Home > Uncategorized > White privilege is a wrong-headed construction – posted 1/7/2018 and published in the Concord Monitor on 1/14/2018

White privilege is a wrong-headed construction – posted 1/7/2018 and published in the Concord Monitor on 1/14/2018

This piece ran in the Concord Monitor on 1/14/2018 under the title “Poor is Poor”.

I read with interest John Meinhold’s opinion piece about white privilege that appeared in the Concord Monitor on December 14. Meinhold complained about the treatment of poor white folks in America. He argued that poor whites have been slurred as “white trash”. He noted the many white people who live in poverty and he questioned whether liberal Democrats have demonstrated caring about the struggles of poor whites.

I think Meinhold is right that poor whites have been denigrated and exploited. He is absolutely right that millions of white folks live in poverty. Since even before our nation’s founding, there have been masses of desperately poor white people living here. He is also right to complain that liberals, among others, have failed to sympathetically address poor whites.

Meinhold legitimately criticizes the idea that poor whites experience white privilege. I agree that is a wrong way to conceive of poor white folks’ experience.

When you are getting clobbered economically, you do not want to hear that you are somehow privileged.

I think it is a mistake to get into comparative victimology about whom has been exploited more. Poor whites and poor people of color have both been victimized by the 1%. Both compete for crumbs from the table. It is important to look at the different forms the exploitation has taken but I find the concept “white privilege” unhelpful to understanding.

The fact that black people experience compounded deprivations does not minimize the class oppression poor whites experience. It does not have to be one or the other and blacks and whites should not be set against each other as is the method of the alt-right and neo-nazis.

Those hate groups try to appeal to white people on the basis of their skin color. This is what the writer Kurt Vonnegut used to call a granfalloon, a group who affect a shared identity but whose mutual association is meaningless. Race haters are a discredited anachronism.

Both poor whites and people of color have been oppressed but the form of the oppression for each group is historically different.

Class remains the dirty, unacknowledged secret of American politics. We have been conditioned to think of America as a classless society, which is an absolute lie. Class remains a significant and often determinative fact of life.

Poor white people are not oppressed because of their skin color. Their oppression has everything to do with their class position in American society. In her book, White Trash, the historian, Nancy Isenberg, uncovers the untold story of how poor whites have been treated in America for the last 400 years.

Poor treatment is nothing new. While early American history typically highlights the Founding Fathers and their accomplishments, Isenberg explores colonial beginnings from the perspective of the poor. She shows that the great majority of early colonists were classified by the British as surplus population and expendable “rubbish”. The British hoped to use America as a dumping ground for populations they did not want.

Much public discussion of colonization in early America focuses on the quest for religious liberty. Isenberg shows that only a minority came to America for religious reasons. The British wanted to thin out their prisons and remove vagrants and beggars from their society and a forced one-way ticket to America was one way to do that.

Many poor whites came to America as indentured servants. They were forced to sign a contract by which they agreed to work for a certain number of years in exchange for the costly transportation to the new world. These contracts often lasted 4 to 7 years before they could be evaded. Other poor white immigrants came to escape debts that might have put them in prison. Many left tarnished reputations and economic failures behind hoping to make a fresh start in America.

While slavery brutally oppressed many hundreds of thousands in the late 18th century, very harsh labor conditions and early death awaited huge numbers of poor white migrants.

When Shays Rebellion, an uprising against aggressive tax and debt collection, occurred in western Massachusetts in 1786, Abigail Adams wrote Thomas Jefferson: “Ferment and commotion had brought forth an abundance of Rubbish”. Newpapers referred to the Shays insurgents as “ragamuffins of the earth”.

Isenberg traces the evolution of the terms “cracker” and “squatter”. She says the terms were shorthand for landless migrants. In early America, many poor whites disappeared into unsettled territory and would occupy land without a land title. She quotes a British officer on the subject of “crackers”: they were “great boasters”, a “lawless set of rascals on the frontier of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas and Georgia, who often change their place of abode”. They were recruited to be Indian fighters and they were known to be ruthless.

Isenberg says many poor whites in 19th century America lived as scavengers and vagrants. They worked as tenants and day laborers. They had no access to free soil or homesteads. They typically occupied poor quality land. Poor whites became known as “sandhillers” and “pineys” because they were consigned to the worst land.

By 1850, Isenberg says poor whites became a permanent class. She cites the infamous Dred Scott decision by the U.S. Supreme Court which had very negative implications for poor whites as well as for slaves. Chief Justice Roger Taney, author of the majority opinion in Dred Scott, turned pedigree into a constitutional principle, finding that the Founders’ original intent was to classify members of society in terms of bloodlines and racial stock. Poor whites were way below the slaveholders, landed gentry, and aristocrats who ruled.

The term “white trash” gained widespread use in the 1850’s. Proslavery Southerners defended the low station of poor whites as natural and a result of biology. Southern elites saw the white poor as riff raff. They feared class equality and educational literacy of both blacks and poor whites.

Later in the 19th century, the term “redneck” came into wider use, followed later by “trailer trash” and “po’ white trash”. The racist actions of some poor whites during the civil rights movement gave these slurs more of a lease on life. These terms are still with us.

Over the last 100 years, pseudo-science has also played a role in justifying the mistreatment of poor whites. Eugenics divided America on the basis of good and bad blood. The rural South of poor illiterate whites were seen as the epitome of eugenic backwardness. Eugenics offered a convenient biological explanation to justify the terrible treatment of poor whites and people of color.

The exploitation of poor whites must never be used as an excuse for racism. For all people of conscience and awareness, given American history, the struggle against racism must always be a central struggle of the fight for justice. At the same time, attitudes that belittle poor whites are equally unacceptable.

I would say, to date, no political party has embraced poor whites or has advocated for them. Republican rhetoric masks their slavish devotion to corporate power and their 1% funders. I would acknowledge the Republicans have had some success in conning poor whites as they have tried to get the vote. The Democrats, on the other hand, have demonstrated cluelessness where poor whites are concerned. The Democrats have made a minimal effort to even seek that vote. Unfortunately, many liberals remain as committed to corporate power as the Republicans.

To have a chance to attract poor whites, the Democrats need to junk their corporate-friendly worldview and they need a populist message that critiques concentrated wealth and power. Too many liberal yuppies maintain an upper-middle class snobbery toward poor whites. It is no wonder the Democrats have earned a hostile reception.

Poor whites have long maintained a place of invisibility in America. Before anything can change, we all need to open our eyes and see them.

Advertisements
Categories: Uncategorized
  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: