White trash

White trash is a derogatory racial and class-related slur[1][2] used in American English to refer to poor white people, especially in the rural southern United States. The label signifies a social class inside the white population and especially a degraded standard of living.[3] It is used as a way to separate the "noble and hardworking" "good poor" from the lazy, "undisciplined, ungrateful and disgusting" "bad poor". Use of the term provides for middle- and upper-class whites a means of distancing themselves from the poverty and powerlessness of poor whites, members of a privileged class – whites – who cannot enjoy those privileges.[1]

Outdoor scene of a man and woman seated on chairs in front of a group of ten children of varying ages, barefoot and wearing simple clothing
This poor white family from Alabama was presented in 1913 as "celebrities" because they had escaped the debilitating effects of hookworm disease, which, along with pellagra was endemic among poor Southern whites due to poor sanitation and the phenomenon of "clay eating" (geophagia).

The term has been adopted for people living on the fringes of the social order, who are seen as dangerous because they may be criminal, unpredictable, and without respect for political, legal, or moral authority.[4] While the term is mostly used pejoratively by urban and middle-class whites as a class signifier,[5] some white entertainers self-identify as "white trash", considering it a badge of honor, and celebrate the stereotypes and social marginalization of lower-class whiteness.[1][6][7][8]

In common usage, "white trash" overlaps in meaning with "cracker", used of people in the backcountry of the Southern states; "hillbilly", regarding poor people from Appalachia; "Okie" regarding those with origins in Oklahoma; and "redneck", regarding rural origins; especially in the South.[9] The primary difference is that "redneck", "cracker", "Okie", and "hillbilly" emphasize that a person is poor and uneducated and comes from the backwoods with little awareness of and interaction with the modern world, while "white trash" – and the modern term "trailer trash" – emphasizes the person's supposed moral failings, without regard to the setting of their upbringing. While the other terms suggest rural origins, "white trash" and "trailer trash" may be urban or suburban.[10]

Scholars from the late 19th to the early 21st century explored generations of families who were considered "disreputable", such as the Jukes family and the Kallikak family, both pseudonyms for real families.[11]


The expression "white trash" probably originated in the slang used by enslaved African Americans, in the early decades of the 1800s, and was quickly used by richer white people who used the term to stigmatize the kind of whites they considered to be inferior.[12] "Poor white trash", then, is the term for the "bad poor", not the romanticized "noble and hardworking" good poor"[1] Nancy Isenberg compiled a long list of derisive names that have been used to refer to poor whites:

Waste people. Offscourings. Lubbers. Bogtrotters. Rascals. Rubbish. Squatters. Crackers. Clay-eaters. Tuckies. Mudsills. Scalawags. Briar hoppers. Hillbillies. Low-downers. White niggers. Degenerates. White trash. Rednecks. Trailer trash. Swamp people.[13]

Description and causesEdit

In the popular imagination of the mid-19th century, "poor white trash" were a "curious" breed of degenerate, gaunt, haggard people who suffered from numerous physical and social defects. They were dirty, callow, ragged, cadaverous, leathery, and emaciated, and had feeble children with distended abdomens who were wrinkled and withered and looked aged beyond their physical years, so that even 10-year-olds' "countenances are stupid and heavy and they often become dropsical and loathsome to sight," according to a New Hampshire schoolteacher. The skin of a poor white Southerner had a "ghastly yellowish-white" tinge to it, like "yellow parchment", and was waxy looking, or they were so white they almost appeared to be albinos. They were listless and slothful, did not properly care for their children, and were addicted to alcohol. They were looked on with contempt by upper-class Southerners.[14]

Harriet Beecher Stowe described a white trash woman and her children in Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, published in 1856:

Crouched on a pile of dirty straw, sat a miserable haggard woman, with large, wild eyes, sunken cheeks, disheveled matted hair, and long, lean hands, like a bird's claws. At her skinny breast an emaciated infant was hanging, pushing, with its little skeleton hands, as if to force nourishment which nature no longer gave; and two scared-looking children, with features wasted and pinched blue with famine, were clinging to her gown. The whole group huddled together, drawing as far away as possible from the new comer [sic], looking up with large, frightened eyes, like hunted wild animals.[15]

Poor white trash were generally only able to locate themselves on the worst land in the South, since the best land was taken by the slaveholders, large and small. They lived and attempted to survive on land that was sandy or swampy or covered in scrub pine and not suited for agriculture; for this, they became known as "sandhillers" and "pineys".[16] These "hard-scratch" inhabitants were seen to match their surroundings: they were "stony, stumpy, and shrubby, as the land they lived on."[17]

Restricted from holding political office due to property qualifications, their ability to vote at the mercy of the courts, which were controlled by the slave-holding planters, poor whites had few advocates within the political system or the dominant social hierarchy. Although many were tenant farmers or day laborers, other white trash people were forced to live as scavengers, thieves and vagrants, but all, employed or not, were socially ostracized by "proper" white society by being forced to use the back door when entering "proper" homes. Even slaves looked down on them: when poor whites came begging for food, the slaves called them "stray goats."[18]

