matt wray
Matt Wray is in the department of sociology at Temple University. He is the author of Cultural Sociology: An Introductory Reader.

White trash. For many, the name evokes images of trailer parks, meth labs, beat-up Camaros on cinder blocks, and poor rural folks with too many kids and not enough government cheese. It’s a put-down, the name given to those whites who don’t make it, either because they’re too lazy or too stupid. Or maybe it’s because something’s wrong with their inbred genes. Whatever the reason, it’s their own damn fault they live like that.

On the other hand, there are plenty of people now willing to wear “white trash” as a badge of honor. Much as African American youth turned the despised word nigger into an expression of pride and solidarity (usually as the abbreviated nigga) or the way that LGBT activists have reclaimed queer, some white people now identify as “white trash” to signal rebelliousness and cultural difference—their refusal of a bland, mainstream white society that oppresses and stifles.

Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold Screenshot via USA Today

Roseanne Barr and her then-husband Tom Arnold on the set of the Roseanne show, a sitcom that brought white trash to prime time.

And there is a third popular use of the term: to denigrate and punish the rich and famous when they act badly. Despite her millions, Paris Hilton can be called out for a “trashy” lifestyle, and George Clooney can tell us, in his self-mocking kind of way, that beneath a dapper exterior, he’s really just white trash. And, as comedian and actor Tom Arnold said of his marriage to comedian, actress, and sometime political aspirant Roseanne Barr, “We’re America’s worst nightmare—white trash with money!”

So, is “white trash,” as campy director John Waters once said, “the last racist thing you can say and get away with”? Or has it become a symbol of something like ethnic pride? Or is it just a comical phrase used to condemn, excuse, or celebrate bad behavior, like too much drinking, cussing, fighting, and general screwing around?

And then there’s the bigger question: Why should we care, anyway? What makes white trash talk anything more than pop culture trivia? To answer these questions it helps to look to the past, to see when and how the term arose, and to think about the uses to which it has been put, by whom, and why. Surprisingly, the answers have a lot to do with our changing ideas about sex, class, and gender.

What Did You Call Me?

Whether they say “white trash” or not, most Americans are unaware of its long and ugly history. Pressed to venture a guess, you’d probably say that the term arose in the Deep South, sometime in the middle of last century, as a term that whites coined to demean other whites less fortunate than themselves. Try again.

The term white trash dates back not to the 1950s but to the 1820s. It arises not in Mississippi or Alabama, but in and around Baltimore, Maryland. The best guess is that it was invented not by whites, but by African Americans (both free and enslaved) as a term of abuse—to disparage local 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.

White Trash NGram 1820-2013

A Google NGram of the use of the term “white trash” in English language books from 1820-2013. Note the spike in the midst of the Civil War, around 1863. Click to expand.

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.

Over the next 40 years, the phrase began to appear more and more frequently in the printed materials of more privileged white readers. In 1854 Harriet Beecher Stowe, in her bestselling Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, devoted an entire chapter to “Poor White Trash,” explaining that the slave system produced “not only heathenish, degraded, miserable slaves, but it produces a class of white people who are, by universal admission, more heathenish, degraded, and miserable.” The degradation was due, Stowe argued, to the way plantation slavery locked up productive soil in the hands of a few large planters, leaving ordinary white people to struggle for subsistence. But there were other factors as well: “Without schools or churches, these miserable families grow up heathen on a Christian soil, in idleness, vice, dirt, and discomfort of all sorts. They are the pest of the neighborhood, the scoff and contempt or pity even of the slaves. The expressive phrase, so common in the mouths of the negroes, of ’poor white trash,’ says all for this luckless race of beings that can be said.”

Southern secessionists and proslavery apologists countered that it wasn’t the lack of access to good farmland, compulsory education, or religious influence that made poor white trash so worthy of contempt. In their view, the depravity of white trash sprung from the “tainted blood” that ran through their veins. As one educated southerner averred on the eve of the Civil War, “every where, North and South, in Maine or Texas, in Virginia or New-York, they are one and the same; and have undoubtedly had one and the same origin, namely, the poor-houses and prison-cells of Great Britain. Hence we again affirm… that there is a great deal more in blood than people in the United States are generally inclined to believe.” Poor white depravity wasn’t attributable to any economic or social system—it was inherited, a pre-Revolutionary legacy.

