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Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness / Edition 1

Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness / Edition 1

by Matt Wray


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Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness / Edition 1

White trash. The phrase conjures up images of dirty rural folk who are poor, ignorant, violent, and incestuous. But where did this stigmatizing phrase come from? And why do these stereotypes persist? Matt Wray answers these and other questions by delving into the long history behind this term of abuse and others like it. Ranging from the early 1700s to the early 1900s, Not Quite White documents the origins and transformations of the multiple meanings projected onto poor rural whites in the United States. Wray draws on a wide variety of primary sources—literary texts, folklore, diaries and journals, medical and scientific articles, social scientific analyses—to construct a dense archive of changing collective representations of poor whites.

Of crucial importance are the ideas about poor whites that circulated through early-twentieth-century public health campaigns, such as hookworm eradication and eugenic reforms. In these crusades, impoverished whites, particularly but not exclusively in the American South, were targeted for interventions by sanitarians who viewed them as “filthy, lazy crackers” in need of racial uplift and by eugenicists who viewed them as a “feebleminded menace” to the white race, threats that needed to be confined and involuntarily sterilized.

Part historical inquiry and part sociological investigation, Not Quite White demonstrates the power of social categories and boundaries to shape social relationships and institutions, to invent groups where none exist, and to influence policies and legislation that end up harming the very people they aim to help. It illuminates not only the cultural significance and consequences of poor white stereotypes but also how dominant whites exploited and expanded these stereotypes to bolster and defend their own fragile claims to whiteness.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822338734
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 11/03/2006
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 232
Sales rank: 877,193
Product dimensions: 6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Matt Wray is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and a 2006–2008 Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholar at Harvard University. He is a coeditor of The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness; Bad Subjects: Political Education for Everyday Life; and White Trash: Race and Class in America.

Read an Excerpt

Not Quite White

By Matt Wray

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2006 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3882-6

Chapter One

Lubbers, Crackers, and Poor White Trash

Borders and Boundaries in the Colonies and the Early Republic

They are devoured by musketas all summer and have agues every spring and fall, which corrupt all the juices of their bodies, give them a cadaverous complexion and besides a lazy, creeping habit, which they never get rid of. -WILLIAM BYRD II (1728/1929: 54)

They delight in their present low, lazy, sluttish, heathenish, hellish life, and seem not desirous of changing it. -REV. CHARLES WOODMASON (1766/1953: 52)

The fact is, that in America, a conflict is going on between opposite principles, and the consequences of the struggle show themselves chiefly in the relation between master and servant. -HARRIET MARTINEAU (1838/1988: 198)

In 1728, William Byrd II, the scion of a vastly wealthy Virginian family and member of the governor's Council of Virginia, complained sardonically about the poor whites who inhabited the borderlands of the colonies of Virginia and North Carolina. "I am sorry to say it," he observed, "but Idleness is the general characterof the men of the Southern parts of this Colony [Virginia] as well as in North Carolina.... Surely there is no place in the world where the inhabitants live with less labor than in N[orth] Carolina. It approaches nearer to the description of Lubberland than any other, by the great felicity of the climate, the easiness of raising provisions, and the slothfulness of the people.... To speak the truth, 'tis a thorough aversion to labor that makes people file off to N[orth] Carolina, where plenty and a warm sun confirm them in their disposition to laziness for their whole lives" (1728/1929: 91-92).

Byrd had set out with a team of surveyors in 1727 to settle a longstanding geographic boundary dispute between North Carolina and Virginia, faithfully keeping diaries (including secret diaries written in code) and later using them to write up a popular account of his explorations. That account, The History of the Dividing Line, and Byrd's accompanying secret diaries, contain some of the earliest stigmatizing depictions of poor, low-status whites in the North American colonies. As the passage above suggests, they comprise a particularly unflattering portrait. These depictions, although written in a comical tone, have had rather serious effects on the shared perceptions of poor whites that followed.

