Updated: Jun 3, 2020
Since the beginning of what became the United States, the question of what to do with all the poor white people -- given what was simultaneously happening to the indigenous of the land and the commitment by the emerging nation to the chattel enslavement of people of African descent -- was, one could argue, perhaps the central question of our society's racial construction. The answer to the question might have led to class divides, but instead it became a question of race. Poor whites were after all still white. This meant unlike Indigenous people and African people, however poor, they were full human beings. They counted, unlike native peoples and weren't deemed partially human, like enslaved Africans.
Why was this so?
Without poor whites on their side, the new nation's wealthy founders would not have been able to create and sustain what we now know as a white supremacist society. If poor whites were not part of the arrangement -- the newly constructed social compact based on race -- wealthy white people would have been fatally "at-risk." Wealth was built on the free seizure of indigenous lands and the free labor of Africans. Poor whites, or "indentured servants," were landless and their labor was largely unpaid. What was in it for poor whites? Why should they support the enormous wealth accumulation by the rich and not receive a share in it? The threat of revolt would have been ever present.
Indeed, throughout U.S. history there have been revolts by poor people: laborers,
disgruntled farmers, soldiers, enslaved Africans, European immigrants, women and others who were numbered among the so-called "downtrodden" or "marginalized "of society. The Whiskey Rebellion is one such example. In 1791, small white farmers whose income was augmented by distilling and selling whiskey, faced the first internal revenue "whiskey tax" imposed by the federal government. By 1794, an organized rebellion against the tax in Western Pennsylvania required federal militias from 4 states to put it down. The idea of yeoman farmers, small-town tavern habitués organizing struck fear in the ownership class. What if other oppressed segments of society got the same idea? What if it spread across the country to include blacks and natives? How could the fledgling white ruling class assert its authority?
There have been many and varied attempts to unite oppressed groups across the lines of race, class, gender, ethnicity and certainly religion. Bacon's Rebellion, occurring 100 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, featuring an unlikely coalition of frontiersmen, indentured servants and Africans, united against unfair treatment by local authorities, came together and burned Jamestown, Virginia to the ground, forcing Governor William Berkeley to flee for his life and take refuge on a ship in the Chesapeake Bay. Ironically, this working class revolt was led by a member of the Governor's own family, Nathaniel Bacon. Again the message was not lost on those who ruled. Organizing across lines of race and class around perceived common interests had to be stopped. As a result of Bacon's Rebellion, strict laws were passed hardening the racial caste of slavery: whites who chose to make alliances with blacks were subject to banishment from the colony; blacks were sentenced to perpetual servitude.
U.S. history is filled with efforts by working/poor people organizing for labor rights or gender equity; in the modern era these organizing efforts have extended to the rights of prisoners on death row, housing access, and most recently "essential worker" solidarity. All of these efforts have died on the shoals of race. Race has been the great divide: Those who understand and benefit from race and white supremacy use racism -- even unwittingly -- to maintain their power with all the disparate outcomes race produces. They have been able to triumph again and again over those who deny that race predominates in this country over class, gender, and geography.
The benefits of whiteness are not easy to relinquish. Not just for poor white people, not just for those who espouse racism or street-wise white supremacy, but even for those who deem themselves liberal or progressive, even radical and revolutionary. Race is so interwoven into everyday life in the United States, it is often unrecognizable.
The dominant white myth in this country asserts that claims of racism are merely an excuse for shirking hard work and personal responsibility. This is ludicrous, yet real. People of color and especially black and brown people have always done the hard work most whites refuse to do. Asian-Americans are subjected to prejudices rooted in age-old stereotypes and fear mongering tactics.
Whites in this country have never lived in a nation based on the premise of equity amid and across race lines. Whites have always been statused as "better-than," "majority," "privileged," "dominant," "in-charge," "culturally superior," "enlightened"... the list goes on.
It is life in America. Unacknowledged, untaught, yet undeniable.