“Sophisticated People Versus Rednecks”: Economic Restructuring and Class Difference in America’s West



In this paper, we argue for the importance of constructing a human geography of white class difference. More particularly, we present a theoretical framework for understanding the cultural politics of class and whiteness in the context of rural restructuring. We theorize these politics through an examination of the national discourse of redneck that has emerged in the US. We analyze the term “redneck” as one of several rhetorical categories that refer to rural white poor people. We argue that while various terms are employed in geographically specific ways and cannot be used interchangeably, they nonetheless function similarly in positioning the white rural poor. Our examination of redneck discourse exemplifies these processes and points up the need for a broader analysis of representational strategies that reinforce class difference among whites. Drawing upon three case studies of white rural poverty, we deconstruct these imagined rural spaces by situating discourses about white rural poor people in the context of geographically specific political economies of power and social relations in Kentucky, Florida, and Washington. These case studies, as well as the national discourse of redneck, represent rural poverty as a lifestyle choice and as an individualized cultural trait. Abstract rural spaces are construed as poor, underdeveloped, and wild; rural, white poor people are represented as lazy, dirty, obsolescent, conservative, or alternative. A focus upon the political economy of community resource relationships and the construction and reproduction of redneck discourses reveals how exploitative material processes are justified by naming others and blaming the persistence of rural poverty upon the poor themselves.