Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

Poor whites: `the last acceptable ethnic fools’

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Jonathan Tilove

November 6, 1994
c. Newhouse News Service

CINCINNATI – Lower Price Hill is a ghetto, an inner-city wasteland of drugs, drink and dropouts, a tough and lonesome neighborhood, at once insular and self-loathing.

The rest of Cincinnati rises above and looks down on it. The folks in Lower Price Hill are stereotyped as lazy and stupid, people with bad genes, bad teeth and bad English, whose daily lives are circumscribed by the highway, the waste-blackened creek, the sewage plant and the ugly assortment of air-fouling industries that hem them in.

“”We always get dumped on,” says Rhonda Terrell, a 15-year-old child of Lower Price Hill. “”We’re always downgraded.”

They are called names that mock their roots in the hills and mountains across the river in Kentucky: Ridgerunners. Brierhoppers. Hillbillies. Even other poor people look down on them. At school, says Terrell, “”the blacks feel they’re superior.”’

All because they are poor and they are white, and in America, poor whites don’t get any respect.

They are, as it’s most simply and harshly put, “”white trash” – commonly viewed as loose, lazy and laughable losers whose tacky tastes and ignorant racism have earned them the contempt in which they are held and, who, white as they are, have no legitimate claim to society’s guilt or sympathy. They are, in short, the one group that even the most sensitive liberal feels free to dump on with impunity. It is, says University of Kentucky researcher Phillip Obermiller, the preferred bigotry of the educated and professional classes.

“”Why is it that folks who would never speak critically about any other group can only stereotype poor whites?” asks Obermiller, who has chronicled the lives of the poor white population in his hometown of Cincinnati. “”They’re the last scapegoat.”

Or as John Shelton Reed, who directs the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina, puts it, poor whites are “”the last acceptable ethnic fools.”

It is that historic tendency to ignore or belittle poor whites that has enabled America to downplay class divisions, even as it well understands racial claims for justice.

“”We have all come to terms with the fact that as Americans we have to deal with the after-effects of 300 years of slavery and segregation. But we have not come to terms with the issue of class,” says Michael Maloney, who has devoted his life to organizing Cincinnati’s large, poor Appalachian community. In the American self-image, says Maloney, “”There is no excuse for white people in this country to be poor.”

They are, as Auburn University historian Wayne Flynt describes them in his books, Dixie’s Forgotten People and Poor But Proud, the “invisible poor.” And it is that invisibility that has enabled America to more easily stereotype its poor as black, and that has inflamed divisions between poor whites and blacks who might otherwise find themselves on common ground.

Black Americans may be more likely to be poor than white Americans. But in sheer numbers, the vast majority of America’s poor are white. According to the 1990 Census, there were 21 million poor whites and 9 million poor blacks. And yet even as most of America’s poor are neither urban nor black, in the public mind the underclass is usually imagined, lamented and demonized as inner-city and black.

The invisibility of poor whites is so thorough that they are mostly invisible to themselves. Poor whites do not tend to see themselves as a cohesive grievance group, so much so that Flynt says that many people he talks to who are clearly poor and white do not consider themselves “”poor whites,” which they translate to mean “”poor white trash.”

And as most poor whites – and all of the slur terms used against them _ have Southern roots, poor whites do not tend to see themselves as a class of victims demanding government intervention on their behalf. That would be unmanly, un-Southern.

“Real men don’t need any discrimination laws,” says Reed.

“We were taught to be individuals,” says Jerry Massey, who grew up poor and white in Memphis and Hamilton, Ohio, just north of Cincinnati, where he still lives in a poor white neighborhood. “Everything’s our fault and it’s not the other guy’s fault.”

But, Massey says, there is something else at work here. Even as he says there is “not a dime’s worth of difference” between poor whites and blacks, he acknowledges that a sense of racial superiority “permeates our group.”

Throughout American history, poor whites have chosen to identify themselves as white rather than poor, to sacrifice their common economic interests and ignore their cultural bonds with blacks – from the part of the pig they eat to the music they make – for the ego satisfaction of white supremacy.

Whether they are any more bigoted than other whites, poor whites have served as the rawest shock troops of American racism.

It is here in Ohio, and especially in the poor white neighborhoods of Cincinnati, like Lower Price Hill, where there have been the first stirrings of change, an organized effort to create a self-conscious, non-racist identity among poor whites.

