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Why Are White Racists Always Called “White Trash"?

Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images

The United States of America has certain regional divisions. There is the North, and the South. Within the South, there is the Upper South and the Deep South. Within the Deep South, there is South Carolina, and within South Carolina there is Charleston. With an economy based primarily in plantation agriculture, the South, after the Revolution, possessed no major cities—no major cities, at least, aside from Charleston. Its fine natural harbor, situated at the confluence of two rivers with the sea, made it an ideal commercial staging point, and commerce meant, for the most part, one thing: Roughly two-fifths of the slaves imported to America passed through the port. Not until the conquest of New Orleans would there be a larger city in the South than Charleston, nor a wealthier one. Its aristocrats, composed of merchants and planters, made themselves known for their politeness and their hospitality.

Last Wednesday night, a young white man with a gun killed nine black people—three men and six women—in Charleston, South Carolina. The victims had prayed for an hour prior to their killing, and the killer had, for that hour, prayed with them: The church security cameras had caught his face as he entered. It wasn't enough.

The morning after, two hundred miles away, the police would take the shooter into custody. His name was Dylann Storm Roof. On his Facebook page, he had a picture sporting pins with the flags of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia; he looked sullen in the other pictures too.

As elsewhere in the South before Emancipation, Charleston’s white wealth depended so entirely upon black slaves that the majority of that wealth was invested in the slaves themselves. The invention of the cotton gin—the United States' first killer app—created tech millionaires in an era where millions could buy what hundreds of millions buy now; then, as now, the more content producers there were, the more wealth there was to be reaped. But with more slaves came more danger. Haunted by the Haitian Revolution, the plantation owners were well aware of what they, as a tiny minority, could expect in the event of a successful slave uprising: extermination.

Their only hope for survival lay in doing two things. The first was to enlist the state's other, poorer whites under the banner of white supremacy, employing them all, in one form or another, as overseers and defenders, paying them off with little more than a sense of superiority over black lives. The second was to respond, violently, immediately, and mercilessly to even the slightest hint of an uprising.

This is what happened. The doctrine of white supremacy sank deep roots in the minds of all whites, rich and poor; when, in 1822, the plans of the freed slave, carpenter, and churchgoer Denmark Vesey to free other slaves and flee to Haiti were discovered, he and thirty-four associates were executed. Though there was fierce competition for the title, South Carolina acquired the reputation for being the most belligerent state in defense of slavery. It was the first state to secede from the Union, and the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter, from Charleston.

Four years later, a specter haunted South Carolina. One could call it democracy, but the more precise term is black power. The liberation of the slaves and their winning the right to vote left the state's white population a minority in absolute numbers, and potentially in political representation as well. Once the North lost its commitment to maintaining the liberties of Southern blacks, however, they were systemically excluded, through the use of poll taxes and literacy tests, from enfranchisement and from public office; they were terrorized by an escalating series of threats that ran up to and included lynching. The former overseers became, when required, vigilante dispensers of extra-judicial death. Because of this, large segments of the state's black population fled to the cities of the industrial North until, at last, in 1930, the majority of South Carolina's population was white. It has remained so ever since.

Once the shooter's identity was confirmed on Wednesday, it was time for the cleansing concept of the "other" white person to come into play. Since the act of killing nine black people in their own church is so blatantly racist that even Charleston's police chief termed it a hate crime, the only option remaining was to excommunicate the killer from polite society. 

This should not be difficult. Only the most desperate white racists openly identify as racists. Invariably, these white people come from a social stratum deprived of all that whiteness tries to connote: wealth, beauty, power, cleanliness, grace. But because it is uncomfortable for white people to define such things too clearly, the phrase "white trash" had to be invented to cover them. The phrase, developed to describe all Southern whites outside the aristocracy, has shifted in tandem with economic and social changes so that it now applies to a demographic sliver. Yet this reduction in range has not corresponded to a reduction in the disgust it evokes in whites of putatively higher status.

