The roots of red­neck pride

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

Iras­ci­ble red­necks are noth­ing new in pol­i­tics. Once upon a time, they tended to be ei­ther mar­ginal fire­brands like Ge­orge Wal­lace or, more re­cently, the ne’er-do-well, em­bar­rass­ing sib­lings of well-ed­u­cated South­ern pols — think Billy Carter or even Roger Clin­ton. But nowa­days they seem to be the main­stream politi­cians them­selves.

In April, Ha­ley Bar­bour, gover­nor of Mis­sis­sippi, for­mer na­tional GOP chair­man and po­ten­tial 2012 pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, re­ferred to him­self as “a fat red­neck” on CNN’s “John King USA.” In May, Sarah Palin em­braced the red­neck la­bel dur­ing her speech at the Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion’s an­nual con­ven­tion in Char­lotte, N.C. She then ri­fled off a list of “you know you’re a red­neck when” jokes. (The fun­ni­est, I thought, was “you know you’re a red­neck if you yell at your hus­band to move the trans­mis­sion so you can take a bath.”)

Then, a few weeks ago, af­ter lo­cal Repub­li­can Party of­fi­cials cen­sured him for us­ing an eth­nic slur to de­scribe Pres­i­dent Barack Obama and South Carolina gu­ber­na­to­rial hope­ful Nikki Ha­ley, South Carolina state Sen. Jake Knotts took to the Se­nate floor in Columbia. He started by com­plain­ing that no one came to his de­fense when he was called a red­neck and ended by proudly claim­ing the ti­tle, say­ing that the true mean­ing is a farmer who works in the sun from dawn to dusk.

To many North­ern­ers, “red­neck” is just code for un­couth South­ern racist, and Knotts’ slurs don’t do much to counter that im­pres­sion. But as his con­torted self-de­fense sug­gests, red­neck is a com­plex, mar­ginal and op­po­si­tional iden­tity.

Terms like “red­neck” and “white trash” were first used in the 19th cen­tury by up­per-class whites to clas­sify their poorer cousins. They are es­sen­tially the prod­uct of the ide­ol­ogy of white supremacy. If, as South­ern slave own­ers ar­gued to jus­tify the en­slave­ment of Africans, whites were a su­pe­rior race, then those whites who did not ex­hibit “su­pe­rior” qual­i­ties had to be iden­ti­fied and taken down a notch. So poor, ru­ral, un­e­d­u­cated whites were deemed some­thing less than fully white. North­ern abo­li­tion­ists also used poor South­ern whites to fur­ther their agenda. They con­sid­ered red­necks uniquely de­praved and liv­ing proof that the evils of slav­ery un­der­mined so­cial moral­ity.

Dur­ing the civil rights era, red­necks be­came an easy scape­goat for guilty, mid­dle-class North­ern­ers and South­ern­ers — as if poor whites were some­how more re­spon­si­ble than ev­ery­one else for the coun­try’s racial sins.

But poor whites grad­u­ally re­de­fined the mean­ing of the terms. If to elites “red­neck” or “white trash” meant de­served poverty and me­nial la­bor, to many poor whites it came to mean suf­fer­ing un­fairly and hard work. While the South­ern gen­try may have found red­necks’ lack of ed­u­ca­tion vul­gar and coarse, red­necks saw them­selves as frank, com­mon­sen­si­cal and hav­ing no airs. By the 1970s, red­neck also im­plied a form of au­then­tic­ity even as the iden­tity jumped far be­yond its South­ern ori­gins.

To­day, to declare your­self a red­neck is to in­sist that you don’t take your cues from New York, Washington or Los An­ge­les. To call your­self a red­neck is to thumb your nose at high­fa­lutin pro­pri­ety and to revel in a lack of so­phis­ti­ca­tion. Red­neck is an iden­tity based on hav­ing a chip on your shoul­der but not sim­ply — as some in­sist — be­cause of the gains made by blacks. Red­neck re­sent­ment doesn’t so much stem from los­ing “white priv­i­lege,” it stems from never hav­ing had a crack at that priv­i­lege in the first place.

Knotts threw that re­sent­ment back at his fel­low Repub­li­cans in his speech in South Carolina, and he ut­tered a po­lit­i­cal threat that sounded a lot like any mi­nor­ity ac­tivist flex­ing his po­lit­i­cal mus­cle. “If all of us red­necks leave the Repub­li­can Party, the party is go­ing to have one hell of a void,” he said.

But un­like most non­white ac­tivists, Knotts and other red­neck pols don’t sound as­pi­ra­tional. Their rhetoric is less about de­mand­ing change and help so they can ad­vance than it is about hun­ker­ing down in their his­tor­i­cal be­lea­guer­ment.

So here’s the real red­neck joke: You know you’re a red­neck when you’re mad as hell and you just want to spread it around. Es­pe­cially in the midterm elec­tions of 2010.

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