poor. Among the unheroic transplants were convicts, Irish rebels, known whores, ex-soldiers, adults in debt, and the children of beggars, all of whom either chose exile in place of a prison term (or hanging!) or else sold themselves into indentured servitude. The great majority of the early colonists were classified as a surplus population, as expendable "rubbish" — a rude rather than a robust population. These were America's "waste people," who, sometime around the 1820s, came to be called "white trash."
A powerful and persistent taxonomy has provided a touchstone to explain away all those who fail to succeed. Each generation created its own stark slurs as it dismissed its expendables and its exploited: They were offscourings. Lubbers. Bogtrotters. Rascals. Rubbish. Squatters. Crackers. Clay-eaters. Tackies. Sandhillers. Mudsills. Scalawags. Briar hoppers. Hillbillies. Low-downers. White niggers. Degenerates. Rednecks. And after the middle of the last century, trailer trash. That's who this book is about.
White trash were not just lazy vagrants; they were clinical subjects that might be found in a cabinet of curiosities.
They have inhabited the least hospitable places in America’s rural landscape. They have been categorized in terms derived from animal husbandry, as mangy varmints, a "breed" apart; human "rubbish," at one with scrubby, barren, or swampy wasteland. Over centuries, class identity has remained closely connected to the material — and metaphorical — meaning of land supporting human grazing stocks. Upper-class Confederates compared their planter elite of royal Cavalier lineage to stallions and their poor whites to "Tackies," which was an inferior breed of horse found in the marshes of the Carolinas.
Today we know their social opposite as the "one percent." But class has never been about income or financial worth alone. It's more about physical traits and bodily condition, bad blood and wayward breeding. Poor whites were described as diseased, as yellow (not quite white) children. Dirty feet and tallow faces were signs of delinquency and depravity. The majority of the rural poor were landless. Their failure to put down stakes placed them outside the norms of society. To live in a dingy cabin, "hovel," "shebang," or trailer park, is to live in a transitional space that never acquires the name of "home."
Harper Lee, in her novel To Kill a Mockingbird
(1960), and the Hollywood film that followed two years later, provides a snapshot of this lowly class. The plotline focuses on Mayella Ewell, a poor white girl who accuses a black man, Tom Robinson, of rape. Mayella, shabbily attired, is cowed by her bully of a father, a scrawny man in overalls. Bob Ewell demands that the all-white jury of common men convict Robinson, which they do.
Bob Ewell's full name is Robert E. Lee Ewell. But he is not an heir of an aristocratic family. As Harper Lee described them, the Ewells were terminally poor. They were human waste. She wrote: "No truant officers could keep their numerous offspring in school, no public health officer could free them from congenital defects, various worms, and diseases indigenous to their filthy surroundings." They lived behind the town dump, which they combed every day. Their rundown shack, "once a Negro cabin," looked like the "playhouse of an insane child." Their indiscriminate breeding and inbreeding defined them.
Harper Lee merely echoed what Harriet Beecher Stowe had written about poor whites in Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp
(1856). Her fictional white planters dismissed the "whole race" of white trash. One character declared, "There ought to be hunting parties got up to chase them down, and exterminate 'em, just as we do rats." At the bottom of the white class hierarchy, Stowe identified two groups: vicious or mean whites, wallowing in drunken stupor, dreaming of owning a slave; and pathetic whites. The latter featured haggard, sickly women and children, objects of disgust.
These portraits came from somewhere. By the 1850s, poor whites were labeled a "curious race," their habits as "queer" as any account of exotic Chinese or untutored Indians. So reported Scientific American
in 1847. Dirt-poor southerners living on the margins of plantation society became the repugnant "sandhillers" and self-destructive "clay-eaters." Their children were a ghostly yellow, prematurely aged, with stupid, heavy countenances and distended bellies. They were "cotton-headed," their hair called "crops," for having taken on the appearance of soil-depleting cotton fields. White trash were not just lazy vagrants; they were clinical subjects that might be found in a cabinet of curiosities. Nothing more dramatically signified a corrupt breed than the decrepitude of wrinkled, withered children.
White trash routinely played a major role in democratic politics. As Stowe was writing, the Free Soil and Republican Parties were taking shape, both of which elevated the poor white into a symbol of slavery's oppression. The party of Lincoln not only wanted to keep slavery out of western territory, but insisted, too, that the South's reliance on slave labor divested non-slaveholders of their independence. Poor whites not only competed with slave labor before the Civil War; they were aggressively pitted against free blacks from Reconstruction forward, under Jim Crow laws.