Byrd was certainly not alone among his peers in viewing low-status whites as a distinct, inferior social group. By the 1760s, other elites had joined Byrd in deploring the habits and morals of socially outcast whites. In 1766, a colonial official reported to his superior that certain "lawless" colonists were harassing the neighboring Cherokee. These colonists, known locally as crackers, were apparently a significant problem for the British colonial authorities, who were at pains not to agitate the Cherokee to whom they had recently promised an end to British colonial expansion. This Revolutionary-era portrait of the colonial poor white cracker differs in important respects from the earlier depiction of the "lubber," because of a new emphasis on the economic and political threat that such a group posed to the maintenance of social order in the British colonies.

In the wake of the American Revolution, as the young republic struggled to define its national character and to understand itself, social observers continued to focus on the peculiar status of marginal whites. Invariably, such whites were compared unfavorably to black servants and slaves and to American Indians. By the 1830s a new term had emerged for socially downcast whites: poor white trash. This new term, like cracker before it, altered popular conceptions of poor and outcast whites and offered new ways to make sense of their stigmatized identity and their low status.

From the seventeenth to the early nineteenth century, the language of race and the language of class were not nearly as distinct as we presume them to be today. To be sure, they were considered different categories, but between the lower classes and the lower races, there was considerable overlap in the symbolic properties, characteristics, and traits ascribed to each. Behaviors and attitudes regarding conventional morality and work were particularly salient here, with the lower classes and lower races typically characterized as holding deep aversions to both. Also highly salient in the minds of observers were behaviors regarding cleanliness-the lower sorts were consistently characterized as dirty, smelly, and unclean. What is striking about reading historical documents of the period then is the similar ways in which poor whites, Indians, and blacks are described-as immoral, lazy, and dirty.

The terms lubber, cracker, and poor white trash offer us little reliable information about the objective social structures of the times. However, they are exemplary of a specific type of symbolic boundary. These labels are stigmatypes-stigmatizing boundary terms that simultaneously denote and enact cultural and cognitive divides between in-groups and out-groups, between acceptable and unacceptable identities, between proper and improper behaviors. They create categories of status and prestige, explicitly, through labeling and naming, and implicitly, through invidious comparison. The classification cracker has meaning in part because there exists another, unnamed, unmarked class: non-cracker.

Each of the stigmatyping boundary terms considered in this book raises questions: Where did it come from? To whom was it meant to refer? More significantly, what needs were served by its invention, and, if the term endured over time, what accounted for its popularity and staying power? In short, to whom was the stigmatype useful and why? This chapter is an effort to sort out some possible answers to these questions and to begin an investigation into some of the historical meanings the terms conveyed. It pays particular attention to analyzing the specific social and historical conditions that gave rise to the terms and to discussing the different social and symbolic operations the terms may have performed. The approach is first to attempt a reconstruction of some of the social circumstances that helped produce the terms and to try to recapture some of the meanings and interpretations that circulated around and through them. In some instances, I then focus on the various social effects of these efforts at naming and classification. My purpose in so doing is to draw attention to how boundary terms can illuminate the historical struggles over social and cultural identity and belonging that are key forces in the formation of social hierarchies and concomitant social inequalities. The histories of these stigmatypes-some of which have proven to be remarkably resilient and remain widely used today-also offer us genealogies of some of the symbolic and cultural exclusions that persist in contemporary society.

Finally, the analysis I develop here demonstrates how a single boundary term can mark off multiple aspects of human identity. A single term can and often does carry meanings about class, status, race, gender, and sexuality; although one or more of these meanings often dominates, the others can be and usually are simultaneously present, even if only in muted or transmuted form. It is precisely this insight about connected boundaries that motivates much of the recent work on intersectionality. Yet scholars following that paradigm tend to begin by isolating different identity categories for analysis before moving on to the difficult work of reconstructing the connections their own analysis has severed. Boundary theory suggests a better way. It offers the ability to capture the complicated intertwining effects of different categories of social difference and inequality, and it provides a model for understanding how they are experienced, interpreted, and perceived as a whole identity.

