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Deep woes and prejudices behind term “white trash”

Ricky Ochilo, staff writer

This past weekend Warren Wilson students held a party where several students flocked to have fun, dance and socialize. The party’s theme was focused on the term white trash. For many, the historical use of the term has been met with both antagonism and prejudice. A deeper look at the implications and origins of the term illustrate a past of indignation and racial inferiority.

There are those who might argue that it’s a form of ethnic pride, much like the African Americans refer to themselves as “nigger” in solidarity and dignity. Others might argue that the use posits cultural difference and revolt against white society that oppresses and restrains. But as a matter of truth in fact, these words are a form of discrimination and disdainful racism, which are part of America’s historical fabric. A deeper look at the implications and origins of the term illustrate a past of indignation and racial inferiority.

The term goes back to the 1820s. Most critics argue that the use of the term originated in Baltimore, Maryland. A majority of scholars argue that the term was most likely used by African Americans. It was used as a term of abuse against local poor whites. Many of the poor whites were immigrants from Ireland, others were semi-skilled workers drawn to Baltimore and a larger group encompassed white servants, some earning wages and others indentured, working in homes and estates of rich elites. During that time, and even today, the term registers not only contempt but disgust. It suggests gripping hostilities between different social groups struggling and competing for similar resources.

These social groups fought to acquire similar job opportunities, civil rights and even marriage partners. Despite the term having its origins rooted in dissension from African Americans, it was and is middle class whites who continue to use the term, and hence it has become a part of popular American speech. It is no surprise then that here at Warren Wilson, a party centered on a white trash theme is a spirited and condoned event for most.  In 1854, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” gave meaning to the term white trash. Stowe wrote about “poor white trash,” explaining that the institution of slavery gave rise to “not only heathenish, degraded, miserable slaves, but it produces a class of white people who are, by universal admission, more heathenish, degraded and miserable.”

In addition, Stowe argued that the demeanor was due to the concentration of productive soils and lands in the hands of rich, large scale planters. As a result, the majority of ordinary whites struggled to make a living through subsistence farming with limited land and predominantly infertile soils. Furthermore, without compulsory education, moral direction and religious influence, the majority of ordinary whites grew up idle, ostracized, alienated and poor. They were viewed as the neighborhood pests, pitied and ridiculed by the slaves.

It was not until the 1890s that America witnessed a eugenics movement that literally sought to produce a more superior offspring or race. Much was the same idea during the Nazi regime in Germany where they sought to prevent individuals from producing who they viewed as unfit for sexual reproduction. In America at the time, the movement did not seek to sterilize immigrants, who had undergone criticism about their threat to the white American race, neither did it believe them unfit to sexually reproduce, No! The center of the eugenics research focused on poor rural whites. Many of the studies took place in the Eastern and Midwest America. Some of the areas of study were upstate New York, Virginia and Ohio. The poor whites were viewed as having high rates of criminal activity, prone to violence and increased promiscuity amongst the women.

Indeed, the movement instilled such deep hysteria within society that in 1921, fifteen states passed legislation in favor of enforced eugenic research. Many of the people subject to research belonged to the popular class we term as white trash. Similarly, other people who underwent the operations were considered “feebleminded,” today they are the psychologically challenged. Nevertheless, a significant number of the people were men and women whose only mistake was that they belonged to a group termed white trash.

Elsewhere, the most controversial court trial concerned with eugenics sterilization was in 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court case Buck v Bell. Carrie Buck had been committed to the Virginia colony for Epileptics. She had given birth out of wedlock. Buck was judged to be feeble minded and her new born daughter was seen the same way. Following, the court argued that her feeble minded nature and promiscuity would lead to the birth of more feeble minded children who would serve as liabilities to the state. H.H Laughlin, a leading supporter of eugenics sterilization at the time gave his opinion and without ever meeting Buck argued that she was “part of the shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South.” But the truth was that Buck was not feeble minded at all, she had become pregnant after her father raped her.

These adverse connotations to the term white trash still linger and are of great significance today. More apparent today are grotesque and divisive comments about trailer trash women and incest that demean, dehumanize and abuse poor whites. Moreover, the stigma is continuously perpetuated by middle class Americans who are either oblivious to the deep rooted prejudices or simply refuse to acknowledge them. Notwithstanding, the disgrace of the white trash speech remains uncontested and widely accepted. It would serve us well to consider its historical undertones.


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