- Poverty and the Boundaries of Whiteness
John Hartigan, Jr. and Matt Wray are among the growing list of contributors to the field of whiteness studies, which traces its beginnings to the early 1990s and the work of Alexander Saxton, David Roediger, Toni Morrison, Vron Ware, Ruth Frankenberg, Eric Lott, and Noel Ignatiev. The healthy variety of disciplinary methodologies whiteness studies can claim (history, literary studies, ethnography, sociology, political science) makes it a rich field of study. For both Hartigan and Wray it is also a field with a few thorny issues to face in what Wray calls its “adolescence.” Among them are the vagueness of the term whiteness; the tension between race and class, too often assumed to be analytical alternatives, resulting in an inability to negotiate connections and interdependencies; the reification of categories of race, class, gender, and sexuality in identity studies; and, for Hartigan, “the enormously influential model of Otherness, which prioritizes an attention to representation and ideological explanations” over social analysis and, via psychoanalysis, “projects a uniform collective consciousness, in contrast to a cultural view that comprehends subjects as composed by multiple (at times discrepant) discourses and responding to diverse, shifting sets of concerns.”
Both Hartigan, an anthropologist and ethnographer, and Wray, a sociologist, attempt to find a way around these problems by referencing [End Page 131] boundary theory to shift the conversation from analyses based on reifications of identity to analyses of multiple processes of social differentiation within specific contexts. In Wray’s words, this is a “return to the unfinished classical project of social analysis—understanding social differentiation and inequality as a single dynamic composed of multiple subprocesses.” “The key recognition here,” writes Hartigan, “is that social boundaries are asserted and contested in multiple registers simultaneously, sometimes stressing class over gender or race and sometimes, with a provocative epithet like white trash, condensing all three registers into a charged representation of those people.”
Those people are poor whites, and the South features prominently in both studies. Although Hartigan, in Odd Tribes, is interested in the urban poor and focuses on an integrated neighborhood in Detroit, the southern origins of the white poor are emphasized in perceptions and attitudes. Matt Wray, in Not Quite White, gives us a social history of representations of poor whites from the colonial period in Virginia to the eugenics movement and hookworm crusade in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century South. He traces the origins of the “white trash” category to its prehistory in the story of indentured servants in Virginia who had completed their years of servitude or escaped, although the term “poor white trash” did not appear until around 1830. The term—and this is one of the predominant ideas of Wray’s study—was used to describe people living on the fringes of the social order who were seen as transgressive: criminal, unpredictable, and without respect for authority whether it be political, legal, or moral. Over time, Wray asserts, what had been a term for a type of southerner was applied to the poor rural white nationally. Moreover the perception of poor whites as dangerous to the social order persisted even as the consensus on their racial identities and the nature of the threat they represented changed over time.
Matt Wray is especially attentive to representations as they appeared in fiction (in the work of Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, Fanny Kemble, John Pendleton Kennedy, William Gilmore Simms, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Erskine Caldwell), in intellectual history (George Fitzhugh, Daniel Hundley), and in family and group studies (Richard L. Dugdale’s 1877 book The Jukes: A Study in Crime, Pauperism, Disease, and Heredity, for example). His chapters entitled “Three Generations of Imbeciles are Enough: American Eugenics and Poor White Trash” and “The Disease of Laziness: Crackers, Poor Whites, and Hookworm Crusaders in the New South” are impressive. Together they explore the conflict between [End Page...