Welcome to the American Revolution II

Welcome to the American Revolution II
But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.
"We face a hostile ideology global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose and insidious in method..." and warned about what he saw as unjustified government spending proposals and continued with a warning that "we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex... The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist... Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together."Dwight D. Eisenhower

Friday, August 14, 2009

The poor white stereotypes. Were is the Change for them Mr. Obama

Equality is simultaneously the greatest accomplishment and worst failure of America. It is the place where idealism and reality come to blows in American culture. Despite the glossy veneer of "political correctness" which has been painted over the rust and corrosion of centuries of racism and classism, the enduring American necessity for a social "other" has chosen working class whites as the focal scapegoat of our time. This site explores the general treatment of working class whites in the media -- comics, literature, film and television; dealing in depth with the areas of religion, race relations, work and lifestyle in defining working class whites as a unique social culture.

"One class gets the sugar and the other gets the shit"(Fussell, 25) and in American society the "other" is invariably poverty stricken and powerless. Classism is at the core of the problem. The hatred of the poor is an evil secret of America, hidden by the ingrained myths of "liberty and justice for all." Americans are taught to believe in a classless, equal opportunity society. Yet, the facts of poverty, illiteracy and ignorance are hard to ignore and the reality is that some people have advantages over other people depending on which family they are born into. Therefore, when wealthy people confront the poor a sense of guilt and superiority merge into the reactionary fear that has manifested itself as racism and classism through the centuries. Sut Lovingood, an anti-hero of Southwestern humor may have put it best when he said of the genteel class, "they are powerful feard ove low things, low ways, an' low pepil" (Cook, 8).

The working class white has always been an ideal candidate for this role in society, and mainstream society has revealed their fright. As Jim Goad explains in his Redneck Manifesto, the "redneck" stereotype is especially fitting because it fills all the scapegoat requirements: biological differences --inbred, less intelligent, unattractive; geographic and regional differences --trailer parks, rural south, hillbilly; economic differences -- poor, sick, lazy, dirty; cultural differences-- fundamentalist, superstitious, loud, kin networks; and moral differences-- trashy, racist, violent (Goad, 76).

The development of poor white stereotypes center around literature, comics, movies and television. These stereotypes are easily created and accepted because the culture of working class whites exists within its own set of values and practices. These values are separate from, not subsets of, mainstream American society. Within the media section of the site, I will focus on mainstream society's creation and use of a dichotomous relationship between "white trash" and "good country folk"; addressing the use of physical and mental descriptions to fulfill the biological requirement for scapegoating. The next four sections will deal with remaining societal beliefs that are used to "other" this class. Religion and race will address the cultural and moral dissimilarity to the mainstream, while lifestyle and work will address geographic and economic variance.

Representations of working class whites in the popular media are responsible for the dissemination of "white trash" as well as "good country folk" stereotypes in society. The working class white, placed in these two distinct roles, serves as a personified id and superego for the collective psyche of America, particularly of middle and upper class whites.


The "white trash" portrayal represents the little devil on one shoulder -- embodying racism, ignorance, violence, filth, and base desires. He operates outside of societal boundaries with an emphasis on the "id's" instinct and primalism. The "good country folk" portrayal represents the little angel on the other side -- embodying simplicity, loyalty, faith in religion and humanity, and a connection to family and community. This "superego" maintains moral absolutes in a world where such ideals no longer belong.

Society has not chosen one to be the representative model, but instead uses (and I mean that in the harshest sense) this dichotomy to fulfill its own desires on either end of the spectrum. As "id", the working class white is burdened with all the crimes and guilt of the white race over time. This allows the audience to feel justifiable hatred toward a group which they can demonize and thereby release guilt and aggression unto -- while hating what is worst within themselves. As "superego", the working class white is used to nostalgize and idealize the desire for a simpler life. Thus enabling the audience to reassure itself of qualities they hope are best within themselves in a kind, moral world. These images reappear over time and in many forms of media. They are considered for their impact on public perception and treatment of working class whites. The most telling class indicator may be religious belief. It has become accepted fact within the academic and well educated worlds that religious zeal is centered in lower classes. The idea is that lower socio-economic classes desperately need to believe in a better world to come (the meek shall inherit the earth), that being poor and trampled on is a good thing (turn the other cheek), or as a crutch to make it through this life that is harsher on them than on most. Reliance on nature for livelihood, or a lack of material goods, creates the need for faith in religion moreso than other lifestyles.

America is a country that values rational over religion in its politics and rhetoric. This is vital to understanding the method of "othering" working class whites. Their culture operates parallel to the mainstream and upper classes of society, not as a subset, but as a unique and complete system of beliefs and lifestyles that is distinct and complete apart from the commonly accepted societal norms.

Historically, working class whites have been evangelical Protestants. In the early years of America, poor whites had a very low literacy rate. The majority of the class existed as sharecroppers and tenant farmers with little opportunity or inclination for formal education nor organized religion. Lacking the ability to read the Bible, and receiving no formal explanations of Christianity, their religious experience was based on trips to tent revivals and outdoor camp meetings.

As far back as the 1830's, we see parodies of such lower class religious revivals in Southwestern humor sketches. Sweaty Protestant ministers leading congregations in unruly and spirit filled altar calls are the normal image, typically coupled with shady ushers taking the offering. These depictions are demeaning to the congregation as well as to the ministers. This stereotype has clearly survived in modern day treatment of television evangelists and fundamentalist preachers, in general.

You Have Seen Their Faces was a book published in the 1930's with the intention of photographing working class whites during the Great Depression in order to make the general population socially aware of the plight of farmers. These dignified images are captured in photos taken by Margaret Bourke-White. However, her husband, Erskine Caldwell, is responsible for the under photo captions which are placed in quotation marks under each image. The sentiments under the photographs are shockingly condescending. They show the people speaking in terms that are self-deprecating, racist, ignorant and shallow. There is only a tiny disclaimer at the front of the edition, explaining, "The legends under the pictures are intended to express the authors' own conceptions of the sentiments of the individuals portrayed; they do not pretend to reproduce the actual sentiments of these persons." Such a statement should immediately raise one's hackles, particularly after you read the attitude of the quotations and consider how few readers actually took the time to examine this little blurb before delving into the arresting photographs.

"Mrs. Peterson is growing thinner"

"Mildred has on a new pair of shoes"

One section is on the topic of religion and includes powerful photographs of church settings, black and white. I have included two from the white church service, to give an idea of the striking treatment of the photograph's subjects. These women are belittled into a state of concern over fashion and weight. Rather than using these images to recognize the importance and sacredness of their religious belief in the functioning of their personal thought and community life, it is used as a matter of derision.

Moving into modern time, Paul Fussell's Class, includes a section on the way to judge the "class" of a city by its religious fundamentalism:

Another way to judge a place's undesirability is to measure the degree to which religious fundamentalism is identified with it. Akron, Ohio...is fatally known as the home of the Rex Humbard Ministry, the way Greenville, South Carolina, is known as the seat of Bob Jones University, and Wheaton, Illinois, is identified with Wheaton College and remembered thus as the forcing ground of the great Billy Graham. Likewise Garden Grove, California, locus of the Rev. Robert Schuller, famous for his automatic smile and his cheerful Cathedral of glass. Can a higher-class person live in Lynchburg, Virginia? Probably not, since that town is the origin of Dr. Jerry Falwell's radio emissions, the site of his church and the mailing address for free-will offerings. Indeed, it seems that no high-class person can live in any place associated with religious prophecy or miracle...(p.37)

And we all know the general assumptions about the South. Just take a look at the geographical distribution of Baptist (read fundamentalist) churches in America. Spiritual aspects of life are generally ignored by the mainstream rhetoric in America today. There is a common denial of faith, hope and belief in a higher being.

The working class white in America has retained this connection in their daily lives, if not in practice, always in rhetoric and core beliefs. Maybe it is due to an attachment to things not manmade; nature, family, and community. It is acceptable to feel a responsibility to others and to a higher being -- a way of thinking often looked down upon in the self centered world of psychology and independent business people. Yet outsiders use their evangelical Protestantism as another area for derision, rather than accepting this as a sacred, valued and sincere belief in spiritual lives.

It is out of fashion in these days to look backward rather than forward. About the only American given to it is the Southerner, who persists in his regard for a certain terrain, a certain history, and a certain inherited way of living. He is punished as his crime deserves. He feels himself in the American scene as an anachronism, and knows he is felt by his neighbors as a reproach. Of course, he is a tolerably harmless reproach. He is like some quaint local character of eccentric but fixed principles who is thoroughly and almost pridefully accepted by the village as a rare exhibit in the antique kind. His position is secure from the interference of the police, but it is of a rather ambiguous dignity.

These opening paragraphs are taken from John Crowe Ransom's "Reconstructed But Unregenerate" included in I'll Take My Stand by the Twelve Agrarians. He is referring to the Southerner, but it would be a close step to replace Southerner with working class white today. This exercise of replacement is not appropriate throughout the entire piece, as I would not argue that working class whites wish to reestablish a more European system, yet the idea of how one cultural group with different belief systems operates within the larger American social structure is handled in a manner that is insightful and surprisingly accurate even today.

Ransom argues that "Progress never defines its ultimate objective"(8). This American mainstream characteristic has permeated the personality of America. The ideal American is always someone searching forward, changing, inventing and progressing. Yet this is not at the core of the working class whites system of values. Their system is one of stability, adaption to natural environs and the existence of moral absolutes. The progressive life is one that is constantly fluid, where all is relative and there is little time for community, kinship and loyalty.

This progressive system is not desirable within the paradigm of the working class white. And the fact is, mainstream Americans doubt the value of the progressive system as well. The world of "white trash" or "good country folk" is alternately used by outsiders as one of derision or nostalgia. As we have seen in the media section, the mainstream often looks to the working white culture when it begins to have doubts about the present state of society. Particularly when government appears to make immoral choice (during the Nixon era and the Vietnam war), there is a desire to reassure the goodness of Americans by characterizing working class whites as the backbone of the country, with honest, simple values.

America is quickly losing the regional distinctiveness of the South through their race for progress. Society is demoralizing the working man through typecasting as rednecks and hillbilly's. Yet America may be destroying a part of itself that should have been explored and listened to. The man who represents lack of formal education, hard physical labor, kinship loyalty and traditional lifestyles is being trampled upon because of the guilt and questioning which his existence creates in the world of progress, business and affluence that America is now so committed to.

Ransom describes the battle between agrarian and industrial thus:

The industrialists have a doctrine which is monstrous, but they are not monsters personally; they are forward-lookers with nice manners, and no American progressivist is against them. The farmers are boorish and inarticulate by comparison. Progressivism is against them in their fight, though their traditional status is still so strong that soft words are still spoken to them. All the solutions recommended for their difficulties are really enticements held out to them to become a little more cooperative, more mechanical, more mobile--in short, a little more industrialized. But the farmer who is not a mere laborer...is necessarily among the more stable and less progressive elements of society. He refuses to mobilize himself and become a unit in the industrial army, because he does not approve of army life.

This is a model of the relationship still functioning today between the mainstream of American society and working class white culture. Though most are no longer farmers, they retain a sense of rural values. And to complicate the matter further, the rural ideal is often the dream of the working class white. They do not desire to be partners in a law firm, or to obtain a graduate school education; they would like to own land, not always live hand to mouth, have security in health care and be out of the cities and factories. Much of their frustration and anger comes from the fact that this is seldom an option. There is only so much land available, and it is outrageously priced. There are only so many jobs in agriculture, wildlife and fisheries, or ranching; and these now require college degrees.

So those working class whites who do not own land within their families are forced by progress, industrialization, and the incorporation of America into the most dehumanizing of jobs -- mill workers, unions, factories, refineries and the service industry. It is this situation that results in many of the typical characteristics of the angry white male.

If every American thought about class instead of race for only five minutes a day, some revolutionary things might happen. Jim Goad, The Redneck Manifesto

The derisive treatment of working class whites by middle and upper class whites stems from two emotions within themselves: fear and guilt. Working class whites are the embodiment of uppers worst fears..fear of slipping in the class system, fear of social isolation and fear of this socially unstable class that retains an emphasis on physicality rather than intellect and moral judgements rather than ambiguous relativity.

Since the Civil Rights movement, white Americans have shouldered a lot of well deserved guilt about centuries of abuse toward minorities. Coupled with this guilt, there exists in most people a basic craving for absolution. The desire to feel forgiveness and move forward. This need is a strong force in society today. The white man does not know how to deal with his past as master and racist. He did not own slaves, maybe no one in his lineage owned slaves, but the color of his skin has made his heritage privy to power and control over other men's lives. How does one accept, change and go forward with such knowledge? Particularly when one is constantly confronted with the struggle of black and brown peoples who are attempting to make strides past the trappings of their abused past.

One option is to take the worst historical attributes of whites and placing them on those whites who are most powerless and isolated in society. Then you can blame and hate them for their crimes against humanity and your own. Upper class whites can join with blacks and other minorities, thereby alleviating their guilt, taking attention off themselves and bonding with minorities against poor whites. Uppers are still pitting the two groups against each other; they have merely switched sides. For proof, just take a look at recent voting patterns. The liberal, well educated white votes alongside minorities against politically conservative working class whites.

Think of the difference between the treatment of a black executive or politician who does not support gangsta rappers singing about rape and murder -- he is considered a sellout to his race. But if a white doctor is embarrassed by a television interview after a bout of domestic violence at the local trailer park, the world joins in throwing stones at the ignorant rednecks. Treason to whiteness has become a battle cry of devotion to humankind. The history of race relations surrounding working class whites is complex. Due to their ambiguous social position, they were historically a favorite villain on both sides of the country. A prime example is during the postbellum period when defenders of the Old South used generalized "white trash" characteristics to justify retaining power in the hands of the gentry and plantation owners. The immoral, degenerate and violent scapegoating of the poor whites was used as an example of the need for the elite to protect others from this underclass who did not have a "role" in society. At the same time, northern abolitionists villify "white trash" to show the result of a slave system on whites as well as blacks. They were the terrible white results of a slave economy. (Cook, 9)

Saying that working class whites were in a tough spot, is never to deny their role in debasing blacks in society. However, the relationship between poor whites and slaves, or poor whites and poor blacks is a multi-layered one. Poor whites and poor blacks historically and presently have much more in common than either class with uppers. Historically, particularly after the Civil War, poor whites and poor blacks held a similar position in society. They typically worked as sharecroppers and tenant farmers, with no possibility for land ownership or education, constantly under the control of land owning wealthy whites. The upper class whites were and still are aware of the power that working class whites and blacks would have if they were to join forces in political and social affairs. Therefore it has been beneficial to upper class whites to encourage animosity between these two groups of people. With the obvious racial distinction, it was not difficult to do.

