"They are blamed for living on bad land, as though they had other choices. From the beginning, they have existed in the minds of rural or urban elites and the middle class as extrusions of the weedy, unproductive soil. They are depicted as slothful, rootless vagrants, physically scarred by their poverty. The worst ate clay and turned yellow, wallowed in mud and muck, and their necks became burned by the hot sun. Their poorly clothed, poorly fed children generated what others believed to be a permanent and defective breed. Sexual deviance? That comes from cramped quarters in obscure retreats, distant from civilization, where the moral vocabulary that dwells in town has been lost. We think of the left-behind groups as extinct, and the present as a time of advanced thought and sensibility. But today's trailer trash are merely yesterday's vagrants on wheels, an updated version of Okies in jalopies and Florida crackers in their carts. . . .
"The discomfort middle-class Americans feel when forced to acknowledge the existence of poverty highlights the disconnect between image and reality. It seems clear that we have made little progress since James Agee exposed the world of poor sharecroppers in 1941. We still today are blind to the 'cruel radiance of what is.' The static rural experience is augmented by the persistence of class-inflected tropes and the voyeuristic shock in televised portraits of degenerate beings and wasted lives in the richest country that has ever existed. And what of Billy Redden? In 1972, a country boy was made up to fit a stereotype of the retarded hillbilly, the idiot savant. Today his mundane struggle to survive can satisfy no one's expectations, because his story is ordinary. He is neither eccentric nor perverse. Nor does he don a scraggly beard, wear a bandana, or hunt gators. He is simply one of the hundreds of thousands of faceless employees who work at a Wal-Mart.
"White trash is a central, if disturbing, thread in our national narrative. The very existence of such people – both in their visibility and invisibility – is proof that American society obsesses over the mutable labels we give to the neighbors we wish not to notice. 'They are not who we are.' But they are who we are and have been a fundamental part of our history, whether we like it or not."