Things are getting complicated. In the same week that a black man clinched the Democratic nomination for president, the current white, Republican vice president was forced to apologize for making a crack that played on the myth that poor white folks like having sex with their cousins.
It probably wouldn't have been a big deal had Dick Cheney not singled out West Virginia, the bluest of the red states. He was talking about having Cheneys on both sides of his family and, he said, "We don't even live in West Virginia." As film director John Waters said in 1994, talking trash about "white trash" is "the last racist thing you can say and get away with." After all, there's no political action committee for hillbillies. (And no, the National Rifle Association doesn't count.)
It turns out that West Virginia officials did protest the vice president's remarks. U.S. Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd lamented Cheney's evident "contempt and astounding ignorance toward his own countrymen." But he and other politicians were clearly more offended by the targeting of their state than with the fact that Cheney was propagating the old canard that poor white Southerners were biologically tainted by inbreeding. That a generally humorless vice president would dare make such a joke in an election year shows how acceptable it really is to disparage lower-class whites from the South and beyond. But why?
Think of it this way: If a black politician made fun of poor blacks, or a Latino official made fun of poor Latinos, he'd likely be roundly denounced as a sellout. Indeed, politicians and all other upper-middle-class Latinos and blacks are generally assumed to bear a responsibility to improve the lot of the most downtrodden among them. So why do privileged white people like Cheney have greater license to distance themselves from poor whites? Aren't they also responsible for helping to lift their brothers and sisters up the socioeconomic ladder?
The term "white trash" seems to have emerged in the 1820s in Baltimore. It was slang, used by both free and enslaved blacks, to put down the poor whites with whom they sometimes found themselves in economic competition. Middle-class and elite whites then borrowed and popularized the term for their own purposes, one of which was to solidify their racial dominance.
That process started with the ideology of black inferiority, which emerged as a justification for slavery, and the concomitant ideology of white supremacy. In pre-Civil War Southern society, the presence of poor, uneducated and uncouth whites presented something of a problem for the advocates of slavery: They were living proof that whiteness and superiority were not the same.
By the 1850s, poor whites found themselves caught in the debate over slavery. In 1854, abolitionist author Harriet Beecher Stowe posited that "white trash" were the victims and byproducts of slavery, in which the planter class monopolized tillable soil and left poor whites struggling to survive. For their part, proslavery advocates retorted that the source of the white underclass was not slavery but the tainted blood that ran through these depraved people's veins.
In other words, in order to maintain the idea of white supremacy, white elites had to de-racialize their poor — remove them from the group. They were "white" in skin color only. Just as the one-drop rule — which held that any person with any amount of African blood would be considered black — kept the white racial category "pure," so did the creation and disowning of "inferior" whites. "The term 'white trash' gave a name to people who were giving 'whiteness' a bad name," said Matt Wray, a Temple University sociologist and the author of Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness. "It meant that they were behaving in ways that didn't suggest that they were the master race."
By the turn of the last century, eugenicists were studying poor rural whites and documenting their social dysfunctions. They eventually made the fatuous connection between Southern white poverty and "consanguinity," or shared blood — which meant incest. The accusation stuck, and many poor whites were labeled feeble-minded and became the victims of the forced-sterilization programs that began in the 1920s.
Cheney was probably not fully aware of the whole sordid history he conjured. But his casual joke suggests not only that political correctness does not apply to all groups equally but that there are corrosive, nonracial social divisions in this nation that are easily ignored and even tolerated. For too long, we've spoken of social tensions almost exclusively in terms of race. Perhaps the nomination of a black man for president will let that story line fade so that we can finally focus on the ever-present, easy-to-miss issues of class.
Gregory Rodriguez is director of the California Fellows Program at the New America Foundation. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.