Chuck Darrow of the Courier-Post in New Jersey has an interesting commentary on the casual use of the phrase "White Trash." He suggests that if we have the good taste and sensitivity to avoid ethnic slurs - from the N-word on - then we really should avoid using White Trash as well. "I truly cringe every time I hear or see "white trash" tossed around so blithely," he writes.
But I wonder. I think it may have been Cornel West who pointed out that it is essentially impossible to malign those at the top of the social and power structure with the same vicious effect as you can denigrate those at the bottom - "Honky" and "cracker" simply cannot, and never will, carry the same power to shock and horrify as their equivalent slurs on blacks, Asians, Hispanics, the disabled, or anyone else at a significant social and economic disadvantage. In fact, if anything, such a term is almost comical because it is so fundamentally empty in its attempt to undercut the dominant social class.
But I think Darrow misses an even more important semantic distinction between "White Trash" and any even remotely comparable ethnic slur. Here is a letter I dashed off to the Romenesko journalism site, which links Darrow's column today:
While it is true that "White Trash" can be taken as fighting words in my native South, I think Chuck Darrow of the Courier-Post is way off base in equating the term so closely with an ethnic slur of the same caliber as the infamous "N-word." The phrase "White Trash" suggests a class or economic distinction that, however great the implied difficulty, can be corrected by education, hard work, and, ultimately of course, money. As such, it can't possibly deliver the same pain as a word that dismisses someone as irredeemably inferior - that attacks the very humanity of the person described - no matter his economic, social or educational accomplishment. I think Chuck Darrow's outrage at the use of the phrase is both unnecessarily thin-skinned and considerably misplaced as a social and historical matter.
Am I wrong here?