Roots of white rage: America's clash of class and race, from the Civil War to the rise of Trump

Salon talks to Keri Leigh Merritt, author of "Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published June 19, 2018 3:00PM (EDT)

 (Getty/AP/Photo Montage by Salon)
(Getty/AP/Photo Montage by Salon)

Liberals, progressives and other dreamers who want a true democracy in America often lament how race and the color line have interfered with and too often made stillborn a unified struggle that advances the collective interests of all poor and working class people in America, and around the world. At present this takes the form of how Bernie Sanders and other liberals bemoan how "identity politics" have become too prominent on the left and among the Democratic Party. Of course this formulation is imprecise and myopic: all politics is identity politics; it is only when black and brown people as well as gays, lesbians, women, and other marginalized groups organize for their full and equal rights that somehow "politics" needs a modifier which diminishes the legitimacy of a given claim on rights and justice.

And there are other obvious complications as well. From at least before the founding through to the present those Americans who are considered "white" have consistently chosen the psychological wages of whiteness over working with black and brown people to advance shared material interests.

In the United States, this riddle often focuses on why poor whites in the South and elsewhere chose to fight for the Southern slaveocracy and the treasonous Confederate States of America when as a group they were not made wealthy by the trade, abuse, and murder of black human property.

Why did poor whites not ally with black slaves and black free people to bring down a system of racial tyranny that was also a means for the slave-owning plantation-industrial class to wield great power over whites of the lower classes? How did the lives of poor whites differ from those of poor blacks, both free and enslaved? What of the perversely distorted view of American chattel slavery where somehow it was "poor whites" who had it "worse" than black human property? How can this fiction be exposed? What type of political work do myths about the South and the Civil War do in a moment of resurgent white backlash and white supremacy under Donald Trump and the Republican Party?

In an effort to answer these questions I spoke with Keri Leigh Merritt. She is a historian and author of the widely-praised and provocative book "Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South."

You are a historian whose scholarship focuses on the American South, culture, and the world made by white on black chattel slavery. You are also a Southerner. There is the oft-cited quote that, "To understand the South, you have to understand that they're the only part of the country that lost a war.”

What does "Southern pride" mean in a moment of white rage, when the Republican Party has embraced neo-Confederatism and all the poison that comes with it?

When people are usually talking about Southerners, they're talking about white Southerners. So I want to make that distinction because there is an incredible lack of willingness by white Americans, and particularly white Southerners, of dealing with the sins of our forefathers. It is holding us back a great deal. We must confront what our ancestors did. The tendency to cling to Confederate statues and the whole Confederate myth has stemmed I believe largely from sheer ignorance. Most people don't know when and how these statues were erected, and most people do not know under what circumstances their ancestor may or may not have fought in the Civil War. Were they forced? Compelled? Did they do it to just earn a wage?

And being thought of in terms of being those Americans who lost the war does put a chip on the shoulder of white Southerners. Therefore they cling to false narratives of the Confederacy.

A huge question, but one that is central to your new book: In America how do race and class intertwine?

Well, it's a very complicated relationship depending on place and time, and how different groups of people negotiate competing interests. But during times of great economic upheaval there's always a chance, a glimmer of hope for working-class people and poor people to band together across lines of race. At times they do start doing that and then there's always a big backlash.

In those moments there is despair and want, but also kinship between people across the color line to achieve something on behalf of working people.

What are some examples of alliances across the color line in the service of share interests? Are there any great missed opportunities which stand out to you?

The cross-racial coalitions between blacks and poor whites in various populist movements. A more contemporary example would be Martin Luther King's Poor Peoples Campaign. Many people do not realize that when they marched on Washington and set up their temporary city to demand rights for the working classes, it was a cross-racial coalition of not just black Americans but Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans and poor whites. Even if you look at a civil rights movement in the South itself, there were Southern whites involved — not in large numbers — but especially in the real grassroots kind of rural areas.

