This essay includes 4 short videos, as it is an unrolled thread originally posted on Twitter. You can read it on twitter here, or scroll down to keep reading.
Have you ever wondered why so many poor white southerners endear themselves to wealthy whites under a perceived shared pride of race? Even when many wealthy whites see them as poor white trash, or just pawns to a political victory?
The ‘poor white trash’ moniker has been around since at least 1821, an evolution of the 17th-century “wastepeople” (europe), 18th-century labels “squatter” (North) & “cracker” (South), or landless, migrant, poor, and lawless white folks. Remember, land ownership meant everything!
But in the years leading up to the Civil War, those terms were replaced more frequently with ‘poor white trash”. Supposed characteristics included tallow skin, inbreeding, alcohol and drug addictions, eating dirt, and occupying poor land.
Throughout the south poor whites were also known to engage in crime and smuggling, along with consorting with free blacks & slaves, something wealthy southern whites didn’t like. So of course southern aristocrats claimed to be the destined commanders of white and black inferiors.
Breeding was important. These elite white critics considered poor whites to be a “race” that passed on bad traits, even worse than slaves in terms of humanity. They feared that these people would spread west like a disease and ruin America’s ability to be a great nation.
But how was saving possible when most jobs were reserved for slaves, whose labor was free? Most of the money being made in the south stayed in the hands of slave-owners and traders.
White northerners believed the existence of “poor white trash” was proof that slavery was toxic. Even though white elites restricted poor white access to resources, they defended the class structure as normal and argued class mobility was destroying the North.
They said the presence of slavery “eliminated conflict between labor and capital”, making poor whites manageable and happy because they were superior to blacks. They said poor northern whites were jealous of the rich and had “unwarranted political privileges.” THAT is the premise that the confederate leaders fought on- preserving slavery AND the class structure. Maintaining a class of slaves *and* a class of poor whites/
This explains disagreements between poor whites and slaveowners when the south seceded & the civil war kicked off. AFTER ALL… 300K white southerners fought for the union!
BTW, in South Carolina, some slaveholders even organized into a vigilante society called “Minute Men” to intimidate unruly whites who threatened the confederacy with talks of abolition. Wild similar to the role of the KKK intimidating blacks out of voting years down the line
Jefferson Davis rallied most poor whites along the notion of homogeneous racial pride, saying “no white man, in a slaveholding community, was the menial servant of anyone.” Poor whites were sold the dream of equality to their rich white oppressors.
So willing were they to defend slavery and the abhorrent class structure at any costs that countless poor whites starved or died in battle! Keep waving that confederate flag, though! So let’s fast forward to the 1960s…
In the 50s and early 60s, poor white coal miners in Appalachia were the center of the poverty debate. But by 1965 a new trend emerged that has continued even into the present day.
“Dog whistles” are coded language terms that appeal to racial fears without mentioning race like “law & order” (black people are associated with crime), or defending “states rights” or attacking “big government” (the ability to segregate and discriminate, federal laws be damned)
Blinded by racism, poor whites often couldn’t see (and still don’t in the present) how they were (and are) being manipulated to maintain the class system.
Another “fun” fact about Mississippi?: In Oregon, (84% white, 1.8% black), a single-parent of three gets on average $506 a month in TANF benefits. In Mississippi, the state with the largest proportion of blacks, a single parent family of three gets just $170 a month. 🤨
Anyways, all of this is important to keep in mind as the Trump administration advocates cutting back on welfare. (AND YES THIS INCLUDES HOUSING, HEALTHCARE, THE WORKS!)
- White Trash: A 400 Year Untold History of Class in America
- Lee Atwater’s 1981 Interview
- Race and Poverty in America: Public Misperceptions and the American News Media (Martin Giles)
- Putting a Black Face on Welfare (Sanford F. Schram)
- Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class.”(Ian Hanley-Lopez)
- How Trump Is Recycling Nixon’s ‘Law and Order’ Playbook(Josh Zeitz)
- How The Media isAbetting the GOP’s War on “Welfare”(Sarah Jaffe)
- States With Large Black Populations Are Stingier With Government Benefits (Alana Semuels)
- Welfare and The Problem of Black Citizenship (Dorothy E. Roberts)
- Where the Work-for-Welfare Movement is Heading
- “Race Matters: The Impact of News Coverage of Welfare Reform on Public Opinion”
- Two American experiences: The racial divide of poverty(Diana Elliot)
- How do Americans view poverty? Many blue-collar whites, key to Trump, criticize poor people as lazy and content to stay on welfare (David Lauter)