That ain't white
Trailor / Trailer Trash
A Guide to the White Trash Planet for Urban Liberals!
Group Boundaries Without Groups: The Case of "Poor White Trash."
In Praise of Bammas and White Trash
by Matt Wray on May 8, 2007
White Trash. For many, the name evokes images of trailer parks, homegrown meth labs, and beat up Camaros, rural poor whites with too many kids and not enough government cheese. It’s a putdown for the down and out and white. White trash is the name given to those whites who don’t make it, either because they’re too lazy or too stupid. Or maybe because something’s wrong with their inbred genes. Whatever the reason, it’s their own damn fault they live like that. They’ve got nobody to blame but themselves.
On the other hand, white trash these days sometimes gets used as a badge of honor. Much like the way African American youth turned the despised word nigga into a word expressing pride and solidarity and the way that GLBT activists have turned queer into a source of dignity and respect, some white youth now use the term to signal rebelliousness and cultural difference—their refusal of a bland, mainstream white society that oppresses and stifles.
And there is another popular use of the term as well. It’s sometimes used to name the rich and famous when they act badly or misbehave. So, despite her millions, Paris Hilton can be called white trash for her pornographic lifestyle, and George Clooney can tell us, in a self-mocking kind of way, that he’s really just white trash. This trend, like so much else in the world of white trash, was probably started by Roseanne Barr, who once famously said of her marriage to Tom Arnold, “We’re America’s worst nightmare—white trash with money!”
All of which makes the reality that white trash names pretty complicated and confusing. Is it, as John Waters once said, “the last racist thing you can say and get away with?” Or has it transformed into a symbol of something like ethnic pride? Or is it just a comical phrase used to condemn—or sometimes excuse—bad behavior, like too much drinking, cussing, fighting, and general screwing around?
And why should we care, anyway? What makes any of this white trash talk anything more than mere pop culture trivia? To answer these questions it helps to look back to the past, to see when and how the term arose, to think about the uses to which it has been put, by whom, and why. Surprisingly, the answers have a lot to do with our changing ideas about sex, class, and gender.
Whether they use the term white trash or not, most Americans are unaware of its long and ugly history. If you had to guess, you’d probably say that the term arose in the Deep South, sometime in the middle of last century, as a term that whites coined to demean other whites less fortunate than themselves. Yet most of what we presuppose about the term is wrong.
The term white trash dates back not to the 1950s but to the 1820s. It arises not in Mississippi or Alabama, but in and around Baltimore, Maryland. And best guess is that it was invented not by whites, but by African Americans. As a term of abuse, white trash was used by blacks—both free and enslaved—to disparage local poor whites. Some of these poor whites would have been newly arrived Irish immigrants, others semiskilled workers drawn to Baltimore and Washington, D.C. in the postrevolutionary building boom, and others still may have been white servants, waged or indentured, working in the homes and estates of area elites. The term registered contempt and disgust, as it does today, and suggests sharp hostilities between social groups who were essentially competing for the same resources—the same jobs, the same opportunities, and even the same marriage partners.
While white trash is likely to have originated in African American slang, it was middle-class and elite whites who found the term most compelling and useful and they who, ultimately, made it part of popular American speech.
Over the next forty years, the term began to appear more and more frequently in print. In 1854 white trash appeared in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s bestselling Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin—her defense of the abolitionist play that had garnered her international fame. Stowe devoted an entire chapter to “Poor White Trash,” explaining that the slave system produced “not only heathenish, degraded, miserable slaves, but it produces a class of white people who are, by universal admission, more heathenish, degraded, and miserable.” The degradation was due, Stowe argued, in part because plantation slavery locked up productive soil in the hands of a few large planters, leaving ordinary whites to struggle for subsistence. But there were other factors as well: “Without schools or churches, these miserable families grow up heathen on a Christian soil, in idleness, vice, dirt, and discomfort of all sorts. They are the pest of the neighborhood, the scoff and contempt or pity even of the slaves. The expressive phrase, so common in the mouths of the negroes, of ’poor white trash,’ says all for this luckless race of beings that can be said.”
Southern secessionists and proslavery apologists countered that it wasn’t the lack of access to good farm land, nor the lack of compulsory education, nor the lack of religious influence that made poor white trash so worthy of the contempt heaped upon them. In their view, the depravity of white trash had its source in the “tainted blood” that ran through their veins. As one educated southerner averred on the eve of the Civil War in 1860, “every where, North and South, in Maine or Texas, in Virginia or New-York, they are one and the same; and have undoubtedly had one and the same origin, namely, the poor-houses and prison-cells of Great Britain. Hence we again affirm…that there is a great deal more in blood than people in the United States are generally inclined to believe.” That is, the cause of poor white depravity was not attributable to any economic or social system—it was to be found in their inherited traits.
By the 1890s America’s burgeoning eugenics movement got hold of this idea and never let go. Most Americans are well aware of the horrors of Nazi eugenics—the idea that through proper breeding techniques and controlling the fertility of the “unfit”, one can produce a superior race. But few care to remember that Nazi eugenicists took many of their cues from their American predecessors, who, beginning in the early decades of the twentieth century, successfully lobbied for laws permitting states to involuntarily sterilize those considered unsuited for sexual reproduction.
Whom did they seek to sterilize? Whom did they deem unfit for sexual reproduction? While many eugenicists railed about the threats to the white American race from hordes of dysgenic immigrants, the core of eugenical science was based on field studies of poor rural whites. These studies of poor white families and kinship networks were carried out all over the East and Midwest, from upstate New York to Virginia to Ohio. Authors gave their subjects colorful names like the Jukes, the Kallikaks, the Happy Hickories, and the Smoky Pilgrims and documented a high incidence of criminality and violence among the men and increased promiscuity and fecundity among the women.
Field researchers often produced evidence that they claimed demonstrated the deplorable effects of the “defective germ plasm” (what we would today consider genetic material) passed from one generation to the next, sometimes through the immorality of interracial sex, sometimes through the sexual predations of fathers on their own daughters, or between close cousins. The last two categories of illicit sexual behavior, grouped under the term “consanguinity”, were put forth again and again, in study after study, as evidence of the need to control the fertility of poor whites, whose incestuous, cacogenic (rather than eugenic) influence, combined with their promiscuity and fecundity, threatened to overwhelm and pollute the purer white racial stock of normal Americans. In a classic example of a moral panic, eugenicists whipped up widespread anxieties about sex, class, gender, and race and mobilized politicians and civic leaders to action.
By 1921 American eugenicists had so firmly implanted fears of racial pollution through sex that fifteen states had passed laws permitting involuntary eugenic sterilization. Between 1907 and 1927, over eight thousand such operations were performed. Many of these operations were carried out on “feebleminded” men and women—those whom we would today regard as severely developmentally disabled. But an untold number were carried out on men and women whose only apparent fault lie in belonging to the class popularly termed white trash.
Such was the charge leveled in the most infamous court trial involving eugenical involuntary sterilization in the United States, the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell. In January 1924 Buck, who had recently given birth out of wedlock, was involuntarily committed to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded. The director, judging both Buck and her newborn to be feeble minded, and believing that Buck was herself the daughter of a feeble-minded woman, wished to sterilize her immediately, fearing that her sexual promiscuity might lead to more children who would become burdens of the state. H.H. Laughlin, the nation’s leading advocate for eugenical legislation, took up the case and, without ever meeting Buck, testified that in his expert opinion, she was “part of the shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South.” In May 1927 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the eugenicists and Buck was soon sterilized against her will. The shameful decision opened the door to eugenical sterilization across the nation and since then, an estimated sixty thousand Americans, most of them poor and indigent women, have been eugenically sterilized.