Reconstruction was another great missed opportunity. In the early years of Reconstruction, you see some of the most radical American politics that you can imagine where you have amazing black leaders who come to power and they are mobilizing black laborers to not only demand land but actually monetary reparations. They also pull poor whites into their political parties and say, "Look, we share the same class interests. We should be arguing for the same things, the same wage protections, the same labor protections."

For a few years there is actually a chance of something to happen. But of course federal troops withdraw and then the KKK crushes these alliances. And so of course not only do federal troops pull out but then I argued that the Klan crushes a lot of it. The importance of vigilante violence in suppressing black Americans in the South and interracial alliances cannot be underestimated.

By some estimates 50,000 black Americans were killed after the Civil War by white racial terrorists. In his foundational text "Black Reconstruction in America" W.E.B. Du Bois discussed the psychological wages of whiteness and how poor whites may not have much materially but they still have white skin privilege.  As such ,the psychological wages of whiteness can be used to manipulate whites to work against their own self-interest. But there is also a competing analysis. Whiteness may pay a psychological wage, but even for poor whites they receive material advantages compared to nonwhites.

Just by virtue of being white you're always many steps ahead of nonwhites. I do agree with Du Bois.  There was a possibility for poor whites and blacks to band together in the 1850s and into the mid-1860s. By the late 1860s and early 1870s, the Ku Klux Klan and other vigilante groups more or less crushed real dissent and poor whites were brought into the privileges of Whiteness. This included finally being given a public education, being courted politically, how upper class whites are trying to get lower class whites to vote with them along racial lines.

The media was central here.  In the 1850s and 1860s there were newspaper articles by slaveholders which talked about a "war between the races" that is going to naturally erupt if the slaves are free. That rich people can flee the south, but the poor white men are going to be left at the ravages of what they call the "black plague." Black men are going to marry and rape the wives and daughters of these poor whites.

There is a classic picture that is likely in most secondary school history textbooks showing the slave owning South arranged as a pyramid with white slavers on the top, black people owned as human property on the bottom and poor whites (and perhaps First Nations and other nonwhite groups) in the middle. All the money flows upward to the top. One of the recurring questions in America popular discourse about slavery is why did poor whites fight for a system that did not benefit them like it did white rich people? Moreover, what was day-to-day life like for a poor white person in the slave-holding South?

In the Deep South where enslaved blacks comprise half the population there was an incredibly brutal, strictly policed, heavily surveilled society. This is different from the Upper South which were "societies with slaves" and not "slave societies" where everything is based around the system of slavery. Daily life is really dire for these poor whites who made up about one-third of the white population in those states. About one-third of the white population were slaveholders.

One-third of the white population were middle class, landed Yeoman, our merchants, people with economic ties to slavery. Then the bottom third of white people were these poor whites who could never quite extricate themselves from poverty. Daily life was brutal. A lot of them went through periods of hunger and want. They couldn't find jobs because they had been displaced by this influx of slaves from the upper south in the 1830s and 40s. Their ancestors had all worked in agriculture, and then all of a sudden they were out of agricultural jobs because slaves were doing all of the labor. I've had a lot of people argue with me, wondering, "Why don't you call them working class?"

Well, the reality is most of them weren't working, at least not for most of the year. They would piece together little tiny jobs, especially at the bottleneck seasons of planting and harvesting, but most of these poor whites were not working full-time jobs. They lived very precariously and had to depend on planters at times for a little bit of paternalism to just get by with corn and meat until the next month.

What did poor whites think about their own lives?  Did they feel a sense of empathy with black slaves?

They were illiterate so there is a problem of methodology and how to get at the voices of these people. I do it through a few ways. I mainly used legal records and even coroner's reports. There was also this great record called the Tennessee Veterans Questionnaires which consists of interviews conducted about the time of World War 1 with both Confederate and Union soldiers.

