Saturday, October 2, 2010

Poor White Trash

By Kaitlin Green, Emma McNeil, Ray White,

What does whiteness look like?

The following discussion analyzes the ways in which the intersection of race and class has shaped historical and contemporary conceptions of whiteness. Science, and specifically the eugenics movement, served as a catalyst to the internalization of white superiority within American society. While poor whites suffered from classist oppression nearly from the beginning of the “New World’s,” colonization the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as well as the onset of the eugenics movement represent the systematic racialization of poor white trash.


A worldview is a perspective that allows individuals and groups to interpret and understand the world in which they live. Audrey Smedely (2007) outlines a racial worldview (outlined below) as a socially constructed perspective that maintains an unchallenged racial dominance and perpetuates covert racism.

Racial Worldview
1. Categorize human beings into groups
2. Groups are based on differences of culture, biology, etc.
3. Assert that groups are discrete and exclusive
4. Groups are ranked in hierarchy
5. Resources are distributed based on group assignment

Whites have used the mechanisms of the racial worldview to elevate themselves as a superior race. For example:
1. Humans are categorized into groups such as white, black, native American, Hispanic (these groups comprises all peoples descending from particular continents despite cultural and social differences, thus removing their agency).
2. These groups initially are based on differences in comparison to whites, such as skin color; culture is then assigned to these groups as it is perceived by whites to exist collectively among the group.
3. Using mostly science and also authority, whites maintain that the separate groups are unchanging because they are based in inherent traits.
4. The groups are ranked so that white are superior to all others, blacks are inferior to all others and those groups in between may be moved as is may benefit whites.
5. Whites receive the most privileged and desired resources, including land, lifestyle, rights and social voice. This has left what remains for people of color to fight over, perpetuating division between constructed categories of peoples and maintaining the white racial superiority.

The racial worldview is visually depicted in Benjamin Franklin’s “Great Chain of Being.” This so called “natural” classification of races represents a nuanced part of the hierarchy of beings that was constructed by early taxonomists. It is important to note that within the socially constructed racial worldview, which is part of the hierarchy of beings, there also exist nuanced hierarchies within races. These nuanced hierarchies make sense considering that the labeled groups upon the chain are made up of peoples originating from different regions, holding different cultural beliefs and practicing different customs. These hierarchies represent further examples of the power whites have created for themselves over people of color. That is, as long as peoples within groups remain divided, remain in a state of identity crisis, they themselves perpetuate the system of racism that whites create.
Hierarchy of Beings (

Significantly, these nuanced hierarchies are not limited to people of color. While poor whites suffered from classist oppression nearly from the beginning of the colonization of the “New World,” the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries and the onset of the eugenics movement represent the systematic racialization of poor white trash. This process emerged on behalf of an effort propelled by upper class whites to maintain the racial purity of white society.

The Racial Worldview of Poor Whites
1. Poor whites become a separate group from the upstanding white society.
2. According to scientific observation, these families are "plagued" by criminality, laziness and promiscuity, the are crackers and hillbillies
3. Generation after generation, this group is poor and unintelligent.
4. These whites remain at the low end of whiteness. Their inherent traits are more closely associated with the lesser people of color.
5. This group has a lower quality of life than other whites, with limited social capital and a wavering racial identity.*
*Due to frequent socially unacceptable instances of interracial marriage and procreation, many poor whites are disowned by both the white race and the non-white group within which they might identify (Estabrook and McDougle, 1926). An example of this group is the WIN tribe, which was studied in depth by 20th century sociologists.

White Society's Pure Beginnings

The period between 1890 and 1930 signified an explosive immigration of northern Europeans to the United States (Smedely 2007). This rapid increase of Italian, Polish and Irish was viewed by New World purists as a potential threat to the integrity of white society. Theological discrimination (namely anti-Catholic and anti-semitic sentiments) contributed significantly to the divisions among new and old immigrants (Smedely 2007) but increased interest in the eugenics movement and the push to keep the white race pure demonstrates the first reason for a systematic process of racialization imposed upon poor whites.

The emergence of a primitive understanding of genetics as well as primitive social science afforded the opportunity for the two schools of thought to reinforce the racial worldview. At the turn of the twentieth century, white society posited the idea that such undesirable characteristics as alcoholism, criminality, feeble-mindedness, laziness, promiscuity and poverty could be heritable traits (Rafter 1988). This juxtaposition of scientific and sociological thought allowed whites to justify the degeneration of the white race, thus maintaining their superior position in the chain of being. With the establishment of the Eugenics Record Office in 1910, scientists and sociologists began conducting studies of “cacogenic” (bad-gened) families (Rafter 1988). These studies intended to provide empirical data that physical, mental and moral traits were hereditary (Rafter 1988). Thus, through the institutionalization and sterilization of these families, bad genes could be eradicated from a given race. For the purpose of maintaining white superiority over other races, these studies and practices were imposed upon poor whites. In order to demonstrate the interaction between the science of the eugenics movement and the subsequent racialization of poor whites, two examples of family studies are analyzed below.

