Who would dare use that expression -- especially in public? Yet calling poor, presumably morally degenerate Caucasians "white trash" is perfectly OK.
On the television show "Politically Incorrect," host Bill Maher and his panel discussed the recent shooting death of a guest who appeared on "The Jerry Springer Show." A couple -- a man and a woman -- accused the man's ex-wife of stalking them. Then the alleged stalker, the man's ex-wife, also appeared on the show. Guess what, learns the alleged stalker, her ex-husband is now ... married! And he's married to the woman who appeared with him on the program! Gotcha! Now, weren't you embarrassed, you stalker.
But the show fell flat when the alleged stalker seemed indifferent about the revelation of her ex-husband's new marriage, asserted that she wanted nothing further to do with him, and calmly walked off the stage.
But shortly after the program aired, the police in Sarasota, Fla., found the alleged stalker dead, and the couple on the lam.
On "Politically Incorrect," Maher asked whether to hold the "Springer" show morally, if not legally, responsible for the guest's murder. One of his panelists called those who appear on such shows "white trash," and humorously suggested that these programs provide a kind of safety valve for troubled guests who, for whatever reason, agree to appear. To this, Maher said, "So you're saying Jerry Springer is doing a service to America by having white trash kill each other?" White trash?
Interesting. 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, it is 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. The National Organization for Women did nothing.
Anita Hill, on the other hand, made a far less serious and less provable accusation against then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. She claimed that Thomas wanted to date her, and, among other things, suggestively told her about a pubic hair on his Coke. OK, not exactly one of the greatest opening lines, but Hill and supporters pronounced it sexual harassment.
Experts in sexual harassment law considered Jones' case far stronger. After all, she told people about it when it happened and specifically named Clinton as the perpetrator. And in the Jones' case, the accused had a pattern of coming on to women -- one of the customary ways in which a plaintiff proves a he-said-she-said sexual harassment case.
But Anita Hill became a heroine, a symbol of the oppression women experience in the mean streets of corporate America. NOW championed her cause. Some even likened her to historical black heroines like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth!
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 "white trash" for "black 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.