Taking Out the Trash

By the 1890s, America’s burgeoning eugenics movement got hold of this idea and never let go. Most Americans are well aware of the horrors of Nazi eugenics—the early- and mid-nineteenth century idea that through proper breeding techniques and controlling the fertility of the “unfit,” one could produce a superior race. But few care to remember that Nazi eugenicists were taking their cues from American predecessors, who, beginning in the early decades of the twentieth century, had successfully lobbied for laws permitting states to involuntarily sterilize people considered unsuited for sexual reproduction.

While many American eugenicists railed about the threats posed by hordes of “dysgenic” immigrants (non-white, often, but also people from “undesirable” countries and bloodlines of all sorts), the core of eugenical science was based in field studies of poor rural whites. These studies of poor white families and kinship networks were carried out all over the East and Midwest, from upstate New York to Virginia to Ohio. Authors gave their subjects colorful names like the Jukes, the Kallikaks, the Happy Hickories, and the Smoky Pilgrims. They documented a high incidence of criminality and violence among the men and increased promiscuity and fecundity among the women.

White trash was a threat, in other words, because these people were both unfit for reproduction and spectacular at it.

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 1921, American eugenicists had so firmly implanted fears of racial pollution that 15 states had passed laws permitting involuntary sterilization. Between 1907 and 1927, over 8,000 such operations were performed. Many were carried out on “feebleminded” men and women—those we would today regard as severely developmentally disabled. But an untold number were carried out on men and women whose only apparent fault was belonging to the class popularly labeled white trash.

Carrie E. Buck and her daughter Emma. Photo courtesy the University of Albany, licensed for non-commercial use.

Carrie E. Buck and her daughter Emma. Photo courtesy the University of Albany, licensed for non-commercial use.

Such was the charge leveled in the most infamous court trial involving eugenics-based involuntary sterilization in the United States, the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell. In the case, Buck protested her involuntary 1924 commitment to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded. She had given birth out of wedlock and been sent away. The director of the colony, judging both Buck and her newborn feeble-minded, and believing that Buck was herself the daughter of a feeble-minded woman, wished to sterilize her immediately. Buck’s presumed sexual promiscuity, the director argued, might lead to a line of children who would become burdens of the state. H.H. Laughlin, the nation’s leading advocate for eugenical legislation, took up the case and, without ever meeting Buck, testified that, in his expert opinion, she was “part of the shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South.” In May 1927, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the eugenicists. Buck was soon sterilized. The shameful decision opened the door to forced sterilization across the nation. An estimated 60,000 Americans, most of them poor and indigent women, have since been sterilized without their consent and, in some cases, without their knowledge.

Recycling the Past?

We now know more of the facts in this historic case: Buck and her daughter were probably not feebleminded, even by the standard measures of her day. She had become pregnant not because of any sexual immorality but because her adoptive father had raped her. Her institutionalization was a way to hide his crime. Most involuntary sterilizations ended in the mid-1950s, although they continued into the 1980s. In 2002, 75 years after the Supreme Court’s decision, the state of Virginia offered a formal apology to Buck’s family and to all other families whose relatives had been forcibly sterilized. Since then, four other states have followed suit, with signs that North Carolina will be the next. California—where the largest number of eugenical sterilizations (over 20,000) occurred—formally apologized in 2003. While many states repealed or overturned involuntary sterilization laws, other states still fail to acknowledge this troubled past.

Sociologists such as Troy Duster have cautioned that the rise of genetic science in recent decades has opened a “backdoor” to eugenical thought, ushering in a new era of biological explanations for racial inequality. The dangers he warns of are real, but eugenics was never just about race or ethnic differences: It focused, first, on differences within whiteness. Eugenicists sought to establish some whites as superior elites and to assign others to the trash heap of history. Such efforts continue today: Charles Murray’s recent bestseller Coming Apart: The State of White America is a case in point. He shamelessly recycles stigmatypes—ones he first wrote about and stirred controversy with in a 1986 article titled “White Welfare, White Families, ‘White Trash.’”

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.

Recommended Readings

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.

Correction: This article has been corrected to properly attribute the quote, “We’re America’s worst nightmare—white trash with money!” to Tom Arnold, rather than to his then-wife Roseanne Barr.