A CRITIC AT LARGE
Within a couple of days, Counts’s photograph was everywhere, and inspired letters from around the country castigating the unidentified white girl. In “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America” (Viking), the historian Nancy Isenberg describes Bryan in this photograph as “the face of white trash,” a ready-made contrast to Eckford’s calmness and sense of purpose. In Isenberg’s telling, Bryan was the latest in a long line of poor whites who believed that black advancement would come at their expense. Bryan didn’t have much. But she wanted at least to maintain her status somewhere between the upper-crust white and largely disadvantaged black worlds. One of the defining features of living in a putatively classless democracy, as has often been observed, is a constant feeling of status anxiety. In the absence of a clearly delineated hierarchy, we determine where we belong by looking above, at those we resent, and below, at those we find contemptible.
By the early nineteen-sixties, Bryan had come to see the error of her ways. She looked up Eckford in the phone book and called her to apologize. The conversation was awkward and brief—maybe both women assumed this would be their last encounter. But Bryan continued her efforts to make amends, immersing herself in community work and learning about black history. She hoped for a chance to tell the story of her transformation, and to replace the image of the petulant, hateful teen-age Bryan with a mature, enlightened one. The opportunity to share this story with Eckford finally arrived in 1997, as part of a series of events commemorating the bravery of Eckford and other black students, who had collectively been dubbed the Little Rock Nine. Counts returned to Central High School to document the changes that had taken place during the previous forty years, and Bryan and Eckford agreed to reunite as part of a new photograph. It didn’t take very long for Bryan and Eckford to realize that they had a lot in common, and they became good friends. They participated in a local seminar on racial healing. They shopped for fabrics, gardened, and attended poetry readings together. They were inseparable.
Those who witnessed Bryan and Eckford’s reunion at first hand described it as authentic, uncannily beautiful. Such stories model behavior for us, conveying a sense of what remains possible. People can change: they can forgive, or let go of their anger; they can realize that they have been walking the world with blinders on, and turn their guilt into something positive. Counts’s new photograph was made into a poster titled “Reconciliation.”
Over time, however, Eckford grew tired of life as a symbol. She had misgivings about the “reconciliation” concept: after all, she had just been trying to go to school. By the time the journalist David Margolick sat down with the two women in 1999, Eckford had begun to withdraw from the friendship, wondering if it hadn’t merely been a one-sided exercise in unburdening. Bryan, for her part, thought that their friendship had been undone by Eckford’s unwillingness to move on from the past. It was a reminder that we don’t all experience history the same way. A few years ago, when Margolick interviewed the current principal of Central High School as part of a book he was writing on Bryan and Eckford’s legacy, she pointed to a copy of the “Reconciliation” poster hanging in her office. “I’d like a happy ending,” she told Margolick, “and we don’t have that.”
For many, the 2008 election of Barack Obama seemed as if it might be an “ending” of sorts. But of what? On a purely demographic level, Obama’s rise embodied an inevitable future: by 2055, the majority of Americans would be nonwhite. He had merely arrived ahead of schedule. Still, one election wouldn’t erase the structures and ideologies that had kept the country’s wealth in white hands. Maybe what was ending was a bit more abstract. There was, in Obama’s manner of carrying himself, something that upended traditional status relations. An early sign of this came while Obama was on the campaign trail. At a meeting with wealthy Democratic donors, he described the plight of the white working class in Midwestern small towns, where “the jobs have been gone now for twenty-five years and nothing’s replaced them,” and remarked, “It’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” This certainly wasn’t the first time an authority figure had spoken patronizingly of the white working class. But now the authority figure was black, and had spoken with the confidence that the future belonged to people like him.
Obama, in essence, had given poor and working-class white people the language to think of themselves as outsiders. After all, they weren’t the kind of people who would have been in the room with him that day. Within the more responsive spheres of media and entertainment, of course, Obama’s rise has helped us imagine how America will see itself once “white” and mainstream are no longer synonymous. One might point to cultural touchstones like Beyoncé, “Hamilton,” and “Scandal” as a preview of what this future will look like. In these somewhat rarefied realms, whiteness is, in ways big and small, constantly being treated as a problem, from this year’s #OscarsSoWhite outrage to calls to strip university buildings of the names of their more vexing white forefathers. Whiteness, among those with a title to it, is invoked only in a dance of disavowal.
Away from these predominantly liberal arenas, however, white identity has found a more potent form of salience. For poor and working-class whites, skin color no longer feels like an implicit guarantor of privilege. There is a sense that others, thanks to affirmative action or lax immigration policies, have nudged ahead of them on the ladder of social ascent. Their whiteness is, in fact, the very reason they suspect that they are under siege. Marginalized by a black President, as they imagine, and alienated by urbane élites of every hue, they have begun to understand themselves in terms of identity politics. It almost doesn’t matter whether their suspicions are true in a strictly material sense. The accident of white skin still brings with it economic and social advantages, but resentment is a powerful engine, particularly when the view from below feels unprecedented.