Northerners claimed that the existence of white trash was the result of the system of slavery in the South, while Southerners worried that these clearly inferior whites would upset the "natural" class system which held that all whites were superior to all other races, especially blacks. People of both regions expressed concern that if the number of white trash people increased significantly, they would threaten the Jeffersonian ideal of a population of educated white freemen as the basis of a robust American democracy.[19]

In his classic study, Democracy in America (1835), French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville sees the state of poor white southerners as being one of the effects of the slave system. He describes them as ignorant, idle, prideful, self-indulgent, and weak, and writes about southern whites in general:

From birth, the southern American is invested with a kind of domestic dictatorship ... and the first habit he learns is that of effortless domination ... [which turns] the southern American into a haughty, hasty, irascible, violent man, passionate in his desires and irritated by obstacles. But he is easily discouraged if he fails to succeed at his first attempt.[20]

Another theory held that the degraded condition of poor white southerners was the result of their living in such close proximity to blacks and Native Americans. Samuel Stanhope Smith, a minister and educator who was the seventh president of Princeton College, wrote in 1810 that poor white southerners lived in "a state of absolute savagism," which caused them to resemble Indians in the color of their skin and their clothing, a belief that was endemic in the 18th and early 19th century. Smith saw them as a stumbling block in the evolution of mainstream American whites,[21] a view that had previously been expressed by Michel-Guillaume-Jean de Crèvecoeur in his 1782 book, Letters from an American Farmer. Crèvecoeur, a French soldier-diplomat who resettled in the United States and changed his name to J. Hector St. John, considered poor white southerners to be "not ... a very pleasing spectacle" and inferior to the prototypical American he celebrated in his book, but still hopes that the effects of progress would improve the condition of these mongrelized, untamed, half-savage drunken people who exhibit "the most hideous parts of our society."[22]

For Ralph Waldo Emerson, the transcendentalist and pre-eminent American lecturer, writer and philosopher of the mid-nineteenth century, poor people of all kinds – including poor white Southerners – lived in poverty because of inherent traits in their nature. The poor were "ferried over the Atlantic & carted to America to ditch & to drudge, to make the land fertile ... and then to lie down prematurely to make a spot of greener grass..." These people Emerson referred to as "guano" were fated to inhabit the lowest niches of society, and he specifically excluded them from his definition of what an American was. Emerson's "American" was of Saxon heritage, descended from the Danes, Norsemen, Saxons and Anglo-Saxons, known for their "excess of virility", their "beastly ferocity", and – at least in Emerson's eyes – their beauty. These were not traits which were shared by the poor white Southerner. Americans may have degenerated somewhat in comparison to their ancestors, one of the weakening effects of civilization, but they still maintained their superiority over other "races", and white Southerners of all kinds, but especially poor ones, were themselves inferior to their countrymen from New England and the north.[23]

Some, such as Theodore Roosevelt, saw poor "degenerate" whites – as well as the mass of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe (those from northern Europe having been accepted in the Anglo-Saxon white race) – as being a major part of the problem of "race suicide", the concept that poor whites and unwanted immigrants would eventually out-procreate those of the dominant and superior white "race", causing it to die out or be supplanted, to the detriment of the country.[24]

According to Allyson Drinkard, in modern American society, to be considered "white trash" is different from simply being poor and white. The term

...conjures up images of trailer parks, cars on blocks, drug and alcohol abuse, family violence, neglected children, stupid adults, fist fighting, loud and abrasive language, poor dental and physical health, garishness, promiscuous women, rebel flag regalia, incest, and inbreeding.[1]

As a racial slurEdit

In the journal Critique of Anthropology, J. Z. Wilson argues that the term "white trash" "stands as a form of racism",[25] and Annalee Newitz and Matthew Wray, writing in The Minnesota Review consider it a instance of "Yoking a classist epithet to a racist one."[26] It is described as a "racial slur" by Lucas Lynch,[27] and filmmaker John Waters considered it "last racist thing you can say and get away with."[28][29] In 2020, Reader's Digest included "white trash" on its list of "12 Everyday Expressions That Are Actually Racist".[30]


Beginning in the early 17th century, the City of London shipped their unwanted excess population, including vagrant children, to the American colonies – especially the Colony of Virginia, the Province of Maryland, and the Province of Pennsylvania – where they became not apprentices, as the children had been told, but indentured servants, especially working in the fields. Even before the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade brought Africans to the British colonies in 1619, this influx of "transported" English, Welsh, Scots, and Irish was a crucial part of the American workforce. The Virginia Company also imported boatloads of poor women to be sold as brides. The numbers of these all-but-slaves was significant: by the middle of the 17th century, at a time when the population of Virginia was 11,000, only 300 were Africans, who were outnumbered by English, Irish and Scots indentured servants. In New England, one-fifth of the Puritans were indentured servants. More indentured servants were sent to the colonies as a result of insurrections in Ireland. Oliver Cromwell sent hundreds of Irish Catholics to British North America during the Irish Confederate Wars (1641–1653).[31]

