Underclasses can’t be white or exist in America, right?

Walker Evans: Floyd and Lucille Burroughs, Hale County, Alabama. 1936

From the introduction to Rainbow Pie. A Redneck Memoir, by Joe Bageant.

The United States has always maintained a white underclass — citizens whose role in the greater scheme of things has been to cushion national economic shocks through the disposability of their labor, with occasional time off to serve as bullet magnets in defense of the Empire.

Today, almost nobody in the social sciences seems willing to touch the subject of America’s large white underclass; or, being firmly placed in the true middle class themselves, can even agree that such a thing exists. Apparently, you can’t smell the rabble from the putting green.

Well, such social scientists and liberals generally are city dwellers and never see or have any actual contact with the primarily rural white underclass, except for maybe when they go on a wine-tasting vacation in the countryside, stay at a bed and breakfast, and have chance encounters with actual rednecks who own guns. Oh the horror.

Public discussion of this class remains off limits, deemed hyperbole and the stuff of dangerous radical leftists. And besides, as everyone agrees, white people cannot be an underclass. We’re the majority, dammit. You must be at least one shade darker than a paper bag to officially qualify as a member of any underclass.

The biggest lie told in America is that we don’t have social classes.


  • Sue

    I used to believe there were two classes: 1) talent and beauty 2) everybody else. It took the experience of living in Connecticut, where social classes are cast in Titanium, for me to actually perceive social classes, and to understand that the talent/beauty “class” are ephemeral, disposable, and largely a California phenomenon.

    • I grew up in CT and when Sue and I lived there in 2007 was startled at the rigidity of the class structure and the snobbery. There’s way less of that in the West. People don’t much care who your grandfather was, it’s irrelevant.

    • DJ

      I was raised in NH where in my perception at least there was very little rigidity in class structure – even though everyone knew who my grandfather was. My family was upwardly mobile, though as I learned later it took an astonishing amount of credit. Yet the town was (and is) run by three families, and those who lived in poverty largely still do.

      I also remember being stunned by the fictional work, “The Beans of Egypt, Maine” by Carolyn Chute. The book portrays white poverty in the northeast that few of us ever encounter – and the main character is a middle class girl who becomes downwardly mobile.

      • I recall driving through Maine a few years back on the coast where pricey vacation homes are, then going a little inland and seeing the equivalent of tar paper shacks with obvious serious poverty.

  • Even in the richest of developed world’s capitalist states abject poverty lives side by side with obscene opulence, it’s the nature of the beast.

    • DJ

      Actually there is very little abject poverty in the U.S. by the standards of the rest of the world – but it does exist, and Maine is one of those rare places.

      • Parts of CT are like that too, in the east part of the state, off the beaten track.

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