I grew up in southern Bavaria in the 1960s. I started formal education at the age of six at the local Volksschule — the people’s school. Quite frankly, I don’t remember much about this time. Among the few things I do remember is the warning my parents gave me on my way to school to keep away from the Rs. The Rs were a couple of kids from the same family, one of whom happened to be in my class. They came from the “bad” side of town, the Glasscherbenviertel. In my hometown, this was an area located behind a horse and motorcycle race track, a place where respectable citizens wouldn’t want to be caught dead. Those who lived there were dismissed as Grattler — uncouth, unsavory characters better avoided. And avoid them we did, if only not to run the danger of getting beaten up.
In our little town, the Rs were the epitome of what across the Atlantic is referred to as “white trash.” At the time in Germany, there was hardly anyone who looked “different,” so “white trash” would have made no sense whatsoever. They were German trash, and everybody knew it. In my immediate neighborhood, there was a woman who had three “illegitimate” children, all of them girls, all of them with a reputation of being tomboys. My parents, of course, told me I better keep my distance. I did, if only to avoid being bombarded with stones — the weapon, at the time, of the weaker sex — and, of course, out of fear of being associated with German trash.
These are some of the reminiscences, images and thoughts that recently crossed my mind while reading parts of Nancy Isenberg’s “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.” Released in 2016, a few months before the presidential election, the book is as pertinent — if not more so — today as it was at the time it was published. This is the story of the outcasts of American society, the vagrants and “crackers,” the rednecks and the “deplorables” who “have remained vilified, shunned, targeted and kept apart, both physically — in poorhouses and trailer parks, through eugenic science and discriminatory public policy — and in the nation’s cultural imagination, where they have inspired mockery, kitsch and unceasing grimaces.”
For anyone who has ever watched an episode of “The Jerry Springer Show” knows what I’m talking about. With 28 seasons and around 4,000 episodes, it was not only one of America’s most successful TV series but also an export hit that exposed the rest of the world to the other side of America in the crudest way. The show was so successful because it systematically brought out some of the worst in human nature while at the same time fulfilling the “audience’s need to feel superior.” It reinforced age-old stereotypes that dismissed a part of America’s white population as “incestuous and sexually promiscuous, violent, alcoholic, lazy and stupid” — stereotypes, as Isenberg put it, that “remain with us until today.”
A case in point is the methamphetamine epidemic that the American Drug Enforcement Administration in 2003 characterized as “the most dangerous drug problem of small-town America.” In fact, what distinguished meth was that the drug was most prevalent in rural areas in the country’s heartland, where it was “burning a hole,” as Rolling Stone magazine put it, “through rural America.” What also distinguished it was that, unlike, for instance, crack cocaine, which is predominantly associated with inner cities and people of color, meth was largely characterized as a white-trash addiction. As Frank Keating, the former governor of Oklahoma, put it in 1999, meth was “a white trash drug — methamphetamines largely are consumed by the lower socio-economic element of white people. And I think we need to shame it, just like crack cocaine was a black-trash drug and is a black trash drug.”
The same applies to a certain extent to what Joshua Wilkey, in his blog This Appalachia Life, has called the “white-trashification of the opioid crisis.” Wilkey’s charges the political establishment in Washington with not giving “two shits” about the crisis, at least as long as it affects primarily the rural poor in depressed areas such as the Appalachians. At least two reasons account for this: first, the notion that addiction “is simply the result of stupid people making poor choices” and, second, that since the crisis “largely targets poor and rural areas, there’s less urgency on the part of urban elites to advocate for solutions.” To put it more brutally, white trash just doesn’t matter, if only because it does not conform to the dominant narrative — in which whiteness represents the “default racial norm” — that serves as the justification for white socioeconomic dominance.
At the same time, the trope poses a challenge to the notion of white privilege, for white trash is a term that racializes whiteness by denigrating those dismissed as such “in race specific terms.” One way to get out of this quandary is to relabel a clearly derogatory racialized epithet as “pseudo-racialization.” For the guardians of this type of wokeness — largely derived from critical race theory prevalent today in American academia and the chattering classes — this might sound reassuring. It shouldn’t, at least if wokeness is taken seriously. It should not be forgotten that wokeness is defined as “a state of being aware, especially of social problems such as racism and inequality.”
The derogation, denigration and disparagement of, if not outright contempt for, America’s white underclass, mocked and dismissed as white trash, certainly counts for an egregious example of inequality alongside a range of dimensions — economic, social and cultural. White trash is the Lumpenproletariat of our globalized world, structurally irrelevant and, therefore, largely ignored — at least as long as it doesn’t become a threat to society as it did during the meth epidemic.
Worse still, as the notion of pseudo-racialization implies, the distress and despair of the white underclass are easily dismissed since its problems fall through the dominant grievances grid that today is almost exclusively informed by and defined in racial terms. What Ernesto Laclau has once called the “internal antagonistic frontier” that informs today’s hegemonic wokeness discourse runs between whites and everybody else. In this discourse, whiteness is automatically associated with privilege and entitlement. The white maligned underclass might be underprivileged or worse, but, being white, it is automatically subsumed under notions of privilege and entitlement for no other reason than that one so happens to be white.
The case of Oumou Kanoute, a black student at Smith College, which was recently featured in The New York Times, illustrates the point. Here even Michelle Goldberg, in her recent defense of critical race theory, had to acknowledge that something went horribly wrong, that this was a case of “woke overreach.” Smith College is one of the most prestigious — and expensive — liberal arts colleges in the US. Students attending the college are the epitome of entitlement, given the prohibitive cost of tuition and board that easily amounts to nearly $80,000 a year. An article in The Guardian from 2016 hit the nail on the head when it pointed out that “at the best colleges there are very few low-income students, except for a few lucky enough to grow up in New York City, Los Angeles or Boston.”
