Not Quite White

White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness

Not Quite White

Book Pages: 232 Illustrations: 18 illustrations Published: November 2006

Author: Matt Wray

American Studies, Sociology, Theory and Philosophy > Race and Indigeneity

White trash. The phrase conjures up images of dirty rural folk who are poor, ignorant, violent, and incestuous. But where did this stigmatizing phrase come from? And why do these stereotypes persist? Matt Wray answers these and other questions by delving into the long history behind this term of abuse and others like it. Ranging from the early 1700s to the early 1900s, Not Quite White documents the origins and transformations of the multiple meanings projected onto poor rural whites in the United States. Wray draws on a wide variety of primary sources—literary texts, folklore, diaries and journals, medical and scientific articles, social scientific analyses—to construct a dense archive of changing collective representations of poor whites.

Of crucial importance are the ideas about poor whites that circulated through early-twentieth-century public health campaigns, such as hookworm eradication and eugenic reforms. In these crusades, impoverished whites, particularly but not exclusively in the American South, were targeted for interventions by sanitarians who viewed them as “filthy, lazy crackers” in need of racial uplift and by eugenicists who viewed them as a “feebleminded menace” to the white race, threats that needed to be confined and involuntarily sterilized.

Part historical inquiry and part sociological investigation, Not Quite White demonstrates the power of social categories and boundaries to shape social relationships and institutions, to invent groups where none exist, and to influence policies and legislation that end up harming the very people they aim to help. It illuminates not only the cultural significance and consequences of poor white stereotypes but also how dominant whites exploited and expanded these stereotypes to bolster and defend their own fragile claims to whiteness.


Not Quite White offers a valuable, expanded view of the dynamics of whiteness in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” — Anthony Bak Buccitelli, Journal of American Folklore

“[A]n engaging study. . . . the book is the result of ambitious interdisciplinary research examining multileveled, interactive processes of social differentiation in distinct historical periods. . . . Wray’s work adds new depth to our understanding of the intraracial dynamics that construct and sustain ideologies of white supremacy and will challenge scholars to rethink their own constructs of what white means. Both the substance and methodology of this work will be of interest to professionals and graduate students in the social sciences and humanities. Selected chapters might also serve well in upper-division undergraduate courses.” — Pamela Perry, American Journal of Sociology

“[A]n illuminating history of the term ‘white trash’ and a keen analysis of its various uses in creating social differences. . . . Written with clarity and illustrated with lively examples from history, literature, and sociology, this volume will be helpful to anyone interested in the history of race and class in the US. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries.” — G. Jay, Choice

“[Wray] provides an intriguing version of the relationship between the eugenics movement and the self-fashioning of a white, middleclass identity. He has a stimulating explanation for how gender and sexuality boundaries enforced middle-class ideals for acting ‘white.’ He offers a fascinating description of how eugenic field studies framed the ‘poor white problem’ as a ‘problem of degeneracy,’ and the role science played in framing both social problems and policy.” — David Wellman, Contemporary Sociology

“Concise, thought-provoking, and generally well written, Not Quite White succeeds admirably in getting historians to think about those living on the margins. By expanding the meaning of the term ‘white’ to include those who did not benefit from its attributes, Wray broadens our perspectives and makes us see the permeability of boundaries once thought to be rigid and predetermined.” — Steven Noll, Journal of American History

“Matt Wray’s book grabbed both my attention and my empathy. Beyond a carefully wrought methodology, compelling analyses, and some very fine writing, it bears the stamp of authenticity.” — Linda Frost, American Historical Review

“Matt Wray’s latest book, Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness, is a compelling read. The prose is lucid and the analysis, which draws upon boundary theory and poststructuralist methods, most insightful. . . . [A] beautifully crafted, detailed and fascinating account.” — Anoop Nayak, Ethnic and Racial Studies

“Matt Wray, in Not Quite White, manages to achieve an evasive goal in higher education—he has written a book that is both fun to read and highly informative. . . . [R]eading this book was an enjoyable experience in and of itself. Wray should be commended almost as much for his engaging writing style as for his impressive research skills. That said, this book is more meticulously researched than almost any I’ve read in this area of study.” — Karyn McKinney, Social Forces

“The length of the book and an easily readable narrative style make it well suited for the undergraduate classroom. Students will find the book accessible; educators should appreciate its potential to stimulate thought-provoking discussion. . . . [T]his is a well-argued and thought-provoking book. It complicates scholarly understandings of what it has meant to be ‘white’ and succeeds as a model of interdisciplinarity.” — David J. LaVigne, Journal of Social History

“Wray is most effective in his problemetization of de facto privilege based solely on skin colour and does a sound job of articulating the complex interplay of cultural power dynamics which intersect and invest importance in particular phenotypic traits. Such insight furthers the deconstruction of racial hierarchy by challenging its innate position within collective perception and highlighting the inconsistencies that arise when skin colour ascends to cultural primacy.” — Jason Narlock, Journal of American Studies

“Wray’s book covers most of the layers of human prejudice. His conclusions are aggravating but revealing. . . . [It] should be read by all.” — Ray B. Browne, Journal of American Culture

“Wray’s new book, Not Quite White, is a brilliant and original monograph that both expands and challenges Whiteness Studies, which tend to deal with an undifferentiated white ethnicity; Ethnic Studies, which largely omit class analysis; and Labor Studies, which are not interested in the phenomenon of poor whites . . . . The text is accessible to non-specialists and undergraduates along with scholars and graduate students. This would be a fine textbook for any number of courses.” — Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Journal of American Ethnic History

“Matt Wray’s Not Quite White is a richly textured social history of how and why the nation has come to conceive, categorize, and routinely vilify that part of its population known as ‘white trash.’ Because this subject has rarely been the focus of systematic scholarly inquiry, that alone would be a notable achievement. Yet the book aims for more—to propose a boundary theory of why ‘white trash’ has had so many uses—from literature to politics to social science. By any measure, this book is a major contribution.” — Troy Duster, New York University

“White trash? What did you just call me? Not Quite White provides the best social history of America’s most quizzical moniker in the racial-class system. From its colonial origins to the era of eugenics to the public health campaign to eradicate hookworm in the South, Matt Wray’s careful analysis documents the roots of this label, showing what its apparently oxymoronic nature tells us about the larger system of symbolic stratification in the United States.” — Dalton Conley, author of Honky


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Matt Wray is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and a 2006–2008 Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholar at Harvard University. He is a coeditor of The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness; Bad Subjects: Political Education for Everyday Life; and White Trash: Race and Class in America.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface and Acknowledgements ix

Introduction: White Trash as Social Difference: Groups, Boundaries, and Inequalities 1

1. Lubbers, Crackers, and Poor White Trash: Borders and Boundaries in the Colonies and the Early Republic 21

2. Imagining Poor Whites in the Antebellum South: Abolitionist and Pro-Slavery Fictions 47

3. “Three Generations of Imbeciles Are Enough”: American Eugenics and Poor White Trash 65

4. “The Disease of Laziness”: Crackers, Poor Whites, and Hookworm Crusaders in the New South 96

5. Limning the Boundaries of Whiteness 133

Notes 145 145

References 181

Index 211
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3873-4 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3882-6
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