We now know more of the facts in this historic case: Buck and her daughter were probably not feeble minded, even by the standard measures of her day. She had become pregnant not because of any sexual immorality, but because her adoptive father raped her. Her institutionalization was a way to hide his crime. In 2002, seventy five years after the Supreme Court’s decision, the state of Virginia offered a formal apology to Buck’s family and to all other families whose relatives had been forcibly sterilized. Since then, four other states have followed suit. Yet like so much bad law, Buck v. Bell has never been overturned.
The long and disturbing history behind the term white trash reverberates with meaning today. With us still are stigmatizing images of oversexed and promiscuous trailer trash women; tasteless jokes about white trash and incest; and a widely shared belief that all poor whites are dumber than the rest of us. The stigma of white trash remains an active part of our fevered cultural imagination and for too many Americans, it remains unchallenged. Those who use the term today would do well to consider its history.
Matt Wray is a Robert Wood Johnson Health & Society Fellow at Harvard University and an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He is co-editor of White Trash: Race and Class in America and The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness. His most recent book is Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness from Duke University Press.
Poor, White and Pissed: A Guide to the White Trash Planet for Urban Liberals
by Joe Bageant www.dissidentvoice.org February 18, 2005
If you are reading this it is very likely that you are a liberal, maybe even an outright screaming burn down the goddam country commie -- in which case I say, 'Come sit by me comrade!' (Especially if you are a blonde.) Like most lefties you probably live in an urban area, or someplace with reasonable cultural diversity. More than likely you are educated and can read this without moving your lips. Maybe you even live in the freethinking People's Republic of Berkeley, or bustle along under the fabled lights of Manhattan where you can see independent films and buy such things as leeks and soy milk at your grocery store.
I, however, live in a town where it is easier to find chitterlings, ponhaus and souse in the grocery store than a leek, and where Smokey and the Bandit still plays to packed movie houses year after year. My hometown's claim to fame is the 1983 'Rhinehart Tire Fire' in which some five million discarded tires burned for nine months, gaining Winchester, Virginia national news coverage and EPA superfund cleanup status. The smoke plume was visible in satellite earth photos, the cleanup took 18 years and the fire stands as my hometown's biggest event of the Twentieth Century. As for intellectual life, this is a town where damned few residents ever heard of, say, Susan Sontag. Even though our local newspaper editor did manage a post mortem editorial on Sontag, which basically said: Goodbye you piece of New York Jewish commie shit!, most people reading the paper at their breakfast tables around town were asking themselves, 'Who the hell is Susan Sontag'? They would ask the same thing about Daniel Barenboim or Hunter S. Thompson because those figures have never been on Oprah. Our general ambience was well summed up by a visiting Atlanta lawyer who looked around town and observed: 'Dumb lordee I reckon!' This from a guy who's seen a lot of dumb crackers. Laugh if you want, but this is the red state American heartland everybody is talking about these days.
Is it possible for a higher class of person to live in American places like Winchester, Virginia? Not really. Only the local old family business elite and well-paid plant managers transferred here find such a place livable -- the former for their social status and the latter in the safe knowledge they will be transferred out someday.
Most of the rest of us stuck in Winchester are what used to be called the traditional working class. These days, when we are called anything at all, it is White Trash. Poor working whites, people with only a high school diploma, if that. Nationally we at least number a quarter of white U.S. workers, thirty five million in all by the government's own shaved-down numbers. Nobody knows for sure in a nation that calls millions of $7-an-hour janitors and marginal people working 'contract labor', with no insurance or benefits, 'independent businesspersons' and 'entrepreneurs'. Small independent business people are, we are told, 'the backbone of America's economy.' If that is true, then it's a sorry assed thing because we are talking here about citizens who bring down maybe 25-30K a year before taxes. With both spouses working. I told my freelance janitor friend Gator that he was the backbone of the American economy; he said he felt more like its asshole.
In any case, my people are not the people in the cubicle next to you at work (though they might well be cleaning it at nights when you are sleeping.) Mine are not people complaining about paying off their college loans or who got the best parking spot at their office campus complex. They are people with different problems entirely. Mostly related to truck payments. Or people like my old tree service boss Danny, who cut off a finger working with a chain saw, wrapped it in a McDonald's foil wrapper and ran to the hospital to get it sewn back on. Or any of the thousands of people in this town who smash apples into apple sauce or boil them into vinegar at National Fruit Products, performing soul grinding shift work year after year with no opportunity to ever be promoted, or obtaining health care at all. Just the seasonal layoff when all the apples are smashed and the millions of gallons of vinegar bottled. Working class people going nowhere in a town that smells like vinegar.
One of the problems we working class Southerners have is that educated progressive Americans see us as a bunch of obese, heavily armed nose pickers. This problem is compounded by the fact that so many of us are pretty much that. Call it the 'Dumb-crackers-lordee-I-reckon' syndrome. But liberals err in thinking this armed and drunken laboring species is an exclusively Southern breed. No matter where you live in this nation you will find us. We are the folks in front of you at the Wal-Mart checkout lugging a case of motor oil while having nicotine fits. But even in such democratic venues as shopping, our encounters are limited because we do not buy designer beer and you do not buy ammo or motor oil by the case.
And if we aren't in the checkout line then we are probably waiting on you as clerks. With our bright red regulated vests and nametags we do not look poor or desperate. But I can tell you that the smiling, wise old guy in the orange vest in the plumbing department of the local Home Depot, Roy, the one who knows everything there ever was to know about plumbing, is limping around on bad knees with two bone grafted discs from a life as a construction laborer, and at age 67 is working solely so he can have health insurance. Not for insurance from Home Depot mind you, but so his entire paycheck can go to cover the private insurance he must have if he doesn't want to lose the rundown bungalow he and his wife bought right after the Korean War to medical bills. The one that is now in such a bad neighborhood only the slumlords who dominate our city council ever make an offer, and even then not much. He's been losing ground for 25 years. Not that any of the tanned middle class suburban customers here or anywhere else give a good goddam. This is solidly red state neo-con Virginia, where people have a ready explanation for Roy's condition in life: As Jimbo the newsstand owner here says, 'They are losers who cannot cut it in the greatest society on earth. Darwin was right. Gandhi was wrong. Tough shit!' This is the same guy who once advised me to 'Always kick a man when he is down; it gives him incentive to get up.' I sometimes think it was the meanest thing in hell that made America's little working class towns such as Winchester.
Paw, am I a paradox?
To be poor and white is a paradox in America. Whites, especially white males, are supposed to have an advantage they exploit mercilessly. Yet most of the poor people in the United States are white (51%) outnumbering blacks two to one and all other minority poverty groups combined. America is permeated with cultural myths about white skin's association with power, education and opportunity. Capitalist society teaches that we all get what we deserve, so if a white man does not succeed, it can only be due to laziness. But just like black and Latino ghetto dwellers, poor laboring whites live within a dead end social construction that all but guarantees failure. If your high school dropout daddy busted his ass for small bucks and never read a book in his life and your mama was a textile mill worker, chances are you are not going to be recruited by Yale Skull and Bones and grow up to be president of the United States, regardless of our national mythology to that effect. You are going to be pulling an eight-buck-an-hour shift work someplace and praying for enough overtime to make the heating bill. A worker.
The political left once supported these workers, stood on the lines taking its beatings at the plant gates alongside them. Now, comfortably ensconced in the middle class, the American left sees the same working whites as warmongering bigots, happy pawns of the empire. That is writing working folks off too cheaply, and it begs the question of how they came to be that way -- if they truly are. To cast them as a source of our deep national political problems is ridiculous. They are a symptom of the problems, and they may be making it worse because they are easily manipulated, or because they cannot tell an original idea from a beer fart. But they are not the root cause by any means. The left should take its cues from Malcolm X, who understood the need to educate and inform the entire African-American society before tackling the goal of unity. Same goes for white crackers. Nobody said it would be easy.
Don't laugh, you're next!