The soldiers who came from poor white families were very particular about the fact that they hated slavery.

Even if they were racist, they hated the actual institution. They realized fully that the institution was hurting their chances of not only getting jobs but making any kind of a living wage. Many of them stated their fathers would never vote for slaveholders or having anything to do with slaveholders. They talked about the huge class divide. Many poor whites stated that they were looked on as not better than slaves. That very much seemed to be the consensus.

Were poor whites made resentful from, in their eyes at least, being treated like black slaves? Was there widespread rage and anger?

I honestly haven't found a lot of it. More of the evidence I found was them joining across racial lines. There was interracial interaction to such an extent that we haven't really uncovered all of it. There is a lot of interracial sex. There was a lot of interracial drinking and gambling especially when you get into cities where working-class whites and blacks are living together. Not only in the same areas in town but literally in the same apartments and even in the same rooms. When you start getting into these death records you also see how many mixed race babies are being murdered by their white mothers. It was infanticide.

White women who had a child by a black man or dared to marry him could lose their citizenship, be banished, or even worse by white society.

They would definitely be banished from society. Poor white women were always liable to have their children taken away and bound out by local government. This is not the same as slavery, but these children would be bound out to somebody for their labor until they were of age, 18 or 16, sometimes 21. They were expected to labor eight to 10 hours a day, six days a week like any other laborer. Especially if the children that these poor white women had were of mixed race heritage, their chances of being bound out were much higher.

What were some of the measures both legal and extra-legal that white elites used to police and stop these friendships and other associations between poor whites and black people?

There were sheriffs and his deputies and marshals of course. There were also slave patrols and the vigilante violence societies. They're called minute men committees or vigilance committees. They would all arrest poor whites at will for charges like vagrancy, which is literally defined as doing nothing. You could be standing on the side of a highway and be arrested.

There were tons of very strict alcohol laws, especially prohibiting selling liquor or giving liquor to slave. Poor whites were arrested all the time on those charges. They were arrested on gambling charges quite frequently. All these kinds of nonviolent behaviors were not real "crimes" but it was an effort to criminalize the natural behaviors of the poor to put them in jail at will. They're literally just being thrown in the jails and left there for weeks or months if they pose any sort of threat to the racial hierarchy.

How were the black people caught with poor whites punished?   

They were whipped. White folks were whipped as well but to a far lesser extent. Most of the slaves that you would find in jails were only there as runaways being held while the slave owner is trying to pick them. Because of course, most planters wanted to discipline their slaves on their own. They didn't want some sheriff or overzealous marshal whipping their slaves too brutally because the whole point was get them right back out to work.

Free blacks though are a whole another story. Free blacks were whipped severely. Poor whites, again, were whipped but the whole point of whipping poor whites was to degrade them to the level not only of blacks but to the level of a slave. Once a white man got whipped on the courthouse steps in front of everybody, he was usually disgraced enough to leave the community and never return.

What do we know about the upper class whites, the planter class, in terms of how they thought about poor whites?

The planter class absolutely despised poor whites. I don't think they thought that poor whites were racially in the same category as they were. The planter class talked about poor whites as being some kind of Other, huge nuisances that were potentially threats to slavery itself.

They didn't want them interacting with their slaves and that was constantly a problem. They were constantly trying to enforce segregation and it was almost impossible to do in such a rural society.  They knew that poor whites had the power if they banded together with slaves to create some type of violent overthrow.

There was also strict censorship throughout the region. They didn't want any literature to get into the Deep South that could possibly alert poor whites to their wider rights not only as laborers but as men. I argue that the planters really had a three-part war, not only from northern abolitionists and the enslaved themselves but poor white workers against the institution of slavery.

One of the old lies that you hear in this moment of white backlash and Trumpism is that there were Irish slaves and that "poor white people had it worse" than black people who were owned as human property. Who is circulating this nonsense and how do you rebut it?