For the first two hundred years of American history, wealthy white employers and white churches constantly reinforced the poor whites' ideas about their superiority over blacks due to the color of their skin. Desperately desiring some power in society, poor whites gladly claimed this role, despite the obvious flaws in this argument. In Origins of the New South, C. Vann Woodward writes, "it took a lot of ritual and Jim Crow to bolster the creed of white supremacy in the bosom of a white man working for a black man's wages" (p.211) Poor whites and blacks share similar religious doctrines, family ties and community loyalty; yet have remained separated by racial animosity.

Labeling someone as a "poor white" is a paradox -- juxtaposing connotations that are at polar extremes in American rhetoric and thought. It is a label that is uncomfortable for those using it as well as those identified by it. The original derisive term was "poor white trash." Rather than abbreviating itself to "poor white" however, it has become "white trash." This takes the emphasis off of the economic difficulties of the class, and places the importance on the moral qualities of the people that make up this social group.

But the truth is, working class whites have no choice but to work, and to work in thankless, physically demanding jobs which society's habits necessitate, but no one wants to perform. These jobs are looked down upon because they require little education and they place one in the lower level of social hierarchy. The job complaints of these men do not center around board meetings, not making junior partner, who got the nicest company car, or even paying off college loans. Their problems are on the job injuries and deaths, explosions, shift work year after year, no opportunity to ever receive a promotion, protecting their seniority, and providing health care for their families....not to mention paying the bills.

This class should theoretically be distinguishable for economic reasons. But our capitalist society teaches that we all get what we deserve -- the rich and the poor. This is further complicated if one is white. The cultural baggage of white skin includes the myths of power, education, wealth and opportunity.

If one is white and does not succeed there are no social excuses, though they exist for all other marginalized groups. The implied problem must therefore be laziness or stupidity. Yet the marginalization of this group is not so different. The folks also live within a social construct that teaches different values and offers no visible option for a path different from that of their family and social structure. And there are no social organizations offering "poor white" scholarships, or "poor white" loan programs, nor are wealthy whites willing to mentor the working class white's children by helping with college or job training. Being white, in some sense, actually harms their chance of receiving aid or encouragement if they chose to pursue education or a different lifestyle from that of their families.

When America thinks of the poor, the instant assumption is black or hispanic. The percentage of the black or hispanic populations which fall into the poorest class is certainly higher than the percentage of the white population. Yet when considering the actual number of poor of all races in America, 48.1% are white. Most of the poor people in the country are white and their incomes have been in outright decline for more than twenty years, particularly compared with minority and women's incomes which have risen steadily (Wray, 183). That is not to say that the narrowing of the gap between racial incomes was not needed, but what about some narrowing between the incomes of the employer versus the employee. The white CEO's are quadrupling their incomes, no need to worry about them. However, Asian Americans, since being included in Census data starting in 1987, have the highest income of any ethnic group (Wray, 179). Doug Henwood's "Trash-o-nomics" explains these statistics and economic trends in detail.

image is of the lines of workers during the great depression as they marched on Washington to get early WWI benefits paid to them They were later beaten by government.... One of the clearest places to see where America has turned her back on the working man may be in the treatment of the history of unions. Which is to say the missing treatment of the history of unions. The ignorance of labor history allows another generation of children to grow up thinking we can all be doctors and lawyers and allows the demonization of the working class with no knowledge of their historical struggles. As Goad puts it in his Redneck Manifesto, "We continue to flog ourselves over cowboys and Injuns, but we feel no guilt over what railroad companies did to rail workers. A second won't pass when someone doesn't reloop film reels of white cops clubbing black guys, but you'll never see footage of Pinkerton guards machine-gunning coal miners" (102). Instead, the political left that once supported workers' rights has become the left that paints working whites as the last stronghold of "warmongering, bigoted junior partners of empire" (Wray, 178).

Prior to the Civil War, ironically existing during the Jacksonian age of the common man, a genre of writing developed that dealt almost exclusively with poor whites and served as to solidify the stereotypes that have remained until the present day. Southwestern humor can be credited with the origins of white working class characters as violent, ugly, unhealthy, ridiculously religious, and socially backward.

Southwestern humor had its heyday in the 1830's and 40's, acting as an anti-Jacksonian voice during the great age of democracy. Andrew Jackson's emphasis on the will of the people and the virtue of the majority was the actualization of the upper-class' greatest fears. A true democracy, with power in the hands of the common man, was not desired by the elite class that occupied most government positions. An ideal existed that the educated and cultured minority should make the decisions for the uncouth, incompetent majority. Jackson's appeal in the South and West was particularly frightening to these Northeastern elites, as the frontiersmen represented the worst of the under classes -- violent, rowdy and uneducated men who might somehow gain a voice in the government of the country.

The Southwestern humorists acted against such a movement. Most of these men were from the professional class, working as journalists, doctors, lawyers and editors. They typically wrote anonymously, at least until their popularity was established. They wrote stories about a social group of which they were not a part -- the frontier man, the hunter, the confidence man of the poor whites.

Though some books were published after the popularity of the stories were established, the majority of the humorists were discovered by and first appeared in William T. Porter's Spirit of the Times : A Chronicle of the Turf, Agriculture, Field Sports, Literature and the Stage, a supposedly non-partisan sporting journal focused on horse racing. However, like most of the humorists, Porter was a loyal Whig and Confederate sympathizer. His magazine was directed toward an audience of wealthy Southern horse-racers and plantation owners. The humor was created for the amusement of the upperclass as a device of contempt and derision for the lower classes.