Middle class liberals, or affluent conservatives for that matter, are hard put to understand poor white working class culture. With our guns, God and coarse noisy aesthetic, (let's face it, NASCAR and Shania Twain') we look like a lower species, a beery subset of some sort. The truth is that poor white working culture is not a subset of any other American class. It does not operate below the middle and upper classes, but parallel to them. Just as there are few ways out of it, there are few ways in. Its inhabitants are born here. The educated left cannot easily get inside. When it comes to access, liberal social academics are camels passing through the needle's eye, though I've never met one who would admit it, or even knew that observing is not necessarily understanding. Consequently we find many books/studies focusing on ethnic minorities, but few credible ones about our defiant native homegrown poor. To my mind, it is impossible to be tenured and have street cred, but then I am just a prejudiced redneck prick from Winchester, Virginia, otherwise referred to as 'Dickville'.
Yet this place from which and about which I write could be any of thousands of communities across the U.S. It is a parallel world created by an American system where caste and self-identity are determined by what one consumes, or cannot afford to consume, education and of course, the class into which one is born. Like most things American, it was about money from the get-go. The difference is that some of us have known this truth from birth and on brutal terms. For instance, few middle class Americans today ever sold newspapers on the street corner at age twelve to pay for school clothes or carried coal to a dirty living room stove all winter. I did both. They never sat down to a dinner of fried baloney and coffee after cold hours on the street corner. If this sounds like some Depression era sob story, let me say that it was in 1959-62. And right now I can find a hundred people in my neighborhood who did the same, or some kids still doing it (often Latino these days). My point being that there are and always have been a helluva lot of us know-nothing laboring sons out here, whether more fortunate Americans acknowledge our struggles or not. But they should. You see, it's like this: When the heartless American system is done reducing us to slobbering beer soaked zombies in the American labor gulag, your sweet ass is next.
Everybody loves the Dalai Lama, but nobody loves po' me!
Ain't no wonder libs got no street cred. Ain't no wonder a dope-addicted clown like Limbaugh can call libs elitists and make it stick. From where we stand, knee-deep in doctor bills and hoping the local Styrofoam peanut factory doesn't cut the second shift, you ARE elite. Educated middle class liberals (and education is the main distinction between my marginal white people and, say, you) do not visit our kind of neighborhoods, even in their own towns. They drink at nicer bars, go to nicer churches and for the most part, live, as we said earlier, clustered in separate areas of the nation, mainly urban. Consequently, liberals are much more familiar with the social causes of immigrants, or even the plight of Tibet, than the bumper crop of homegrown native working folks who make up towns like Winchester. Liberal America loves the Dalai Lama but is revolted by life here in the land of the pot gut and the plumber's butt. Can't say as I blame them entirely, but then, that is why God created beer. To make ordinary life more attractive, or at least stomachable.
Whatever the case, helping the working poor does not mean writing another scholarly paper about them funded by grant money. That is simply taking care of one's middle class university educated self. Yet the cause of dick-in-the-dirt poor working white America is spoken for exclusively by educated middle class people who grew up on the green suburban lawns of America. However learned and good intentioned, they are not equipped to grasp the full implications of the new American labor gulag -- or the old one for that matter. They cannot understand a career limited to yanking guts out through a chicken's ass for the rest of one's life down at the local poultry plant (assuming it does not move offshore). Being born working class carries moral and spiritual implications understood only through experiencing them. It comes back to street cred.
The Census Bureau keeps numbers on the working poor. Universities conduct studies and economists rattle off statistics. If studies and numbers alone could solve the problem of working poverty, then rip-off check cashing would not be one of the hottest franchises in the country and Manpower would not be our largest employer. Yes, and if a bullfrog had wings it wouldn't bump its ass. Reason and social science are not cutting it, and numbers cannot describe the soul and character of a people. Those same ones who smell like an ashtray in the checkout line, devour a carton of Little Debbies at a sitting and praise Jesus for every goddam wretched little daily non-miracle. (If that last part does not make sense to you it simply proves my point about the secular liberal disconnect.)
A good start on healing this rift might be this: the next time those on the left encounter these seemingly self-screwing, stubborn, God-obsessed folks, maybe they can be open to their trials, understand the complexity of their situation, step forward and say, 'Brother can I lend you a hand'' Surely it would make the ghosts of Joe Hill, Franklin Roosevelt and Mohandas Gandhi smile.
More crap about values
Before I am asked the more specific question, 'What the fuck do you think middle class liberals should do then'? I'm gonna answer it. ORGANIZE! Quit voting for that pack of undead hacks called the Democratic Party and ORGANIZE! Howard Dean is just another millionaire Yale frat boy. ORGANIZE! Quit kidding yourself that the Empire will protect professionals and semi-professionals such as you and ORGANIZE! Spend time on a Pentecostal church pew or in a blue-collar beer joint and ORGANIZE! Join the Elks Club and ORGANIZE! Realize that there is no party whatsoever in the United States that represents anything but corporate interests and ORGANIZE! Start in your own honky wimp-assed white bread neighborhood and ORGANIZE! Knock on doors and ORGANIZE! Move heaven and earth and hearts and minds and ORGANIZE! And if enough people do it, it will scare the living piss out of the political elite and the corporations and they will come to club you down like they did in Miami and Seattle. But at least you will have been among the noble ones when the history is written.
There now. I've got it out of my system.
Given that every damned utterance or word published about America these days has to have political implications and relevancy to the crooked 2004 elections, let's talk about the much discussed political anger and 'values issues' of hitherto faceless, self-screwing working class folks. Tell ya what. I have both prayed and been shit-faced six ways to hell with these people and I am NOT seeing the much ballyhooed anger about the values most often cited, such as gun control, abortion or gay marriage. True, these are the issues of the hard-line Bible thumpers and fundamentalist leadership that has harped on them for decades. And the politicians love that crap. And apparently so do the media pundits.
But here in this particular heartland, once I step away from the fundamentalist, I am simply not seeing the homophobia so widely proclaimed by the liberal establishment. Hell, we've got three gay guys and at least one lesbian who hang out at my local redneck tavern and they all are right in there drinking and teasing and jiving with everyone else. As my hirsute 300-pound friend Pootie says: 'Heck, I have a lot in common with lesbians!' (I would concede however, that homosexual marriage, however, was just a bit too much for some of the working class to accept in the 2004 elections. It was the visuals.)
The working class people in my town are angry, but not especially angry at Queer Eye For the Straight Guy, or unseen fetuses. I think working class anger is at a more fundamental level and that it is about this: rank and status as citizens in our society. I think it is about the daily insult working class people suffer from employers, government (national, state and local), and from their more educated fellow Americans, the doctors, lawyers, journalists, academicians, and others who quietly disdain working people and their uncultured ways. And I think working class anger is about some other things too:
It is about the indignities suffered at the hands of managers and bosses -- being degraded to a working, faceless production unit in our glorious new global economy.
It is about being ignored by the educated classes and the other similar professional, political and business elites that America does not acknowledge as elites.
It is about one's priorities being closer to home and more ordinary than those of the powerful people who determine our lives.
It is about suffering the everyday lack of human respect from the government, and every other institutional body except the church.
It is about working at Wal-Mart or Home Depot or Arby's wearing a nametag on which you do not even rate a last name. You are just Melanie or Bobby, there to kiss the manager's ass or find another gig.
It is about trying to live your life the only way you know how because you were raised that way. But somehow the rules changed under you.
It is about trying to maintain some semblance of outward dignity to your neighbors, when both you and the neighbors are living payday to payday, though no one admits it.
It is about media fabled things you've never seen in your own family: college funds set aside for the kids, stock portfolios, vacation homes...
It is about the unacknowledged stress of both spouses working longer, producing more for a paycheck that has been dwindling in purchasing power since 1973.