When Obama distilled this narrowing sliver of America to a common fondness for “guns and religion,” he was drawing on a long tradition of élites isolating poor and working-class white people as a containable threat. As Isenberg shows, anxieties about the white underclass have been at the heart of our history. Instead of revisiting the story of American inequality through slavery, she considers the problem of white poverty. Standard histories of the American spirit use a hardscrabble past to anticipate our glorious present, but Isenberg takes every opportunity to mottle that picture. The early colonists were not brave explorers but “waste people” who had been expelled from England. The Founding Fathers were not sturdy believers in the democratic ethos but élites adrift without a clear-cut hierarchy, who propped themselves up by disparaging the poor. America was not a shining city on the hill but a large-scale experiment in social engineering designed to contain and minimize the impact of the “degenerate breed.”
From the perspective of the British, Isenberg notes, the colonies were where the “surplus poor”—convicts, debtors, and the like—could go to make themselves useful. The vast majority of early American colonists lived out bleak existences. Travellers through the colonies were greeted by poor whites “with open sores visible on their bodies,” pallid complexions, malnourished and “missing limbs, noses, palates, and teeth.” For those charged with overseeing this “giant workhouse,” the question became how to extract as much as possible from a congenitally flawed people. More often than not, the solution was to keep the poor busy and laboring, lest the colonies become the “spawning ground of a degenerate breed of Americans.” As Isenberg explains, the subhuman status of slaves was different from that of “white trash,” since they had no choice but to work. In contrast, poor whites had supposedly chosen to be “shiftless,” suggesting the possibility of intraracial tensions that weren’t immediately defined by a proximity to blackness.
Isenberg reminds us that many of these chauvinisms were simply absorbed into the ethos of this new nation, expressed as a set of murky class prejudices. The declaration that all men were equal certainly didn’t mean that opportunities and economic mobility were equally dispersed. Full participation was never the assumed goal of democratic thinking, and the American republic wasn’t established to provide every citizen with a pathway to success. Rather, the animating impulse was inherited from the Colonial past: how to deal with the problem of the lazy, landless poor?
In the absence of a rigid class hierarchy, part of the answer was to isolate their kind within a series of epithets. Isenberg vividly details the disparaging names given to poor whites: “leet-men,” “lazy lubbers,” “clay-eaters,” “sandhillers,” “red neck,” “cracker,” and “hillbilly” are just a few. The language of condescension has changed in the past four hundred years, but the qualities that made poor whites a legible group held steady. They were idle, lazy, and dim-witted, cursed with the inferior “breeding” that once underwrote a Progressive interest in eugenicist population control.
Things began to change, at least at a symbolic level, once politicians in the early nineteenth century realized the potential of appealing to poor and working-class whites for their votes. Andrew Jackson, for example, ascended to the Presidency by embracing, rather than looking down on, “the common man.” As the twentieth century unfolded, a more inclusive version of white identity began to take shape, one in which working-class whites could share in the benefits of the New Deal, and participate in the rapidly expanding economy of postwar America. For all the condescension that upper- and middle-class whites felt toward their lowly brethren, they needed one another, and not just because of shared political and economic interests. They also balanced one another, as characters at opposite ends of the American dream. One was the lodestar, the aspiration achieved. The other was free to be the id—authentic and unbridled, capable of voicing sundry resentments and fears.
And today? There is certainly a kind of everyday snobbery toward what Isenberg calls “white trash” which has become routine and reflexive, a condescension that, for example, makes poor-white subcultures on reality television seem so exotic and fascinating. But does the fact that whiteness is no longer an unequivocal badge of privilege have any consequences for the systemic persistence of black disadvantage? These days, when we speak of white supremacy we are talking about more than hooded thugs terrorizing black America. It has become a rhetorical gesture used to link a universally deplored past with the structural advantages that white people continue to enjoy to this day, regardless of whether they harbor any feelings of racial animosity.
One of the ways in which white supremacy has sustained itself is by staying in the shadows and normalizing this structure of domination. Skepticism often awaits those who merely attempt to point out its existence, let alone to imagine solutions, such as when Rudolph Giuliani recently portrayed the Black Lives Matter movement as “inherently racist.” As the scholar Carol Anderson argues in “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide,” one result of this has been our tendency to characterize moments of racial crisis as expressions of solely black anger. Her book grew out of an op-ed she wrote for the Washington Post, in response to the events in Ferguson. The issue, she argued, was not just “black rage.” What we were seeing was the direct consequence of “white rage,” a rage that surfaced time and again in the face of black progress, eager to roll back those gains. “With so much attention focused on the flames, everyone had ignored the logs, the kindling,” she writes.
