They say we are trash people. White trash.
My story is part of the story of the sixty-six million poor white people in the United States. We live scattered around the country, from rural towns and farms to inner cities, from trailer parks on the edge of towns to tent cities in our largest urban areas. I come from these people, variously called, in popular culture, white trash, rednecks, poor whites, or crackers. My wife calls us brokeass white people.
Like many poor white people, I cannot easily trace my ancestry back to Europe, but I know I come from people leaving land in Europe, displaced by greed and believing the promise of free land and work in a “new world.” My ancestors scattered across this continent as mechanics, factory workers, farm laborers, grocers, house keepers, and the occasional outlaw. Will Campbell, a pastor and activist during the civil rights era, wrote that “rednecks” like me had spent generations “searching but never finding a secure life in a land of plenty.”
Poor whites have often been the surplus people of the United States. We are uniquely privileged by our skin color—because if we can garner some level of respectability, either through college or through respectable trades, we can at times gain entry into the American Dream. We are also barred from that dream more often than not, left to struggle for survival.
I was born to poor white people in a suburb of San Jose, California. My people had moved from the Great Lakes region, from the South, from Appalachia, and from the USMexico border, all during the Great Depression. We moved when I was twelve to the Pacific Northwest, to Grays Harbor County, on the coast of Washington State. As I grew up, as jobs dried up and prisons filled up, vast tent cities also began to line the coastlines of the United States. Poor whites, always pushed westward as the vanguard of land acquisition by large corporate interests, finally went as far west as possible. There, many of us were thrown away, just like the trash heaps that surrounded the tent cities spreading up and down the coastline. Trash people living among trash: that is the dominant narrative about our lives.
At the same time, I was raised to see myself as a citizen of a republic designed to bring freedom to the world, with ancestors who took a God ordained mission to spread civilization from sea to shining sea. No matter my economic situation, no matter my struggle to survive, I could still take comfort in the fact that I belonged to the people of a great nation. These stories we are told serve to both control us and to motivate us to continue to support a system that is destroying all of us.
My people have much to repent from. We have often been recruited to do the empire’s dirty work. We have fought in genocidal wars against Indigenous peoples and in imperial wars around the globe. We have too often stood below the lynching tree, choosing whiteness over solidarity, choosing unprovoked violence over liberation. We did it for the promise of a better life that we rarely received, and, in the process, we helped to decimate Black and brown and Indigenous communities, along with our own best chance of liberation. Instead of the secure life in a land of plenty so many poor whites sought, Will Campbell explains further, we found the “freedom to flounder, to drift, to wander westward in a frustrating search of what had been promised but never delivered.”
Poor whites are the largest group of poor people in the United States. Some 33 percent of white people are poor. That is roughly 20 percent of the US population. We have also been intentionally pitted against poor Black, brown, and Indigenous people, in a competition for land and work, something that has short-circuited any struggle for an end to poverty. The system of capitalism unique to the United States has been wildly effective, both at creating wealth for those in power and at keeping poor people fighting among themselves in the process.
I was raised during the heyday of the Religious Right and in its most extreme fringes. When I left home and came out as queer, I spent decades trying to unlearn the lessons of my childhood and find my place in a world not meant for me. I was lucky to learn from communities outside the United States, in Oaxaca and on the USMexico border, immigrant communities in the United States, liberation movements south of the border, Palestinian resistance movements, and some truly stellar professors of color in seminary. I learned how my community had been pitted against communities of color, at home and abroad, as a highly successful way to maintain profit. I realized that I, as a poor white person in the United States, could recognize the terrible results of capitalism on poor communities and begin to imagine common cause across race and nationality.
As I started to develop my ideas, I almost immediately ran up against opposition, not just from the conservative white religious groups I had grown up in, but also in liberal higher education. I realized that I was expected, once educated, to leave behind my past and the poor white communities that had raised me. I resisted this expectation and returned home to the community in which I had been brought up.
I was ordained in the Episcopal Church and have worked as a chaplain to an incredibly poor community in Grays Harbor County, Washington, for the past decade. Majority white and bounded by multiple Indigenous nations, this community in the middle of nowhere sits on the very edge of the western coast. We are as far west as you can go.
As I visited people on the streets and in jails, I realized how many young people in my generation had been thrown away. We have discovered through bitter experience that the promises given to poor white people in the United States are empty, that the promise of a “secure life in a land of plenty” was an illusion all along. Young poor white people are caught between white supremacy, which demands we succeed under capitalism, and the lack of a future that is becoming more and more evident as poverty rates climb and tent cities and prisons warehouse so many of us. My generation of poor white people, and the generations after us, get to choose: between the empty promises of white supremacy, on the one hand, and solidarity with poor people across race on the other.
This is an excerpt from Trash, introduction.