When confronted with something horrific, we often respond with whatever tools are at hand, like grabbing anything that will work as a club if we find ourselves suddenly under assault. When they are figures of speech or other aesthetic conventions, we call these tools “tropes.”
In the wake of the white supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville, some of these tropes are about supremacists being ignorant rednecks, or even “degenerate,” “inbred” or similar “white trash” imagery. White supremacists themselves seem anxious to avoid these associations, attempting to rebrand themselves as “white nationalists” who host conferences and engage in other mainstream actives, as more likely to be wearing a suit than a klan robe.
The irony of characterizing racists and Neo-Nazis like those at Charlottesville as “white trash” is that many of these tropes rely on the same eugenicist thinking that went hand in glove with racist thinking in the United States and reached a genocidal climax in Nazi Germany. Although the notion of white trash has a history with its own shifts and internal contradictions, these are some of the ideological problems the trope has traditionally “solved” for racist thinking:
- White supremacy has often relied on a notion that white people have a superior disposition to govern themselves, and a belief that this supposed self-discipline gives them the aptitude and indeed the “duty” to govern other, supposedly less disciplined peoples.
- But white supremacy also needs a way to account for whites who fail to prosper. If white people are “innately” superior, why do some fail so spectacularly? And if racial traits are believed to include character traits such as self-discipline and industry, how can white supremacy explain white people whose character is lacking? Or to put the contradiction in its starkest terms: how can white supremacists account for white people who behave like the supremacists’ racist notion of black people?
- As some have put it, white trash functions as a label for “failed white people.” Not just white people who fail, but who fail at being white. They fail to embody the superiority and supremacy that racist thinking asserts should be their inevitable birthright.
- The notion of white trash, especially once eugenicist thinking gave it a scientific patina, explained such white behavior as resulting from “bad” or “enfeebled” stock. This emphasis on heredity plays on a double notion of beeding—both as genetics and as character traits. Or rather, it conflates the two, arguing that bad genetics passes on weak character.
- This history of eugenicist thinking may also account for the resolutely embodied, abject nature of white trash imagery: grossly overweight or meth-addict skinny, sexual but linked to an unwelcome fecundity, bad teeth that are portrayed not as a lack of access to affordable orthodontics, but a genetic defect. The white trash individual was once portrayed with the same imagery as the syphilitic, and is now depicted with the imagery of the diabetic or the meth addict. A trope dominated by images of waste and effluvia, illness and excess, expenditure that overflows the bounds of domestic economy and spills broken possessions, debris, and neglected children into the surrounding neighborhood. Not just trash, but a biohazard.
- Eugenicist thinking had the additional effect of naturalizing some white people’s poverty by explaining it as a result of their supposed genetic deficiencies and consequent “lack of initiative,” “feeblemindedness,” and so forth.
- More pertinent for the present moment, though, I would argue that associating racism primarily with poor, rural white people with little access to higher education lets them function as a foil for other white people, including white liberals. Instead of grappling with our own privileges and structures of white supremacy that benefit us (whether we object to those privileges or not), we can take a self-congratulatory stand against an image of atavistic rural bigots.
- We could sum up the worst instance of such a self-congratulatory evasion this way: “racism isn’t a really a white problem; it’s a white trash problem.”
Characterizing white supremacists with white trash tropes draws on eugenicist notions that are themselves racist. It also misses the target. The nighttime procession of tiki torch-bearing white supremacists in polo shirts and khakis at Charlottesville might initially seem ludicrous because it looks so suburban, at odds with the rural rednecks and impoverished, disaffected skinheads many of us would expect at a white supremacist rally. The real racists, educated white Anglos may have told themselves, aren’t like us. Redneck or skinhead, klansman or neo-Nazi, but not well-heeled. They are supposed, in the popular imagination, to lack breeding. But I think the march’s suburban regalia evoked exactly what white supremacists today are fighting for—for white privilege to be so embedded that it looks ordinary. Privileges so naturalized and normalized that it’s difficult to even imagine they could be contested. Supremacists’ calls for an ethnically pure white homeland may sound risible. But studies such as Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law remind us that for much of recent history, housing policies and restrictions encouraged just such places. In many ways, the new white supremacy simply fights to maintain or restore the old white privileges.
Disgust with white supremacists is important. Condemning them is utterly necessary and non-negotiable. Yet if white Anglos stop there, we leave in place many of the racial privileges that supremacists are anxious to protect. Taking a stand against hate is bracing and says something important about you as a person. Grappling with privilege is less comfortable because
- you don’t get to be the hero, and
- challenging privilege requires changing structures, a harder, more extended task that denouncing evil.
To complicate matters further, it means challenging structures that you benefit from (whether you want those benefits or not). It means looking at ways you are “folded into” social systems you may violently disagree with, systems you can’t change on your own. So challenging your own privileges isn’t so much (or only) “standing against” an easy, odious target (easy precisely because it is odious). Instead, it means “standing with” people who are marginalized by the very same dynamics that grant you privileges. This usually means playing a supporting role: standing with, but also frequently standing behind people more directly affected than you are. After all, this is what most terrifies white supremacists—white people not always being on center stage, the dominant actors in our history.
Helpful Histories and Contexts
Hartigan, John. Odd Tribes: Toward a Cultural Analysis of White People. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005
Hedges, Warren. “If Uncle Tom Is White, Should We Call Him Auntie?: Race & Sexuality in Post-Bellum US Fiction.” Whiteness: A Critical Reader. Edited by Mike Hill. New York: NYU Press, 1997.
Pick, Daniel. Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, C. 1848 – C. 1918. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993
Rothstein, Richard. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. New York: Norton-Liveright, 2017.
Wray, Matt. Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.
Eugenicist thinking as so pervasive that it has cute cartoons.
From a 1939 textbook, You & Heredity. Reprinted in Hartigan.
The same text is used with an updated illustration in a 1955 textbook.