In 1717, the Parliament of Great Britain passed the Transportation Act 1717, which allowed for the penal transportation of tens of thousands of convicts to North America, in order to alleviate overcrowding in British prisons. By the time penal transportation ceased during the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), some 50,000 people had been transported to the New World under the law. When the American market closed to them, the convicts were then sent to Australia. In total, 300,000 to 400,000 people were shipped to the North American colonies as unfree laborers, between 1/2 and 2/3 of all white immigrants.[31]

The British conceived of the American colonies as a "wasteland", and a place to dump their underclass.[32] The people they sent there were "waste people", the "scum and dregs" of society. The term "waste people" gave way to "squatters" and "crackers", used to describe the settlers who populated the Western frontier of the United States and the backcountry of some southern states, but who did not have title to the land they settled on, and had little or no access to education or religious training.[1][33] "Cracker" was especially used in the south.

The first use of "white trash" in print to describe this population occurred in 1821.[34] It came into common use in the 1830s as a pejorative used by house slaves against poor whites. In 1833, Fanny Kemble, an English actress visiting Georgia, noted in her journal: "The slaves themselves entertain the very highest contempt for white servants, whom they designate as 'poor white trash'".[35][36]

The term achieved widespread popularity in the 1850s,[34] and by 1855, it had passed into common usage by upper-class whites, and was common usage among all Southerners, regardless of race, throughout the rest of the 19th century.[37]

In 1854, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the chapter "Poor White Trash" in her book A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin. Stowe wrote that slavery not only produces "degraded, miserable slaves", but also poor whites who are even more degraded and miserable. The plantation system forced those whites to struggle for subsistence. Beyond economic factors, Stowe traces this class to the shortage of schools and churches in their community, and says that both blacks and whites in the area look down on these "poor white trash".[38] In Stowe's second novel Dred, she describes the poor white inhabitants of that swamp, which formed much of the border between Virginia and North Carolina, as an ignorant, degenerate and immoral class of people prone to criminality.[39] Hinton Rowan Helper's extremely influential 1857 book The Impending Crisis of the South – which sold 140,000 copies and was considered to be the most important book of the 19th century by many people – describes the region's poor Caucasians as a class oppressed by the effects of slavery, a people of lesser physical stature who would be driven to extinction by the South's "cesspool of degradation and ignorance."[40]

Jeffrey Glossner of the University of Mississippi writes:

Continued work is needed to understand the material reality of the lives of poor whites and how they influenced surrounding social and political structures. Finding the ways in which their influence radiated through southern society can give us an image of the poor whites that is lost in the biased accounts handed down by elite contemporaries. The social and cultural history of this period, moreover, needs to be further integrated to disentangle image-making from social reality and show the place of poor whites in the South. ... While their voices are often unheard, we can gauge the broader importance of their presence through the social, political, and cultural developments of the period.[41]

The Brandeis University historian David Hackett Fischer makes a case for an enduring genetic basis for a "willingness to resort to violence" (citing especially the finding of high blood levels of testosterone) in the four main chapters of his book Albion's Seed.[42] He proposes that a Mid-Atlantic state, Southern and Western propensity for violence is inheritable by genetic changes wrought over generations living in traditional herding societies in Northern England, the Scottish Borders, and Irish Border Region. He proposes that this propensity has been transferred to other ethnic groups by shared culture, whence it can be traced to different urban populations of the United States.[43]

During the Civil WarEdit

During the Civil War, the Confederacy instituted conscription to raise soldiers for its army, with all men between the ages of 18 and 35 being eligible to be drafted – later expanded to all men between 17 and 50. However, exemptions were numerous, including any slave-owner with more than 20 slaves, political officeholders, teachers, ministers and clerks, and men who worked in valuable trades. Left to be drafted, or to serve as paid substitutes, were poor white trash Southerners, who were looked down on as cannon fodder. Conscripts who failed to report for duty were hunted down by so-called "dog catchers". Poor southerners said that it was a "rich man's war", but "a poor man's fight." While upper-class Southern "cavalier" officers were granted frequent furloughs to return home, this was not the case with the ordinary private soldier, which led to an extremely high rate of desertion among this group, who put their families well-being above the cause of the Confederacy, and thought of themselves as "Conditional Confederates." Deserters harassed soldiers, raided farms and stole food, and sometimes banded together in settlements, such as the "Free State of Jones" (formerly Jones County) in Mississippi; desertion was openly joked about. When found, deserters could be executed, or humiliated by being put into chains.[44]

Despite the war being fought to protect the right of the patrician elite of the South to own slaves, the planter class was reluctant to give up their cash crop, cotton, to grow the corn and grain needed by the Confederate armies and the civilian population. As a result, food shortages, exacerbated by inflation and hoarding of foodstuffs by the rich, caused the poor of the South to suffer greatly. This led to food riots of angry mobs of poor women, who raided stores, warehouses and depots looking for sustenance for their families. Both the male deserters and the female rioters put the lie to the myth of Confederate unity, and that the war was being fought for the rights of all white Southerners.[45]