Yes, it is about values. It is about the values we have forsaken as a people -- such as dignity, education and opportunity for everyone. And it is about the misdirected anger of the working classes toward those they least understand. You. And me.
By the way, the working people I am talking about are not entirely unhappy with life, just angry to a certain degree at this point (and bound to be angrier when the Bush regime finally runs the nation's economy off the cliff). They simply resist change because for decades change has always spelled something bad -- 9/11, terrorism, job outsourcing -- always something bad headed toward worse.
Arise oh pissy liberals!
It is one helluva comment on the American class system that I get paid to speak, write about and generally expose to liberal groups the existence of some 250 million working Americans who have been fixing America's cars and paving its streets and waiting on its tables from day one. As a noble and decent liberal New York City book editor told me, 'seen from up here it is as if your people were some sort of exotic, as if you were from Yemen or something.'
This is not to berate educated liberal America -- well, OK, a little. But if liberal America has been somewhat too smug, my working class brethren have been downright water-on-the-brain stupid to be misled so easily by the likes of Karl Rove and the phony piety of George Bush. (And god dammit Pootie, Saddam did NOT attack the World Trade Center!) However, liberals and working people do need each other to survive what is surely coming, that thing being delivered to us by the regime which promised us they would 'run this country like a business.' Oh hell yes they are going to do it. So the left must genuinely connect face to face with Americans who do not necessarily share all of our priorities, if it is ever to be relevant again.
Once we begin to look at the human faces of this declining republic's many moving parts, the inexplicable self-screwing working class voter is not so inexplicable after all. God, gays and guns alone do not explain the conservative populism of the 2004 elections. College educated liberals and blue-collar working people need to start separating substantive policy issues from the symbolic ones. Fight on the substance, the real ground zero stuff that ordinary working people can feel and see -- make real pledges about real things. Like absolutely guaranteed health care and a decent living wage. And mean it and deliver it.
Who ho! It ain't gonna be easy, because poor working class Americans, like the rest of us, have become fearful, numb, authority worshipping fools reluctant to give up the mindless heroin of cheap consumerism'just like you'just like me. They'll never come to us, so we must go to them. Which means working the churches and the wards and the watering holes, the Kiwanis Pancake Breakfasts, our workplaces, and lo! Even the beeriest underbelly of America ' where nice liberal middle class people do not let their kids go for fear it will damage their precious little SAT scores. Again, nobody said it would be easy.
Brotherhood. Solidarity. Compassion. Too idealistic' Futile? Maybe. But if these are not worthy goals, then nothing is.
Delivering on all this in a peaceful orderly fashion will be a bitch. So hard in fact that I do not much intend to participate. Fuck it. I've wanted an out and outright armed revolution ever since the November elections. But that's another matter and the guy listening in from Homeland Security right now can go take a flying fuck. Write to me in Gitmo, y'all! Just address it to 'Joe from Yemen.'
Joe Bageant is a magazine editor and writer living in Winchester Virginia. He may be contacted at: email@example.com.
by Matt Wray
The domain of social life is essentially a domain of differences.
—Marcel Mauss, “On Civilization.”
If social life may be characterized as a realm of differences, then how are those differences produced? Boundary theory provides an answer. Humans are a class of beings that classify; in classifying, we introduce differences, draw boundaries, and create categories that are not inherent features of things themselves. We use these conceptual constructs to make sense of the world, to render discrete and bounded the flow of raw sensory information.
In the social world, the classifying process enables us to place ourselves and others in relation to one another as we stake out the boundaries of our individual and group identities. There are symbolic and structural dimensions to this process, as well as cognitive, social, logical, and emotional dimensions. Group boundaries are inescapable, permanent features of social life. But what about groups? Boundary research suggests that the deeply embedded tendency within the social sciences to think of groups as entities that group boundaries enclose is fundamentally misleading. if, as is widely acknowledged, “races,” “cultures,” “subculture,” “ethnic groups,” and other social groups are not bounded wholes, that is, if they cannot be conceived as entities and social actors, then who or what is drawing the boundary?
This paper examines this question by turning to an intriguing historical case: southern poor whites in the United States. Treated as a despised and stigmatized class in both the antebellum and post-Civil War eras, southern poor whites make an interesting case study precisely because they rarely if ever formed a group in the classic sociological sense.
This was especially true of those whites in poverty who were labeled as poor white trash. Yet historical records and archives reveal that southern poor whites were invariably treated as a group by moral reformers, health crusaders, social scientists, and elites. In short, this case provides for study a useful example of the flexible persistence of a group boundary without any corresponding group. Historical cases such as these are important not only for the ways in which they permit us insights into boundary mechanisms of the past, but also for the ways in which they permit us to consider new ways to amplify boundary research in the future.
Historicising Boundary Theory
Before examining the case at hand, it is worth taking a few moments to consider why, at the present moment, boundary theory is commanding such widespread attention from across the social sciences (Lamont and Molnár 2002). They are many possible explanations for this efflorescence, but I want to contemplate one in particular: paradigm exhaustion. Beginning in the 1970s, social scientific study of the general dynamics of social interactions and social stratification (understood largely in terms of class) fell into disfavor and studies that focused on race, gender, and sexuality (ascribed status) emerged as important alternative perspectives. In many respects, this was an important and much needed “market correction” in disciplines like sociology, political science, and history that had overvalued class analysis as foundational for understanding both modern and historical forms of power.
Materialist accounts of power and inequality that had been paradigmatic for decades now came under criticism for having ignored not only race, gender, and sexuality as important axes of domination, but for ignoring culture as a mediating force between social agents and social structures. Thus, in the late 1980s, various forms of cultural materialism began to make significant inroads in the social sciences. After decades of exploring social inequalities through the culture-tinted lenses of race, class, gender, and sexuality, and after the culture wars, canon wars, and other wars associated with multiculturalism and identity politics, there is now a palpable sense among many researchers concerned with inequalities that the prevailing approaches are no longer generating new ideas and new information.
1 We have confirmed the central truths of the cultural materialist paradigm—that class analysis alone is insufficient for explaining multiple forms of subordination and resistance to domination—so often that there are few surprises left.
2 Within the dying paradigm, which for the sake of brevity we can designate as RCGS analysis, the most recent innovations are efforts to better understand how the various forms of domination—race, class, gender, and sexuality—work together, how they “intersect” to intensify or ameliorate social suffering. Having been studied as separate forces, they are increasingly studied as confounding factors (Glenn 2002; Nagel 2003).
This is important work, but it does not really show us a way out of the paradigm, nor does it open up onto new terrains of research, nor does it seem to provide viable new strategies for social change.
Those looking for new ideas and new visions will ultimately be frustrated with intersectional research. In contrast, as I demonstrate below, boundary theory offers some clear alternatives to RCGS approaches. It is not that boundary theory dispenses with the analysis of race, class, gender, and sexuality, but rather that it seeks to show how these Big Four domains of social difference can be understand as four aspects of a single process of social differentiation.
Boundary theory enables us to focus not on how inequalities produce social differences, but on how social differentiation produces inequalities. It is particularly useful in demonstrating how this can occur even in the absence of any clearly defined social groups. II. Poor White Trash as a Boundary Term Boundary analysis sets out to understand how people classify and organize themselves and others into distinct groups –and how those same groups are then ranked and ordered into scales of relative human worth and achievement. Boundary analysis can, for instance, direct our attention to asking how and why a term like poor white trash became an active part of the “publicly available categorization systems” in US culture (Lamont 2000: 243).
As social power operates through boundaries, it creates different kinds of social stratification and inequality corresponding to those boundaries. In the broadest sense then, boundary analysis offers exceptionally coherent and generalizable ways of thinking about identity, differentiation and inequality at multiple levels of social organization.