As The New York Times account rightly put it, the Smith College incident is a story of the clash between race and class. Once again, class came out at the short end of the stick, resulting in the destruction of the reputations of a number of employees, all of them white, all of them part of today’s easily dispensable service class — janitors, security guards — who were labeled as racists and as carriers of white privilege. Yet, as a subsequent commentary piece in The New York Times put it, “the narrative of racist harassment of a minority student at an elitist white institution turned out to be comprehensively false.” Does it matter? Apparently not, for as the initial report by The Times put it, the whole story “highlights the tensions between a student’s deeply felt sense of personal truth and facts that are at odds with it.” In short, something must be true because you think it is true. This might explain why even after an investigation exonerated the employees of racial bias, they received, unlike the student, no apology from the administration. The white underclass apparently is not worthy of recognition.
Dispensable Service Class
The incident happened in 2018. In the meantime, Oumou Kanoute has moved on to Columbia University, another elite university. The fate of the targets of her accusations is largely unknown. But then, who cares about janitors and security guards? This is hardly a rhetorical question. According to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, in 2019, the white poverty rate was 9%. This amounts to more than 17 million Americans. Poverty rates were disproportionately high (around 15%) in West Virginia and Kentucky, two Appalachian states, which were also among the top states when it comes to opioid prescription rates.
The impact was devastating. In 2017, the opioid-related death rate in Appalachian counties was more than 70% higher than in the rest of the country: 24 versus 14 deaths per 100,000 residents. At the same time, the rate of Kentucky’s neonatal abstinence syndrome was more than three times higher than the national rate, West Virginia’s more than eight times.
The testimony, recently published in a medical journal, of a physician who grew up in eastern Kentucky provides a first-hand account of the misery and despair the epidemic has wrought. Eastern Kentucky, a coal-mining area at the foot of the Appalachian hills, is among the poorest in the United States. Isolated and on the margins “both geographically and culturally,” the region and its opioid crisis were long ignored by the national media.
It was not until “it had spread to more affluent and valued parts of the country, almost 15 years later” that it would gain national attention. This is despite the fact that the region is overwhelmingly white. Magoffin County, for instance, which is the focus of the physician’s account, in 2000 was roughly 99% white. But then, who gives two shits about poor white trash — except, perhaps, to make money. Otherwise, why would Amazon sell a “Funny Kentucky White Trash Tee Shirt”?
In late 2016, an expose in The Atlantic on America’s poor white underclass noted the “barely suppressed contempt” that “has characterized much of the commentary about white woe, on both the left and the right.” In support of their observation, the authors cite a philippic that appeared in the National Review, the flagship of the traditional conservative right, heaping scorn on low-income white voters for supporting Donald Trump in the primaries. Among other things, the author sneered:
“If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy — which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog — you will come to an awful realization. … The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. … The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles.”
In 2016, Trump won an overwhelming majority in eastern Kentucky. In Magoffin County, for instance, he won roughly 75% of the vote. Four years later, Trump once again carried Kentucky by a wide margin; the same was true for Magoffin County. And yet, in his four years in office, he had done little to nothing to improve the lives of America’s poor white underclass. To be sure, at one point, Trump had claimed he would revive the coal industry so dear to states like West Virginia and Kentucky. He didn’t, and, like any good populist, once in power, he largely ignored the plight of those whose pain he had earlier purported to hear. As studies have shown, America’s poor, independent of race, by and large don’t vote and, therefore, can be dismissed. They don’t count, in more than one sense of the word.
Farewell to the Proletariat
Unfortunately, the left on both sides of the Atlantic has, to a large extent, bought into this trope. Instead of fighting for every vote, the left has written off significant segments of a potential electorate which, at one point, was part of its natural constituency. Yet in the late 1970s, at least in Western Europe, the left abandoned the concerns of blue-collar workers in favor of new “postmaterialist” priorities, promoted by the “new middle classes.” A paradigmatic text was André Gorz’s manifesto from 1980, “Adieux au proletariat” (“Farewell to the Proletariat”). In the decades that followed, the left increasingly adopted what has come to be known as identity politics, centering upon questions of gender, ethnicity and race.
There is nothing wrong with identity politics — as long as it is inclusive. Following Chantal Mouffe, the potential of progressive politics crucially depends on the establishment of an alternative “powerbloc” that not only unifies different claims and struggles, such as the #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and Fridays for Future movements, but is also able to effectively challenge the dominant power structure and the hegemonic narratives, such as neoliberalism and the Washington Consensus. Identity politics on the left these days focuses on minorities, such as LGBTQ and particularly race, in the process sidelining, excluding, if not outright dismissing questions of class. As one reader who identified himself as a “white man living paycheck to paycheck” put it in The Atlantic, “I think that most of us would acknowledge that minorities have it rough, but at least someone seems to care about them.”
In the end, a strategy that focuses almost exclusively on an anything-but-white identity politics — if it is at all a strategy — is only going to weaken any genuine hope for a more equitable politics. At the same time, it is likely to provide fertile ground for the exploitation of resentment and anger by cynical populists such as Donald Trump well versed in the deceptive appeal of symbolic politics, like feeding into delusions of white superiority, while doing nothing concrete, like raising marginal tax rates on the rich to pay for universal health care, for the “ordinary people” they purport to represent.
Professor Hans-Georg Betz is a Senior Fellow at CARR and an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Zurich. See full profile here.
© Hans-Georg Betz. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).