Ideologically, the Confederacy claimed that the system of slavery in the South was superior to the class divisions of the North, because while the South devolved all its degrading labor onto what it saw as an inferior race, the black slaves, the North did so to its own "brothers in blood", the white working class. This the leaders and intellectuals of the Confederacy called "mudsill" democracy, and lauded the superiority of the pure-blooded Southern slave-owning "cavaliers" – who were worth five Northerners in a fight – over the sullied Anglo-Saxon upper class of the North.[46] For its part, some of the military leaders of the North, especially Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, recognized that their fight was not only to liberate slaves, but also the poor white Southerners who were oppressed by the system of slavery. Thus they took steps to exploit the class divisions between the "white trash" population and plantation owners. An Army chaplain wrote in a letter to his wife after the Union siege of Petersburg, Virginia that winning the war would not only result in the end of American slavery, but would also increase opportunities for "poor white trash." He said that the war would "knock off the shackles of millions of poor whites, whose bondage was really worse than that African." In these respects, the Civil War was in large part a class war.[47]

During ReconstructionEdit

After the war, President Andrew Johnson's first idea for the reconstruction of the South was not to take steps to create an egalitarian democracy. Instead, he envisioned what was essentially a "white trash republic", in which the aristocracy would maintain their property holdings and an amount of social power, but be disenfranchised until they could show their loyalty to the Union. The freed blacks would no longer be slaves, but would still be denied essential rights of citizenship and would make up the lowest rung on the social ladder. In between would be the poor white Southerner, the white trash, who while occupying a lesser social position, would essentially become the masters of the South, voting and occupying political offices, and maintaining a superior status to the free blacks and freed slaves. Emancipated from the inequities of the plantation system, poor white trash would become the bulwark of Johnson's rebuilding of the South and its restoration into the Union.[48]

Johnson's plan was never put into effect, and the Freedmen's Bureau – which was created in 1865, before President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated – was authorized to help "all refugees and all freedmen", black and white alike. The agency did this despite Johnson's basic lack of concern for the freed slaves the war had supposedly been fought over. But even though they provided relief to them, the Bureau did not accept Johnson's vision of poor whites as the loyal and honorable foundation of a reconstructed South. Northern journalists and other observers maintained that poor white trash, who were now destitute refugees, "beggars, dependents, houseless and homeless wanderers", were still victimized by poverty and vagrancy. They were "loafers" dressed in rags and covered in filth who did no work, but accepted government relief handouts. They were seen as only slightly more intelligent than blacks. One observer, James R. Gilmore, a cotton merchant and novelist who had traveled throughout the South, wrote the book Down in Tennessee, published in 1864, in which he differentiated poor whites into two groups, "mean whites" and "common whites". While the former were thieves, loafers, and brutes, the latter were law-abiding citizens who were enterprising and productive. It was the "mean" minority who gave white trash their bad name and character.[49]

A number of commentators noted that poor white Southerners did not compare favorably to freed blacks, who were described as "capable, thrifty, and loyal to the Union." Marcus Sterling, a Freedmen's Bureau agent and a former Union officer, said that the "pitiable class of poor whites" were "the only class which seem almost unaffected by the [bureau's] great benevolence and its bold reform", while in contrast black freedmen had become "more settled, industrious and ambitious," eager to learn how to read and improve themselves. Sidney Andrews saw in black a "shrewd instinct for preservation" which poor whites did not have, and Whitelaw Reid, a politician and newspaper editor from Ohio, thought that black children appeared eager to learn. Atlantic Monthly went so far as to suggest that government policy should switch from "disenfranchis[ing] the humble, quiet, hardworking Negro" and cease to provide help to the "worthless barbarian", the "ignorant, illiterate, and vicious" white trash population.[50]

So, during the Reconstruction Era, white trash were no longer seen simply as a freakish, degenerate breed who lived almost invisibly in the backcountry wilderness, the war had brought them out of the darkness into the mainstream of society, where they developed the reputation of being a dangerous class of criminals, vagrants and delinquents, lacking intelligence, unable to speak properly, the "Homo genus without the sapien", an evolutionary dead end in the Social Darwinist thinking of the time. Plus, they were immoral, breaking all social codes and sexual norms, engaging in incest and prostitution, pimping out family members, and producing numerous in-bred bastard children.[51]

Scalawags and rednecksEdit

One of the responses of Southerners and Northern Democrats after the war to Reconstruction was the invention of the myth[dubious ] of the "carpetbaggers", those Northern Republican scoundrels and adventurers who invaded the South to take advantage of its people,[tone] but less well known is that of the "scalawags", those Southern white who betrayed their race by supporting the Republican Party and Reconstruction. The scalawag, even if they came from a higher social class, was often described as having a "white trash heart". They were accused of easily mingling with blacks, inviting them to dine in their homes, and inciting them by encouraging them to seek social equality. The Democrats retaliated with Autobiography of a Scalawag, a parody of the standard "self-made man" story, in which a white trash southerner with no innate ambition nevertheless is raised to a position of middling power just by being in the right place at the right time or by lying and cheating.[52]