3 Symbolic and Social Boundaries The boundaries that enable social organization and that channel social power are primarily of two kinds: symbolic and social. Symbolic boundaries are part of our mental, collective representations: part of the “cognitive schemas” that we use to differentiate things that might otherwise appear similar and to render discontinuous what would otherwise be continuous (DiMaggio 1997).
They may be thought of as the shared representations, the sense-making mechanisms embedded in every culture. Language and speech are the crucial resources in their production, maintenance, and transformation.
Symbolic boundaries introduce difference into what might otherwise be experienced as similarity. For instance, the symbolic boundary of race has been used to divide up a single species—Homo sapiens—into discrete categories of identity. As a learned cognitive schema, race makes salient a series of arbitrary distinctions of phenotype, nationality, ethnicity, and so on. In so doing, it produces perceptions of human difference where there would otherwise be perceptions of human similarity.
Once popularized or imposed, a schema can help establish social distinctions and justify taboos. If it gains enough power, such a schema may result in laws and prohibitions, such as bans against interracial sex and other forms of racial propinquity. When this occurs, the symbolic boundary has become a social boundary. Social boundaries act as external constraints on and enablers of human agency—they set the parameters of our everyday existence and are, in effect, the rules of the game of daily life. They organize our mundane practices, they form the structure of our social opportunities, and they order the limits and possibilities for our freedom and happiness. Social boundaries may be found in our traditions or our collective habits, but they typically are most powerful when they are embedded in our major institutions. Institutions give social boundaries their extraordinary administrative power. For instance, turning again to the example of race: it is not only a symbolic boundary, but also one that operates to organize and constrain the ways that humans interact with one another. Race is not just a way of seeing the world.
It is a social fact, one that significantly shapes life chances. While social boundaries assign us to specific groups and collectives, symbolic boundaries provide us and others with the meanings of those assignments. Both provide opportunities to comply with categorical expectations or to contest, negotiate, or resist them through repertoires of performance and strategic practices. Symbolic and social boundaries can be rigid or flexible, static or fluid, stable or unstable, permeable or impermeable, weak or strong.
The same boundary may exhibit these different qualities at different historical moments, or it may present itself as a weak boundary to one social group, but as a strong boundary to other groups. For instance, as a racial category, white has, in the United States, historically been more open and porous to European and Latino immigrants than it has been to African Americans. This unstable and inconstant quality of boundaries directs our attention to the social interactions among those on either side of the boundary and to the social transactions across the boundary. If a boundary changes or moves, who or what, we might ask, is responsible for that?
How might we capture and observe those actions? Boundary work is a shorthand term for any of the activities that go into the formation, maintenance, or transformation of boundaries (Gieryn, 1983; Lamont 2004).
The various social and cultural mechanisms that do this work are just now being inventoried and catalogued by sociologists (Tilly 2004). One of the common, everyday ways that boundary work is performed is through the use of words and concepts that serve as sociocultural dividing lines, or boundary terms. Boundary terms typically arise when groups with differing values, ideas, and practices come into contact and when such encounters involve conflict of any kind—over economic and social resources, for instance. Under these circumstances, boundary terms can become symbolic weapons in the struggle for domination and control—the struggle for social closure of opportunities to others. The invention, repetition, circulation, and ongoing exchange of these terms can, if social conditions are favorable, effect an institutionalization of the term and its meanings in language and speech.
Focusing on the institutionalization of boundary terms and their meanings raises some important methodological questions for social scientists. One aim of my research, for example, was to compare representations of white trash as they occurred in different social and cultural institutions: the primary domains and sites I considered were literature, journalism, historical writings, scientific and medical writing, and social science. While these different sites of institutionalized knowledge production appeared to be relatively autonomous, governed by different aims and goals and utilizing different methods, they also influenced each other. Throughout my research, I carefully observed how meanings that arise in one area of knowledge are transposed and recur in other domains.
The effects of this transposition are twofold and appear somewhat contradictory: first, a powerful convergence of meanings from different domains can and often does occur, giving the appearance that objective commentators and observers from disparate perspectives and disciplines have, independently of one another, arrived at the same conclusions about the nature and characteristics of, for example, poor white people. A second effect is that, over time, new interpretations produce newly transformed meanings that diverge from previous ones, allowing for new and different conclusions about the group in question.
The twofold and contradictory nature of this process is important. It suggests that boundaries and the collectives they delineate are built through historical layering and sedimentation; through apparently natural accumulations and overlays of popular notions and intellectual concepts; through the invention and imposition of scientific descriptions and legal proscriptions, and through various encounters of discourses both high and low. Because such constructions are heteroglossic and polyglot, linguistic interactions and semantic exchanges of all kinds become important sources of sociological data (Bakhtin 1984).
When applied to archival research, an obvious problem with this method appears: there is elite bias in primary sources. Archives tend to offer unrepresentative samples of historical experience, as they preserve only the meanings produced by interactions among elites, authorities, and literate social groups.
The farther back one reaches in time, the worse the problem becomes. While I conducted extensive archival research to retrieve and reconstruct linguistic interactions among elites, I attempted to mitigate the elite bias by turning to slang: that segment of speech long considered to be illegitimate and impolite, troublesome and undignified. Historical slang may be interpreted as an archive of the secret language of despised social groups who symbolically resisted, reconfigured, and challenged oppression through inventive informal speech (Allen 1983, 1990). Slang is often heterodox, a way of attempting to speak against power, to speak from below (Bourdieu 1991).
This understanding of slang as the return of repressed elements within legitimate, serious discourse, as a symptom of the great unsaid, suggests that it may be a valuable resource in the attempt to capture local, historical meanings. White trash is, like nigger, a very troublesome word. For much of its long history, white trash has been used by Americans of all colors to humiliate and shame, to insult and dishonor, to demean and stigmatize. Yet beneath that general usage lies a long concealed history of shifting representations and meanings in American culture.
4 In my forthcoming book, I draw upon boundary analysis and whiteness studies to argue that understanding the story of poor white trash and other terms like it can help us better understand social difference and inequality and how they are produced. III. Learning from Poor White Trash White trash: Split the phrase in two and read the meanings against each other: white and trash. The term expresses fundamental tensions and deep structural antinomies: between the sacred and the profane, purity and impurity, morality and immorality, cleanliness and dirt. In conjoining such primal opposites into a single category, white trash names a kind of disturbing liminality: a monstrous, transgressive identity of mutually violating boundary terms, a threshold state of being neither one nor the other.
It brings together into a single ontological category that which must be kept apart in order to establish a meaningful symbolic order—the shared representation of reality and symbolic system of classification that is a key element in social solidarity. White trash names a people whose very existence seems to threaten the symbolic and social order. As such, the term can evoke strong emotions of contempt, anger, and disgust.
This is no ordinary slur. White trash also speaks to the tensions between what have for too long been competing categories of social analysis: race and class in RCGS analysis. Indeed, split white trash in two again and read the meanings of each: white now appears as a racial signifier, and trash, a signifier of abject, residual class status. The term conflates these two aspects of social identity into an inseparable state of being, suggesting that if we are to understand white trash and the condition it names, we must confront the intersecting nature of race and class. However one looks at it, white trash is a puzzle with two pieces. Which word is the modifier and which the modified? Does white modify trash or is it the other way around? Is this a story about a residual, disposable class, or one about a despised ethnoracial group (Wray and Newitz, 1997)?
The deep historical origins of white trash lie within fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth century English bourgeois conceptions of the poor as immoral, lazy, and criminal (Slack 1974; Innes 1987; Hartigan 2005).
I pick up the trail in North America, in the eighteenth century British colonies of Virginia and North Carolina. There, the figure of the lazy lubber as popularized in 1728 by William Byrd establishes a basic frame of the colonial poor white as a picaresque curiosity, an ethnological oddity to be classified somewhere below native Indians in the natural order of things.
