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The birth of our nation meant many people from many lands fusing together into one population--a population, that by all indications would be as diverse as the New World was large. But in the South, the landing pad for many immigrants from northern Europe, a rather homogenous population formed. Granted, some came with their pockets full while others had only their dreams, some came with their dignified family histories while others had only their family secrets, but for the most part, the whites in the South were more alike than different. From this homogeneity no class system was expected, as this was, of course, the land of democracy and equality. However, slowly a ruling class did emerge. Some whites rose to the top as a result of nothing more than luck, while others were not as fortunate enlisting in the lower class as "poor whites." A caste system developed with property ownership providing the only distinction between brother and brother, cousin and cousin.
Consequently, a sense of illegitimacy pervaded the Southern elite. They knew they had no true claim of aristocracy, as they were drawn from the same pool of common whites just years earlier. The elite began to view the poor whites in two completely different lights. First, they saw the people of simple goodness--good country folk--and sympathized with them. Second, they saw crudeness and anger--savages--and feared them, all the while denying that what they saw in the poor whites they also saw in themselves. The elite understood that they were not too far removed from the poor whites and shared the same roots with the group that would soon be monikered white trash.
"The South, one might say, is a tree with many age rings, with its limbs and trunk bent and twisted by all the winds of the years, but with its tap root in the Old South" (Cash x). Rooted in the Old South, the "poor white" class and culture is one limb that has been, like the region itself, twisted and bent through the years. To understand the cultural progressions of this group both in terms of how the elite saw them and stereotyped them and how they saw themselves, we must first understand their establishment and their historical roots in the Old South.
The antebellum South is as peculiar as any region during any period in this young country's history. Centered around the institution of slavery, Southern society maintained a precarious balance between rich and poor, free and enslaved, and white and black. Three distinct classes developed as the economics of the times dictated: the planter class, the white landowners; the Negro slaves, the free laborers; and the poor whites, the non- landholding impoverished. With tobacco and cotton established as the staple crops, the plantation system developed, deigning the landowners kings. As more free labor arrived from foreign lands, the landless white Southerners saw their position in society mired in ambiguities and paradoxes. As the economy grew so, too, did the need for more free labor, and as non-landowners, the poor whites were not only excluded from this growth but, in fact, suffered as a result. Proverbially and literally, the poor whites "headed for the hills" in retreat. As these people retreated to the hills, they were also excluded from social institutions. The ruling class controlled everything from the church to the government. Without participating in institutions the poor whites were unrefined and unpracticed in the societal norms of the day. The economical isolation had in turn, created a societal isolation.
The poor whites contended with two forces residual from the plantation system. First, the "masses" of poor whites had lost their social and economic focus. The plantation system did not include them as a viable force in economic or institutional terms, so they disassociated with it. In the years prior to the Civil War they had become self-sufficient and economically independent. They had no reason to believe that they could have any impact on the institutional infrastructures. Secondly, the poor whites divorced themselves from the notion of pride of achievement and effort. Their existence had become one of self-sustaining adequacy, doing enough to keep their families warm, dry, and well-fed. The institutions that instilled the ideas of a Protestant work ethic had rejected them. Thus, they had no exposure or desire to believe in the idea that through hard work one could advance in society. This was all supposed to change with the end of the Civil War. When the war ended, however, the poor whites remained in their position in society with no means to advance and essentially no desire to do so.
The economic reality following the Civil War provides further evidence that the poor whites were indeed closed out of economic opportunity. Theoretically, with the abolition of slavery, the invisible hand of capitalism should have returned everyone to an equal playing field, or at least a fair chance to come to bat. Democracy would ensure these poor whites a chance. This, like much in often misunderstood South, was a myth. The theoretical entrance into the economy and society did not exist. What did exist was a ruling class of planters that now had the opportunity to exploit both blacks and whites. The former plantation system protected the poor whites from direct exploitation. The tenant system, which emerged after the war, had no racial preference in its exploitation.
The tenant farming system offered little in terms of changing the framework of Southern society. The planter class still ruled as they held the invaluable asset--land. The poor whites, and blacks as well, had no real opportunity to acquire land in pursuit of the Jeffersonian vision of independent farm-owning citizens. The poor whites simply could not afford to purchase land. If, by some off chance that they were fortunate enough to acquire farmable land, inaccessibility to markets and the high cost of fertilizer and necessary equipment quickly shattered their Jeffersonian dream. Plantation owners continued expanding and claiming all the best lands. The "hills" in which many poor whites lived were slowly disappearing as plantations expanded and hunting lands diminished. Many poor whites were ostensibly forced into the share-cropper system--bringing an end to their independence, self-sufficiency, and freedom from direct exploitation. Despite the appearance of great transformation in the South, for the poor whites nothing had changed in the way of opportunity; they remained entrapped in their economic morass.
Another "great transformation" approached with the birth of the industrial revolution. No longer would the poor whites have to compete with the blacks as the Southern factories aggressively pursued white workers. Textile, lumber, iron and steel mills offered what appeared to be a way out of the doldrums of society. Many moved from the fields to the factories, but much like the previous "great transformation," little changed. Low wages, dangerous conditions, and little chance of advancement extinguished the poor whites' flickering candle of hope.
