When I was Googling for articles on Brian Williams, I came across this piece from the April 2005 Philadelphia magazine, a slick, glossy magazine whose advertising (and there’s lots of it) and articles serve as a guide to shopping and dining in the City of Brotherly Love. Here’s its opening paragraph:
Arby’s! NASCAR! South Jersey! It’s a white-trash bonanza this month as we chat with anchorman Brian Williams, who covered the Garden State for WCAU-TV (Channel 10) in the ’80s before going network and succeeding Tom Brokaw in the NBC Nightly News chair.
If I wrote a piece that began “Ribs! Rap music! It’s a black-trash bonanza this month…”, whoever my editor was would strike out that phrase so fast it would make your head spin–and either give me a serious dressing down or never hire me again.
And quite rightly so.
But as Larry Elder wrote in 2000, “white trash” remains a perfectly acceptable phrase in America’s PC-obsessed media:
We live in an era where radio talk-show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger catches fire for calling homosexuals “biological errors.”
Schlessinger apologized, but protesters remain unappeased. On the NBC program “Will & Grace,” critics attacked the show when a character referred to her Salvadoran maid as a “hot tamale.” In response, the network dubbed in a less offensive expression. We call illegal aliens “undocumented workers.” We call blacks “African-Americans.” Fine.
But why, then, is it perfectly OK in polite company to call to low-income, often southern-dwelling people “white trash”?
Take the President Bill Clinton-Paula Jones scandal. Is there a greater example of the harsh treatment and media pile-on against so-called “white trash”? Recall that Jones, then an Arkansas state employee, claimed then governor Bill Clinton groped her and solicited sex.
* * *
As for Jones? Remember Clinton defender James Carville’s famous line, “Drag $100 through a trailer park and there’s no telling what you’ll find.”
In today’s era of racial sensitivity, safe targets like white trash remain. Former California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown once called political opponents “white boys.” Al Gore’s campaign manager, Donna Brazile, referred to the GOP as the “party of the white boys.”
Comedian Jeff Foxworthy makes a good living by poking fun at “rednecks.”
But Foxworthy, himself a Southerner, calls his humor respectfully self-deprecating, rather than insulting or dismissive. But apparently anybody can ridicule low-income, uneducated whites by branding them “white trash.” Could someone like Bill Maher go on national television and suggest that only “black trash” or “Latino trash” appear on such programs?
What’s the point? When a guest or host appears on a show like “Politically Incorrect” and derides a category of people by race, that’s entertainment.
But were the host to blanketly ridicule low-income minorities, that’s hate speech. Indeed, many colleges have passed “speech codes,” outlawing insensitive or demeaning language directed towards racial or ethnic groups.
Try it. Substitute “black trash” for “white trash.” After all, a disproportionate number of blacks appear on these tabloid shows. Frankly, by not calling black guests “black trash,” aren’t we suggesting blacks who appear on “Springer” represent mainstream black America? Now that’s insulting.
Picking on, demeaning, and ridiculing whites is OK. But by demeaning any group by race, we open the door and grant permission to demean others.
Bottom line, either race-based insults are offensive or they’re not.
The irony in Philadelphia’s case is that the magazine makes a great deal of its revenue–both from advertising and from purchases of individual issues–from South Jersey suburban readers looking for a guide to the big city on the other side of the Delaware.
I purchased it for years when I lived in South Jersey myself. Of course back then, I had no idea how condescending its publishers were to those of us unfortunates in the hinterlands.