The Redneck Manifesto: How Hillbillies, Hicks, and White Trash Became America's Scapegoats
By Jim Goad
Review by Dr. Herbert L. Calhoun
Profane and irreverent, Mr. Goad, defends his redneck heritage and pedigree with verve and much color. Being black, I have great sympathy for the author's point of view, and can attest to the fact that his revised narrative of American history, is mostly true. Yet, I see not a single deviation from the rationalizations he gives for the sorry plight of rednecks and that blacks give for their similar sorry plight, namely: that both groups spent 150 and 200 years respectively in American-style slavery, where they each were then "turned out" without a proverbial pot to urinate in. In this sense, it is difficult not to conclude that in a backhanded unintended sort of way, the author has confirmed to a tee, the black argument that our sorry state of development can be vectored directly back to slavery -- just as he claims can be done for rednecks.
As colorful as his analysis is, I believe the author's dripping sarcasm was too clever by half, and, as often as not, got in the way of telling a clean story. But then, upon completing the book, perhaps that is just as well, as the author's analysis suffers other fatal flaws.
First and most egregiously, is his attempt to draw a false equivalency between nigg*ers and "white trash." This attempt fails utterly. Just because they both suffered enslavement at the hands of other white men, does not render them equivalent in every other respect. Plus, black slavery lasted half a century longer and was permanent. And even when slavery was outlawed, it continued in the form of several alternative guises such as penal work-release farms, share cropping, and another century of legally sanctioned Jim Crow. This too was followed by what Michelle Anderson calls in her recent book "the new Jim Crow" of over-incarceration of blacks and hispanics. Now, we also have the prison-industrial complex established especially as a "kid-to-adult-pipeline" from the ghetto directly to profit-making prison beds.
That said, this special plea for "trailer trash humanity" does have its finer moments. For instance, I agree with the author completely that poor white pathologies are almost never seen as a response to environmental factors (such as having shared a century and a half in slavery along side blacks), while non-white pathologies are never seen in any other way. Even the conservative author, Tom Sowell, gets this point wrong in his horrible book "Black Rednecks and White Liberals."
Yet, as good as this author's defense of his lower-class white pedigree is, he cannot be allowed to get away with the second glaring flaw of his analysis: selectively conflating "trailer trash" with "whiteness writ large" when it suits his thesis but separating them out, when it does not. Unlike emotional feelings, where he can straddle the fence. Analytically, the author must either be in, or out of America's governing hierarchy. He cannot have a foot in both camps: he must either be for or against the enslavers, but not both. A valid analysis cannot be allowed to only follow the author's emotions: straddling the economic-race-sex hierarchical fence.
But it must be said that Mr. Goad, is in the good company of other classists, when he too builds a false narrative based on a false alternative "economic only" hierarchy. Like them, he too then proceeds to pretend that we readers cannot see that the redneck's only problem is an existential one: "a white man in good standing" is being discriminated against. This discrimination prevents him from climbing what the classists pretend to be a "class only" ladder. The rednecks fondest desire is none other than to be able to join his erstwhile rich white robber baron brothers at the top of the economic food chain.
In this faulty rendition of America's social hierarchy, sex and race are conflated into non-issues. But the fact of the matter is that the American social hierarchy is not uni-dimensional, one based only on power and economics alone, but is one that, through and through, is a complex intertwined formula also based on race and sex.
Put simply and clearly, in America, there is no such thing as an "economic only" hierarchy. There is only a complex, deeply intertwined race, sex, power, and economic hierarchy. Period.
Thus here, on the one hand Mr. Goad contends that America's class hierarchy is based only on economics and power, with race and sex having nothing at all to do with it. This sleight of mind thinking, allows him to dismiss the claim of blacks and women in the same breath that he makes a special plead for rednecks based on the same family of negative attributes used to deny blacks and women their equality?
According to this illogic, the American social world would be fine if only rednecks were granted their proper share of the illicit white power due them -- blacks and women, be-damned.
When such illogic is decoded, we discover that throughout the book, the author has been upset about only one thing: that his own redneck class has not been allowed to climb to the top of the ladder of the economic, race, and sex hierarchy to share a spot with his richer white robber baron brothers.
And that is indeed exactly what we find at the bottom of all right wing political ideologies: politics based on the false notion that America's class hierarchy is based only on economics and power and not also on sex and race. Like the author, conservatives want to retain the race and sex oppression as part of the American hierarchy, by allowing poor whites alone to be able to ascend the ladder to success where they can then share being oppressors at the top of the food chain with the other white robber barons. Any fool can see that this is only an alternative way of achieving white supremacy through the back door -- and without even acknowledging that white supremacy is the redneck's ultimate goal.
The point that the author consistently fails to make is that rednecks have always been white tribal members "in good standing" owing to their own burning desire to identify with their whiteness, and thus with their robber baron brothers. Shedding their whiteness has never been an option. And this fact is not a matter up for debate, as it has been true at least since Nathaniel Bacon's Rebellion in 1676. Ever since then, when red, black and white slaves rallied to kill off the plantation and slave class, rednecks as a group have consistently elected to side with the white plantation owners and the corporate class.
