The term gained wide popularity during the nineteenth and early twentieth century because of the much narrower (compared to modern late twentieth century) definition of "whiteness". During the early years of the Republic, a white person could more accurately be defined as a white land holder, usually of Anglo-Saxon heritage and always protestant. Over the years this ethnic and social identifier has been shorthanded as WASP. Though not always true in practice, the identfier was true in stereotype. Because of this narrow definition of what it was to be white, the vast majority of the country was in some sense considered non-white. Obviously slaves that were descended from Africans were non-white, but so were Native Americans, Asians, and more and more as the century progressed so to the progressively growing mass of impverished European immigrants.
The class of non-whites exploded along with immigration, and a formalized interest in studying immigrant poverty as a genetic disease that could be approached in terms akin to animal husbandry was preferred by the "white" upper class. Manner of non-whiteness wwere categorized and systematized into the flourishing field of eugenics. Much of this research was focused in the early study of criminal science, or forensics. (does someone know the name of the guy who pioneered this field?[What field? Eugenics? Shockley?] Ethnographic research, especially with regards to the physical traits of an ethnic group, became closely tied to the study of the immigrant crime problem. And so the early biometrics of forensics were used to describe the form and appearance of the criminal animal. Cranial measurements, fingerprints, height and weight and skin color all became associated in huge indexed arrays to these names of the non-whites: Irishman, Pole, German, Jew, Negro. Mug shots are a living remnant of this obsession with cataloguing as it peaked in the Victorian era.
Thus the popular(?) science of ethnography came into the popular vernacular. On one hand, a science of stereotypes was evolving throughout the nineteenth century, and on the other a culture of categorization was proliferating amongst the competing groups. Colloquial insults took on national and archetypal significance.
White trash was a unique case within this larger culture of systemic racism. Everyone was non-white by virtue of the fact that they were poor, because by definition to be white was to be economcally, socially and biologically superior. It came into especially strong favor during the years of the American Reconstruction shortly following the American Civil War. During these years a great deal of political effort was behind the idea of land redistribution, because it was theorized by northern law makers that the power of the southern aristocracy lay primarily in their control of the land. President Andrew Johnson, a Tennesee Democrat, strongly opposed these changes, and the "carpetbaggers" who came down from the north to implement Congress' redistribution plan. It was at this time that the classic division between poor whites and poor blacks was exploited by land owners.
And so "white trash" more directly entered the broad popular lexicon. It became a group identity used widely in discussing race politics for the next 150 years. Within this structure there were Whites, Blacks, White Trash and other non-whites. Over the years it became an issue of choosing sides (Really? An example would help here, something concrete that could be verified independently). Many immigrant groups who had initially been identified as non-white before the Civil War (the Irish are a prime example), quickly began to assimilate in the face of the growing post-war Anti-Black focus. And as the ranks of the rich white upper class grew with addition of successful minority "white" groups, so too the ranks of those "whites" who still hadn't succeeded.
Thus, a common definition of White Trash (shown below) has evolved which is problematic. Not because the below possible definition is wrong, per se, but because the idea of definition is, itself, problematic when identifying ethnic groups or classes. (If the mere idea of definition is problematic, how then to proceed?)
- Commonly held definition of White Trash:
- A pejorative term used to describe white Americans in the lower socio-economic classes (lower middle class and below). While the term applies to anyone in the lower classes, it is most often directed at those who are not necessarily content with their economic status, but do not attempt to better their status through education or hard work. The term implies a lack of education and social refinement.
- Stereotypical "white trash" are uneducated, lazy, base, vulgar, and show little respect for authority or social norms. They are usually though not always politically conservative. Males tend to be very "Macho" showing interest in manly things, such as Sports, "Monster trucks", Drag racing, guns, alcohol (mostly beer) and sex. They tend to avoid anything that could be considered girlish or effeminate, such as Fine art, ballet, or even fine food. Women often are or pretend to be stupid. They are usually unrefined and tend to be either very submissive or overtly unsubmissive to the men in their life.
- During the 1980s and 1990s, a number of situational commedies were developed featuring "White trash" families or characters. Some of these included The Simpsons, Married with Children, Karla and Woody from Cheers, Roseanne, Grace under fire, Unhappily ever after, King of the Hill, Grounded for life, Mimi from The Drew Carey Show, and Titus.
The existence of this conception, in and of itself, is interesting and instructive when imagining a single, encyclopedic definition of the term White Trash. In every sense, it is essentially accurate. But accurate in the following way that a theoretical definition of Nigger might be accurate:
- Nigger is an American pejorative used to denote those qualities of black people which are distasteful.
- Stereotypical "niggers" are uneducated, lazy, base, vulgar, and show little respect for authority or social norms. They are usually though not always politically liberal. Males tend to be very "Macho" showing interest in manly things, such as rap, gangs, guns, alcohol (mostly beer) and sex. They tend to avoid anything that could be considered girlish or effeminate, such as Fine art, ballet, or even fine food. Women often are or pretend to be stupid. They are usually unrefined and tend to be either very submissive or overtly unsubmissive to the men in their life.
On the one hand, yes, this is exactly what "nigger" means. But does it actually describe anyone? Any real person? Or does it merely describe an evolving state of mind within the observer rather than the observed. Is Jim Crow about Black people, or is it about white people? And is it fair to pin it down to any one encyclopedic statement?
In recent years, many of these potent insults have gone through a process called "linguistic reclamation". Most notably, the term "queer" has been almost entirely re-defined by the gay and lesbian community. In this case, like with the reclamation of "nigger" and even the more popular and less volatile Jeff Foxworthy reclamation of "redneck", the terms mis-defined past is important, almost central to the endeavor. Erasing the "wrongs" of the past are explicitly avoided by many reclamation efforts. Rather they assume, almost demand, the standard pejorative sense to stand at least on equal footing with the new sense.
And so it is hard to say what "white trash" might really mean. What it should mean. Context is everything in these cases. It is not the definition that is central, but all of the ill-definable mishmash which surrounds that "canonical definition" that become important. And that context is always evolving within the culture.
Unlike with the speed of light or Napoleon, fact and opinion are inseparable when discussing terms like "white trash." This is because, in the mutable world of culture, opinions can create facts. Nigger may be an idea, an opinion, a misinterpretation even... but a lynching is a fact. And you can't talk about one without the other.
But cultural definitions are not static. And so, at the moment, it is thought that white trash means something like this:
- White Trash 1. Originally, a low-born base-minded rustic; a man of ignoble ideas or instincts; in later use, an unprincipled or depraved scoundrel; a man naturally disposed to base or criminal actions, or deeply involved in the commission of disgraceful crimes.
But in fact, that definition had already been set down in the 1300's for another, much earlier word which is not often considered:
- Villain 1. Originally, a low-born base-minded rustic; a man of ignoble ideas or instincts; in later use, an unprincipled or depraved scoundrel; a man naturally disposed to base or criminal actions, or deeply involved in the commission of disgraceful crimes.
Villain originally just meant a villager. A citizen of a small hamlet or town. Nigger literally is a variation on Negro. All it means, literally, is that something is black. White trash, like kike or polack or greaseball, is essentially an empty phrase. As reclamationists have pointed out, we can fill those cultural words with any content that we would like. The defnitions have no empirical basis, no foundation in the repeatable scientific world of fact. They are instead ephemeral, and become more a portrait of a person's heart, and of the culture that they live in.