The trademark of Southwestern humorists was their use of the frame narrative. In this style, the stories are heard in the vernacular, but are related to the reader as seen by an aristocratic, composed narrator. The narrator provides a superior and disconnected vantage point, looking down his nose at the lower classes and often including a didactic lesson at the beginning and/or end of the story. This viewpoint enables the reader to scorn and ridicule these hyperbolic caricatures with no room for sympathy or compassion. This is the ideal position for the upper class to enjoy the privilege of their "not me" instinct -- reveling in the condescension of look what I am not'.

One of the first humorists, Augustus Longstreet, created an enduring character, Ransy Sniffle, in "The Fight" from Georgia Scenes (1835). One of the earliest portrayals of "white trash", Ransy Sniffle will be echoed and expanded upon for generations of "white trash" characters to come. Sniffle is described by Longstreet's detached narrator as having:

fed copiously upon red clay and blackberries. This diet had given to Ransy a complexion that a corpse would have disdained to own, and an abominal rotundity that was quite unprepossessing. Long spells of the fever and ague, too, in Ransy's youth, had conspired with clay and blackberries to throw him quite out of the order of nature. His shoulders were fleshless and elevated; his head large and flat; his neck slim and translucent; and his arms, hands, fingers, and feet were lengthened out of all proportion to the rest of his frame. His joints were large and his limbs small; and as for flesh, he could not, with propriety, be said to have any. Those parts which nature usually supplies with the most of this article -- the calves of the legs, for example -- presented in him the appearance of so many well-drawn blisters.

If this passage originated from an actual description, this man is suffering, as many poor whites do over the centuries, from malnutrition and disease. Such a passage should be a plea of sympathy and social duty to care for the malnutrition of the poor. Instead it serves as a grotesque of the depravity and ugliness of the lower class -- a class to be avoided and laughed at from a distance. Most humorists were Southern Whigs who utilized their medium to expound political views. Johnson Jones Hooper is a prime example of this, creating the classic confidence man with his character, Simon Suggs. His 1845 book, Some Adventures of Simon Suggs, is set up as a campaign biography with Simon Suggs as a low class derelict who adopts whatever persona necessary in order to rob, trick or injure other people for his own gain. His physical description is not as strikingly grotesque as Ransy Sniffle, though he is undoubtedly a shifty character. His stereotypically "white trash" characteristics fall under his personality traits and lack of morals. He is

Simon Suggs
described as having a:

...head that is somewhat large, and thinly covered with coarse, silver-white hair, a single lock of which lies close and smooth down the middle of a forehead which is thus divided into a couple of very acute triangles, the base of each of which is an eye-brow, lightly defined...Beneath...a pair of eyes with light grey pupils and variegated whites...lids without lashes complete the optical apparatus ...The nose is long and low, with an extremity of singular acuteness, overhanging the subjacent mouth...[which] measures about four inches horizontally. An ever present sneer--not all malice, however--draws down the corners, from which radiate many small wrinkles that always testify to the Captain's love of the 'filthy weed'.

Not only does this description play on the man as unattractive and filthy, but more importantly, it ascribes the characteristics of Andrew Jackson to this detestable fellow. Such a description would have been immediately recognizable in the context of its time, allowing for the Whig Hooper to take a stab at the Democratic Jackson.

The most famous of the Simon Suggs stories is "The Captain Attends a Camp-Meeting". It is commonly assumed that Mark Twain based his chapter "The King Turns Parson" in Huck Finn upon this story of Suggs as the imposter revival minister who steals the collections and takes advantage of the innocent young women. The sketch parodies the religious zealots of the time, who would have been common figures in rural area camp meetings among the lower socio-economic classes of society.

Sut Lovingood
A popular contributor to the Spirit, George Washington Harris created one of the cruelest characters in Southwestern humor with Sut Lovingood. The epitome of the "durn'd fool" character type, Sut's self description is one of the most appropriate to serve as an upper class' view on poor whites. Sut's description follows:

Every critter what has ever seed me, if they has sense enough to hide from a coming calamity...jist knows five great facts in my case...Firstly, that I hain't got nary a soul, nothing but a whisky-proof gizzard...Secondly, that I's too durned a fool to come under military law. Thirdly, that I has the longest pair of legs ever hung to any carcus, excepting only of a grandaddy spider... Fourthly, that I can chamber more corkscrew, kill-devil whisky, and stay on end, than anything excepting only a broad-bottomed churn. Fivety, and lastly, kin get into more durned misfortunate skeery scrapes, than anybody, and then run outen them faster, by golly, nor anybody.

This description fits the categories for poor white stereotyping that were laid out in the introduction to this site. He is biologically, culturally, economically, regionally and morally inferior to the audience of upper class readers. In the tradition of black samboism, Sut's self-degrading representation allows the reader to once again feel justified in their detached amusement. He is too dumb to know that he is being made fun of, and he must be happy in his lifestyle. Edgar Allen Poe must have agreed since he praised Southwestern humor as a correct description of "the manners of our South-Western peasantry."

