Saturday, December 27, 2014

Carrie Buck, Lynndie England and "White Trash"

Carrie Buck of Buck v Bell. Sterilized by the state
By Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

I have had quite a few comments in response to the blog I posted about the interview George Stephanopolous did with Darren Wilson, the cop that murdered Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri.

In one of the exchanges someone used the term “White Trash”.  I don’t know much about this term. I do know that like “Trailer Park Trash” it is not very complimentary. I never did like it.  My response when the person used it was to ask if he was referring to the majority of politicians in the US Congress or the whites at the Pentagon or on Wall Street.  And to be fair, it’s not that they’re white, or even trash that makes them undesirable;  it’s their social role.

When we think about it, if the issue of the torture and brutality committed by the US military at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad comes up, pictures and all, the first name that comes to mind is Lynndie England and more often than not, the moniker “White Trash” will follow.

So the crisis in the US military that led to the Abu Ghraib pictures, torture and eventual trial, imprisonment and dishonorable discharge for Lynndie England, was a product of the behavior of a working class white woman who grew up in a West Virginia trailer park, worked in a chicken factory and eventually joined the military.  There were others charged with England’s boyfriend Sgt. Charles Graner serving 10 years.  Janis Karpinski, the commander of the prison was demoted from brigadier general to a colonel but all those accused said the brutality was the norm even before they arrived. Karpinski described the conditions at the prison as "understaffed, overwhelmed and harried". Either way, no soldier higher in rank than a sergeant was convicted of any wrongdoing.  Karpinski described Lynndie England as an "impoverished, undereducated young woman" whom it was absurd to blame for acting independently. She suggested she had latched on to Graner as a protector and "father figure".

As Graner and England, the “White Trash” were sent to prison and all of the accused receiving dishonorable discharge, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Bush, Cheney----those responsible for the atrocities have their hands clean and they continue with the good life.  England, although out of prison, finds it hard to get a job even in fast food joints. I am sure all ex felons can relate to this and we should remember that cops can make you a felon with the stroke of a pen.

So the term “White Trash”, from what I can gather arose in Maryland in the 1820’s.  In most accounts I’ve read it originated among the black population, both slaves and free, as a means of denigrating the masses of poor whites:
Some would have been newly arrived Irish immigrants, others semi-skilled workers drawn to jobs in the post-Revolution building boom. Still other trashy types may have been white servants, waged or indentured, working in the homes and estates of area elites. As it does today, the term registered contempt and disgust, and it suggests sharp hostilities between social groups essentially competing for the same resources—the same jobs, the same opportunities, and even the same marriage partners.” (1) The old divide and rule goes a long way back.

White trash refers to the Irish, English, Scots and other European workers that fled a life of poverty and desperation back home.  In many cases they were offered a better life, better conditions and other exaggerated conditions from the rising American capitalist class desperate for fresh labor power. One only has to read US labor history and the conditions in the factories and textile mills of the day to get an understanding of the super exploitation of workers from Europe.

While blacks may well have been in competition with European immigrants, as indentured servants or in other areas of work, one can understand why they would welcome a rival group to look down on given their conditions and that there was no significant social force organizing unity between these oppressed layers.

But as Matt Wray points out:
“But if white trash originated in African American slang, it was middle-class and elite whites who found the term most compelling and useful—and ultimately, this is the crowd that made it part of popular American speech.”

Wray explains that the poor whites got the same treatment as blacks when it came to the official reasons for their condition, for their poverty; it was to be found in their genes, their bad blood. The intellectuals and scientists of the times gave this argument credibility.  It is the only answer to such questions if the idea that inequality and poverty are inherent conditions in capitalist society. The ideology of the ruling class that they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, that they built it all through hard work, that it’s all out there for you if you are prepared to work hard and show initiative, is exposed for the lie that it is when we look at the economics and politics of society.  The idea that the poor are to blame for their own predicament must prevail otherwise exploitation enters the picture and surely there can’t be class exploitation in a “free” society like ours.

The theoreticians that are the paid mouthpieces of the ruling class provide the intellectual justification for class rule.  Wray:
“Field researchers often produced evidence they claimed demonstrated the deplorable effects of “defective germ plasm” (what we would today consider genetic material) passed from one generation to the next, sometimes through the immorality of interracial sex, the sexual predations of fathers on their own daughters, or reproduction between close cousins. The last two categories of illicit sexual behavior, grouped under the term consanguinity, were put forth again and again, in study after study, as evidence of the need to control the fertility of poor whites, whose incestuous, cacogenic (rather than eugenic) influence, combined with their promiscuity and fecundity, threatened to overwhelm and pollute the purer white racial stock. It was a classic example of moral panic: Eugenicists whipped up widespread anxieties about sex, class, gender, and race to mobilize politicians and civic leaders.”

By the 20th Century many states passed laws allowing forced sterilization of the genetically inferior with 8,000 such sterilizations between 1907 and 2007. The sterilizations gained momentum after the famous Buck V Bell case when Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes authorized states to sterilize the mentally ill writing that “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”  It is difficult to figure out the exact numbers over the years but it could run in to the hundreds of thousands as sterilization of poor women, sometimes without their knowledge has continued in the US prison industrial complex.  I am in no way equating the conditions of whites to black slavery, even though Irish were sold as slaves and worked in the plantations of the Caribbean, but when it came to the poor whites, even some backs considered themselves better off.  Today, in places like India, poor women are offered enticements like a free mobile phone in return for sterilization.

Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker in their excellent book, the Many Headed Hydra point out that in the plantations of the Carribean, blacks and whites working together would often escape together. To undermine this unity and draw the whites closer to the masters, legislation was passed that would make the white responsible for the black if they ran off together. Legislation was important in developing a racist mentality among whites, a view that they were special, that their interests lie with the white power structure.  It shows how racism, or division based in skin color became institutionalized all to undermine class unity. Surely no poor white in Ireland or England for example would consider the landowner of factory owner their allies.  I have to be honest that my knowledge of the depth of this institutionalized racism and construction of a white privilege by the white ruling class is limited and plan to investigate it further.  I cringe at the term “white privilege” not because it doesn’t exist but that guilty white liberal types tend to use it without any reference to class as if all whites are the same.

The term “White Trash” is a nasty term and victimizes some of the poorest among us. Lynndie England was a victim stuck in a dungeon in Iraq. It is easy to talk about the moral high ground in the abstract.

Wray again:
“The long and disturbing history behind the term white trash rings with meaning today. We still see stigmatizing images of oversexed trailer trash, hear tasteless jokes about incest, and find a widely shared belief that all poor whites are dumber than “the rest of us.” The stigma of white trash remains an active part of our fevered cultural imagination, even as some try to reclaim the phrase as a badge of rebellious honor. But few who use the term today—either proudly or as a shaming slur—seem to know about its deep historical entanglements with the politics of sex, race, and class.”

As for the term "white trash", it is a racist assault on one of the poorest and exploited sections of the working class and like all such terms should be opposed.

Note: here is some further reading on this subject from the site that provides much of the information contained in this blog entry. I have not read any of the recommended books as yet.

Troy Duster. 1990. Backdoor to Eugenics. New York: Routledge. Can today’s genetic sciences avoid the errors and pitfalls of eugenics past? Duster asks the tough questions.
Edward J. Larson. 1995. Sex, Race, and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. A Pulitzer-prize winning historian tells the tale of how eugenics was implemented—and resisted—in the American South.
John Hartigan, Jr. 2005. Odd Tribes: Towards A Cultural Analysis of White People. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Hartigan is the most astute observer of white people writing today, and these essays on “white trash” are must-reads for any student of whiteness.
Nicole Hahn Rafter. 1988. White Trash: The Eugenic Family Studies, 1877-1919. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press. A finely edited anthology that brings together a large sampling of the original eugenic field studies (many unintentionally hilarious).
Philip Reilly. 1991. The Surgical Solution: A History of Involuntary Sterilization in the United States. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. Documents the scope and breadth of compulsory sterilization in the US.
Matt Wray and Annalee Newitz, eds. 1997. White Trash: Race and Class in America. New York: Routledge. A collection of 13 essays about being poor and white in America. Includes personal memoirs, literary reflections, historical narratives, and observations from social scientists.

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