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Here We Go Again, Trash-Talking The Working Class

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Here We Go Again, Trash-Talking The Working Class

Trailer home

Bear with me, please, as I start this column with a brief story about my two grandmothers who lived in trailer homes.

They lived in Ashtabula County, which is tucked into the northeast corner of Ohio, an hour east of Cleveland. If ever you’ve travelled a good distance along U.S. 90, you likely passed our county’s handful of exits on your way to somewhere else.

For all of my childhood, this was home, and I was seldom happier than when I had time alone with my maternal great-grandmother, Ada, who raised my mother from the age of 8. In the late ’60s, after her husband died, Ada sold her house and 20 acres to move into a trailer home a couple of miles down the road. It was closer to her church, her second home.

I spent weeks at a time in the summers with her, freed from the responsibilities of the oldest child always on duty. She taught me how to cook, garden and quilt. Every Sunday after church, rain or shine, we walked to the cemetery to tend my great-grandfather’s grave and say a prayer of gratitude for the time we’d had with him. We had our evening rituals, too. She believed a steaming cup of tea at sunset was a great way to settle the mind for the big thoughts that show up only under the night sky.

My maternal grandmother, Vivian, lost custody of my mother when she was 8 and spent the rest of her life trying to make it up to her and taking care of my uncle, who had a mental disability. His name was Francis, and she never spent a day away from him until he died from complications of diabetes in his late 50s.

Grandma Vivian was the first person I knew to buy an aluminum Christmas tree. What a sight for my siblings and me. My mother stood behind us and whispered orders to close our mouths and stop acting like we’d just seen a ghost.

This was the grandma with the trunk full of antique dresses and hats for us to play with whenever we visited. When my mother wasn’t around, Grandma often served me a cup of coffee loaded with milk and sugar — a grown-up reward for “being so responsible.” When her house in Ashtabula County became too run down to be safe, my grandmother closed it up and lived in a trailer on the back lot until Alzheimer’s robbed her of the ability to take care of herself.

I wanted you to know a little bit about my grandmothers so that you might better understand my outrage over a Cleveland Plain Dealer writer’s reaction to Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Donald Trump for president:

“Thanks to Trump, the entire Palin clan is now back in the spotlight they so crave. Come July, Republican National Convention organizers should house the whole dysfunctional family at a trailer park in Ashtabula.”

This is surely not the first time a pundit has cast the Palins as “trailer park folks” — which is code, of course, for “white trash.” We are hearing these phrases more frequently as pundits try to make sense of Donald Trump’s soaring poll numbers.

In her book “Framing Class: Media Representations of Wealth and Poverty in America,” sociologist Diana Kendall describes how in 2008 then-“Late Show” host David Letterman “maintained a night-after-night monologue about Sarah Palin and why she is white trash.” He was joined, she writes, by “print media, television and Web blogs … full of descriptions of Sarah Palin’s trailer park lifestyle.”

Much closer to home, since Donald Trump’s charade of a candidacy caught fire, I have heard many fellow liberals freely toss around the terms “white trash” and “trailer trash.” These are people who would never dream of telling a racist joke, but they think nothing of ridiculing those of lesser economic means.

Every group has its “other.” For too many white intellectuals, it’s the working class.

Neither of my grandmothers had much money, ever, but they contributed so much to the lives of the people they loved. They were both storytellers who helped me understand the long-ago sacrifices of people I would never know but who live on in the blue of my eyes and the ambitions of my heart. They are why I’ve devoted a number of columns and stories over the years to people who live in trailer parks.

Just this week, I was remembering Marjie Scuvotti, a 24-year-old mother of four. I interviewed her in 2002, on the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. She talked to me in her home in a trailer park as she painted her 6-year-old son Issac’s face red, white and blue for a parade celebrating first responders.

“You’re my American-flag boy,” Marjie whispered in his ear. She couldn’t have been a prouder mother.

This campaign year has barely begun, and it promises to be a long one. Regardless of which partisan lens we look through, we will see some voters who confound us.

Mocking them will never bring us closer to understanding them, but it will surely reveal us, and we will not benefit from the exposure.

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional-in-residence at Kent State University’s school of journalism. She is the author of two books, including “…and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate.

Photo: Living in a trailer home isn’t a sign of class, no matter how much people want to stereotype. Roadsidepictures/Flickr

Connie Schultz

Connie Schultz is a nationally syndicated columnist for Creators Syndicated. Schultz won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for commentary and was a finalist for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. She has also published two books: Life Happens: And Other Unavoidable Truths -- a collection of her previously published columns -- and ...and His Lovely Wife: A Memoir from the Woman Beside the Man, which chronicled her experiences on the campaign trail with her husband, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown.

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  1. Huddy January 28, 2016

    Thank you Connie, as a resident of Ashtabula County I was disappointed by the characterization of life in the county.

    1. JPHALL January 28, 2016

      Just like race or ethnicity those who live the rural life are often stereotyped.

  2. idamag January 28, 2016

    I have called the Palin’s Wasilla White Trash. I never used the term “trailer trash.” It has nothing to do with money or work. It has to do with trashy behavior. I have the highest respect for the working class.