Along with not rising above the definition of poverty, poor whites remained excluded from the social institutions of the day. Like prior to the war, the elite whites continued to control the schools and county governments. They were unresponsive and generally uncaring for the concerns of the poor whites. Poll taxes and literacy tests made certain that this group stayed out of the political process. Starting in the late 19th century, these tactics worked well into the 20th century, denying the poor whites a political voice. Some attempt was made to change this with the emergence of Populism, but what little success it had was short-lived and had little impact. Despite the great victory for the Union and the influx of industry, the poor whites remained imprisoned--handcuffed to the bottom of the economic and societal ladder. In total, "the victory was, in fact, almost entirely illusory. If this war had smashed the Southern world, it had left the essential Southern mind and will...entirely unshaken" (Cash 103).
This notwithstanding, the continued rejection of poor whites should not be viewed as merely result of economic forces. The elite whites held strong convictions that the poor whites should remain as they are-- unthreatening to the established order.
Once a poor white, always a poor white' was true enough to carry at least implication of caste status, and this seeming fixity led to an amazingly widespread assumption that here was a special 'breed' of Southerner with biologically determined characteristics. (Mell 165)
Many did give credence to the theory of genetic inferiority. They argued that the poor whites descended from those immigrants hailing from the poor houses and the prisons of Europe. "We contend there is a great deal in blood"(Hundley 251). Some believed that the poor whites had a "natural feeling" that made them live in the hills, and thus their situation should not be attributed to their lack of access to acceptable farmland. All of these beliefs were designed and constructed to protect the elite from the visceral truth--poor whites were historically the same people as the elite whites.
While simultaneously trying to separate themselves from the poor whites, the ruling class also understood that they needed a favorable relationship with them for a series of reasons. First, the elite did not want a class consciousness to develop. Second, the elite abhorred the thought of a working relationship between the poor whites and the blacks, which would create an even stronger possibility of political unrest. To do this, the ruling whites made conscious efforts to uphold a rapport with the poor whites. Prior to the War, "the white victims of slavery...believed whatever the slave holders [told] them; and thus are cajoled into the notion that they are the freest, happiest, and most intelligent people in the world" (Cash 67). This attitude continued after the war. The natural bond of "whiteness" enabled and empowered this relationship. Both groups held anti-Yankee views for their support of the Negro. The ruling whites attributed their loss of free labor to the Yankees, while the poor whites blamed the Yankees for threatening their position in society. As long as the blacks remained in chains, the poor whites would remain a ring higher on society's hierarchical ladder. With their emancipation, all of this was in jeopardy.
Regardless of whether or not they knew it or would admit it, a class had developed. The consciousness within might not have existed yet, but the eyes looking in saw a group of people that they classified as poor whites. From their observation, the elite formed stereotypes--a natural protection device that creates a more distinct separation between the two groups. In other words, the elite did not want to associate or see themselves in the poor whites; stereotypes helped to do this. These stereotypes of the poor whites, sometimes founded on reality and other times on misperception, would perpetuate to the present day.
The first characterization of the poor white is as a violent racist. The issue of the poor whites relationship with blacks has to this point been only briefly addressed in part because the instinctive notion that poor whites despised blacks is, in fact, accurate. Not much can be shown supporting anything otherwise. For the poor whites, the free blacks comprised a considerable threat to their well being and standing in society. Lower classes all ascribe to being middle class. Thus, the poor whites needed the Negro as a necessary element in their vision of society. As long as the blacks were poor and looked upon with scorn, the poor whites could forever maintain their position above the blacks and in the middle class of society. For this reason, poor whites refused to engage in menial work for the land owners. They would not, for example, wait in tables, carry water or clean houses. Such, as they saw it, was "nigger's work." To engage themselves in these chores would be to descend to the Negro's level. The blacks in response coined a phrase that would not only stick, but would be more pervasive today than they could have ever imagined. "Poor white trash," they said of those who thought they were superior to blacks. In black eyes, the poor white trash were in effect lower than the blacks as they failed to ascertain any respectable position in society despite their advantage of being white.
The poor whites did more than simply harbor their resentment for the blacks. Lynchings were their form of expression. Generally those participating in a typical lynching were uneducated, unchurched, and propertyless--the definition of poor whites. Not surprisingly, the more difficult the economic times, the more frequent the lynchings. The poor whites used the blacks as their scapegoats for all the injustices that Southern society had dealt them. And the elite used the poor whites to do their dirty work. The respectable whites remained behind the scenes, all the while offering their full support for the degenerate actions.