Racially indeterminate, lubber marked the boundary between white and non-white, but were themselves neither—or both. Lubbers were portrayed primarily as symbolic threats to the unstable social order. Their social practices and lifestyles were imagined to be so at odds with the tidewater plantation ideal and their numbers so few that colonial patriarchs took little serious note of them, except perhaps to bolster their own self-image as superior white men. The category of lubber served to justify the strategies of landholding elites who sought to restrict landownership to themselves. The shared perception of poor colonial whites began to change in the tumultuous decades leading up to the American Revolution. The survival strategies of some landless whites grew to include organized raiding and thieving, and began to cause serious trouble for colonial authorities and native Indians alike.
The symbolic threat of the lubber materialized as an economic and political one, and a transmogrified figure, the cracker, appeared on the cultural landscape circa 1766. The cracker’s reputation drew upon the earlier shared representation of the colonial poor white, but added new elements of violence, treachery, and criminality, all of which triggered the repressive apparatus of both the colonial government and of local vigilantes.
Where the lubber had been ignored as a social outcast, the cracker was increasingly targeted for arrest, imprisonment, and vigilante terror and slayings. Amusement, disgust, and contempt had been replaced by fear, hatred, and violence. Within a few decades after the close of the revolutionary period, the collective representation of poor whites was changing once again. With the merging of disparate colonies into the United States of America, what had started in the South as a regional stereotype now became a significant national concern. Poor white trash entered the national stage as a new boundary term.
While there had been little commentary about the origins of the crackers or speculation about the causes of their criminality, poor white trash became the subject of extensive public debates in the antebellum period. Social observers of all kinds agreed that poor white trash lived in deplorable and degenerate conditions—indeed, it was those very conditions that seemed to define them as trash. But from the 1840s to the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s, the same social observers hotly debated the causes of the degeneracy of poor white trash. These debates reflected the emerging conflicts over the shifting meanings of race, class, culture that fueled the Civil War. On one side, Northern abolitionist reformers argued that the existence of poor whites in the South was evidence of the moral corruption and debasement that a slave society visits not only upon its slaves, but upon all its members. End slavery, they argued, and the poor white trash would rise to their rightful place as respectable white citizen-workers.
On the other side, southern proslavery apologists argued that the existence of a degenerate class of poor whites in the South was exaggerated; white people were poor not because of social or economic factors, but rather as the result of “natural inferiority,” the inherited depravity that comes from generations of “defective blood.” When it came to thinking about southern poor whites as a social group—and, increasingly, southern poor whites were seen as a group—Americans now had a wide variety of different stereotypical images to choose from, as well as a set of opposing explanations. Within this interpretive frame, poor white trash were poor and trashy either because they were victims of social and economic exclusion, or because of tainted heredity.
These differing interpretations over the meaning and cause of the poor white trash intensified in the decades leading up to the Civil War and they continued to shape culture and politics during Reconstruction. As its cultural influence grew, this schema effectively established an interpretive framework for understanding poor whites that would take on new significance in the early twentieth century. It still resonates strongly in our culture today. By the Progressive era of 1920s, though the basic framework remained unchanged, a new set of theories had taken shape to explain the existence and persistence of this despised social group.
Two groups of educated, middle class reformers vied for the professional and cultural authority to explain the problem of the poor white to the rest of the nation. On the one hand, eugenicists like Richard Dugdale, author of an influential study of heredity pauperism, The Jukes (1877), had argued since the late nineteenth century that the source of poor white trash depravity was “defective germ plasm”—hereditary impurities that resulted from incest and from racial and class miscegenation. On the other hand, beginning in the early 1900s, a small but increasingly powerful group of medical doctors and educators, led by Dr. Charles Stiles and backed by the Rockefeller Foundation, argued that poor white trash suffered not from hereditary impurities, but from a recently discovered and eradicable parasite, the American hookworm.
Both groups of professionals agreed that the nation’s poor white trash posed a significant set of social, economic, cultural, and political problems.
However, the groups differed both in their interpretations of the problems and in the actions they took to solve them. Eugenicists advocated confining the problem through segregation, institutionalization, and involuntary sterilization of the “feebleminded.”
Hookworm campaigners, who ran what was arguably the first public health campaign in America from 1909-1915, argued instead that southern poor whites, once cured of the “laziness disease” brought on by the hookworm, would regain the superior moral, intellectual, and cultural qualities that were their racial birthright.
While eugenics campaigners were broadly successful in their efforts to portray poor rural whites as inherently inferior and dysgenic, my research suggests that it was the efforts of hookworm campaigners that opened the door to the eventual “whitening” of southern poor whites.
5 For in the years that followed the hookworm campaign, the poorest whites of the New South began to shed some of the stigma that had formerly attached to their condition. In doing so, they gained a new measure of respectability as worker- citizens.
6 In all of these historical periods, changing perceptions of poor whites were tied to important shifts and transformations in class structures, in racial taxonomy (not least in terms of who and who did not qualify as white), in gender relations, in political economy, in reform movements, and in the status of social scientific and medical knowledge. As historical situations changed, so did the symbolic boundaries that served to both establish social categories of inclusion and exclusion.
So too did the social boundaries that inscribed the dominant categories with power and privilege change. Yet in none of the periods I studied did poor white trash ever come together as a stigmatized social group to combat their own marginalization, nor did they act as a group to defend their reputation or their interests.
7 What I have observed over a long period of historical change are the ways in which group boundaries can utterly fail to promote group formation and group cohesion, yet still result in a manifold number of measurable and observable group effects. There are, of course, the well known latent effects familiar from deviance theory, where the group that is doing the naming benefits from increased solidarity as they bond around their contempt or pity for the named. We typically regard these latent effects as the untold story. But here the manifest effects are the untold story—poor whites were singled out for differential treatment and abuse because they were believed to share the attributes of a group—poor white trash—that existed largely in the social imagination.
8 IV. Analyzing Social Differentiation—An Incomplete Project?
What then do we gain by adopting a boundary perspective? Let me outline what I believe are two major gains. With regard to group and identity formation, boundaries come into existence through three major mechanisms:
1) The observation and documentation of differences that exist among humans. These may be perceived differences in anatomy; religious beliefs; skin color and hair type; language; economic status; mental and physical abilities; region—in short, anything at all.
2) The construal and interpretation of those differences as socially significant by attaching to them shared meanings and collective representations.
3) The division of people into social groups based on those shared meanings and representations. Initially, this is an intersubjective process of attaching social significance and social meaning to differences that may or may not be significant in terms of how they affect individual agency and action. But after a time and under the right conditions, the process of making these differences socially salient—of making them not just visible, but focal points of difference to which our vision is drawn again and again—can lead to the formation of objective social boundaries that exclude and divide and to practices that render human relationships unequal. From the point of view of this study and from the point of view of boundary theory what is most interesting is that boundaries can exist and produce social categories whether or not there are groups of people inhabiting those categories or not. Group formation—in the sense of symbolic boundaries calling forth and creating a social collective—need not occur in order for group like effects and interactions to be observably present.
It is the attribution of “groupness” to a particular collection of individuals that sets the process of social differentiation in motion. Group effects like boundary work, intergroup conflict, and status differentiation can and do occur whether or not there are “real” groups standing behind these processes. Even when those perceived as a social group don’t coalesce around their ascribed identity “as they should” (that is, as our theories expect them to), others act “as if” they have. Giving names like cracker, white trash, and poor white to light skinned people of low status didn’t often result in the formation of bounded groups of poor whites that acted as collectives, but the perception that such groups did exist often had the effect of mobilizing others to take dramatic social action (Brubaker 2004). Social differentiation can occur whether the perception of social difference is valid or not. It is the definition, imposition, and reiteration of the boundary that makes the difference.
