Phil Robertson said this about life in the Jim Crow south:
I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.
Much has been said about this quote with respect to its delusions that Jim Crow apartheid was a pleasant time for blacks, with Coates writing perhaps the best piece on the point. This quote has another interesting piece to it though, which most have overlooked. Referring to his specific job on the farm back in the day, Robertson says “I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash.”
This sentence has a lot packed into it. Robertson recognizes that he and fellow poor whites were doing similar manual farm labor as blacks. Robertson recognizes that this is because he was a poor white, and was therefore considered inferior white trash by rich whites. Yet he obviously is and was a racist, believing himself and other poor whites to be better than the blacks with whom they occupy similar positions in the economic structure. If you ever wanted a microcosm of the tensions operating within the mind of the typical racist poor southern white, this is it. What was true then is, from what I have seen, true now.
The Jim Crow era is rightly analyzed as one of white supremacist apartheid. The chief aim of Jim Crow institutions was to terrorize and subjugate black people, economically, politically, and socially. But the instruments used to carry this out often subjected poor whites to collateral damage as well. Disenfranchisement is perhaps the most notable example. Poll taxes and literacy tests disenfranchised both blacks and poor whites. This was not unknown to the white legislators of the era. They just didn’t care. Some are even recorded as celebrating the collateral disenfranchisement of poor whites as a wonderful bonus.
In his book on Jim Crow disenfranchisement in Alabama, Glenn Feldman observes:
But plain whites — due in no small part to their own efforts to deny African Americans the franchise — lost the vote as well. By the first day of 1903, the expiration date of the constitution’s temporary plan, 3,350 Black Belt whites, in a small area of the region most populated by poor whites, had been disenfranchised. Statewide, the total number of white registered voters fell by 41,329 — from 232,821 in 1900 to just 19,492 in 1903 — despite a generally growing population and the efforts of many poor whites to register under the permanent plan. In 1904, novelist Thomas Nelson Page estimated that fully 50,000 white Alabamians had been disenfranchised by the constitution’s poll tax and the illiteracy and vagrancy clauses. Over time, the constitution continued to have a devastating effect on poor whites. Because white population outstripped black, by 1941 more poor whites than blacks had been disenfranchised by the provisions of the 1901 Alabama Constitution, primarily by the cumulative poll tax: 600,000 whites to 520,000 blacks. Yet the disingenuousness of the patricians persisted beyond 1901. Five years later, after the poll tax had worked incredible hard ship on poor-white voting, convention president John Knox actually blamed poor whites not “the Constitution itself,” for the massive loss of suffrage. According to the industrialist, the culprit was an insufficiently developed sense of personal responsibility. In other words, “it should always be remembered” that they had “made good on [their] pledge … that no worthy white man should be disfranchised.” According to Knox, poor whites who could not afford the cumulative poll tax were losing the vote in droves because of their own sloth, character flaws, and shiftlessness, not the constitution’s provisions, but “simply because they refuse[d] or omit[ted] to comply with its terms.”
Granted, it’s hard to find sympathy with the poor whites disenfranchised or otherwise collaterally oppressed by Jim Crow, especially if you believe, as Feldman does, that the majority of poor whites actually supported these provisions. But there is still something kind of pathetic about their plight. Owing to some combination of deep racism and last place aversion, these poor whites got behind a regime that primarily enriched and empowered people who regarded them as inferior scum and celebrated their subjugation.
This history reaches into the present of course. Rich southern whites (and rich whites in general) still hate poor whites and regard them as low-life, sub-white trash. Poor whites are, from what I have seen, fully aware of the contempt rich whites direct towards them. Yet many — especially in the south — find themselves culturally attached to a heavily (albeit more camouflaged) racialized politics that only really serves the very rich whites that hate them so much.
I don’t know what you can do about this. Racist cultures are hard to disrupt and, for those with little else, sharing in white supremacy probably provides some psychological comfort in that it ensures that at least somebody is beneath them. There are some encouraging indicators that poor whites, even conservatives, do support expanding government aid to poor people, which would disproportionately flow to blacks and Latinos. Obviously that does not by itself indicate that there is cross-racial solidarity or empathy in any meaningful sense, but it may at least indicate a relaxing of the kind of self-destructive politics poor southern whites have been engaged in since the Civil War.