Around 1890, the term "redneck" began to be widely used for poor white southerners, especially those racist followers of the Democratic demagogues of the time. Rednecks were found working in the mills, living deep in the swamps, heckling at Republican rallies, and were even occasionally elected to be a state legislator. Such was the case with Guy Rencher, who claimed that "redneck" came from his own "long red neck".[53]


Also around 1890, the American eugenics movement turned its attention to poor white trash. They were stigmatized as being feeble-minded and promiscuous, having incestuous and inter-racial sex, and abandoning or mistreating the children of those unions. Eugenicists campaigned successfully for laws which would allow rural whites fitting these descriptions to be involuntarily sterilized by the state, in order to "cleanse" society of faulty genetic heritages.[1]

In 1907, Indiana passed the first eugenics-based compulsory sterilization law in the world. Thirty U.S. states would soon follow their lead.[54][55] Although the law was overturned by the Indiana Supreme Court in 1921,[56] in the 1927 case Buck v. Bell, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Virginia Sterilization Act of 1924, allowing for the compulsory sterilization of patients of state mental institutions.[57]

The DepressionEdit

Dorothea Lange's 1936 photograph of Florence Thompson, a migrant worker in California during the Great Depression, along with three of her children. The photo is known as Migrant Mother

The beginning of the 20th century brought no change of status for poor white southerners, especially after the onset of the Great Depression. The condition of this class was presented to the public in Margaret Bourke-White's photographic series for Life magazine, and the work of other photographers made for Roy Stryker's Historical Section of the federal Resettlement Agency. Author James Agee wrote about them in his ground-breaking work Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), as did Jonathan Daniels in A Southerner Discovers the South (1938).[58]

A number of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal agencies tried to help the rural poor to better themselves and to break through the social barriers of Southern society which held them back, reinstating the American Dream of upward mobility. Programs such as those of the Subsistence Homesteads Division of the Department of the Interior; its successor, the Resettlement Administration, whose express purpose was to help the poor in rural areas; and its replacement, the Farm Security Administration which aimed to break the cycle of tenant farming and sharecropping and help poor whites and black to own their own farms, and to initiate the creation of the communities necessary to support those farms. The agencies also provided services for migrant workers, such as the Arkies and Okies, who had been devastated by the Dust Bowl – the condition of which was well-documented by photographer Dorothea Lange in An American Exodus (1939) – and been forced to take to the road, jamming all their belongings into Ford motorcars and heading west toward California.[58]

Important in the devising and running of these programs were politicians and bureaucrats such as Henry Wallace, the Secretary of Agriculture; Milburn Lincoln Wilson, the first head of the Subsistence Homesteads Division, who was a social scientist and an agricultural expert; and Rexford G. Tugwell, a Columbia University economics professor who managed to be appointed the first head of the Resettlement Agency, despite refusing to present himself with a "homely, democratic manner" in his confirmation hearings. Tugwell understood that the status of tenant farmers would not change if they could not vote, so he campaigned against poll tax, which prevented them voting, since they could not afford to pay it. His agency's goals were the four "R's": "retirement of bad land, relocation of rural poor, resettlement of the unemployed in suburban communities, and rehabilitation of farm families."[58]

Other individuals important in the fight to help the rural poor were Arthur Raper, an expert on tenancy farming, whose study Preface to Peasantry (1936) explained why the south's system held back the region's poor and caused them to migrate; and Howard Odum, a University of North Carolina sociologist and psychologist who founded the journal Social Forces, and worked closely with the Federal government. Odum wrote the 600-page masterwork Southern Regions of the United States, which became a guidebook for the New Deal. Journalist Gerald W. Johnson translated Odum's ideas in the book into a popular volume, The Wasted Land. It was Odum who, in 1938, mailed questionnaires to academics to determine their views on what "poor white" meant to them. The results were in many ways indistinguishable from the popular views of "white trash" that had been held for many decades, since the words that came back all indicated serious character flaws in poor whites: "purposeless, hand to mouth, lazy, unambitious, no account, no desire to improve themselves, inertia", but, most often, "shiftless". Despite the passage of time, poor whites were still seen as white trash, a breed apart, a class partway between blacks and whites, whose shiftless ways may have even originated from their proximity to blacks.[58]