The next major literary movement to examine is postbellum literature. It typically revolved around the plantation, with women and blacks portrayed as content creatures dependent upon the powerful male planter for livelihood. The trouble in their world always stems from the dangerous, dirty and immoral poor whites who menace them and disrupt their social order. The poor whites ambiguous social position makes him a threat to those who clearly fall within established classes. And in such literature, as in society itself, there is no room for social mobility.

In postbellum literature, unlike Southwestern humor, working class whites play a less visible role. This genre created much of the old South nostalgia that dominated regional thinking for many generations after the Civil War. The emphasis was on paternal plantation owners with happy darkies as slaves, all living together in a familial bond where everyone appreciated knowing their place. When addressed at all, poor whites were treated with condescension. Often portrayed as childlike, genetically inferior or merely tragic, there is seldom a developed or human character from the poor white culture. In The Forayers by William Gilmore Simms, we have a classic description of a "white trash" male. His name is Joel Andrews, but he is called "Hell-Fired Dick":

his visage, scarred and savage, fully justifying the title which he bore. His eyes were great and rolling, owl-like, a broad but degraded forehead. The black hair came down over cheeks and neck, work long to conceal some horrid scars. His lips had been split by stroke of sabre. His teeth projected, very white, like enormous spades...he was a stout and swarthy giant - short, thick, with a bull-dog figure and figure-head, and a neck, as he himself was apt to boast, quite too short for a rope (54).

Along with this disfigured and violent description, which is easy enough to hate, a tirade against those classes above him is included. This is another common method to allow the reader (upper or middle class white) to feel justified in his condemnation of this class and to add to the fear of retaliation from these inhumane people. Dick says:

You're one of them bloody, proud, heathen harrystocrats, that look upon a poor man, without edication, as no better than a sort of two-legged dog, that you kin lay the lash on whenever you see him lying in the doorway. And your son is just another sich a tyrant heathen! And you've had a long swing between you, living on the fat of the land, and riding roughshod over poor men's backs..." (140-1)

Kate Chopin is writing around the same time. Although best known for The Awakening, her first collection was Bayou Folk in 1894. These stories often dealt with relationships between lower class Acadians and wealthy Creoles. Her Acadians are never allowed to truly cross the barriers of class. The Acadian men in her stories are lazy, backward and often brutish. Their only chance for salvation is to be adopted by wealthy Creoles. But even in the event that this occurred, upon adulthood, they must ultimately marry within their original, lower class. The option of true social mobility, or a mixing of the classes, was on equal status with mycegenation.

Following the trend, John Pendleton Kennedy creates the stereotypical poor white male as criminal and brutal throughout his writings, as well. Wat Adair serves as an exemplum of Kennedy's male characters, described as:

A thin, dark, weather-beaten countenance, animated by a bright restless eye, expressed courage rather than hardihood, and seemed habitually to alternate between the manifestations of waggish vivacity and distrust. The person of this individual might be said, from its want of symmetry and from a certain slovenly and ungraceful stoop in the head and shoulders, to have been protracted rather than tall. It better deserved the description of sinewy than muscular, and communicated the idea of toughness in a greater degree than strength.
Though not as harsh as the humorists' early depictions, Kennedy rounds out his character with a vulgar attitude and one of the most disgusting of literary passages, describing his pleasure as he skins a she-wolf alive in "Horse-Shoe Robinson."

Moving into the twentieth century, the most recognizable images of poor whites come from the novels of William Faulkner and Erskine Caldwell. Faulkner's creation of the malicious Snopes clan serves as a continuation of types which were established with the Southwestern humorists. Supporting the claims of biological inferiority in poor whites, Faulkner describes Ab Snopes evil motivation in "Barn Burning" as "in his blood". Sarty also experiences the "old fierce pull of blood" and follows Ab out of "old habit, the old blood which he had not been permitted to choose for himself, which had been bequeathed him willy nilly and which had run so long (and who knows where, battering on what of outrage and savagery and lust) before it came to him."

Faulkner also describes the family in animalistic terms, calling Ab Snopes "wolflike" and the daughters "bovine". Faulkner's portrayals are more complex and problematic than the humorists' and post-bellum writers'. He was familiar with poor whites within his own family and does not write from the detached vantage point of an upper class narrator. His treatment lends an ambiguity and complexity to the dichotomy of "white trash" and "good country folk" that is rarely seen elsewhere. But, finally, his most memorable and striking depictions are of a New South run by vengeful poor whites in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi.

Lester Jeeter
Due to his complex writing style, Faulkner was not popularly read and it is hard to say that his impact was great on the poor white stereotypes held by the general population. However, his partner in the "Southern Gothic school", Erskine Caldwell, wrote God's Little Acre, the best-selling southern book of all time. It outsold Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind by over a million copies. Many debates surround the writing of Erskine Caldwell. It is ambiguous as to whether this can be read as a call for social reform or merely cruel grotesques of the poor white class...or possibly a mixture of both.

