Cliven Bundy, The Negro, and Poor White Trash

Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy is the epitome of the VERY angry white guy.

Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy is the epitome of the VERY angry white guy.

Anyone who pays any attention whatsoever to the 24-hour American news circle-jerk is by now familiar with the ongoing saga of Cliven Bundy, the good ‘ole boy Nevada cattle rancher who’s playing chicken with the federal government over the $1 million in fees that he’s refused to pay for grazing his cattle on federally owned land. Bundy’s become a right-wing folk hero thanks to his aversion to all things “big ‘gubmint,” and he’s attracted plenty of support from armed, anti-federal government militia whack-a-loons who’ve gathered to defend Bundy against Bureau of Land Management (BLM) goon-squads.

Look, given the revelations in recent years detailing the sweeping domestic-spying power of the National Security Agency (NSA), among other issues, criticism of excessive federal power is certainly warranted. But Cliven Bundy’s political views are weirdly a-historical: he denies the existence and authority of the United States Federal Government. In this respect, Bundy de facto rejects the federal constitution as implemented by the Founders back in 1787 and instead lives his twenty-first century life inside a constructed fantasy-world in which the old Articles of Confederation still constitute the law of the land. But while I could write more about Bundy’s political views, I’m instead going to focus on his unique take on race in America.

Thus, we come to a little statement Bundy made, caught on video, in which he detailed his thoughts on black culture. “I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” Bundy said when describing a public-housing project in Las Vegas, “in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do.” And why were these black people so shiftless, according to Bundy?

“[T]hey were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

Predictably and justifiably, Bundy’s comments received widespread criticism and even caused political supporters like libertarian homunculus Rand Paul (R-KY) to back off from their previous ballz-out support for the rancher. Bundy’s comments repeat the “blacks as poor urban criminals and welfare cheats” meme that has infected American culture for well over a century. This meme influences every major American domestic policy decision, and it’s one of the secret/not-so-secret reasons why many-a-voter (like Bundy) votes Republican (even some who are registered Democrats). Just think about dealing with your racist relatives at Thanksgiving and you’ll know what I mean.

The most damaging aspect of this critique of the alleged deviancy of “black culture” (a topic about which I’ve written here) is that it denies African-Americans their right to live as individuals. Instead, by lumping all black people into the category of “the negro,” even individual black Americans must exist as representatives of a broader “black culture.” Thus, if you’re, say, a successful professor who happens to be black, American culture holds you responsible for the actions of other black people who commit crimes — because they’re black too. Makes sense, right? We do the same thing for whites, don’t we?

Don't worry, other white people, these poor white trash folk don't reprensent "white culture." Image by Shelby Lee Adams.

Don’t worry, other white people, these poor white trash folk don’t represent “white culture.” Image by Shelby Lee Adams.

No, we don’t. And let me provide an example from the nineteenth century to show that we don’t. As you may know, there exists a sub-group of white people in America, generally confined to rural areas and small towns, who’re pejoratively labeled as “rednecks,” “crackers,” “hillbillies,”  “yokels,” “trailer trash,” and other similar titles. In the nineteenth century, middle and upper-class white southerners often called these people “‘poor white trash,” and they often critiqued what they saw as the negative habits on display by this group.

Among the most studious observers of poor southern whites was Alabama lawyer D.R. Hundley. In his 1860 book, Social Relations in Our Southern States, Hundley divided southern whites into seven camps that ranged from the “southern gentleman” (planters) at the top to “poor white trash” at the bottom. While he distinguished these group of southern whites by financial affluence, he also argued that blood lines influenced different groups’ manners and habits — the worst of which were displayed by the poor white trash.

According to Hundley, “laziness” was the chief characteristic of poor whites. “They are about the laziest two-legged animals that walk erect on the face of the Earth,” he wrote, “even their motions are slow, and their speech is a sickening drawl.” Hundley added that “all they seem to care for, is, to live from hand to mouth; to get drunk, provided they can do so without having to trudge too far after their liquor.” Poor whites also liked to eat, sleep, and lie around all day, and Hundley wrote that, “we do not believe the worthless ragamuffins would put themselves to much extra locomotion to get out of a shower of rain; and we know they would shiver all day with cold, with wood all around them, before they would trouble themselves to pick it up and build a fire.”*

Hundley’s descriptions of lazy poor whites should remind you of Cliven Bundy’s description of shiftless, porch-squatting Las Vegas blacks who “didn’t have nothing to do.” Indeed, well-off white people have often lumped poor whites and blacks into the “lazy and shiftless” camp. But Hundley’s poor whites get a level of grace that still isn’t granted to blacks, because poor whites don’t represent all whites. Heck, poor white trash were just one category of whites, and they even shared their upper and middle-class peers’ belief in white supremacy. “The Poor Whites of the South seldom come in contact with the slaves at all, and thousands of them never saw a negro,” Hundley wrote, “still, almost to a man, they are pro-slavery in sentiment…from downright envy and hatred of the black man.”*

Cliven Bundy yearns for a time when black people had decent jobs and weren't lazy, as depicted in this picture.

Cliven Bundy yearns for a time when black people had decent jobs and weren’t lazy, as depicted in this picture.

That’s right, despite all of their crude laziness — which Hundley attributed to a combination of genetic lineage and ingrained habits — poor whites could still claim solidarity with planters and yeomen via their shared hatred of blacks. That’s because “blacks” represented a vast, amorphous, enslaved demographic group defined by broad, negative cultural traits, but poor whites were just that: a sub-group of whites that never symbolized “whiteness” in general and never represented “whites” as a whole. Contrast that with the way modern Cliven Bundy-types still characterize “blacks” as a broad group of people suffering from a shared cultural dysfunction that leaves them prone to crime, deviancy, promiscuity, and other bad habits. To Bundy and his ilk, the blacks on Las Vegas porches aren’t even “poor blacks:” they’re just “blacks” in general, and they need to fix “their” deviant culture.

So remember Cliven Bundy’s comments the next time you read a story about meth-head white trash in Appalachia or prescription drug abuse in the nation’s Heartland, and ask yourself: what’s wrong with white culture that would make these people act like that? If you feel weird saying it that way, that’s because, in America, there isn’t any “white culture” in need of uplift. Whites get to be individuals, but blacks still have to be “blacks.” And that’s a problem.

* See D.R. Hundley, Social Relations in Our Southern States (New York: Henry B. Price, 1860), 262-3, 273.

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One Comment

  1. I think lack of respect for wildlife refuges is a far bigger sin than his comments on blacks. He wants everything to be a commercialized livestock pasture, except for a few odd hunting spots, of course.

    Framing it as a government oppression issue ignores the reason why Federal lands were set aside to protect them from “law abiding” citizens who just want to profit from them.

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