Harper Lee wrote during the Civil Rights Movement. Her book was published shortly after the high profile struggle to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. In 1957, Governor Orval Faubus refused to comply with the courts, which led President Dwight D. Eisenhower to send in troops to nsure integration. While ridiculed as hillbilly stock, Faubus stood up to the president and stayed in power by exploiting poor white thuggery. The white demonstrators who grabbed the headlines and stood out in the television coverage were described by journalists as "rednecks." Unruly women who stood by were branded "slattern housewives" and "harpies." By 1959, the Times Literary Supplement
argued that it was the "ugly faces" of "rednecks, crackers, tar-heels, and other poor white trash" that would forever be remembered from Central High. Here was the template for the insane bigotry of Bob Ewell.
Beyond the South, rural Americans who contributed to this class system lived as far north as Maine, and scattered from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin, and along the Mississippi to New Orleans, as well as in Florida. In the Old Northwest and southern backcountry after the American Revolution, the landless poor were everywhere harassed by big land speculators. That famous "Lion of the West," Davy Crockett of Tennessee, was not just an outrageous storyteller, but a defender of squatters' rights. Both "squatter" and "cracker" are Americanisms, updating inherited English notions of idleness and vagrancy. These were the unruly trespassers on public and private land who took up arms to chase off rivals to their unrecognized land claims. Crackers, "no better than savages," got their name from "crack brained," English slang for "idle head." Then there was "louse cracker," referencing a lice-ridden, slovenly, nasty guy. Like the fictional Ewells, they lived a brute existence in dingy log cabins, surrounded by their filthy yellow brats.
For most of their history, then, poor white trash were associated with crude habitations, boastful vocabulary, uncouth habits, a distrust of town folk, and degenerate patterns of breeding. In the 1930s, two thirds of the nation's tenant farmers lived in the South, and two-thirds of these were white. Tenancy linked submarginal land to submarginal farmers. Most were in debt to landlords, had little cash or education; they were locked away in abysmal shacks where the "lazy diseases" of hookworm and pellagra continued to haunt them. This same geography of class persists even now, because the growth of suburbia since the 1940s has produced yet another poor white landscape, the "hillbilly havens" that emerged in countless trailer parks on the ragged edges of our metropolises.
Poor whites also were front and center during another dark chapter in American history: the eugenics movement. Academics, scientists, the military, and politicians as prominent as Theodore Roosevelt were unabashed advocates of the national campaign to weed out inferior stock. The danger was of sacrificing pedigree, the expressed fear of indiscriminate breeding among the poor whites that threatened to bring down the entire Anglo-Saxon race. In 1913, Roosevelt wrote the head of the Eugenics Records Office, arguing that degenerates must not be permitted to "reproduce their kind." By 1931, 27 states had sterilization laws on the books, and eugenic courses were added to college curricula. Intelligence testing and pedigree charts were in vogue. The 1927 landmark Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell
held that "the shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South" was on trial. Carrie Buck had been chosen for sterilization because she was a perfect specimen of white trash. Populist themes have emerged alongside familiar derogatory images, but never with enough force to diminish the hostility projected onto impoverished poor whites. In recent decades, we have seen the rise of tribal passions through the rediscovery of "redneck roots," a proud movement that extended through the 1980s and 1990s. But as evidenced in the popularity of "reality TV" shows Duck Dynasty
and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo
, white trash in the 21st century remains fraught with the older baggage of stereotypes of the hopelessly ill-bred.
White trash remains a central, and disturbing, thread in the national narrative. Americans of the middle and upper classes have often dismissed their suffering as beyond the reach of charity or human intervention. Instead, stagnant poverty has been blamed on bad breeding, laziness, and ignorance, as if these traits are somehow inherent — in the blood, or as eugenicists wrote, passed down in "germ protoplasm" — rather than by-products of our class system.
With all the campaign talk about a middle-class rebound in 2016, we forget that there cannot be a middle class without a lower class beneath it. A historical preoccupation with penalizing poor whites reveals the everpresent tension between the ideal of upward mobility that Americans are taught to think is ours and the less appealing truth that class barriers almost invariably make that dream unobtainable for those stuck on the lowest rungs of the social ladder.
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is the T. Harry Williams Professor of American History at Louisiana State University. She is the author of White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
and Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr
and writes regularly for Salon.com.