For years, the Urban Appalachian Council has been trying to organize the poor white community in these neighborhoods. They organize around their common ethnic and cultural background, but for purposes of developing some political heft, of getting the neighborhoods their share of anti-poverty dollars, summer jobs and community control, and of persuading young people growing up in these despised and forsaken places to take some pride in their heritage.

As a consequence, today Cincinnati is the only city in the country with a human rights ordinance that explicitly protects people of Appalachian origin from discrimination. And when The Beverly Hillbillies opened last year in Cincinnati, members of the council were out there picketing.

“”I felt it was a real positive experience. Some people turned around and went home,” says Mike Overbey, one of those on the picket line.

The belittling of poor whites goes way back.

Appalachian poet Jim Wayne Miller says that “”white trash” was originally a term devised by Northern abolitionists to describe slavery’s creation of a class of useless whites.

To blacks, they were a living repudiation of white supremacy. To slave-owning whites they were an embarrassment that had to be explained away – their low qualities blamed on inbreeding, which diluted white’s naturally superior genetics.

In his 1860 book, Social Relations in Our Southern States, Daniel R. Hundley described poor whites as “”about the laziest two-legged animals that walk erect on the face of the Earth. Even their motions are slow, and their speech is a sickening drawl . . . while their thoughts and ideas seem likewise to crawl along at a snail’s pace.”

Now, 134 year later, New York Magazine, in an August cover story, “”White Trash Nation,” writes that poor white behavior and values “best encapsulates the galloping sleaze that has overrun” America. Author Tad Friend blames white trash values for everything from Tonya Harding’s transforming the “formerly upmarket Olympics into a vast trashscape,” to President Clinton’s sex life.

“White-trash culture commands us to `squeal like a pig!’ ” writes Friend. “And we’re oinking.”

John Shelton Reed suggests that unlike a racial epithet, “white trash” is a slur without self-identifying victims.

Others say that the intended targets well know the hurt.

“It’s hurtful, it tears you up, it rips you to pieces, it keeps you separated from other people you have a high regard for,” says Jerry Massey. A ninth-grade dropout (he was already 17), Massey learned to read at 30. He’s worked in a sand and gravel pit, driven a truck, been an auto body repairman and a mediocre mechanic.

He lives in a self-described “dump,” and has been on welfare the past few years while he’s gotten his bachelor’s degree in social work, sociology and black studies – the closest he could find to Appalachian studies – at Miami University in Ohio. And, he says, all his life he’s been called “trash.”

“It was what they call the self-fulfilling prophecy. If my teacher told me I wasn’t going to amount to anything, who was I to argue? We were told to dislike ourselves and we did,” says Massey, who at 50 now hopes to organize poor white Appalachians in Hamilton.

Joetta Braddock recalls sitting in her freshman English class at the University of Mississippi a few years back as the class brainstormed definitions of “white trash,” conjuring up images of dirt yards arrayed with junked cars, kids, dogs and fat ladies in tank tops.

“They were all having a knee-slapping laugh at the expense of poor people,” says Braddock, a grandmother at 35, who remembers getting her first indoor toilet growing up in rural Mississippi.

After class, boiling mad, Braddock told the professor that the white trash they were making fun of were her and her kind.

“”That phrase “white trash’ hurts,” says Braddock, who graduated in the spring and is now a teacher in Cascilla, Miss., where her husband owns the junkyard.

The stereotyping has consequences beyond hurt feelings.

American public and social policy in the late 20th century is now commonly seen through a racial prism, even when class would be a better fit.

Thus, Wayne Flynt says that the American Cancer Society’s committee for the disadvantaged, on which he serves, at first organized itself around meeting the needs of the black, Hispanic and Asian communities. Poor whites were not considered until an examination revealed that class was a better determinant of need than race.

For example, Obermiller found that whites of Appalachian origin in Cincinnati were more than twice as likely to smoke as either blacks or non-Appalachian whites, and less likely to associate smoking with cancer or heart disease.

Along the same lines, until the council interceded, Lower Price Hill kids never got city summer jobs because the pertinent bureaucracy was geared toward serving the black community. And, Obermiller says that when a committee on which he served blamed pollution for damaging the learning ability of Lower Price Hill children, a local health official hinted that inbreeding was the true culprit.

“”We could learn a lot from the black movement,” says Phylis Shelton, who runs the Appalachian Identity Center in Cincinnati’s poor Over the-Rhine neighborhood. But she acknowledges that poor whites are still a long way from that sense of collective identity and need. “We’re not in a position to demand change happen and it happen now.”


Written by jonathantilove

August 26, 2012 at 5:13 am

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