Historian Liam Hogan has traced all of this and he's shown that these memes and internet narratives are all being propagated by white supremacist groups. There's absolutely no historical reality to it. No scholar worth her salt would ever claim such a thing. Yes, there were forms of unfree labor for people other than black people in the United States, whether they were poor white, Chinese, Mexican, or Native American. There were all sorts of forms of unfree labor, but there were only one group of people that were enslaved and that was for black people. The Irish do come into my book because I talk about the militancy of white labor.

Even though the South did not have nearly the numbers of white immigrants as the North did, Southern port cities like Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans, and even Mobile, were having huge numbers of Irish famine immigrants coming in during the late 1840s and 1850s. They were filling up working as dock workers and starting to have labor strikes and resistance of that nature. It is not surprising that the push for the Civil War starts in Charleston because that city--and South Carolina--is seeing a drain of their slaves. Their brutalized free black labor is also being drained to the Western states of Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas.

All these famine, Irish immigrants are not only complaining about having to compete with slaves, they're striking and leading labor protests. White elites don't want militant white workers. They want to import more slaves that they can brutalize and lord over.

There's a grain of truth to the fact that if planters had a really dirty or dangerous job, like ditching or something like that where there is liability for somebody to die, they're going to get the cheap Irish labor or the poor white to do that kind of work. But the reality is if you're brutalizing your laborers, if you're constantly whipping your laborers, you can get more out of them than you can any kind of free labor. That was definitely the case. I mean, time after time, slaveholders are saying they prefer black labor because they can brutalize them and bend them to their will. They don't have the same amount of pushback.

White laborers can be exploited but they can also walk off. They can resist in different ways that black human property can't, but then it also depends on the year, the time, the local political economy in terms of the cost and availability of slaves. For example, in Texas and other parts of the slaveocracy slave owners would go and get a human being really cheap comparatively and work them to death.

Why did poor whites fight in the Civil War in the numbers they did? Was it the old story that rich people make wars and poor folks have to fight them?

Poor whites did not fight in the numbers we originally thought they did. Before the conscription acts most people who are joining the Confederate military were either slaveholders, sons of slaveholders, or whites who are somehow tied to the institution, whether they are merchants to slave owners or whether they are Yeoman farmers who depend on slaveholders for certain economic aspects of their careers. You don't see high percentages of poor whites until the Conscription Act.

The vigilante committees also have a lot to do with forcing men to join as soon as war breaks out. You literally have accounts of poor whites being led off in chains. Poor whites being shot if they're not joining up.  Poor whites even learned from the enslaved how to not be tracked and to go hide out in these swamps and fields and woods and not be found. A lot of slaves were actually helping poor whites run away from the army. Some slaves would feed them and keep them going.

For the poor whites that went along with secession and the war, how did rich whites convince them? What were they fighting for?

Well, a lot of it was the incendiary racial, racist talk that I mentioned earlier,. But some of it too was just getting a wage. It was way more than they could make staying on the farm somewhere, trying to piece together day labor. The third reason is just honor itself. These are people who spent every waking minute knowing they weren't included in high white society and they thought probably for a minute that if they could go and be a faithful gallant soldier, maybe they would be rewarded with some type of honor.

In this moment of the age of Donald Trump, white backlash, and a incorrect narrative by the American news media that it was "working class economic anxiety" and not white racism which lifted him to power, what lessons does your book offer?

We must not absolve poor whites and working-class whites for their racism. But we need to understand where that racism comes from, where it's generated and who it helps the most. Upper-class white elites still perpetuate this division between working class people. Poor white people and working-class white people don't have an idea of our nation's history. They don't understand at a very fundamental level why there should be any reparations for African-Americans in this country. When you don't understand the history and haven't been told why things are the way they are then it is hard to move forward. Given the failures of the country's news media and educational system I don't think we can really fault people for their ignorance. I think we've got to arm people with knowledge first and then get them to understand how we ended up where we are today.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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