Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness.
In this compelling study, sociologist Matt Wray explores a seemingly paradoxical matter: If "whiteness" has historically been associated with racial superiority, how was it that some white people were degraded as "white trash"? Wray contends that the stereotype of the poor, rural white played a central role in shaping definitions of white, middle-class American identity. A significant body of scholarship has, of course, already forwarded a similar argument with regard to European immigrants, but most of these studies have involved foreign-born populations living in urban centers of the United States. Wray shows that discussions about the meaning of "whiteness" occurred in the rural South, as well. In fact, Wray claims that concerns over "poor white trash" sometimes eclipsed the immigration problem when thinking about "whiteness." Stereotypes of a lazy and degenerate class of rural white people represented a sharp distinction from the idealized image of a republic of small land-holding farmers.
Wray's analysis centers on what he calls "stigmatypes." He uses the term to refer to stereotypes or boundary terms, such as "poor white trash," that negatively characterized particular groups. With this theoretical framework, Not Quite White traces the development of the notion of "poor white trash" in the United States from the 1720s to the 1920s. During the eighteenth century, the terms "lubber" and "cracker" were used more often. The "lubber" was a poor white person who literally lived on the margins of society, adapting a nomadic existence in frontier border lands and challenging standards of morality. "Cracker" described a more threatening character, a criminal figure that evoked anxiety from other colonists. The phrase "poor white trash" eventually emerged during the nineteenth century. Abolitionists and proslavery apologists both adapted its usage, although each identified different causes for the substandard conditions of poor whites in the South. Abolitionists argued that the slave system degraded nonslaveholding whites by impairing their ability to find work at livable wages. Proslavery secessionists contended that white poverty was a result not of the social system but "bad blood." Being naturally inferior, poor whites did not deserve the privileges of democratic self-governance.
The strongest part of Wray's study involves his analysis of the ways in which notions of "poor white trash" gained national meaning at the turn of the twentieth century. Terms like "lubber" and "cracker" had differentiated society before 1900, but their significance was largely confined to the South. This changed as a result of the slavery debates during the nineteenth century and medical campaigns in the early twentieth century. During the Progressive Era, the eugenics movement and the crusade to eradicate hookworm disease made "poor white trash" a national concern. Wray shows the considerable power that public health policy had on the construction of social boundaries at this time. In addition, he draws an insightful parallel between the slavery debates and the two scientific efforts of the twentieth century. Eugenicists traced white poverty, as proslavery apologists had, to hereditary causes. The weakened racial stock of whites in the rural South demanded control of their reproductive habits. Hookworm crusaders, on the other hand, more closely resembled the abolitionist focus on environmental causes. They traced white poverty to the dehabilitating effects of the hookworm disease. Because hookworm was a curable disease, there remained hope for the social improvement of poor whites.
Wray's research incorporates newspapers, diaries, literary fiction, social scientific tracts, and public health campaign publications. From these sources, he develops an interdisciplinary analysis that involves American history, sociology, literary theory, history of medicine, and cultural theory. The book's most direct engagement is with the field of whiteness studies and the theory of boundary studies. Given his unique research question, Wray demonstrates the limits of conceptualizing "whiteness" primarily in terms of racial domination. He contends that "whiteness" is better understood as involving broad processes of social differentiation, and he views the concept as a boundary that leads to social inequality. As a result, his notion of "whiteness" is determined by both biological differences and distinctions based on morality, culture, and social organization. Moreover, "whiteness" depends not only on race, but is also connected to class, gender, sexuality, and other categories of analysis. It is these intersections and their influence on social differentiation that interest Wray. By recognizing that "whiteness" is very much about power, Wray's analysis is in line with the most recent studies in the field, while his adaptation of boundary theory pushes the scholarship even further.
Not Quite White is a short book of only 144 pages of text. The length of the book and an easily readable narrative style make it well suited for the undergraduate classroom. Students will find the book accessible; educators should appreciate its potential to stimulate thought-provoking discussion. The book's potential contributions, though, might have been even greater. Given the extensive chronological scope of his study, Wray's decision to stop the narrative in the 1920s feels sudden. He explains that poor whites gained recognition of their "whiteness" as a result of the hookworm campaign, when industrialists sought to eradicate the disease in order to ensure a productive and democratic workforce. The rhetoric of the campaign refigured "poor white trash" as being pure white Americans. Yet, negative stereotyping of poor, rural whites did not stop in the 1920s. If Wray's goal is to redefine "white" as a social rather than a racial category, why culminate with an example that focuses on the centrality of race? Other scholars have admittedly written on twentieth-century stereotyping of poor, rural whites. Wray might have used the introduction or conclusion to explain his study's relation to this scholarship. From an historical perspective, this would have strengthened the book's sense of context.
All in all, this is a well-argued and thought-provoking book. It complicates scholarly understandings of what it has meant to be "white" and succeeds as a model of interdisciplinarity.
David J. LaVigne
University of Minnesota
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Author:||LaVigne, David J.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2008|
|Previous Article:||Parish and Belonging: Community Identity and Welfare in England and Wales 1700-1950.|
|Next Article:||Small-Town Martyrs and Murderers: Religious Revolution and Counterrevolution in Western France, 1774-1914.|