Unlike the stereotype of racism which had legitimate roots, the physical depiction of the poor whites existed more as a hyperbole. The upper class described these poor whites appearance as having a "striking lankiness of frame and slackness of muscle in association with a shambling gait, a boniness and mishapliness of head and feature..and not less sallow faded out colorness of skin and hair"(Hundley). For the most part, the poor white looked like the elite white, as they were from the same blood lines, but the poor white habits and the unrefined postures created some slightly visible differences. Hookworm and malaria, two diseases that plagued the poor whites because of malnutrition, tended to jaundice the skin and "clay-eaters," a term used to describe poor whites, formed from the rare instances of people eating dirt to combat their inadequate diets. Also, the chewing of tobacco colored and rotted their teeth contributing to their image. Essentially though, the appearance of the poor white was consequence to the same forces as everything associated with the poor whites. That is to say, because of economic and social exclusion, the unrefined habits in dress and posture created the unflattering physical stereotype.
The image of the poor whites as religious fanatics, victims of evangelical demagoguery finds roots in this same exclusion. Just as other institutions had done, churches rejected the poor whites in the South. The poor whites reacted by turning to alternative forms of faith. However, alternative is relative. As Max Weber, the renown sociologist, has noted, the poor often replace what they cannot be now with something they can become later, specifically in the afterlife. In other words, the lower the class, the more willing they are to accept radical salvation. This sometimes meant turning to more untraditional faith in fortune tellers, witches, and gross superstition. But mostly this meant that poor whites were more accepting of the evangelicals and their radical Christian-based beliefs.
Another characteristic used in describing the poor whites is laziness. As mentioned earlier, without a sense at rewarded success or the exposure to the Protestant work ethic, the pace of life moved more like a lazy Sunday afternoon than a morning in the world of capitalism. Originating in the ante-bellum and perpetuating after the war, a poor white's world revolved around self-sufficiency and adequacy not power and profit. Even speech was slowed, creating the dialect and drawl of the poor whites, as speaking quickly was not only unnecessary but often seen as unneighborly. At times, this habitual slowness led to problems as the poor whites came down from the hills. Poor whites were not prepared for trouble times on the farm as they lacked the energy, thrift, and desire to push harder. As these "crackers" became "lint heads" and "cotton-mill trash," moving from the fields to the factories, they struggled to keep up. It was not so much that they avoided hard work, simply they had become unaccustomed to it.
Going hand and hand with laziness, the "idle-habits" of the poor whites solidified the lackadaisical image of the class. Hunting, marble- playing, fighting, card-playing and most of all, getting drunk comprised what the "establishment" saw as the poor whites class culture. With these inequities in combination with the other pieces of the stereotype, the ruling class defined the aspiration of the typical poor white man:
To stand on his head in a bar, to toss down a pint of raw whiskey at a gulp, to fiddle and dance all night, to bite off the nose or gorge the eye of a favorite enemy, to fight harder and love harder than the next man, to be known eventually far and wide as a hell of a fellow--such would be his focus. (Hundley 150)
In some ways this was not far from the truth even in the poor whites' own eyes. Despite all the negative stereotypes, the "plain folks" began to take pride in their self-description which of course deviated from that scripted by the ruling class. What the poor whites saw differed greatly than what the elite saw. Their own description "connotated the sum of solid virtues-- integrity, independence, self-respect, courage, love of freedom, love of their fellow man and love of God.(Owsley VII). Along with this idea, developed a "plain folk" culture as they would "spin yarns on porches" listening to music later to become known to the rest of the world as country. For them, these "idle habits" constituted their culture; a culture that met their basic needs and provided a sense of worth.
At the turn of the century, the new pride in being "plain folks" led to the development of a class consciousness. This was not, by any means, a consciousness meant for an anti-establishment revolt, but rather a "drawing away with cheerfulness" (Cash 215). Not only had these "plain folk" begun to have pride in themselves and their simple existence, they began resenting being told that the price for progress in economic terms would be the loss of their culture. They had found meaning and happiness in their plain folk culture. For example, the evangelists insisted on lowly origins, equating this with superior virtue. As the Bible had told them, the meek would inherit the Earth, or as they saw it, the poor would inherit the venerated position in heaven. As the century moved into the thirties, the "traveling, feverish evangelists--the Hams, the Cyclone Macks, the Gypsy Smiths, and the Billy Sundays--reach their heyday." (Cash 289) Faith in God and faith in their simple but dignified culture pervaded the lower echelons of white society.
Although the relationship between the poor whites and the elite had stayed essentially the same-- the owners of the mills continued fostering relationships, taking them hunting and fishing thereby keeping him happy and a loyal member of the Democratic Party, problems developed. Because of the pride in being "plain folk," the poor whites refused to live by the middle class standards, as prescribed by the upper class. This made the insecure elite very uncomfortable because they still recognized that ancestrally they were not too far removed from the wretched, uncivilized, unrefined people. Still, in many ways, the elite saw themselves when looking at the poor whites, and this mirroring of themselves amidst the crudeness of the Southern poor created great discomfort for many affluent whites in the South. To help resolve this problem, the elite created a duality, separating simplicity from crudeness. On the one side, persisted the poor whites perception of themselves as the plain folk, the good country people-- simple, virtuous, and family-oriented. On the other side, the poor whites projected the "red neck" or "white trash" image-- immoral, violent and racist-- that had been imposed on them by the wealthy class immediately above them and the black working class immediately below.Return to Home Page Go on to "White Trash in the Twentieth Century