I frankly am glad that this author had the courage to finally acknowledge and admit the obvious: that poor whites are not so dumb that they cannot see that shooting themselves in the foot by siding with the corporate class, is indeed a conscious and willful way of helping those who oppress us all to continue doing so. Despite the author's defense of them, this fact alone proves that rednecks have no one to blame but themselves for being oppressed by their own white brothers.
In fact, it is not an exaggeration at all to suggest that siding with members of the white corporate and plantation class, is such an article of faith with rednecks, that they continue to do so no matter how badly it hurts their own lower-class economic and political interests. And as the author so astutely pointed out: were poor blacks and poor whites ever to combine their efforts, they would constitute an unbeatable coalition in the American political process. It seems that after Bacon's Rebellion, the robber baron class caught on to this point too as a potential threat to their power base, and ever since, there has never been a social or political movement that has involved a political coalition between poor blacks and whites to fight against the oppression of the robber baron class.
In contrast, I might point out in passing that poor whites in Brazil (which has a similar racial history as America's), do not side with upper class whites. Instead they side with the politics of mulattoes and blacks -- with whom they also frequently intermarry.
Obviously there is good reason for lower-class white Americans to "distance" themselves from blacks and other colored minorities: Among others, they get to enjoy unencumbered the cornucopia of both tangible and intangible racist benefits that accrue to them automatically simply by having the invaluable genetic ticket of white skin.
As noted above, that they have elected to stay on the white reservation -- even though throughout most of American history they were not even considered white, and in any case have been on the receiving end of white brutality themselves -- goes back to the Bacon Rebellion which failed, and over the next century and a half, white slaves, mostly of Irish and Scottish descent, were slowly freed and elevated to proper entry into full white-hood. That white identity, has not just stuck, but since it makes rednecks see themselves as better than blacks, has been the most valuable existential part of the redneck identity and self-worth.
At first, the redneck's elevation to whiteness was a symbolically assigned status only. Their status and value as slaves would not change one iota for another century and a half -- a full forty years after the American Revolution, in fact. But despite this, the symbolic elevation of poor Irish and Scots into the white race succeeded beyond the plantation owners wildest dreams. It evolved into a permanent wedge issue that still works it's magic separating America's poor by color, even today.
Thus, the author's main point cannot be avoided: rednecks, have retained the psychological scars of slavery just as surely as blacks have. But having a genetic "get out of slavery free" card, one that elevated them into the "master's race" as whites, and thus as overseers of black slaves, should have made all the difference in the world, but it did not? Why? Since the author's analysis is riddled with flaws, it could not give a clear and convincing answer to this question.
Indeed, rednecks, even with the invaluable asset of white skin, which allows them to hide their inadequacies in plain sight, are still no better off than blacks or Native Americans. Somehow they still have managed to squander this enormous advantage, ending up at the very bottom of the sociological barrel.
I will end this review with the following true story:
When I was nine (1950), my family lived a half block from the Arkansas river, at 415 North Ash street, in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Down at the foot of the hill from us, literally on the very banks of the river, was a shanty town of poor white families. They lived in cardboard and tin jerry-rigged box shanties, sold damaged fruit and day old pastries from their wagons as their primary livelihood.
Invariably on week ends, something spectacular and unexpected would happen: down that same hill on that river bank, the rednecks would have these humongous gun fights with rival white trash spoiled-fruit sellers and river bank dwellers who lived farther up the Arkansas river.
When those fights took place, frightened members of the clan would come desperately to our neighbor, Mr. Harris' back door, with blood-curling screams (in a southern drawl that I can still hear in my head): Mr. Harris! Mr. Harris! Call the law! Call the Law! Meanwhile, the sky over the river bank would light up like a Fourth of July fireworks display, or a WW-II bombing attack. For the better part of two hours the noise was deafening. And then it would go completely quiet.
As a kid of nine, these redneck fights were a sight to behold and talk about. I had never seen anything like it then, nor since. The cops and ambulances would eventually come, hauling off people both to hospitals and jails ... and the cycle would repeat itself in a few weeks. I have yet to read about the Arkansas River shanty villages or their wars in any book, history or otherwise.
Shamelessly, the next day, the kids would come to our back door to borrow food stuffs and blankets and clothes. In exchange for them telling us what had happened at the fights, we would give them what we could and then invite them to have breakfast with us. This became the favorite way some of the kids used to relieve themselves of hunger.
And thus, over time, two brothers, "Sharpy" and "Leonard" became my breakfast companions and my summer time playmates. They played with me and my black friends until the school year started. At which time, the white school buses would travel down the hill to the edge of the Arkansas river to pick them up and bus them all the way across town pass all the black schools to the white side of town. I suppose it could be called "unforced bussing" to undo the integration that took place during the summer months.
We only lived on Ash street for a short time and I eventually lost touch with Sharpy and Leonard, but later, somehow I heard through the grapevine that they both had ended up in "Reform School" for stealing. How I wish I knew how their lives had turned out? Four stars
Editor's note: This review was written by Dr. Herbert L. Calhoun and has been reposted with permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.