What’s disturbing about frequent American-left discourse about the South is the absolute disdain with which many liberals treat working class Southern whites. Good liberals, always heedlessly apologetic about politically correct language, still gleefully deride “rednecks” and “white trash” as ignorant racist villains, and worse, Republicans. Why? Northern elites and their Southern counterparts have always had a particular penchant for snubbing the working class, but it was ultimately the racial and sectional politics of the 1960’s that gave blatantly elitist attitudes the necessary cover to remain in vogue in liberal high society. Poor whites as a political force provide a convenient explanatory cover for persistent racial inequality – never mind Northern de facto segregation, New York’s odious stop-and-frisk policy, and the Democratic Party’s effective abandonment of an anti-poverty agenda.
One can find irrational distaste for “white trash” at any Brooklyn cocktail party that’s a step above boxed Franzia. Of course, the irony of classism disguised as anti-racism is largely lost on the chosen sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie, who are (in my wildly speculative imaginings) much too busy feverishly gibbering about what Marx would think about the phenomenon of digital dualism. Well-meaning class warriors have a tendency to forget that the majority of poor people in America are precisely the “rednecks,” “white trash,” and other working class whites about whom they bullshit.
Though the term was originally invented and used by slaves, the concept of ‘white trash’ itself has become a part of the white supremacist narrative – “yes, they may be white, but they’re also inexcusably poor.” This is partially the legacy of class antagonism between white plantation owners and the massive numbers of poor whites who labored under them. Adams and Gorton quote a Mississippi lawyer, the descendant of yesteryear’s planters, referring to a neighborhood of “poor” and/or “unchurned” whites as “Jurassic Park.” Northern elitism, which is quite rightly called out on talk radio albeit for the wrong reasons, is a facsimile of a class narrative designed to justify or downplay the poverty of working class whites. Liberals who bemoan the “irrationality” of Kansas voters should understand that Southern whites know that the Democrats no longer pretend to care about them.
Solidarity against Solidarity
This isn’t to say that there isn’t often serious, violent racism in the white working class. White supremacy has been in the ascendency for hundreds of years, but monolithic white privilege has been a more elusive phenomenon. The massive beneficiaries of “white solidarity” – as opposed to a class solidarity linking working class blacks and whites – have always been the elite planters and capitalists who were often responsible for agitating anti-black sentiment as a counterweight to interracial cooperation. Endemic historical examples of white privilege must be cited – the lasting impact of slavery, segregation, preferential job hiring, and outright violence has been very real throughout American history. But the massive number of working class whites still in economic dependency underscores the persistence of poverty despite white supremacy. The “benefits” of white solidarity have ultimately been as unevenly distributed as they are repulsive. The ressentiment fueled anti-black rage of many working class whites stems from their powerless in the face of continuous repression and theft by elites.
But the narrative of white racial solidarity has never been as uniform, consistent, or resilient as we often imagine. In the 1930’s the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, an interracial movement of sharecroppers in the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta, fought for the rights of sharecroppers to proper treatment, good wages, and protection from arbitrary evictions. This union of Southern white and black working class interests won one of the most significant victories in improving working conditions in the region’s history, an accommodation that was literally understood by planter elites as necessary to prevent the collapse of the social order. The patchwork history of white and black working class solidarity goes back to Bacon’s Rebellion, an uprising of poor whites, indentured servants, and blacks in 1676. In fact, Bacon’s Rebellion so terrified colonial elites that it inspired the strict codification of racial slavery and the manufacturing of the white supremacist narrative.
The most systemic threats to the domination and subjugation of the working class, particularly in the South, have frequently been the result of alliances between blacks and whites. In an era where the economic position of both groups is facing considerable decline, one hopes a racially unified threat to the status quo will once again emerge.
Class consciousness, or the lack thereof, results in a political situation where working class Southern whites by-and-large elect candidates who have no more respect for them than their plantation owner predecessors. The planter dream of a highly stratified hierarchy reified by the cooperation of a large white underclass has come to fruition yet again, if only for a few years. The mutual distrust and anger perpetuated by the cleavages of north/south, white/black, and left/right is manipulated in a politics of ressentiment to control the rage and political energy of subjugated classes. This is not to say that this manipulation is always an explicitly understood or stated function of political discourse, but it is the ultimate result of the pettier incarnations of identity politics. The liberal preoccupation with gun control is often as much a thinly veiled classist rebuke of rural and Southern white culture as the drug war is an essentially racist attempt to control minority populations. (Strangely enough, poor whites still represent a plurality of imprisoned Americans, despite the best efforts of most metropolitan police forces.)
The political order has cast working class whites out once again. They face a choice between an ostensibly nativist party that will gladly dismantle what remains of welfare support and a Democratic party that has come to view them with disdain and no longer attempts to reach them. The economy continues to shed the reliable industrial and agricultural jobs that made the lives of post-war whites and blacks livable. Poor whites find themselves in a similar declining economic position as poor blacks and Hispanics across the South despite the continuing effects of racism in hiring and economic policy. The increasingly dire position of both groups must precipitate a political alliance if either hopes to have the power to overturn the centuries-old order of Southern politics.
Republicans replay coded messages about keeping blacks in their place and cracking down on immigrants while working tirelessly to ensure the economic dependence and political weakness of their white working class constituents. Democrats pay lip service to racial equality while either ignoring, or in fact worsening, the structural causes of inequality and working class powerlessness. Neither state capitalist party will deliver real power to these constituencies. Only a movement that could combat the scar of sectionalism left by America’s violent and fractious past would be able to challenge the continuing rule of the hyper-elite. Racial antagonism is obsolete. “White supremacy” was a convenient fiction invented by plantation owners, and one that needs to be abandoned by the white working class. But any so-called progressive who uses the term “white trash” needs to get their head checked.