"Trailer trash"Edit

Trailers got their start in the 1930s, and their use proliferated during the housing shortage of World War II, when the Federal government used as many as 30,000 of them to house defense workers, soldiers and sailors throughout the country, but especially around areas with a large military or defense presence, such as Mobile, Alabama and Pascagoula, Mississippi. In her book Journey Through Chaos, reporter Agnes Meyer of The Washington Post travelled throughout the country, reporting on the condition of the "neglected rural areas", and described the people who lived in the trailers, tents and shacks in such areas as malnourished, unable to read or write, and generally ragged. The workers who came to Mobile and Pascagoula to work in the shipyards there were from the backwoods of the South, "subnormal swamp and mountain folk" whom the locals described as "vermin"; elsewhere, they were called "squatters". They were accused of having loose morals, high illegitimacy rates, and of allowing prostitution to thrive in their "Hillbilly Havens". The trailers themselves – sometimes purchased second- or third-hand – were often unsightly, unsanitary and dilapidated, causing communities to zone them away from the more desirable areas, which meant away from schools, stores, and other necessary facilities, often literally on the other side of the railroad tracks.[59]

In the mid-20th century, poor whites who could not afford to buy suburban-style tract housing began to purchase mobile homes, which were not only cheaper, but which could be easily relocated if work in one location ran out. These – sometimes by choice and sometimes through local zoning laws – gathered in trailer camps, and the people who lived in them became known as "trailer trash". Despite many of them having jobs, albeit sometimes itinerant ones, the character flaws that had been perceived in poor white trash in the past were transferred to so-called "trailer trash", and trailer camps or parks were seen as being inhabited by retired persons, migrant workers, and, generally, the poor. By 1968, a survey found that only 13% of those who owned and lived in mobile homes had white collar jobs.[59]


Allyson Drinkard, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice/Sociology, writes that as economic inequality continues to grow in the United States, the number of poor white people in both rural and urban areas will continue to grow. At the same time, as white privilege declines in general and minorities continue to hold a growing percentage of jobs in a declining job market, the poor white segment of the population will continue to be caught in the paradox of being a part of a privileged class, but without being able to benefit from their supposed privilege. Being white will no longer enable them to get and hold a good job, or to earn a suitable income. Poor white people, like other oppressed minorities, are born trapped in poverty, and – again, like other minorities – are blamed for their predicament, and for not being able to "raise themselves" out of their social conditions and economic status. Meanwhile, upper- and middle-class whites will continue to label them as "white trash" in order to solidify their feeling of superiority by making sure that "white trash" people are seen as outsiders.[1]

Nancy Isenberg, author of White Trash: The 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America, says that

White trash is a central, if disturbing, thread in our national narrative. The very existence of such people – both in their visibility and invisibilty – is proof that American society obsesses mutable labels we give to the neighbors we wish not to notice. "They are not who we are." But they are who we are and have been a fundamental part of our history, whether we like it or not.[60]

In popular cultureEdit

White popular cultureEdit

American pop culture connects both drinking and violence to being a white, poor, rural man.[61]

Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1854 book A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin contains a chapter entitled "Poor White Trash". Stowe wrote slavery produced “a poor white population as degraded and brutal as ever existed in any of the most crowded districts of Europe.” She further expressed that this “inconceivably brutal” group of whites resemble “some blind, savage monster, which, when aroused, tramples heedlessly over everything in its way.”[62]

White supremacist Daniel R. Hundley's 1860 book Social Relations in Our Southern States includes a chapter entitled "White Trash". He used the supposed existence of poor whites with bad blood to argue that genetics and not societal structure was the problem, and that therefore slavery was justified. He called white trash the "laziest two-legged animals that walk erect on the face of the Earth", describing their appearance as "lank, lean, angular, and bony, with ... sallow complexion, awkward manners, and a natural stupidity or dullness of intellect that almost surpasses belief."[62]George Bernard Shaw uses the term in his 1909 play The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet, set in the wild American west. The prostitute Feemy says to Blanco "I'll hang you, you dirty horse-thief; or not a man in this camp will ever get a word or a look from me again. You're just trash: that's what you are. White trash."

Ernest Matthew Mickler's White Trash Cooking (1986), based on the cooking of rural white Southerners, enjoyed an unanticipated rise to popularity.[63][64][65] Sherrie A. Inness writes that authors such as Mickler use humor to convey the experience of living on the margins of white society, and to expand the definition of American culinary history beyond upper-class traditions based on European cooking.[66]

By the 1980s, fiction was being published by Southern authors who identified as having redneck or white trash origins, such as Harry Crews, Dorothy Allison, Larry Brown, and Tim McLaurin.[67] Autobiographies sometimes mention white trash origins. Gay rights activist Amber L. Hollibaugh wrote, "I grew up a mixed-race, white-trash girl in a country that considered me dangerous, corrupt, fascinating, exotic. I responded to the challenge by becoming that alarming, hazardous, sexually disruptive woman."[68]

Dolly Parton regularly referred to herself as white trash telling Southern Living "White trash! I am. People always say, 'Aren't you insulted when people call you white trash?' I say, 'Well it depends on who's calling me white trash and how they mean it.' But we really were, to some degree. Because when you're that poor and you're not educated, you fall in those categories.".[69][70] Talking about her fame she said "There’s nothing like white trash at the White House!"[71][72] She cheerfully told Rolling Stone she will always remain "a white-trash person".[73]

