On the morning of September 4, 1957, a fifteen-year-old girl named Elizabeth Eckford walked toward the entrance of Little Rock Central High School. It was among the first high schools in a major Southern city to admit a class of black students, in partial accommodation of the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision calling for the desegregation of all public classrooms across the country. As a crowd formed around her, Eckford followed her mother’s advice: that the best way to deal with the spiteful people she would encounter that day was to ignore them. The most famous image of this moment was captured by Will Counts, a photographer for the Arkansas Democrat. One figure in the crowd stands out: a teen-age girl, trailing behind and heckling. She later identified herself to reporters as Hazel Bryan. Bryan, who was also fifteen, simply believed that “whites should have rights, too.”
Within a couple of days, Counts’s photograph was everywhere, and inspired letters from around the country castigating the unidentified white girl. In “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America” (Viking), the historian Nancy Isenberg describes Bryan in this photograph as “the face of white trash,” a ready-made contrast to Eckford’s calmness and sense of purpose. In Isenberg’s telling, Bryan was the latest in a long line of poor whites who believed that black advancement would come at their expense. Bryan didn’t have much. But she wanted at least to maintain her status somewhere between the upper-crust white and largely disadvantaged black worlds. One of the defining features of living in a putatively classless democracy, as has often been observed, is a constant feeling of status anxiety. In the absence of a clearly delineated hierarchy, we determine where we belong by looking above, at those we resent, and below, at those we find contemptible.
By the early nineteen-sixties, Bryan had come to see the error of her ways. She looked up Eckford in the phone book and called her to apologize. The conversation was awkward and brief–maybe both women assumed this would be their last encounter. But Bryan continued her efforts to make amends, immersing herself in community work and learning about black history. She hoped for a chance to tell the story of her transformation, and to replace the image of the petulant, hateful teen-age Bryan with a mature, enlightened one. The opportunity to share this story with Eckford finally arrived in 1997, as part of a series of events commemorating the bravery of Eckford and other black students, who had collectively been dubbed the Little Rock Nine. Counts returned to Central High School to document the changes that had taken place during the previous forty years, and Bryan and Eckford agreed to reunite as part of a new photograph. It didn’t take very long for Bryan and Eckford to realize that they had a lot in common, and they became good friends. They participated in a local seminar on racial healing. They shopped for fabrics, gardened, and attended poetry readings together. They were inseparable.
Those who witnessed Bryan and Eckford’s reunion at first hand described it as authentic, uncannily beautiful. Such stories model behavior for us, conveying a sense of what remains possible. People can change: they can forgive, or let go of their anger; they can realize that they have been walking the world with blinders on, and turn their guilt into something positive. Counts’s new photograph was made into a poster titled “Reconciliation.”
Over time, however, Eckford grew tired of life as a symbol. She had misgivings about the “reconciliation” concept: after all, she had just been trying to go to school. By the time the journalist David Margolick sat down with the two women in 1999, Eckford had begun to withdraw from the friendship, wondering if it hadn’t merely been a one-sided exercise in unburdening. Bryan, for her part, thought that their friendship had been undone by Eckford’s unwillingness to move on from the past. It was a reminder that we don’t all experience history the same way. A few years ago, when Margolick interviewed the current principal of Central High School as part of a book he was writing on Bryan and Eckford’s legacy, she pointed to a copy of the “Reconciliation” poster hanging in her office. “I’d like a happy ending,” she told Margolick, “and we don’t have that.”
For many, the 2008 election of Barack Obama seemed as if it might be an “ending” of sorts. But of what? On a purely demographic level, Obama’s rise embodied an inevitable future: by 2055, the majority of Americans would be nonwhite. He had merely arrived ahead of schedule. Still, one election wouldn’t erase the structures and ideologies that had kept the country’s wealth in white hands. Maybe what was ending was a bit more abstract. There was, in Obama’s manner of carrying himself, something that upended traditional status relations. An early sign of this came while Obama was on the campaign trail. At a meeting with wealthy Democratic donors, he described the plight of the white working class in Midwestern small towns, where “the jobs have been gone now for twenty-five years and nothing’s replaced them,” and remarked, “It’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” This certainly wasn’t the first time an authority figure had spoken patronizingly of the white working class. But now the authority figure was black, and had spoken with the confidence that the future belonged to people like him.
Obama, in essence, had given poor and working-class white people the language to think of themselves as outsiders.
Away from these predominantly liberal arenas, however, white identity has found a more potent form of salience. For poor and working-class whites, skin color no longer feels like an implicit guarantor of privilege. There is a sense that others, thanks to affirmative action or lax immigration policies, have nudged ahead of them on the ladder of social ascent. Their whiteness is, in fact, the very reason they suspect that they are under siege. Marginalized by a black President, as they imagine, and alienated by urbane Ã©lites of every hue, they have begun to understand themselves in terms of identity politics. It almost doesn’t matter whether their suspicions are true in a strictly material sense. The accident of white skin still brings with it economic and social advantages, but resentment is a powerful engine, particularly when the view from below feels unprecedented.
When Obama distilled this narrowing sliver of America to a common fondness for “guns and religion,” he was drawing on a long tradition of Ã©lites isolating poor and working-class white people as a containable threat. As Isenberg shows, anxieties about the white underclass have been at the heart of our history. Instead of revisiting the story of American inequality through slavery, she considers the problem of white poverty. Standard histories of the American spirit use a hardscrabble past to anticipate our glorious present, but Isenberg takes every opportunity to mottle that picture. The early colonists were not brave explorers but “waste people” who had been expelled from England. The Founding Fathers were not sturdy believers in the democratic ethos but Ã©lites adrift without a clear-cut hierarchy, who propped themselves up by disparaging the poor. America was not a shining city on the hill but a large-scale experiment in social engineering designed to contain and minimize the impact of the “degenerate breed.”
Things began to change, at least at a symbolic level, once politicians in the early nineteenth century realized the potential of appealing to poor and working-class whites for their votes.
And today? There is certainly a kind of everyday snobbery toward what Isenberg calls “white trash” which has become routine and reflexive, a condescension that, for example, makes poor-white subcultures on reality television seem so exotic and fascinating. But does the fact that whiteness is no longer an unequivocal badge of privilege have any consequences for the systemic persistence of black disadvantage? These days, when we speak of white supremacy we are talking about more than hooded thugs terrorizing black America. It has become a rhetorical gesture used to link a universally deplored past with the structural advantages that white people continue to enjoy to this day, regardless of whether they harbor any feelings of racial animosity.
Already, we’ve seen that, in the absence of a political system run by people “no different from the rest of us,” many working-class whites feel abandoned, realizing that the system has always thrived on inequality. One result was the Tea Party, which emerged in 2009. Another has been the rise of Donald Trump, who, though opposed by many Tea Party activists, has drawn on the same loose energies that sustained that movement. He has shown that “white rage” and the nostalgia that underwrites feelings of racial resentment are renewable resources, and a cross-applicable rationale for xenophobia. As whiteness becomes a badge of dispossession, earned or not, it’s likely that future elections will only grow more hostile, each one a referendum on our constantly shifting triangulations of identity and power.