Anderson’s book is a breezy history of give-and-take, looking at how the advances of Reconstruction, school desegregation and busing, the civil-rights era, and Obama’s election were all targeted and slowly dismantled by whites wary of black advancement. A backlash is always waiting; the main difference over time is that expressions of racism tend to grow subtler, cloaked in softer language and innocuous-seeming legislation, allowing all who are not “sheet-wearing goons” to keep their heads in “a cloud of racial innocence.”
One way of thinking about how this works in practical terms is to turn to what’s been called our “democracy of manners,” in which voters are willing to acquiesce in a busted political system as long as it produces leaders who appear to be “no different from the rest of us.” Both Anderson and Isenberg discuss the postwar rise of political dog-whistling, coded appeals to specific constituencies. Being able to reach Southern whites without running afoul of any racial trip wires was critical to the Republican Party’s Southern Strategy throughout the seventies and eighties. By constantly making references to “law and order,” “giveaway programs,” or “states’ rights,” Republicans were able to key in on Southern-white hostilities toward a government they felt had overreached in order to uplift African-Americans. (Of course, both parties have indulged in such appeals.) In Anderson’s view, Obama’s election put new stress on our preëxisting racial frameworks, in that he represented “the ultimate advancement, and thus the ultimate affront.” Obama disrupted the way politics sounded, as well as the audiences his own coded messaging was intended to reach. The dog whistle began vibrating at mysterious frequencies.
A dramatic example of this occurred early in Obama’s first term, when the Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was arrested at his own home. The police had been summoned by a neighbor, who mistook Gates for a burglar, and when he loudly maintained that this was a case of racial profiling he was taken into custody for disorderly conduct. Obama sided with Gates and suggested that the officer, who was white, had “acted stupidly.” The comment drew controversy. To those who had recently felt victimized by Obama’s “guns and religion” remark, the President and his Harvard friend appeared far more privileged than the officer. The professor and the officer were eventually invited to the White House for a “beer summit” with Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden. It was an attempt to salvage a nasty situation that had spun out of control, and to underscore the lingering possibility of reconciliation, even without the prospect of a poster.
The anxieties prompted by a sense of white displacement are the subject of Robert P. Jones’s “The End of White Christian America,” which isn’t nearly as tetchy a book as the title suggests. Jones oversees the Public Religion Research Institute, a think tank devoted to examining the changing role of religion in American life, especially as it pertains to our shared “values.” Since the country’s founding, Jones says, “White Christian America” has provided believers and nonbelievers alike with a “shared aesthetic, a historical framework, and a moral vocabulary.” Even at its worst—and Jones’s is far from a triumphalist history—it offered a “coherent frame” for understanding the evolution of American public life. In this respect, “White Christian America” had constituted a visible mainstream, a set of aspirations, a shared touchstone for our “democracy of manners.” Solemn yet wonky, Jones’s book speculates about a future without a white Christian center.
Already, we’ve seen that, in the absence of a political system run by people “no different from the rest of us,” many working-class whites feel abandoned, realizing that the system has always thrived on inequality. One result was the Tea Party, which emerged in 2009. Another has been the rise of Donald Trump, who, though opposed by many Tea Party activists, has drawn on the same loose energies that sustained that movement. He has shown that “white rage” and the nostalgia that underwrites feelings of racial resentment are renewable resources, and a cross-applicable rationale for xenophobia. As whiteness becomes a badge of dispossession, earned or not, it’s likely that future elections will only grow more hostile, each one a referendum on our constantly shifting triangulations of identity and power.
Jones would prefer that we find a successor to white Christian America in a new crop of multicultural, multiethnic churches like Middle Collegiate Church, in Manhattan, and Oakhurst Baptist Church, near Atlanta. The flux surrounding white identity has also mobilized droves of young white people to begin understanding the set pieces of American prosperity as the product of privilege, and of systems that can be reshaped in more equitable ways. This was what was at stake when Bryan and Eckford reunited forty years later, a fantasy that two people seeing eye to eye might disrupt an entire social order. As their thwarted friendship suggests, however, history does not always yield to our desire for narrative closure.
White people interested in exploring this refashioned identity are realizing what people with a legibly minority presence long ago discovered: that these categories are more often than not placeholders, spaces evacuated of meaning, where the expectations that come with being told who you are rub up against the aspiration of figuring out what you might become. The question is whether whiteness, having arisen from a set of privileges accrued and institutionalized over centuries, can ever truly become a minority category, even if white people become a numerical minority. Whiteness was once described as invisible, a conspiracy that could never be brought into focus. But we can now at least contemplate the possibility that white might become a color like all the rest. This is what it would mean to enter into history, rather than simply bending it to your will.