“To be poor and White in America is a paradox.”
So wrote Joe Bageant in 2005. Joe Bageant, who died earlier this year, spoke for and championed the White poor in America. But don’t think that he romanticized poor people. He was unsparing in his portrayal of the proclivities and habits of the poor Whites he had grown up with. In “Poor, White, and Pissed,” he goes on:
America is permeated with cultural myths about White skin’s association with power, education, and opportunity. Capitalist society teaches that we all get what we deserve, so if a White man does not succeed, it can only be due to laziness. But just like Black and Latino ghetto-dwellers, poor laboring Whites live within a dead end social construction that all but guarantees failure.
If your high school dropout daddy busted his ass for small bucks and never read a book in his life and your mama was a textile mill worker, chances are you are not going to be recruited by Yale Skull & Bones and grow up to be President of the United States, regardless of our national mythology to that effect. You are going to be pulling an eight-buck-an-hour shift work someplace and praying for enough overtime to make the heating bill. A worker.
For certain, Whites have the lowest poverty rates in the country. But because of their sheer numbers, they comprise a substantial mass of the poor – nearly half, in fact. White poverty is not negligible. But as Joe Bageant and plenty of others have pointed out, the White poor in America are “invisible.” When people think of the poor, they generally don’t think of Whites. A lot of Whites don’t even think of Whites.
Many poor Whites in America – like poor Hispanics, Asians, and Blacks – are what people call the working poor. But some of them are part of a White underclass in which you will find the same pathologies people usually associate with Black ghettos – such as pervasive drug abuse, academic failure, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and criminality. Again, these people are invisible to many of their fellow Whites. It’s one reason you will hear some Whites go out and confidently declare that there are some things White people never do.
A lot of Whites seem to have bought into this idea that to be White is to be middle class or above.
This frustrated the hell out of Joe Bageant. He criticized the White middle class and White liberal elites for their disdain and disregard for poor Whites.
America can no longer withstand the political naiveté of this ignored White class…Someday middle class American liberals will have to cop to fraternity and justice and the fact that we are our brother’s keeper, whether we like it or not. They’re going to have to sit down and actually speak to these people they consider ugly, overweight, ill educated and in poor taste.
In his essay “Revenge of the Mutt People,” he advocated some kind of affirmative action for poor White kids in Appalachia or the Deep South or “anyplace else where tens of millions of kids grow up in homes containing not a single book, except possibly the Bible.” He stated:
Education is everything. You know it and I know it. And what the White working classes don’t know because of lack of education has hurt you and me and them.
To Bageant, education was the way around being suckered by political and religious hucksters. He decried the way poor and working class Whites were voting against their own interests as a result of ignorance. The whole country was having to deal with the consequences. He called uneducated poor Whites “our intellectual peasantry.”
As a member of this peasantry, I quit school at age sixteen in the eleventh grade to join the Navy. I hated school, hated the social class differences in a small town that make life so miserable during adolescence, when one’s community and social status is being nailed down permanently for anyone planning on staying there.
As a former young White cracklet, I can say with all confidence that when you live with a rusty coal stove in the middle of the living room for heat, your old man smells of gasoline and motor oil no matter how much he bathes and your mom suffers from strange, unpredictable behavior due to untreated depression, you do not much feel like inviting the doctor’s daughter home. Or anyone else’s daughter for that matter.
Thus, he said, at sixteen and choosing options, “I decided that launching fighter jets from the deck of an aircraft carrier to kill gooks and the notion of pussy and booze on some exotic foreign shore looked damned good.”
When I think of what happened to my boyhood friends who stayed home and put in 30 years at Rubbermaid, my choice doesn’t sound that bad even today. They all became redneck ultra-conservatives, mostly out of some sort of fear and bitterness that I can never seem to put my finger on. But I knew these people in a younger, more hopeful time. I know they were capable of – not to mention deserved – more than they got out of life. Maybe their bitterness stems from that.