But considering his widespread appeal and the fact that Caldwell was usually referred to as a realist, we must assume that his crass portrayals were taken as truthful representations by the audience that read him. This sense of melodramatic violence and the revelation of a scandalous anti-society carry an attitude of exposing with intent to shock and stigmatize, not to reform or aid. Caldwell, like Faulkner, emphasized the animal nature of man with his characters such as Jeeter Lester in Tobacco Road. Later made into a film, Tobacco Road led the way for a popular movement of Southern film portrayals, widely spreading the acceptance of such stereotypes as truth.

The working class white was not only vilified in fiction, but in non-fiction as well. In 1941, W.J.Cash's famous The Mind of the South was published. His theory about the reorganization of the post-war South, which had destroyed the former idyllic society, was called the "savage ideal." Cash's bleak picture of the South feeds former stereotypes set up in the literature of the time. In criticizing the piece, Kirby writes:

The savage ideal included a few occasionally endearing Southern traits: hedonism ("hoggishness in enjoyment"), extravagance (particularly in language) good-old-boyism, physical bravery, loyalty, patience in suffering. But mostly the "ideal" encompassed the 'darker phases': militant ignorance and anti intellectualism; brutal, violent racism; xenophobia; self-righteousness and blind defensiveness. Thus the low state of high art, the Negro-lynching and Ku Kluxery, the suspicion of anything foreign, the incredible claims to superiority by the most impoverished of Americans. Cash's was a South acting upon distorted folk memory and visceral response alone.
The traits considered "endearing" are strikingly similar to the characteristics forced on blacks during slavery and the openly racist years of the American past. Such adjectives seem to continually fill the role of comforting those who degrade lower social classes. The happy darkies like to sing and dance, just like the good ole boys like to fight and drink. This must have been a popular sentiment at the time. A Duke University professor in 1947 referred to the position of southern poor whites as resulting from, "improvidence, moral degeneracy, lack of ambition, and indifference to profitable labor", in a leading sociology journal.

Though positive literary creation of working class whites were few and far between, a small number of non-fictional works appeared in the 1930's and 40's to appreciate the hard working, common man of the lower classes. Books like Owsley's Plain Folk of the South and Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men present fairly dignified, if a bit condescending, portraits of poor whites. However, what is shocking and exposing sells, and Owsley and Agee could never compete with the likes of Caldwell and Faulkner, whose books were also made into popular films during the 1940's and 1950's. Though these works are now considered important texts, Agee and Owsley had a very limited circulation during their time.

Modern day experience with white trash stereotypes is, as with most modern cultural phenomenon, disseminated through movies and television. The images society has created fall into two conflicting categories. Most often the working class white is a whisky-drinking, abusive, violently racist, uneducated, macho, close-minded, dirty, fat, insensitive, monster-truck show watching, hunter who is better laughed at than associated with. Yet at rare instances, one encounters the poor white as honest, hard-working, honorable, simple, loyal, God-fearing and patriotic. And here exists the dichotomy of white trash versus good country folk.

American society has used the working class white to alternately allay they fear of faltering morality or to bolster their confidence in the correctness of the modern lifestyle. Examples of this tendency occur in the typecasting of working class whites in television series as well as film. Stemming from the disillusionment of Vietnam, Watergate and other corruptions of the time, we can trace a movement of "good country folk" in the television shows of the seventies. Programs like "The Andy Griffith Show" and "The Waltons" provided a simple, honest way of life that appealed to viewers as an escape from the cynicism and the loss of moral absolutes that was becoming prevalent in society. Once again, America turned to the South as the appropriate setting for such nostalgia.

At around the same time, we also have popular Southern sitcoms like "The Dukes of Hazzard" and "The Beverly Hillbillies", playing on the more typical stereotype of uneducated, criminal (Duke brothers constant battles with the corrupt Boss Hogg) characters with sub-standard eating habits and speech patterns. We also find sexy yet innocent women protected by their families with Daisy and Ellie May. "The Beverly Hillbillies" proves that even when poor whites stumble upon money, they retain their low class ways, and are useful only for the purposes of humor. "The Dukes of Hazzard" gives a solid continuation of redneck stereotypes, tempered with the idea that the Dukes are "never meanin' no harm" as the theme song implies.

The use of violence in film and writing is often a hallmark of social passion. During the 1930's there was a movement to expose the brutality of the lives of working class whites. Yet often the attempts to give aid were actually forms of condescension and control. That is commonly the effect of the literature and case studies of the time. John Ford's film adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath is the strongest example of dignified poor white media portrayal. Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell, echoing the themes of Southern agrarianism, are rural saints attacked by the forces of modern, capitalistic society.

In recent years, the popularity of poor white imagery has come in two forms. One is the simple, idiotic portrayal in the humorous sketches of Jeff Foxworthy (a middle to upper class actor -- not a redneck) and the brass unorthodoxy of Roseanne, or the dark and perverse killer in movies like Deliverance or Sling Blade. Though the complex and human character in Sling Blade is much easier to accept than the sodomizing mountain man in "Deliverance", both characters portray a warped sense of morality that is equated to their Southern, poor white upbringing. The father of the killer in "Sling Blade" is shown surrounded by religious iconography and he and his wife blatantly use religion to justify their horrific treatment of the child and the murder of an unwanted baby that is born to them. The depth of ignorance necessary to explain the character's behavior is only fitting in the environment of the poor white. Filled with domestic violence and dark secrets, the Southern small town setting ensures that such events would not take place in any other context.