Boundary Work on the Colonial Frontier

William Byrd II was heir to the Byrd colonial fortune amassed by his father. Born in 1674 in Virginia, he was sent to England for safekeeping when Bacon's Rebellion broke out two years later. There, he lived with this grandfather and received his education, graduated in 1696, and was immediately admitted to the bar. Upon returning to his native land in 1708, he assumed all the rights, responsibilities, and status of a highly educated, wealthy colonial planter. He raised tobacco, using slave and indentured servant labor together, and, despite bad luck and a series of financial missteps, amassed even greater wealth and property than had his father before him. Byrd was unquestionably a member of the transatlantic elite, a product of the colonial aristocracy with privilege, power, and authority matched only by a few peers.

Byrd's 1728 survey of the disputed boundary line between Virginia and North Carolina was, of course, boundary work of the most literal kind. The geographic survey took him west from the shores of the Atlantic through the Great Dismal Swamp and beyond to the rising plateaus of Appalachia. All along this 240-mile route he encountered frontier settlers and squatters living in rude huts and cabins, eking out nomadic lifestyles with small herds of cattle or pigs or, more rarely, subsiding on modest plots of cultivated land. The entire region had long had a reputation as a haven for runaway servants and slaves, criminals, and ne'er-do-wells of all sorts. In his travel writings and diaries, Byrd, borrowing a term from English culture, dubbed these backcountry dwellers "lubbers."

To Byrd's transatlantic audience-English readers and fellow colonial elites who had been educated in England-Lubberland was known as an imaginary place of plenty without labor, a land of laziness where inhabitants lolled about without purpose. Through this association with Lubberland, Byrd was also imaginatively linking the colonial borderlands and its lazy denizens to a centuries-old peasant utopia that had existed in the cultural imagination of Western Europe since at least the Middle Ages, when it was known as the Land of Cockaigne. Throughout that era, innumerable texts made reference to Cockaigne, a dream world where "work was forbidden ... and food and drink appeared spontaneously in the form of grilled fish, roast geese, and rivers of wine. One only had to open one's mouth and all that delicious food practically jumped inside ... there was the added bonus of a whole range of amenities: communal possessions, lots of holidays, no arguing or animosity, free-sex with ever willing partners, a fountain of youth, beautiful clothes for everyone, and the possibility of earning money while one slept" (Pleij 2000: 3). Cockaigne represented not just any sort of utopia, but one that resonated most vibrantly with the disenfranchised and the dispossessed, with the downtrodden and the marginalized-those for whom hunger and want were constant features of everyday life. Through these associations, Lubberland symbolized a place of relaxed, lusty ease, a place of unimpeded libidinal energies and uninterrupted flows of carnal desire that stood in sharp contrast to the disciplined, ordered, and morally upright culture of Byrd's world-the social and cultural universe of the eighteenth-century tidewater planter. Any place that even approximated Lubberland's social conditions would have been something of a symbolic and moral threat to a nascent, rather fragile colonial order (Greenblatt 1988: 129-63).

In comparing the colonial borderlands to Lubberland/Cockaigne, Byrd was authoring and authorizing the idea that the inhabitants of these out-of-the-way places were not just different from other colonial settlers, but also morally, culturally, and socially inferior. For Byrd, the key moral quality in life was an eager disposition toward work. Byrd's attitudes on this matter reflected a dominant idea shared throughout the colonies-that idleness was a grave sin. To describe an individual or social group as "idle" or "lazy" was to simultaneously express moral condemnation and the highest degree of contempt. Moral condemnation and contempt, it must be noted, are highly emotionally charged judgments, and they mobilize visceral feelings of disgust. Moral condemnation is directed against what people do, while contempt is directed against who they are. This perception, this structure of feeling, was deeply embedded in the core of British imperialism and it was made manifest throughout the empire. As Anne McClintock (1995) has noted, since at least the sixteenth century, the British had associated slothfulness with corruption and poverty. By the eighteenth century, Puritans had articulated an elaborate set of moral, political, and cultural traits based on sharply delineated conceptions of industriousness versus idleness. The boundaries separating those who worked hard from those who did not operated as important cultural resources in the colonial struggle to transform labor regimes and enforce labor discipline upon unruly natives and truculent colonists. Cultural inducements to labor-in the form of boundary terms that separated good colonists from bad-were propagated by colonial elites with missionary-like fervor. Indeed, the reputation of the colonies as places where the poor, the indigent, and the criminal could be redeemed through hard work served as a major ideological justification for the entire colonial enterprise.