When a white person claims that they are not racist today, what they are saying, for the most part, is that they are not "white trash." In other words, they are not so poor, so miserable as to be obliged to declare their racism openly, nakedly: Since the rhetorical triumph of the civil rights movement, outright bigotry has been banished, more and more, from the field of tolerable public discourse. But there's an interesting parallel, or at least inversion, from the side of the "white trash" racists. The "white trash" racist slogan "white power" is, above all, an attempt to claim that they are not "white trash," but white as such. They believe it is possible to become wealthy, beautiful, powerful, clean, and graceful by treating colored people atrociously: This is true. But the truth of their belief is embodied in the very white people who look down on them with such contempt: It is true, but not for them. Possessing a pale skin without any of the purported pale virtues, they are trapped by whiteness, compelled by it, enslaved by it. White power is always vicious, always violent, and it is always most vicious and violent where most precarious.

To be a dumb, "white trash" killer from “South Carolina,” then, is to fit the contemporary description of a “racist,” whether from the right or the left, perfectly. Should actual details of the killer's life fall outside the stereotype, they will have to be forced into it for any societal closure to occur. It will likely mean nothing that Dylann Roof comes from a middle-class household, or that he is not stupid: At the very least, he was sharp enough to know that attacking a black church—Denmark Vesey's church, no less, and on the anniversary of Vesey's attempted liberation—and killing nine black people, including a black churchman and elected official, was the most incendiary act he could possibly perpetrate. He was sufficiently far-seeing to transpose the images of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia—former British colonies like South Carolina whose especially virulent racism, much like South Carolina's, originated in the fear of a black majority visiting upon their overlords the same unkind favors delivered unto them—onto his vision of a United States on the verge of being overtaken by black insurrection. Certainly, he was a strong reader of the message delivered to him daily, in real American life through radio and through television, and last but not least online: That the assertion of black humanity, whether expressed in churches, marches, or riots, constitutes a mortal danger to white lives and livelihoods.

None of this can count in the eyes of the national media because it steps beyond the given cultural narrative, that anti-black racism is purely the province of accented simpletons in greasy overalls as opposed to what it is really—a web of suppositions and insinuations whose cruelty animates the minds and words and acts of Americans of all classes and all political ideologies. The guilt for Roof's killings falls primarily and overwhelmingly on Roof himself, but its shadow touches all non-black Americans, with an especial emphasis on the white Americans who profit most from anti-black racism. But since these white Americans happen to be—at once, and not coincidentally—America's wealthiest demographic, the primary audience for the national media, and the people most confident of their innocence, the media coverage of the killings so far has a muffled feel to it. The chase for Roof is over, but the quest to get away from what his act implies about his various social milieux (white, South Carolinian, Southern, American) goes on. 

Today, the alibi is everything; since the violent death of that great black church leader Martin Luther King Jr., white Americans have lived in a country where the celerity with which they mask their racism matters as much as the color of their skin. One might look forward, unhappily, to white conservatives disassociating themselves from this massacre by claiming, in effect, that they're not "white trash"—meaning, in effect, that they've profited enough from their racism that they can afford to dress it up better; or look forward to white liberals disassociating themselves by claiming, in effect, that they're not "white conservative" hypocrites—meaning, in effect, that they've profited enough from their racism that they can afford to dress it up better still; or to white leftists disassociating themselves by claiming, in effect, that they're not "white liberal" hypocrites.

The remarkable thing about Roof's manifesto, discovered online this weekend, was how unremarkable it was. The tone of his premeditations was miserably calm. Whatever anger drove him had been almost fully translated into sullen logic: Since the brutality, stupidity, and inherent danger of black people were his axioms, all that remained for him to do was pursue them to their murderous conclusion. White people weren't doing enough to defend whiteness, he believed, and the burden fell upon him, vigilant and armed, to make up the difference. 

He had fully absorbed the version of history that justified his misery and loneliness the most. It blinded him, and he doubled down on his inability to see; if “white trash” meant anything, he was it. But the fogged stupor evident in most of the American media's response to his crime and the terminal vacuity of the language deployed to do away with him—do these not comprise the mirror image of his blindness?

Whiteness needs white trash. This seems straightforward enough. But when the ignorance that manifests itself in the public expressions of whites and white trash is so thoroughly alike, one can't help but wonder if whiteness exists at all—wonder, idly and lazily, no doubt, whether white trash is all there is.