The "Jukes"

It is telling that before the eugenics movement emerged with full force in the United States, some studies of poor white families considered additional influential factors other than biology for their social position. For example, data collected by prison reformer, Richard Dugdale, on a frequently incarcerated family (the Jukes) was supposed to determine a link between pauperism and heredity (Rafter 1988). While the research showed that characteristics of pauperism, promiscuity and laziness were present generation after generation of the Juke family, Dugdale never wholeheartedly concludes that heredity alone is the causal factor. In fact, Dugdale attributes the nature of the geographical, industrial and social environment to the apparent heritability of pauperism (Rafter 1988). Thus, Dugdale acknowledges an important contributing factor to the systemized racialization of poor whites. Dugdale believes the Jukes exist within a vicious cycle where the “uncommon licentiousness of ‘the Juke’ stock” causes the family to be shunned from white society so that they live and reproduce within the family (Wray 2006). This speculation shows that an investment in maintaining an untainted white society has been internalized within the more privileged whites. The Jukes represent the racialization of poor whites in that they have been separated socially and geographically from the white race.

The Institution of Sterilization
However, as increased value was placed on empiricism and scientific methodology, new research concerning the heritability of pauperism and other undesirable characteristics began to hold more weight and contributed heavily to the racialization of poor whites.

In the beginning of the 20th century, eugenics became an institutionalized household topic. Through literature, renowned professors and the increasing authority of science, the concept of institutionalization and sterilization of a less privileged subgroup became a mainstream concept. But when institutionalization of poor whites due to mental capacities was relieved to be an economic burden, sterilization became a more efficient solution (Wary, 2006). As seen in the case study of Buck vs. Bell we see that sterilization was not only aimed at races considered inferior by whites but the lowest members of the white society as well.

Buck v. Bell
In May 1927 Virginia ruled the legal sterilization for the feeble-minded. This verdict came from the famous case Buck v. Bell, where a Virginian resident Carrie Buck was sterilized for giving birth for the so called "third generation of imbeciles" in her family. This verdict was mandated after overwhelming scientific evidence proved that the Bucks were feeble-minded. At this point in American culture, science was looked highly upon; the idea of using fact and logical study to prove a point was very respected. Furthermore, the idea of maintaining white purity was already favored, empirical data that "proved" that the feeble minded were a hazard to society was the justification eugenics needed. However, the scientific study of the Buck family was very flawed. According to the scientific method, a good scientist should ask an unbiased question that can be repeatably measured. However, with white society's intention to maintain racial purity, the scientist conducted research with a predetermined outcome that created a natural bias. Secondly,it is difficult to determine if a child under the age of twelve months are considered feeble minded because they are still in the infantile developmental stage. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is that eugenics could never truly eliminate the less intelegent in a population. This is additional example of how white society used another source of maintaining their internalized belief of racial purity.

Embracing White Trash

In contemporary society, the term “poor white trash” still holds meaning towards white people. However, it has evolved to be more accepted as a culture, a way of living. Even though the meaning still relates to poor, rural white people as “stupid and lazy, racist drunks who are uneducated, perpetually unemployed and violent,” (Eastman and Schrock, 2008), these people have embraced it with pride and it is continued to be celebrated through mainstream media. In the article Southern Rock Musicians’ Construction of White Trash, Eastman and Schrock interviewed southern rock musicians that identify with the white trash culture. To their finding, it is greatly accepting to be called names that are associated with “white trash” such as hillbillies and rednecks. In fact, most of their lyrics, clothing, and actions celebrate these stereotypes and stigmas that have accumulated meaning since they were first presented during the eugenics period after the Civil War. Today’s “white trash culture” has no problem with being poor, viewed as uneducated, and being violent and continuing to perpetuate the stigmas that were derogatory in the past. This sort of gesture can be interpreted as searching for an identity that is different from the middle and upper class of white society. Ironically, it is the higher classes that categorized these people together to distinguish one another with motives of extinction because of these traits that are not apart of the “social norm.” Because of that, the “white trash society” has no intentions to join with the higher society.

The idea that poverty, “feeble-mindness” and unfit for society is hereditary still plays a factor in contemporary living. We can see that “once-white-trash-always-white-trash” thinking being internalized, that there is no other option once placed/ labeled as “white trash.” However, there are those who want to break the system and thinking by pursuing an education. Unfortunately, they experience slander from those within their society, claiming they are betraying their own people. Education is a symbol of the middle class and that a “southern hillbilly” should only know how to hunt, fish and farm (Eastman and Schrock. 2008). The article also states “southern rockers glorify rural poverty by emphasizing survival skills that are culturally defined as masculine,” meaning that by gaining an education makes a person less manly because it is not socially accepted in their culture.

Eugenics impacted the rural whites in history in such a strong way that by accepting negative social stigmas, “scientific” lies, and the internalized racism helped create a culture to facilitate the reinvention of their identity, which is a racialized subgroup of whiteness. It is a detriment to society to continue to perpetuate the idea of “poor white trash” because it continues to allow the higher classes of whites to negatively attack the poor whites, which continues the circle of the racial worldview.

Here are videos that portray the "white trash" culture:

Work Cited:
Eastman, Jason T., and Douglas P. Schrock. 2008. "Southern Rock Musicians' Construction of White Trash." Race, Gender and Class 15 (1-2):205-219.
Estabrook, Arthur A and McDougle Ivan E. 1926. Mongrel Virginians."The Win Tribe". Baltimore:The Williams and Wilkins Company.

Rafter, Nicole Hann (1988). White Trash: The Eugenic Family Studies. 1877 - 1919. Boston, MA: NE University Press.

Smedley, Audrey (2007). Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview 3rd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Wary, Matt (2006). "Three Generations of Imbeciles are Enough". pp. 65 - 95 in Not Quite White: White Trash and Boundaries of Whiteness. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

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