  3. Rebecca Gumm January 29, 2016

    I was born in Ashtabula county, but left at 6 weeks when I was adopted. My biological family has a long history in the county and I am offended that anyone at that “bastion” of journalistic integrity that is now the PD would have the balls to refer to the people of Ashtabula that way…

  4. Sea Stories January 29, 2016

    Ignorance is bliss, or so I’ve heard. Ashtabula was an integral piece of the Underground Railroad to allow Blacks who were enslaved to escape to Canada.

    That qualifies the town for a place of historical importance and says quite a lot about the character of its past citizenry. I’m sure some of that was passed down to the descendants. I aspire to be as noble as some of that white, trailer trash.

    That sort of benevolent behavior would never even enter the small minds of Trumps and Palins.

  5. Tari Torch Sweeney January 29, 2016

    Well, I think, too, that you must understand why people do the “trailer trash” analogy. For everywhere in America that you go, you DO see trailer parks that are absolutely eyesores, or have old cars, tires, furniture, outside in their yards. You cannot deny that. That is why it is used, evoking THOSE places. I fully understand the offense you take to this, believe me. But, by the same token, maybe America needs to clean it up as well. I don’t defend Brent Larkin’s reference, but has he apologized? Has he seen these conversations? I wonder if it was something he didn’t think about as he wrote that piece. Granted, yes, he SHOULD HAVE considered his words more carefully. When I was growing up, my grandparents, who were very well off, asked me what I wanted for my 12th birthday. I was at their house in Pennsylvania. I said I wanted to go look at new trailers!! So , they actually took me to a place that sold trailers! From then on, I wanted to live in a trailer! I’m 67 now and I’ve upgraded to wanting a wonderful RV so I can travel America! Never lived in a trailer, either, btw. The point is, the visual of trash trailers is in our heads….it comes to the fore when something triggers it. Don’t forgive it, of course, but DO have honest conversation, not anger….at least not until we know how he came to write those words. Connie, you know Brent Larkin. Why didn’t you at least call and ASK him?

    1. Dulcinea67 March 21, 2016

      Are you being intentionally obtuse? Poor people living in trailer parks are there because they don’t have any better options. Trash and junk are found wherever there are poor people, whether that’s around low-income housing in Chicago, slums in Mumbai or Rio, or shacks in Appalachia. Trailer trash is code for white trash, so don’t pretend it’s an analogy for anything but derision for a class of people you are afraid to end up as.

      Do you think only poor whites living in trailer parks leave messes? Do you think only white people live in trailers? Do you have a clue that poor people end up with lots of hand-me-downs that break quickly? Are you aware that hauling trash away costs money and that poor people can’t afford such luxuries? Do you forgive brown and black people for making messes?

      Apparently you don’t know the difference between a mobile home and an RV, and can’t step back from your prejudice against poor white people to understand that your dream of living in a luxury RV and touring the country is a galaxy away from living in a mobile home in a park because it’s the best you can afford. How very progressive of you to use your irrelevant fantasy as an excuse to point and say, “Well if they would just clean up after themselves it wouldn’t occur to me to call them white trash” in your cutsie appeal to reasonableness.

      1. Tari Torch Sweeney March 31, 2016

        Well, you got absolutely nothing I said. I’m not wasting time explaining again. I’ve never thought nor called anyone poor white trash. And at 12, it was a wonderfully relevant dream. It was a TRAILER. I graduated to RVS (in my mind) NOT because I thought trailers were only for poor white trash but because I liked the thought of getting into an RV and driving everywhere around the country. Go blow off your ire and anger at someone else. I’ve always fought for people, civil rights….

  6. Christopher Hook January 29, 2016

    Thank you Connie for your insightful piece. Just to add, that the public’s stigmatization of poverty does not stop there. The poor themselves feel *our* stigma. They begin to see themselves as *we* see them. When you begin to see yourself this way, you feel you don’t deserve that new job; your work and friendships suffer, along with your feeling of unity with the outside world. Your children go to school with lower self-esteem and self-worth, and may act out in response, or perform poorly, leading to adverse health and education outcomes down the road. This is one reason (of many) it is so hard to get out of poverty once in it. Our stigma doesn’t help, and often it actually hurts.

  7. lunastrixae January 29, 2016

    This is true. I’m a middle class democrat, and I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen surprise in people’s eyes when I tell them I grew up in a trailer park and still have family that lives in trailers. It’s like I’m telling them I’m related to life on Mars.

    1. Concerned Parent January 29, 2016

      Unless you make 250k a year, you aren’t middle class, you’re delusional.

  8. Concerned Parent January 29, 2016

    Socio-economic status binds us many times more than ethnicity or common ancestry does. ( I won’t say race because we are all humans)

  9. Hart Noecker January 30, 2016

    The difference, of course, is that the Palins and the Trumps of the world so rightfully ridiculed by the media live in mansions, not trailers, and wouldn’t know the working class if they spat in their face.

  10. Me January 30, 2016

    If anyone trashes “the working class” it’s the GOP…regardless of what type of abode they choose.

  11. Taylor Selseth January 30, 2016

    I spent the first years of my life in a trailer home and my family was always pretty low income, so this struck a chord with me. I am a Liberal Democrat, but I have always been disgusted with the classism so many middle class Democrats in the big cities have towards us “trailer trash” and “hicks from the sticks”. I see this mentality a lot particularly when it comes to guns.

  12. David Nova February 2, 2016

    guilty as charged. ty for wakeup call.


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