As the Bernie Sanders campaign began to gather steam, the Hillary Clinton camp attempted to play this off, noting that most of the Bernie-or-Bust crowd was nothing more than a bunch of disaffected white males. While most of us asked, “What rallies are you attending?” the hidden message, the code speak was undeniable. When Secretary Clinton recently accused half of Trump supporters as being in the ‘basket of deplorables’, tarheals, buckeyes and okies once again got the message. As linguist Jeffrey Numberg noted in his podcasts, both the left and right have used similar epithets. While Trump describes some of his supporters as, “the smart, smart, smart people that don’t have the big education”, the New York Daily News calls Trump’s supporters “bigots, bumpkins and rednecks.” The New York Post has labeled them the “hillbilly class” and “white trash Americans.”
It seems calling someone a redneck, white trash or hillbilly is one of the few bigoted statements you can make about someone that is still accepted in polite society. Since it’s not overt racism, it appears to be okay. However, calling someone white trash is still probably one of the worst things you can say about them.
While the term ‘redneck’ stems from genteel southern society’s barely contained loathing for poor, uneducated whites, whose outdoor field work left them dirty and sunburned, ‘white trash’ finds its origins in the disdain that Africa American ‘house slaves’ had for white servants, many that worked outside. Matt Wray, in his essay Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness (2006), notes that in 1854, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a chapter “Poor White Trash” in her book A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She pointed out that slavery not only produces “degraded, miserable slaves”, but also poor whites who are even more degraded and miserable. The plantation system forced those whites to struggle for subsistence. Beyond economic factors, Stowe traces this class to the shortage of schools and churches in their community, and says that both blacks and whites in the area look down on these “poor white trash”.
Sherrie A. Inness notes in, Secret Ingredients: Race, Gender, and Class at the Dinner Table, “white trash authors used humor to express what was happening to them in a society that wished to forget about the poor, especially those who were white.”
Just as Richard Pryor successfully took back the “N” word in the 1970s, reclaiming it, redefining it, stripping it of its power, the terms redneck and white trash have also undergone a similar metamorphosis. While Garth Brooks has “Friends in Low Places”, Johnny Russell had his “Rednecks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer.” Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother” was by far the cleverest, but Kid Rock being, “Straight out the trailer”, and even Eminem throwing a “White Trash Party” and Toby Keith being “White Trash with Money”, they have all infused the term with a positive connotation.
Not sure how to interpret Jeff Foxworthy’s “you know you’re a redneck” jokes, but the “Blue Collar Comedy Tour” certainly allowed the wealthy, New South audiences to reclaim the redneck label and redefine it for themselves. Nunberg correctly states that when Donald Trump Jr. tells “an interviewer that his love of fly fishing and bow hunting made him a closet redneck. At that point, redneck isn’t a class, it’s a lifestyle choice”.
Just as NWA, Biggy Small and Tupac reclaimed the “N” word, redneck pride is always laced with attitude. As Nunberg points out, “when you call yourself a redneck, you’re not simply proclaiming your authenticity — you’re calling out the scorn and condescension of the people who use the word as a slur”.
That may be why the Bernie thing turned out to be a parade of fools—it lacked the true belligerence and populist anger and resentment that the Trump campaign embodies.
Like the songs say, if you’re not 44 and drinking in a honky honk…well than at least honey, let me introduce you to my redneck friend. That is, before you fly over on your way to the other coast.