Posts Tagged ‘White Trash’

Are we whites afraid of not being white enough?

May 2, 2018

The Rev. Dr. Thandeka is a Unitarian-Universalist minister, theologian and consultant who previously had a successful career as a journalist and TV producer.  “Thandeka” is an African name, meaning “one who is loved by God,” and was given to her by Bishop Desmond Tutu.

In LEARNING TO BE WHITE: Money, Race and God in America (1999], Thandeka told a story about how a white friend asked her what it was like to be black.

Thandeka told the friend to perform the following experiment, which she called the Race Game.

Every time the white friend referred to another white person, she was to say: “my white friend, Bill,” or “my white minister, Rev. Smith”, and report back on her experience within a week.

The white friend couldn’t do it.  Only one person, out of all the white people she asked to try the experiment, could do it.  Why is that?

I imagined myself playing the Race Game.  I would feel uncomfortable doing it.

It is not because the white people who stress white identity the most are racist neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates.  It is rather that, by expressing myself that way, I would be separating myself from white people as a group.

But I don’t believe in white superiority or supremacy.  Why should that make me feel uncomfortable?

Thandeka wrote in 1999 that white racism makes most American white people feel, from a young age, that they would not be loved by their parents or anyone else if they were not white.   Many learned this lesson as children when their parents told them not to play with black children.

White racism is a system of social control that not only holds down black people, but many white people, Thandeka stated; historically, white people were at risk of losing their white status if they married black people, were friends with black people or joining forces politically with black people.

Two particular groups of white people were especially at risk of being considered not quite white enough.

One is the so-called “white trash,” poor rural Southern white people descended from slaves and indentured laborers brought from the British Isles to the American colonies, often in chains and treated no better than livestock.

When the white planter elite decided to replace the white slaves and indentured servants with black slaves from Africa, the poor whites still were poor and politically powerless.

The so-called “wages of whiteness”—the self-esteem that comes from superiority to black people—were paid in counterfeit money.   They were little better off economically than black people and were just as far below the rich white planters and the educated white professionals as they always were.

Much has been made of how millions of black people were excluded from Social Security because it did not cover farm laborers and household servants.  But these same rules excluded millions of poor rural Southern white workers.  The same measures that held down poor blacks held down poor whites.

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400 years of poor white people in America

January 17, 2017

When I was a boy in western Maryland in the 1940s, I sometimes heard people say things like, “The Negroes aren’t so bad, compared to the poor white trash.”

The underlying meaning was that it was part of the nature of things for black people to be poor and marginalized, but there was something deeply wrong with white people who let themselves sink to the same status.

9whitetrash-iisenberg780670785971I just finished reading a book, WHITE TRASH: the untold 400-year history of class in America by Nancy Isenberg (2016), that tells how these attitudes go back literally to the first settlements at Plymouth Rock, Jamestown and before, and persist today.

Today’s poor rural Southern white people of today may literally be lineal descendants of the convicts, debtors, beggars, orphans, homeless vagrants and unemployed vagrants who were shipped to England’s North American colonies in the 17th century.

Many were victims of the enclosure movement, in which wealthy landowners privatized common lands formerly used by small or tenant farmers, leaving them without an obvious means of livelihood.  These displaced poor people were regarded as useless—much as workers replaced by automation are regarded by economists and corporate executives today.

The prevailing attitude then was that families were “the better sort” or “the meaner sort,” that they were “well-bred” or “ill-bred”.   Today we think of “good breeding” as applied to individual persons as meaning the person has been taught the proper way to behave.   Back then, roughneck poor people were regarded as inherently inferior.

Our American tradition is that the seeds of our nation were planted by freedom-seeking New England Puritans and adventurous Virginia Cavaliers.  This is true, but only a half-truth.    The ships that brought them to the New World also brought penniless, landless English poor people, who were regarded as surplus population.

What set the English poor white colonists apart was that they were not given land.  They were intended to be servants and field workers.  When black African slaves turned out to be more efficient and exploitable workers than indentured English servants, they lost even this role.

Even so some of the poor whites acquired property and a measure of social status.   White Trash is about the descendants of the ones that didn’t.

They fled to the western frontier of settlement.   But the wealthy and well-connected had already obtained title to most of the frontier land.  Poor whites became squatters.  They contended that clearing, improving and planting land gave them the right to have it; title-holders disagreed.  This was the source of much conflict both in the colonies and the newly-independent United States.

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