“White Trash” on The Current

The complainant, Rudolph Bangert, considered the use of the term “white trash” offensive and hateful. He thought the conversation with Professor Nancy Isenberg, author of a book about class in America that has the phrase in the title, should never have been broadcast. The phrase was used in context and never to disparage. It was a thoughtful and nuanced interview about the role of class in American politics.

COMPLAINT

You were deeply disturbed by a discussion on The Current in August 2016. Unfortunately, your first email did not reach this office, so the complaint was not addressed until November. The guest host of The Current, Laura Lynch, interviewed an American academic who had written a book about class in the United States. The book was entitled: “White Trash. The 400-year untold history of class in America.” You called the episode “hateful.” You couldn’t believe that someone had not pulled the item before it even aired; it was so obviously offensive and wrong. It is the term “white trash” that you consider hurtful and racist. The Current segment is on the website and is entitled White Trash’ history reveals why class is crucial in the U.S. election.” You find it so objectionable, you believe the page should be taken down.

They started their program with a quote of a Duck Dynasty individual, and then went on to say he was a red neck, and then to suggest that all red necks are 'white trash'. They further went into the program and explained that 'white trash' are poor (low income) white people. Further into the program they were quoting movies, and suggested that 'white trash' people are below black people on the people hierarchy... If they think just because there is an ethnic group that is low income, and are now fair game to attack and slander, they should not be in the broadcasting business in Canada.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of The Current, Kathleen Goldhar, responded to your complaint.

She told you she sincerely regretted that you had such a negative opinion of the interview, and that the purpose of the interview was not to label or condemn or be hateful of white people. She explained the term was used and explored because it was featured in Professor Isenberg’s book. (Isenberg is a Professor of American history at Louisiana State University.)

She added that the point of the interview was to explore Ms. Isenberg’s thesis that while Americans believe they live in a classless society, it is not so. She believes that class plays an important role at various historical points in the United States’ history, including this last election cycle.

Ms. Goldhar explained that Ms. Isenberg used the term “to identify an economically deprived segment of American society that can be traced back to the founding of the country.” She added:

Although identified by different names in different regions, it is a class consistently exploited by generations of politicians and the elites for their own purposes. “White Trash” was originally used as term of disparagement by the middle class to look down on the poor, Professor Isenberg said, but since the 1970s it has taken on a somewhat different meaning becoming a part of the way people define themselves. As Americans began looking back to rediscover their roots, including their “red neck” roots, they also sought to get rid of some of the negative baggage associated with that group – even to celebrate their heritage. She cited Duck Dynasty’s Willie Robertson and several popular television series, including The Beverly Hillbillies, as examples.

Ms. Goldhar told you that the programme did not describe the “Duck Dynasty individual as a “red neck”; rather the programme stated that Mr. Robertson refers to himself by that term.

She also assured you that Prof. Isenberg had not said there was any kind of hierarchy involving poor Whites and Blacks. She informed you the comment was made in response to a question from Ms. Lynch about the relationship between poor white and poor black people in America, since both had been disdained and exploited. Ms. Goldhar continued the explanation:

Professor Isenberg said in the 1790s John Adams said Americans will scramble to get ahead but they need someone to disparage. She compared this to [President] Lyndon Johnson who she quoted as saying “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best coloured man, you can pick his pockets. Hell, give him someone to look down on and he’ll empty his pockets for you”. She explained that American politicians have consistently exploited racial tension as a way of "dividing poor whites and poor blacks, and it only bodes well for the elite as a way for the elite to stay in power".

According to Ms. Goldhar, the book was a timely exploration of class structure and the way it has been exploited by elites over the years, given some of the rhetoric in the U.S. election campaign.