The resulting social divisions can seem so “real” and “natural” to those living amidst them that there is a strong tendency to believe they are timeless biological or scientific facts, rather than social facts that have been assembled and built up through human effort. The recognition of this fact reroutes our thinking around the seemingly intractable problematic of essentialism vs. anti-essentialism and primordialism vs. circumstantialism endemic to identity analysis today. This then is the first major gain: boundary theory provides a theory of group formation and social differentiation that does not require us to choose between subjective or objective realities, while still allowing us to observe and document the existence of various group effects.
A second major gain is that we can use boundary theory as a model for comprehending and comparing through a single marker of difference varied processes of social differentiation—class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, nationality, and so on. We can refuse to view each of these areas as distinct and monadic categories of identity and we can refuse to study them in isolation from one another, only to then search for reconstructive models that will allow us to reconnect them and grasp their “intersectionality.”
Instead, we can use boundary theory to analyze interrelated, simultaneously occurring and recurring processes of identification and group formation—processes that historically have been central to the development of stratified human communities and societies. This synchronic approach—embedded in accounts of historical change—enables us to observe the intersection and simultaneity of various aspects of social identity without stating in advance that this one was a conflict about gender roles, this one a conflict about class, and this one about race. We are led instead to observe the historical construction of group boundaries and then to observe how those same boundaries may serve as a foundation for a particular gender/sex regime, a particular class structure, a particular ethnoracial taxonomy, or a particular hierarchy of status.
Boundary theory can also help the researcher avoid the tendency—still embarrassingly prevalent in current analyses—to privilege one form of domination, say, racism, class domination, patriarchy, or heteronormativity, as paradigmatic for other forms or modalities of domination. In boundary theory, what is of primary analytical importance is the boundary and its associated mechanisms.
Class, race, gender, and sexuality can be understood as ways of foregrounding and objectifying certain aspects of the boundary and its manifold operations but none by itself constitutes the boundary in its entirety. RCGS research has demonstrated quite convincingly that race, class, gender, and sexuality can and do mean decidedly different things—they can and do hold different levels of social salience—in different time periods and geographic locales. The lessons are obvious:
Twenty-first century ideas of race and class cannot simply be projected onto the past without introducing the most obvious kinds of distortion into our research accounts, nor can we take the relations of race and class in the United States as paradigmatic of systems of social domination in other societies.
While it may be possible to draw reasonably accurate inferences about what, for instance, “class” or “race” may have meant to an eighteenth century colonist in Virginia, we are better served by an approach that involves observing the historical construction of bounded group identities, then asking what those boundaries meant to local actors and what actions followed from those meanings. We should observe the historical construction of group boundaries and then to observe how those same boundaries may serve as a foundation for a particular gender/sexuality regime, a particular class structure, a particular ethno-racial category, or a particular hierarchy of status. Boundary studies may result in analyses that look similar to more sophisticated versions of RCGS analysis that rely on intersectional, anti-essentialist, process-oriented notions of identity, but they arrive at their conclusions in a different way. More importantly, they open the door to different ways of thinking and conceiving about groups (Are they the proper unit of analysis? In what sense do they exist?).
A synthetic approach that draws upon whiteness studies, with its attention to privilege rather than disadvantage, and boundary studies, with its comparatively coherent and simple theory and methodology, could shift us away from some of the difficulties inherent in the reigning RCGS model.
A synthetic approach could help us improve our answers to questions about inequality and its manifold causes and effects by providing a common methodological and theoretical core. As Kuhn (1970/1996) reminded us long ago, paradigms are extremely resilient and resistant to change, shifting only in response to sustained crises. Kuhn also noted how political crises can spur scientific and intellectual ones. Given the scope of our present political crises, the time is perhaps ripe for innovation.
If, as Marcel Mauss wrote, social life may be characterized as a realm of differences, then how are those differences created? How are they maintained and transformed?
How do they come to be the bases of inequalities? If the goal of social analysis is to understand the social world, why not seek a unified theory of social differentiation?
Why not use boundary theory as a starting point for such an intellectual endeavor?
The search for a unified theory of social differentiation—a way of bringing together class, race, gender, and sex analysis into a single comparative frame—may not initially appeal to those whose analytical style has been shaped by poststructuralism. That philosophical stance has made us skeptical of grand narratives, made us wary of speaking about social totalities, and inclined us to focus on local knowledges, structures rather than structure. Constructing a theory of anything can be a little scary when one is surrounded by deconstructionists.
But after decades of theoretical civil war between structuralists and poststructuralists, objectivists and subjectivists, we can sense the beginnings of a truce. No one has really won, but both sides have tired of the fight. Perhaps the conditions are ripe for a new peace in which, having learned from boundary theorists about the historical and contingent nature of structures and the situational and emergent nature of meaning making, we can return to the unfinished classical project of social analysis—understanding social differentiation and inequality as a single dynamic composed of multiple sub-processes (Washington n.d.).
We can begin by recognizing the generative power of the symbolic
It is the perception of the boundary and its iteration and reiteration over time that is the enabling condition, the sufficient condition, for starting and fueling the machinery of social differentiation. In order for that machinery to produce discriminatory effects, other factors such as competition over resources must be enter in, but a group (in the classic sociological sense, with members having consciousness of themselves as a group) need not actually be called into existence for group differentiation to occur. Once the information that certain group differences exist reaches a tipping point, people will begin to act as if those differences are real and significant.
Thus to take the group as the unit of analysis is to miss the real social agent at work; namely, the boundary process. At the present moment, this process is not well specified by boundary theory, nor is it well understood.
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The reasons for the lack of innovation are many and I will only mention a few of the more significant ones here;
1) the rise of political conservatism has reinforced solidarity around a core of liberalism (albeit one often ringed with lingering commitments to various radicalisms);
2) the blurring of disciplinary perspectives in the liberal arts has bridged some epistemological divides between formerly warring disciplines and, as a result, common interests in and common rhetorical tropes around “identity” have emerged;
3) the increased prestige of and institutional emphasis on poststructuralist theory and a corresponding increase in suspicion towards traditional empirical claims has led to stagnation in methodological areas; and
4) the diverse social movements that fueled the earlier wave of innovation and ascendancy have lost much of their power and influence in the public sphere. If, as was frequently presumed, there were social groups standing behind those movements, one wonders, where have they all gone? For additional thoughts on post-identity scholarship, see Gilroy (2000) and Millner (2005).
2 Even former critics of RCGS analysis have resigned themselves to the fact that the intellectual war is over and that multiculturalism has won. For example, see Glazer (1997). Attempts to counter the dominant RCGS paradigm have often been met with fierce resistance. For a productive exchange, see the debate between Bonilla-Silva (1997) and Loveman (1999) and Bonilla-Silva’s (1999) reply.
3 Charles Tilly notes: “people everywhere organize a significant part of their social interaction around the formation, transformation, activation, and suppression of social boundaries. It happens at the small scale of interpersonal dialogue, at the medium scale of rivalry within organizations, and at the large scale of genocide. Us-them boundaries matter.” Tilly (2004:213) Tilly’s quote, besides speaking to the issue of the scale of social interaction, also speaks to the kinds of action that occur at and around the boundary.
4 On nigger as a “troublesome word,” see Kennedy (2002). It is unlikely that over the course of history white trash has inflicted as much human suffering and anguish or provoked as much moral outrage as nigger—few words in the American lexicon have. Yet the term white trash has performed much of the same symbolic violence. While white trash remains a “fighting word” in some circles, it continues to be used colloquially and humorously by different social groups in a way that is impossible to imagine with nigger. The meanings of nigger have been hotly contested and African Americans have largely gained control over the word. Poor whites have not, by and large, been similarly mobilized by white trash (although the same cannot be said for redneck). See Butler (1997) and Steinberg (1999) for discussions of how, under certain conditions, stigmatizing terms can spark collective action.