President Jimmy Carter quoted a supporter who called him "white trash made good".[74] In his 2001 biography An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood, Carter wrote about poor white people in the 1920s and 1930s rural Georgia "For those who were lazy or dishonest, or had repulsive personal habits, 'white trash' was a greater insult than any epithet based on race."[75] People magazine lampooned a book on Carter as a "Southern white trash novel".[76]

  • 1900Evelyn Greenleaf Sutherland's play Po' White Trash, exposes complicated cultural tensions in the post-Reconstruction South, related to the social and racial status of poor whites.[77]
  • 1907 (?)O Henry's short story "Shoes" refers to the male protagonist "Pink Dawson" – which the narrator consistently confuses with "Dink Pawson" – as "Poor white trash".[78]
  • 1969 Bobbie Gentry's song "Fancy" describes the narrator's impoverished childhood as having been "born just plain white trash".[79]
  • 1986Ernest Matthew Mickler's self-deprecating cookbook White Trash Cooking contains recipes from the American Southeast.[80]
  • 2006Toby Keith released an album called White Trash with Money, which reach platinum sales levels.
  • 2010 – In the "Brown History Month" episode of the animated television series The Cleveland Show (season 1, episode 19, first broadcast on May 10, 2010), the protagonist, Cleveland Brown, a black man (who is voiced by a white actor), lives next door to Lester Krinklesac, a white man (voiced by a black actor), who has a Confederate battle flag displayed on his house. When the two come into conflict during Black History Month, Lester wears a t-shirt which says "Proud White Trash".
  • 2011 – In the Family Guy episode "Amish Guy" (episode 7, season 10, first broadcast November 27), when told that the Griffin family's car trip to Columbus, Ohio to ride a roller-coaster is their vacation, the baby Stewie asks Brian the dog "Are we trash?", to which Brian responds "Kinda".

Black popular cultureEdit

Use of "white trash" epithets has been extensively reported in African American culture.[81][82][83] Black authors have noted that blacks, when taunted by whites as "niggers", taunted back, calling them "white trash"[82] or "crackers". Some black parents taught their children that poor whites were "white trash".[84] The epithet appears in black folklore.[85] As an example, slaves would, when out of earshot of whites, refer to harsh slave owners as a "low down" man, "lower than poor white trash", or "a brute, really".[86]