We can see this throughout Byrd's writings, where he strives to uphold the virtues of industriousness and hard work, religiosity and good Christian practice, and cleanliness and health as the hallmarks of an upright life. Indeed, it was largely the belief in the spiritually redeeming value of these habits of industry that led Byrd and his contemporaries to keep diaries in the first place-to record a daily account by which their industriousness and religious commitment might be judged. These cultural ideals and values are thrown into sharp relief by Byrd's depictions of lubbers as lazy, irreligious, filthy, and diseased. The moral distinctions drawn by Byrd communicated spiritual meanings, but they also served as crucial markers of social difference.

While it is perhaps straightforward enough to understand the utility of lubber as a way of marking off boundaries of morality, the term also carried significant meanings about gender, racial, and sexual difference in the colonies, as well as signaling distinctions of status and class. Yet Byrd's representations amount to caricature: perhaps there were real, living human beings behind these distorted sketches? Who did Byrd think he was describing in inventing these lubbers, these useless inhabitants of the colonial borderlands? A brief description of the changing and dynamic social organization of the southern colonies provides intriguing clues.

Status and Social Collectives

The mid-seventeenth century saw the emergence of new and complex sets of social groups in the Chesapeake colonies. Social historians have typically described these collectives in terms of their relationships to land, labor, and capital, having identified as many as six different groups. The first group, generally positioned outside the institutions of slavery and servitude, were dwindling numbers of American Indians, mostly confined to areas at the western frontiers and borderlands of the colonies. African slaves comprised a second group, held to the bottom of the hierarchy by their status as property. A third group, composed of white servants and slaves, were laboring under the various terms of their indentures. The fourth were freemen, former servants and slaves, white and black, who had been freed upon the completion of the terms of their bondage. Above them, in the fifth group, were the so-called yeomen, the smallholders with property consisting of small land holdings and few servants. At the top end of the structure were the elites, men who held large estates and lucrative public offices in the colonial government.

It is the fourth group, the freemen without property, wedged between the servant class and the smallholders, that deserves our close attention here. Due to many factors, the number of indentured servants rose precipitously between 1650 and 1700. One key factor was the head right system, whereby planters received additional land for each servant they brought over from England. This system acted as a strong material incentive for planters to increase the number of indentured servants they sponsored, while making land less available to freemen in the colonies. In addition, by the middle of the seventeenth century, the colonies had become more securely established, and the heavy mortality rates that had plagued the earliest settlements declined. As a result, the entire population, including freemen, increased in size. Another factor was the intentional limiting by elites of the size of the smallholder class, which had begun to grow in economic and political influence. In some regions these smallholders, who, like the planters, grew tobacco for export, began to pose a threat to the oligopoly of the elites, reaping some of the tobacco profits for themselves. Beginning in 1658, the planter elite of Virginia began to take steps to minimize the size and influence of this group, imposing longer periods of indenture and servitude through a series of laws and doing what they could to limit access to land. Finally, and crucially, the increasing reliance on African slave labor rendered free white labor superfluous and produced a group of whites that was unable to find work or land and who therefore could not afford slaves for themselves. Taken together, these historical and social conditions created a situation where more and more freemen were chasing fewer and fewer plots of arable land. Theirs was the most rapidly growing group, but while they were legally entitled to set up households of their own, the freemen found it very hard to do so. As elites closed opportunities and hoarded land and other resources for themselves, fewer freemen were able to achieve the upward mobility they sought.


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Table of Contents


Preface and Acknowledgments....................ix
Introduction White Trash as Social Difference: Groups, Boundaries, and Inequalities....................1
1 Lubbers, Crackers, and Poor White Trash: Borders and Boundaries in the Colonies and the Early Republic....................21
2 Imagining Poor Whites in the Antebellum South: Abolitionist and Pro-Slavery Fictions....................47
3 "Three Generations of Imbeciles Are Enough": American Eugenics and Poor White Trash....................65
4 "The Disease of Laziness": Crackers, Poor Whites, and Hookworm Crusaders in the New South....................96
5 Limning the Boundaries of Whiteness....................133

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