Deliverance may be the most well know and damaging film centered around poor whites, in this case "hillbillies". Deliverance embodies all the fear of urban modern America concerning what is most primitive and dangerous in the character of man. The conflict is between modern mainstream capitalist America and the lurking potential of evil in mankind...an evil which has been left behind to remain only in those mountaineers most remote and ignorant of civilization. In the film, urban macho man takes on the raw brutality of nature and its inhabitants with no respect and pays the price. The punishment is one of male on male rape by the embodiment of poor white trash, confirming mainstream America's fear of the poverty stricken savage.

The view from inside the working class is much more complex. The working class white is operating off his own cultural, family and individual biases; yet coupled with these are the pervasive, historically assumed ideas that violence, racism and fundamentalism are somehow inherent in his class. Even if one becomes aware of the layers of identification applied to oneself, and most people do not, a battle against your own heritage is difficult at best, and usually impossible. The class to which we are born, in which our family circulates and our formative years are spent, is the guiding principle with which we view other groups and their cultural beliefs within our life experience.

Films that show poor whites as violent people who attack wealthy citified whites allow the rich to justify their treatment of "white trash" by portraying the poor whites as racist, criminal and uneducated. This allows other typically marginalized groups to join upper class whites against the "white trash". This justifies upper class stereotyping of poor whites and serves to aid in relieving upper class white guilt over treatment of "others" in the past.

The hatred and condescension of the poor seems to be the last available method of prejudice in our society. Just as Americans have made an effort to educate, understand and alter the treatment of marginalized groups and alternate cultures within our society, we have held on to poor whites as a group to demean. Making assumptions about groups of any sort on societal and biased definitions is flawed in any situation. As with other groups, there must be an effort taken to use an open mind and individual code to ascribe merit to those in our world.

Lil' Abner is a wonderfully fitting comic strip in which to examine the dichotomous treatment of "white trash", or in this case "hillbillies", paired up with "good country folk." Lil' Abner was created by the world's best known newspaper cartoonist, Alfred Gerald Caplin, better known as Al Capp. Caplin was born in Connecticut in 1909, though Capp was not born until Lil' Abner began its forty three year long run with United Features Syndicate in 1934.

Lil'Abner was a product of its time and its creator. Though this was the first hillbilly cartoon, society's fascination with the backwoods white was at an all time high in the 1930's. Erskine Caldwell's bawdy best-sellers, Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre were everywhere. And Faulkner would publish seven novels during the 1930's, representing the Southern poor white in all his ferocity. Social groups and government organizations like the Tennessee Valley Authority were bringing electricity to the mountain folk and at the same time exposing them to the outside world for gawking. Capp's timing was ideal on the national and cultural scene.

Apart from national interest and good business sense, Capp claimed his inspiration for Lil' Abner from hillbilly vaudeville and a road trip taken through the South as a teenager. In the tradition of black minstrelsy, hillbilly vaudeville were minstrel shows with country music and country bumpkin deadpan dialogue between the acts. Groups like the Skillet Lickers and Seven Foot Dilly and His Dill Pickles were popular in the 1930's and 40's as the cartoonish oafs from the backwoods. Al Capp's wife Catherine described their experience, "A group of four or five singers/musicians/comedians were playing fiddles and Jews harps and doing a little soft shoe up on stage. They stood in a very wooden way with expressionless, deadpan faces and talked in monotones, with Southern accents. We thought they were just hilarious." It was that night that Al decided to begin the Lil' Abner strip (Capp, 5).

Lil'Abner lasted forty-three years by exporing the story line of the Yokums versus the Scraggs; or "good country hillbilly" versus "poor white trash." The Yokums are kind, family oriented, quirky, and country. Pa is a laid back farmer who never wants to work too hard. Ma is a tough, loud fiery woman who is proud as a peacock about her mountain ancestry. Lil' Abner is, of course, very big and childishly oafish, innocent, and not too bright. Overall a very likable group of people being parodied kindly for their naive ways. On the other hand, the Scraggs are violent, crass, uncouth, ignorant trash who beat up on women and wave their guns around freely.

Apart from the comic strips, the treatment of the working class white in newspapers and newscast is also a telling medium to examine. Simply looking up the definition of "redneck" in a dictionary or asking for synonyms on a word processing program will reveal the complete acceptance of this pejorative term as an actual noun or adjective in America's language. The definition of redneck is n.a poor, white, rural southerner, often, specif., one regarded as ignorant, bigoted, violent, etc. This is a pretty straightforward and damning definition. It is no wonder that newscasters, writers and everyday folk feel comfortable with the adjective redneck bar, redneck sheriff, redneck woman, redneck town, etc. They are well assured of the intended meaning concerning the anti-society world of the working class white.

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