My grandmother’s parents were illiterate. Her brother died when he was four of appendicitis because the family did not have a car, and there was no way to get him to the hospital in time. My grandmother did not have electricity or running water at home until she was a teenager. She was not born in a third world country; neither was she born at the turn of the 20th century or during the great depression. She was born in rural East Texas in 1954, during the height of American post-war prosperity.
My grandmother belonged to that class of Americans we call white trash, although she would have never considered herself such. The term itself is pejorative, and—at least in the south—carries with it connotations of immorality, immodesty, and sloth. The existence of a permanent white underclass is often unacknowledged in this country, although we all implicitly understand that one exists. One need not look any farther than classic films like Deliverance and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to see how the specter of the poor rural white haunts the American mind. In politics, we see that working-class whites—especially those from the South—are the primary recipients of liberal derision. Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” comment during the 2016 election is a classic example. However, since her defeat—which might be at least partially attributable to condescending comments like that one—the attacks have only accelerated. Frank Rich’s anti-empathy treatise in New York magazine, “No Sympathy for the Hillbilly,” is a primary example of the backlash that followed after every liberal in the media pretended to read Hillbilly Elegy. About Arlie Hochschild’s book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, Rich snidely comments:
Maybe, like Hochschild’s new friends in Louisiana’s oil country, they’ll keep voting against their own interests until the industrial poisons left unregulated by their favored politicians finish them off altogether. Either way, the best course for Democrats may be to respect their right to choose.
Similarly, Lee Siegel’s article in the arch-liberal Daily Beast, “Memo to the South: Go Ahead and Secede Already!” which was written in 2013 (and updated with new commentary in 2017), goes a step further, calling for the dissolution of the union based on the notion that the South is a drag on the country, socially, economically, and even culturally. In what is perhaps the most infuriating line of this screed, Siegal remarks that “The most important popular and ‘high’ art is produced by blue people, in blue places. Even the best comedians—with the exception of Stephen Colbert—are, you might say, from free as opposed to slave states,” a comment absurd in so many different respects that it deserves no rebuttal. Like Rich, he blames the poor whites for their own plight, writing:
By this point, I could care less about such people. All I know is that they stand opposed to every social and economic arrangement that would make an increasingly harsh and exponentially more complicated America more bearable for those with little or no material resources. I don’t really care what the matter is with the so-called average American. My attitude now is somewhat less cerebral. Fuck Kansas, and fuck the horse it rode (into the Union) on.
The notion that both Rich and Siegal seem to have is that working-class whites—particularly in the South—are voting against their interests and deserve the fruits of such behavior. This notion rests upon the comfortable delusion that the Democratic party is still the same party that it was in the 1930s through to the 1970s, when large sections of the white working class supported it, including in the South. The truth is that the Democrats have not been a social democratic party since the Johnson administration and that the party has conspired against those—such as Senator Bernie Sanders—who have attempted to restore the party to its New Deal roots. It ignores the fact that Bill Clinton perhaps did more to offshore manufacturing jobs and to destroy the social safety net than any Republican before him, or that Barack Obama bailed out banks while explicitly declining to stop foreclosures during the Great Recession. It is absurd to suggest that the Democratic party still represents the material interests of the working class.
But it would be insufficient to suggest that liberals only hate white trash because they vote for Republicans. The term “liberal,” in the popular imagination, has become synonymous with upper-middle-class white urbanites, a stereotype borne out by statistics. They are a well-educated cohort—widely-read enough to understand the problems with society and capitalism but too insecure in their position to do anything that might challenge the system that has brought them relative benefit—and therefore enjoy programs which give the surface-level appearance of progress and equality. This explains their support for means-tested social programs, LGBT rights, the importation of cheap labor (under the guise of diversity), their veganism, and—most recently—their frankly fetishistic fixation on the concept of white privilege, completely devoid of any class analysis whatsoever.
Of course, liberals support gay marriage or the right for trans people to use a particular bathroom in public precisely because it does not cost them anything. They can support open borders because it makes their juice cleanse cheaper, and comes with the added benefit of being baptized in the sweat of a Mexican immigrant to cleanse them of their original sin of whiteness. Through charity and means-testing, they can help the poor think they are moral enough to deserve it. They hate the white trash because of the insecurity of their class position. At any time they can look into the eyes of some poor honkey in the trailer park and see themselves looking back. It frightens them, and that fear turns to anger. But they can still pity the poor black person because they know they will never be one.
The origins of their derision toward the poor is not new. Calling themselves “progressives” then, as some do now, the petit-bourgeois were at the forefront of the eugenics movement, sterilizing poor whites,1To say nothing of the many crimes that adventurous progressives perpetrated against anybody who wasn’t white. particularly in the South, whom they viewed as merely the perpetually poor descendants of the British underclass: street urchins, criminals, prostitutes, and drunks. As the historian Nancy Isenburg notes in White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, the eugenicists were not incorrect in their view that the United States had imported the British underclass, but rather in the belief that the stability of this caste was attributable to genetics rather than political and economic forces that she so clearly documents in her book. Throughout the history of the United States, this white underclass has always been a target of derision, buried beneath the surface of America’s middle-class self-mythology. As Isenberg notes: “At all times, white trash reminds us of one of the American nation’s most uncomfortable truths: the poor are always with us… We cling to the comfort of the middle class, forgetting that there can’t be a middle class without a lower.” This historical combination of vitriol and erasure continues today, with the simultaneous derision of poor whites by liberals and the proliferation of race reductionist propaganda such as the New York Times’ ahistorical 1619 Project.
If elected, Kamala Harris will be lauded as the first woman of color Vice-President, in particular, as Barack Obama was, she will be touted by liberals as a representative of the disproportionately poor African-American community. Just as they ignored the fact that Barack Obama was the son of a wealthy white woman and a Kenyan diplomat, they will ignore the fact that Kamala Harris is the daughter of an Indian doctor and Jamaican economics professor, and that she was raised in an upper-middle-class environment that is completely foreign to most white Americans, let alone black Americans. Just as America first imported its underclass as slaves and indentured servants, today it imports its middle class: doctors, engineers, coders, and academics from all corners of the global south. This importation gives great comfort to cosmopolitan liberals. They may enjoy the moral righteousness of more diverse work environments without having to do anything to help the black and white working-class people who built the country and upon whose continued suffering their own prosperity is predicated. Liberals are happy to pay symbolic deference to working-class blacks—at least until there are enough children of Nigerian doctors to fill the diversity quotas and so long as they continue being “politically black”—by voting for Joe Biden, sparing them from liberal wrath and condemnation. Step out of line, though, and they just might find themselves in the same situation as the poor white trash, with New York magazine imploring their readers just to let them die off.
|↑1||To say nothing of the many crimes that adventurous progressives perpetrated against anybody who wasn’t white.|