5 I define white as a social category, not a racial category. Of course, it carries unmistakable racial meanings, but as I have argued in this book to see it as racial and nothing more is to misapprehend it. White and whiteness speak to much more than color and race. We know this because the grounds on which lubbers, cracker, and poor white trash have been excluded from belonging in the category white, the reasons given for their lack of whiteness have encompassed far more than just ideas about racial difference. The social domination that whiteness enables is of many different forms and relies on many different kinds of social difference. Why subsume all of these disparate mechanisms under the signs of race or white supremacy? It requires us to elevate one form of social difference, race, to the level or analytical preeminence.
6 This foreshadows this rising status, but does not detail any of the important shifts in the 1930s and 1940s that led to a greater national acceptance of southern poor whites as respectable white Americans and that cemented their political support for the New Deal democratic party. For a brief discussion, see Wray (2004). Works that address the important transformations of this era include Tullos (1989); Brattain (2001); and Sallee (2004).
7 The important possible exception would be the Populism of the 1890s. Here, one can argue, southern poor whites developed class consciousness and stood together as a group against the financial and urban elites. Historians and social scientists have argued quite contentiously about whether or not this was actually the case and the scholarship is quite complex. After careful consideration, I reject this example on the grounds that it is unclear whether or not southern poor whites acted as they did on the basis of their identity as a marginalized social group. Yet even if they did, that period would remain the exception to the rule. For a useful engagement with Populist history, see Kantrowitz (2000).
8 In other words, white trash is an important case for applying some of these ideas because white trash so clearly does not name an externally bounded group. There is no bounded whole. Those so labeled do not necessarily form a group in the sociological sense (i.e., having members who interact with each other, share values and norms, and share a sense of "we-ness" or collective identity) yet, historically, the attribution of the term has resulted in different kinds of group effects. One of the effects is to make us think and act as if there is a group being referred to, when there is in fact a situation being referred to, an encounter between peoples, some of whom may have differing habits, morals, and worldviews. Some of these effects appear to have to do with status differentiation, but at other times, the meaning of the differences asserted appear to have to do with what we would today think of as race, ethnicity, class, gender, and sexuality. Most of the time, one or more of these areas of meaning seem to be competing for our attention and it is seldom easy to decide which area of meaning is predominant.
9 In this vein, see Wacquant (1997). Stoler (1997) has brilliantly critiqued “the flattening of racisms” whereby one version of racial domination comes to serve as paradigmatic for all times and places.
By Christopher Chambers January 6, 2009
As we look to a more progressive 2009, what will we lose if bumpkinism, ghettofabulosity, and nihilism disappear? Here's a list of 65 people, places, and things.
As we look to a more enlightened, more progressive 2009 and a return to rationalism (though we’ll all be poorer), I feel a sense of loss…even,okay–wistfulness. What will we lose if bumpkinism, superstition, Confederate-envy, ghettofabulosity, nihilsim, mindlessness, petty parochialism, ignorance, irrationality were to disappear entirely?
I’ve prepared a list of sixty-five people, places, conditions I would miss terribly. Yes. Miss them. The flava. The Flow. This country is more interesting with them in it. Here’s the list, so far:
1.Any of these idiots performing on, or fans of, the Blue Collar Comedy Tour (yes, Foxworthy, too…though Larry the Cable is fairly harmless)
2. Wal Mart
3. Anyone who thinks they sell USA-made goods at Wal Mart
6.Anyone who thinks a stripper pole is essential furniture-T Pain…Lil’Wayne…Flo Rida…every rapper in the Dirty South
7. Michael Eric Dyson’s supporters in the Hood, on BET and on those silly hip hop panels
9. BET (that’s a no brainer)
10. R Kelly’s supporters
11. Joel Osteen
12. “Chance” and his family…Tiffany (”New York”)…and any of those other clowns and hoes on VH1 “reality” shows
13.All the of Real Housewives of Atlanta
14. The City of Atlanta, period (and its perpetrating McMansion-Waffle House-stripmall-gas guzzler environs, from Duluth to Stone Mountain!)
15. Scary crackers at Palin rallies this fall
16.Crackers who murder doctors who perform abortions (and Idaho Nazis who plant pipe bombs in front of gay bars)
17.Hillibillies who hide or aide murderous crackers (see above)
18.Diebolt voting machines
21.Mike Huckabee (sadly…he’s not a bad dude, really)
22.Preachers who take Faith Based cash and buy big Pontiacs with it
23.Preachers who tell their congregation to pray for big Pontiacs
24.Preachers who tell their congregation to vote to deny gays/lesbians equal protection of the law
25.Preachers who don’t seem to understand that AIDS is murdering their own people
26.Jamaican thugs who sneak back to Queens and Miami after they’re deported
27.Jamaican thugs’ wives and girlfriends who help them
28.Folks using the foster care system as a paycheck
29.Folks who say we need more black folks as foster parents…regardless of whether these candidates are crackheads, molesters, murderers or keep other kids in meat freezers
31.Nihilistic teenage thugs
32.Nihilistic teenage girls who hook up with and bear children for nihilistic teenage thugs
33.Geriatric ex-Panthers who rail against Norplant (as the answer to the above)
34.Anyone who appears on or attends tapings of “Maury” or any “Judge so and so” daytime show
35.Anyone who takes down the 800 number of Buttwood College or Asswipe Online University during commercials while “Maury’s” on
36.Anyone who thinks Army/Marines/Navy commercials are reality and joins up
37.Anyone who joins the Army/Navy/Marines as employer of last resort…but claims it’s for “patriotism”
38. Anyone who joins the Army/Navy/Marines for boneheaded reasons yet chides cohorts who leave school to build houses in old Ninth ward in NOLA because it’s not patriotic
41. Mamas who keep sayin’ their murdering ass sons/grandsons are “good boys but I can’t control ‘em”
42.Mamas who don’t get too agitated when their daughters are showing their asses and dropping out of high school–as a means of being attractive to murdering ass suitors (see above)
44.Folks who think Neo Soul and its progeny are bourgie and dead
45.Folks who listen to regular commercial radio, including canned “R&B and Hip Hop” and “Country” and “Hot Hits”
46.Folks who don’t read
47.Folks who don’t read anything but Triple Crown published “literature” or Carl Weber
48.Publishers, editors, producers, exhibitors , station managers who dumb down or redneck-up or “simplify” or black-up art, literature, music, films, TV, radio content for white trash or Tyler Perry fans
51.Rush Limbaugh’s dittoheads (yes lawd)
52.Old School Race hucksters (black): from Burris (yes Burris!) to GOP tool Blackwell to Jesse, Sr. to poor Bobby Rush
53.Old School Race hucksters (white): from Newt Gingrich to Trent Lott
54.Folks who think NASCAR’s gotten too “corporate and elite”
55.Anyone who thought the 8th graders cutting up in the hallways in “Hard Times at Frederick Douglass High” were merely “misunderstood”
56.Folks who think the NBA is perfect the way it is, and college ball isn’t entertaining enough
57.College hoopsters who turn pro before getting a goddamn degree
58.High school hoopsters who turn pro before getting a goddamn clue
59.Anyone who really wants to party with Jay-Z and Beyonce as a couple
60.Anyone who thinks menacing fools just hanging on the corner are merely “Oliver Twist” urchins, or would be Bill Gates but for racism
61.Anyone who thinks Joe the Plumber is “the real America”
62.Anyone who uses the term “real America”
63.Anyone who thinks white people aren’t the ones truly juicing state
64.Medicaid, or Medicare, or any other “entitlement” program
65.Anyone who accuses liberals of being socialists…yet lives in a state wholly dependent on Uncle Sam for political pork, federal land, military bases, farm subsidies…
Yes, I’d miss these things which spice our America. Hey, why don’t you add yours here? Yes, the Holidays are over. (sigh) But cheers in 09.
Working class tensions
UK white classes
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