To millions of Americans, it was disheartening that, in the Nov. 6 referendum on Donald Trump, three Southern states rejected qualified African American candidates in favor of whites, two with racist baggage, the third a notorious suppressor of the black vote, as governors of Florida and Georgia and senator in Mississippi – propelled by Trump’s endorsement.
But perhaps those who despair are focusing on one aspect of the problem only, instead of seeing it not just through the prism of race but also as a function of a history in which a class hierarchy was established.
A good guide is Nancy Isenberg’s “White Trash. The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America,” published, ironically, when a scion of the elite class emerged as the champion of the poor and disadvantaged.
Isenberg, a Louisiana State professor, says a class structure was created in which white English expatriates owned the most valuable commodity, land, followed by social gradations of other whites down the class ladder, Indigenous Peoples and enslaved Africans. The picture she paints of most whites in the early days of then British America is far different from what today’s “nationalists” and ethno-state advocates have in mind when they claim white racial superiority.
“The colonists were a mixed lot,” she writes. “On the bottom of the heap were men and women of the poor and criminal classes. Among these unheroic transplants were roguish highwaymen, mean vagrants. Irish rebels, known whores and an assortment of convicts shipped to the colonies for grand theft larceny or other property crimes as a reprieve of sorts to escape the gallows.”
Men were meant to be cheap or free labor, regardless of the color of their skins, and the role of women was to “breed” to expand the colony. They were all poor, the “squatters,” the “crackers,” the “mudeaters” often living in “filthy cabins,” which, with “a lack of manners and rampant breeding combined to make crackers and squatters a distinct class, as veritable as their patterns of speech.”
Retired college professor and diplomat Herbert L. Calhoun expanded on “White Trash” in a review published on Amazon, saying that the only time “the lower classes have combined to rebel against the upper class” was the 1676 Bacon Rebellion led by Nathaniel Bacon whose ragtag army that tried to burn down Virginia included “an assortment of an equal number of red, white and black slaves.”
Calhoun cites his childhood in rural Arkansas when “Pine Bluff’s ‘poor white trash” were “the true wretched of the earth,” and “authentic rednecks in the flesh.”
Redneck. That is the word “white supremacist politicians in the South have used … to pit poor whites against poor blacks,” writes Sarah Smarsh, about her growing up in rural Kansas, in “Heartland:A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Boke in the Richest Country on Earth.”
Calhoun recalls poor whites selling “bruised fruit,” “day old” bread and “rank produce” in push carts to blacks. “Whenever we bought it, they surely knew we did it so only out of pity for their dismal plight,” he said. “While most of my neighbors were working class blacks, sprinkled with a few college-educated professionals, like my stepfather, Carl Redus, the white tribes that lived under the hill were barely literate and, by anyone’s social reckoning, had fallen well off the deep end of America’s socio-economic grid.”
There was no inherent advantage to being white and history is now being distorted to present a different picture, most significantly about the Civil War not being about slavery so being a Confederacy sympathizer and defender of its symbols, such as the 1,500 or so monuments around the country and the flag -which remains part of Mississippi’s state flag – does not make one racist, just part of the noble vanquished.
But change could be coming. Donna Ladd, cited in the Guardian on Oct. 8 the example of Krista Hinman, who grew up in Southaven, Mississippi. “Everything I ever did was white… I was all in. I believed every single bit of it…all the ‘heritage’ stuff,” Hinman said. In her 20s, at the University of Mississippi, she made “liberal friends” and came to realize, Ladd wrote, “that racism is not just interpersonal name-calling but systemic denial of equity and equality – in education, the workplace, political representation, housing, health care and everyday life.”
Trump is the answer to their problems even though he has done nothing to help of the “working class,” such as expanding social benefits and reining in the one percent who own most of America’s wealth, while manipulating class through racial division and “ideology” to win elections and gain power, the path to wealth.
This is probably what Bernie Sanders means when he talks about “democratic socialism,” though the “c” word is not used because America is supposed to be a classless society. Ending racism alone – which is impossible – will not heal the deep divisions in the country but tackling the class structure would be a powerful start.