You may have used the term “white trash” to refer to someone of a lower social class or you may even refer to yourself as “white trash”, wearing the title like a sort of badge of humorous honor. It conjures up stereotypes of incestuous relations, low intelligence, welfare, and low morality. The disturbing history of the term is so painful yet something most Americans aren’t even cognizant of.
In the early 1800s, the term was coined by African American slaves and referred to lower class white people who had minimal skills or were indentured servants. They were looked down on by both African Americans and (socially elite) white people alike. White trash-dom was believed to be a genetics issue so the solution to this problem seemed to be obvious. American eugenicists believed in the idea that we could control and perfect the human race by intervening with reproduction (sound familiar?). So they set out to sterilize all Americans who they deemed unworthy of reproducing by any means necessary. In the most notorious case (1927), Virginia state resident Carrie Buck protested her case all the way to the Supreme Court because she was involuntarily committed for promiscuity and feeble-mindedness. Carrie gave birth out of wedlock but it wasn’t because she was being promiscous; she was raped by her father. She lost her case and was sterilized which was the slippery slope for the United States: tens of thousands of Americans were sterilized following that court ruling and some didn’t even know it. The precedings bears a glaring resemblance of the horrors of Nazi Germany and their experimentation with eugenics yet little is known of the eugenicists in our own backyard. During this bleak time, there was even discussion among the eugenics community of gas chambers, citing execution as the quickest way to perfect the race. They came to an agreement that America wasn’t ready for this sort of solution and sterilization came into play. If you think the Nazis weren’t taking notes from the old red, white and blue, you’d better guess again.
In the end, sterilization in the United States took place in some states up until the 1970s. Playing “god” on this level begs the question, will we ever abuse our medical advances again? We conduct genetic testing to determine the risk of disease or defect but where do we draw the so-called ethical line? It’s a very thin line and with such a troubling history, one that requires deep consideration.