See alsoEdit



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Drinkard, Allyson (2014). "'White Trash'". In Coleman, M.J.; Ganong, L.H. (eds.). The Social History of the American Family: An Encyclopedia, Volume 3. SAGE Publications. pp. 1452–3. ISBN 978-1-4522-8615-0. Simply put, people labeled as white trash are judged to be inappropriately different than 'normal whites.' The white trash slur probably originated in African American slave slang, but middle- and upperclass whites ultimately made it part of the American class structure, first as 'lubbers' then as 'crackers.'
  2. ^ Newitz, Annalee; Wray, Matthew (1996). "What is "White Trash"?: Stereotypes and Economic Conditions of Poor Whites in the U.S.". Minnesota Review. 47 (1): 57–72. ISSN 2157-4189.
  3. ^ Donnella, Leah (August 1, 2018). "Why Is It Still OK To 'Trash' Poor White People?". Code Switch. Washington, D.C.: National Public Radio. Archived from the original on May 25, 2019. Retrieved August 3, 2018.
  4. ^ Wray (2006), p. 2.
  5. ^ Hartigan (2003), pp. 97, 105.
  6. ^ Hartigan (2003), p. 107.
  7. ^ Hernandez, Leandra H. (2014). "'I was born this way': The performance and production of modern masculinity in A&E's Duck Dynasty". In Slade, A.F.; Narro, A.J.; Buchanan, B.P. (eds.). Reality Television: Oddities of Culture. Lexington Books. p. 27. ISBN 978-0-73-918564-3.
  8. ^ Carroll, Hamilton (2011). Affirmative Reaction: New Formations of White Masculinity. Duke University Press. pp. 102–103. ISBN 978-0-82-234948-8.
  9. ^ Wray (2006), p. x.
  10. ^ Wray (2006), pp. 79, 102.
  11. ^ Rafter, Nicole Hahn (1988) White Trash: The Eugenic Family Studies, 1877-1919
  12. ^ Harkins, Anthony (2012). "Hillbillies, Rednecks, Crackers and White Trash". The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. 20. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. pp. 367–370. ISBN 978-0-8078-7232-1. Retrieved August 13, 2021.
  13. ^ Isenberg (2016), p. 320.
  14. ^ Isenberg (2016), pp. 136, 146, 151–52, 167, 170.
  15. ^ Stowe, Harriet Beecher (2000) [1856]. Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press. pp.105-06. Quoted in Isenberg (2016), pp. 148–49
  16. ^ Isenberg (2016), p. 146.
  17. ^ Burton, Warren (1839) White Slavery: A New Emancipation Cause Presented to the United States. Worcester, Massachusetts. pp.168-69; quoted in Isenberg (2016), p. 146
  18. ^ Isenberg (2016), pp. 149–50.
  19. ^ Isenberg (2016), p. 136.
  20. ^ Painter (2010), pp. 126–27.
  21. ^ Painter (2010), pp. 117–18.
  22. ^ Painter (2010), pp. 107–109.
  23. ^ Painter (2010), pp. 167–74, 186–87.
  24. ^ Painter (2010), pp. 250–53.
  25. ^ Wilson, J. Z. (December 2002) "Invisible racism - The language and ontology of 'White Trash'" Critique of Anthropology v.22 n.4 pp.387-401
  26. ^ Newitz, Annalee and Wray, Matthew (Fall 1996) "What is 'White Trash'?: Stereotypes and Economic Conditions of Poor Whites in the U.S." The Minnesota Review n. 47, pp.57-72
  27. ^ Lynch, Lucas (September 12, 2018) "How the Term 'White Trash' Reinforces White Supremacy" The Society Pages
  28. ^ Lubrano, Alfred (May 22, 2017) "Is 'White Trash' finally taboo?" The Philadelphia Inquirer
  29. ^ Rodriguez, Gregory (June 10, 2008) "Why they bash 'white trash'" The Baltimore Sun
  30. ^ Helligar, Jeremy (June 17, 2020) "12 Everyday Expressions That Are Actually Racist" Reader's Digest
  31. ^ a b Painter (2010), pp. 41–42.
  32. ^ Isenberg (2016), pp. xxvi–xxvii, 17–42.
  33. ^ Isenberg (2016), pp. 105–132.
  34. ^ a b Isenberg (2016), p. 135.
  35. ^ Kemble, Fannie (1835) Journal. p. 81
  36. ^ Wray (2006) suggests that the term may have originated in the Baltimore-Washington area during the 1840s, when Irish and blacks were competing for the same jobs. (pp. 42 Archived June 24, 2016, at the Wayback Machine,p.44 Archived June 10, 2016, at the Wayback Machine). The quote from Kemble is reprinted in page 41 Archived June 11, 2016, at the Wayback Machine of the book.
  37. ^ Newitz, Annalee; Wray, Matthew (July 1, 1997). "What is White Trash?" (PDF). In Hill, Mike (ed.). Whiteness: a Critical Reader. NYU Press. p. 170.
  38. ^ Wray (2006), pp. 57–58.
  39. ^ Isenberg (2016), p. 137.
  40. ^ Helper, Hinton Rowan (1968) [1857] The Impending Crisis of the South. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press; quoted in Isenberg (2016), p. 137
  41. ^ Glossner, Jeffrey (July 12, 2019) "Poor Whites in the Antebellum U.S. South (Topical Guide)" Archived 2019-07-12 at the Wayback Machine, H-Net
  42. ^ Particularly the chapter "Borderlands to the Backcountry: The Flight from Middle Britain and Northern Ireland, 1717-1775"
  43. ^ Fischer, David Hackett, Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America, (ISBN 0-19-506905-6), Oxford University Press, 1989.
  44. ^ Isenberg (2016), pp. 159, 163–65.
  45. ^ Isenberg (2016), pp. 165–66.
  46. ^ Isenberg (2016), pp. 157–60.
  47. ^ Isenberg (2016), pp. 157–60, 172.
  48. ^ Isenberg (2016), pp. 176–78.
  49. ^ Isenberg (2016), pp. 177–80.
  50. ^ Isenberg (2016), pp. 179–80.
  51. ^ Isenberg (2016), pp. 180–81.
  52. ^ Isenberg (2016), pp. 182–86.
  53. ^ Isenberg (2016), pp. 187–90.
  54. ^ Lombardo, 2011: p. ix.
  55. ^ Indiana Supreme Court Legal History Lecture Series, "Three Generations of Imbeciles are Enough:"Reflections on 100 Years of Eugenics in Indiana, at In.gov Archived August 13, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  56. ^ Williams v. Smith, 131 NE 2 (Ind.), 1921, text at Archived October 1, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  57. ^ Larson 2004, pp. 194–195 Citing Buck v. Bell 274 U.S. 200, 205 (1927)
  58. ^ a b c d Isenberg (2016), pp. 206–230.
  59. ^ a b Isenberg (2016), pp. 240–247.
  60. ^ Isenberg (2016), p. 321.
  61. ^ Jason T. Eastman and Douglas P. Schrock, "Southern Rock Musicians' Construction of White Trash" Archived December 4, 2018, at the Wayback Machine, Race, Gender & Class, Vol. 15, No. 1/2 (2008), pp. 205-219
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  63. ^ McDowell, Edwin (September 22, 1986). "Popular Cookbook Celebrates Down-Home Fare". The New York Times. Archived from the original on March 6, 2019. Retrieved March 4, 2019.
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  65. ^ Smith, Dina (2004). "Cultural Studies' Misfit: White Trash Studies". The Mississippi Quarterly. 57 (3): 369–388. ISSN 0026-637X. JSTOR 26466979.
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Further reading

External linksEdit