REVIEW

I appreciate you find the phrase “white trash” evocative and distasteful. The context in which it was used was a dispassionate, almost scholarly look at class distinction in the United States, and how poor and marginalized white people were first disdained, then exploited by middle and upper class citizens and politicians. It was never used as an epithet, nor to negatively describe a group of people. In fact it was quite the opposite. The segment you heard as denigrating white people and supposing a hierarchy that put them below black people was in the context of a clip played from the movie To Kill a Mockingbird. It was played to illustrate the portrayal of Mayella Ewell, a poor white woman who accused a black man of raping her. It is actually in the interview to show the negative portrayal of poor white people. Prof. Isenberg made the point that author Harper Lee is trying to show that prejudice, she is not endorsing it in any way. As the transcript reveals, she did not say there was some kind of hierarchy, she was describing an historical and sociological reality:

Essentially, listen to how Harper Lee described the Ewell family. They basically get back to that idea of being human waste. Nothing can change their status. Even though the novel and the film are set in the Depression, that's not what caused their poverty. She wrote “no truant officer could keep their numerous offspring in school. No public health officer could free them from the congenital defects, various worms, and diseases indigenous to their filthy surroundings. They live behind a dump, which they comb through regularly. Their rundown shack, once a negro cabin looked like the playhouse of an insane child”. So part of what we forget is that southern elites saw poor whites as beneath hard working blacks. That illusion that they had moved into a negro cabin, meant that they were a status below. And the tension in that courtroom scene is really about her calling on elite whites to face their own prejudice, because Atticus Finch even though he's portrayed almost as godlike, as someone who's morally superior to everyone else in the town, he's not that sympathetic to Mayella at that moment. And I think it poses this problem of how at times in our culture, we want to sort of assume that the problem of racism is only replicated by poor whites. They’re the ones who uphold this entire system, when in fact it misses the way in which class and race get intertwined--

On the second specific point you made, that Willie Robertson, the star of Duck Dynasty, was labelled a redneck and white trash - the transcript reveals a different picture. The segment began with a clip of Mr. Robertson criticizing the media for its coverage of Donald Trump at last summer’s Republican National Convention. Ms. Lynch then introduced Prof. Isenberg and asked her about Robertson’s comments:

LAURA LYNCH:
So, tell me what do you think about what Willie Robertson had to say about why the media missed Donald Trump's appeal to so many Americans?

NANCY ISENBERG:
Well, we know the media often has blind spots about a lot of big complicated issues, but part of the problem is Americans in general don't like to talk about class. We have invented a myth that if we trace it all the way back to the American Revolution, that somehow we escaped the British class system. That is what has made us different and exceptional. But the truth is that at crucial moments in American history, class is moved front and centre. It was crucial to the sectional divide, it was crucial to Western migration, manifest destiny, it was central to the civil war. It also became important to the extremely disturbing, but popular eugenics movement. And then it also was important in some of the major landmark pieces of legislation that came out of the New Deal, as well as Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. So we have this conflicted notion about class, and we also at times like to imagine that there is this populist tradition, and this is what Willie Robertson is trying to play into. And as I also argue, the idea of playing the hillbilly is something that goes all the way back to vaudeville. And it's something that has been revived by reality TV, because Willie Robertson as we know was a very successful businessman, and used to belong to the country club and wore polo shirts, until his family came back and reinvented themselves for the Duck Dynasty show.

The interview went on to examine the roots of the term and to explore Prof. Isenberg’s thesis that the United States culture and society have never fully dealt with the legacy of class distinction inherited from their British antecedents. She pointed out that the prevalent attitude in the eighteenth century was that poor people were expendable and responsible for their own situation, and were so inferior there was no hope of change. She explained that even historical figures seen as fighters for democracy like Thomas Jefferson “referred to poor whites as rubbish.” She provided several historical citations for the origin of the term. The interview went on to explore how ideas of identity have shifted, and how politicians have exploited people who have felt oppressed or marginalized. Unlike the historical figures they were talking about neither Ms. Lynch nor Prof. Isenberg in any way disparaged anybody. The phrase was not used gratuitously, nor is it so offensive it needs to be banned. As I said at the outset, this was a thoughtful and nuanced discussion of an aspect of American society and its political reality. It is also the title of the book under discussion. It may have been chosen because it is a provocative term, but as I recently wrote in another context, being provocative is allowed.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman