The Blanket

Belfast’s “Poor White Trash” and the Dead Dogmas of the Past
A Response to Billy Mitchell

Brian Kelly

White workers of the South…
GREETINGS

Let us become…you and I,
One single hand
That can united rise
To smash the old dead dogmas of the past-
To kill the lies of colour
That keep the rich enthroned
And drive us to the time-clock and the plough
Helpless, stupid, scattered, and alone-as now-
Race against race,
Because one is black,
Another white of face.

- from Langston Hughes, “Open Letter to the South”


Billy Mitchell has drawn the parallel recently in the Blanket between the so-called ‘poor white trash’ of the American South and the Protestant working class here in the north. And in many ways it is an analogy that fits: callously abandoned in social and economic terms by the rulers of a society to which they have so enthusiastically proclaimed their loyalty over many, many years; sneered at, manipulated by, and regarded with a mixture of pity and contempt by “respectable” elements in their “own community”; and diverted from pursuing joint struggle alongside their fellow workers from the Falls or the Short Strand by their entanglement in a deep-rooted, reactionary historical tradition, like the Southern white working class during the civil rights era they are too easily held up as “the culprits” in the recent upsurge of sectarian barbarism.

The “culprits” in the American South were in reality both scapegoats and victims. Having acquiesced to or-more often-lent a hand in the centuries-long oppression of African-Americans-first under slavery and later under the formal system of segregation known as Jim Crow-the Southern white working classes suffered worse poverty than their counterparts anywhere else in the United States. For all their white “supremacy,” they lived shorter, more sickly lives, worked longer hours for lower wages under more dangerous conditions, spent more time in jail and less time in school, and found themselves more firmly under the thumb of their “betters” than whites anywhere else in the U.S.. Having been raised to fever pitch by white politicians who warned of the spectre of “negro supremacy” and clamoured for an end to the “nigger vote,” large numbers of penniless, landless, jobless whites went to the polls at the end of the 1890s and voted to deprive blacks of the ballot. For many it was the last election they ever participated in: they woke up to find that they, too, had been purged from the electoral register.

As in Belfast during the 1907 dock strike or the Outdoor Relief Riots thirty years later, there have been episodes in Southern history when those on the bottom managed to overcome, for a brief moment, the divisions that had been foisted upon them from above. Black and white sharecroppers came together in the 1880s and the 1930s to protest against the misery the large plantation owners and the bankers subjected them to; black and white dockworkers struck together in the port of New Orleans at the end of the nineteenth century and timber workers did the same in East Texas and Louisiana through the first two decades of the twentieth; Alabama miners armed themselves and fought pitched battles with coal operators’ private armies, the state militias, the Ku Klux Klan, and whoever else the bosses threw up against them, and their counterparts in Tennessee led an armed, year-long rebellion that targeted the stockades where employers penned in their mostly black convict laborers, setting the convicts free whenever they got the upper hand.

The rulers of the South took pride in their military prowess and were not shy about dragging out the hanging rope or the Gatling gun. In every case, though, these attempts by poor Southerners to pull together against the weight of Southern history were defeated not mainly by physical force, but by the strength of the bosses’ ability to play the race card. When the interracial Brotherhood of Timber Workers attempted to organize Louisiana in 1911, the lumber barons who made their fortune pillaging the forests of the Southwest and exploiting the blacks, whites, and Mexicans who inhabited them took comfort in the knowledge that “there is one strong point that could be used effectively against [the BTW], if properly handled, and that is the negro question. No order can succeed in this country or in this section…where the negroes and whites are allowed to affiliate together on an equal social basis and if this information was judiciously disseminated it would have a splendid effect in breaking it up.” Alabama coal operators tried to rally the public to their side by pointing out that the miners’ union “treats negroes and whites on the basis of social equality,” a practice that they considered “an affront to our southern traditions.” Those whites who managed to see through the race-baiting and who stood alongside blacks (rotten Prods?) were denounced as “nigger lovers” and “race traitors,” expelled from their own “communities”, physically attacked and occasionally lynched.

On the other side of the colour line, among black Southerners, these episodes of working class unity were too fragile, too short-lived to lift their despair or their pessimism about whether white workers in substantial numbers would ever break free from the spell of the race demagogues. They turned, very often, to defensive or individual strategies for survival or they gave up hope of ever tasting freedom and fled northward in their millions, or took to whatever chemical means might numb the pain or to a religion that promised them that their suffering in this world would be compensated by a glorious day of reckoning in the bye-and-bye. When the black nationalist Marcus Garvey came to them with a message of “Up You Mighty Race,” or when a half a century later, the Civil Rights and Black Pride movements emerged to tell them that they were the equals of anyone and that, moreover, “Black is Beautiful,” they responded-as one might expect them to-with enthusiasm, conviction, and self-sacrifice.

The triumph of the Civil Rights movement and the abolition of legal inequality was a massive step forward, but it left a good deal of unfinished business. If, in 1963 or 1964, there had been even a respectable minority of white workers in the South who had been won to the fight against racism, who rejected the appeal to the “traditions” of the white South-its obsession with race-in favor of an interracial, class perspective, things may have turned out much differently. In the American South, as in the north of Ireland, the fundamental division was not between white and black (Protestant and Catholic), but between the rich and the poor of both races. But their attachment to a historical tradition that-like Orangeism-had been very deliberately cobbled together by local elites to guard against the possibility of a challenge from below meant that the “poor white trash” too often saw in the Civil Rights movement a threat to their own precarious status. And although a full understanding of that chapter in history makes it clear that it was the white ruling class of the South that oversaw the planning of “massive resistance” to black demands, the truth is that very many poor whites, deluded by the trappings of white “cultural heritage” (the Confederate flag-mostly forgotten until the late 1950s, made a comeback during this period as a symbol of segregationist defiance), enlisted as cannon fodder in the campaign to put blacks back in their place.

Today in the American South formal, legally sanctioned racial discrimination has been abolished. A number of cities once notorious for racial outrages now boast of having black mayors and black police chiefs. But little has changed for those on the bottom. Segregation and racial inequality persist. And the South remains, as it has been since the Civil War, a low-wage haven for American and multinational companies who stand to profit from the divisions that have been handed down through history and who want to benefit from the pro-business tilt of state governments (anti-union laws, no costly social welfare provisions, no environmental regulations, low corporate tax rates, etc.). “The antagonism between the poor of both races is easily explained,” the escaped slave Frederick Douglass once wrote. “They have divided both to conquer each.”

Powerful lessons in that for socialists in this part of the world who are itching for a chance to challenge effectively a status quo that doles out poverty and misery to working people on the Shankill and the Falls, that won’t take care of our sick or elderly, that wants to hand the education of our children over to corporate profiteers, that talks piously about the need to fight sectarianism (they really only want to hide it; it does not horrify, but only embarrasses them) but won’t provide decent housing for all, that pontificates hypocritically about violence as it prepares to drag us into war without end, war with the very big bombs against the very poor. We need to build a new tradition-or rather revive a long-forgotten one-a tradition that sees through their elaborate tissue of lies and smashes the “dead dogmas of the past”.


Brian Kelly’s Race, Class, and Power in the Alabama Coalfields, 1908-1921 is available in electronic form at: http://www.press.uillinois.edu/epub/books/kelly/toc.html.
He is a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party in Belfast.

 

 

 

 

 

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Index: Current Articles

19 September 2002

 

Other Articles From This Issue:

 

Belfast's "Poor White Trash" and the Dead Dogmas of the Past
Brian Kelly

 

Top Cat

Anthony McIntyre

 

Lower Than The Lowest of the Low
Liam O Ruairc

 

Civil Rights Vets Launch Status Campaign
Fionnbarra Ó Dochartaigh

 

Peace Rather than Pipedreams
Sean Smyth

 

Bush War
Anthony McIntyre

 

15 September 2002

 

Suppression of Dissent: What it is and what to do about it
Brian Martin

 

Chief Constable Orde
Terry O'Neill

 

Yes, Yes, RUC, It's The Force to Set Us Free

Anthony McIntyre

 

2 Quit Human Rights Commission
October Fifth Association

 

What's Good For the Goose
Anthony McIntyre

 

A Burning Issue
Davy Carlin

 

 

 

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