WISIR has appointed its Inaugural Postdoctoral Prize Fellow—Kirstine Taylor, Postdoctoral Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Washington. She is currently at work on a book project entitled The Alchemy of Racial Innocence: From the Postwar South to Post-Racial America. Her article “Untimely Subjects: White Trash and the Making of Racial Innocence in the Postwar South,” appeared in American Quarterly in March 2015. A second article, “Covering Legal Mobilization: A Bottom-Up Analysis of Wards Cove v. Antonio” (co-authored with Michael McCann and George Lovell) appeared in Law & Social Inquiry in Summer 2015.

WISIR Director Jack Turner sat down with Taylor to chat about her work.

JT: How did you become interested in “white trash”?

KT: It was happenstance. During my first term in graduate school, I stumbled across the language of “white trash” in newspaper articles about the South from the mid-twentieth century. The terminology was at once familiar and strange. It was familiar because the term “white trash” is in use today as a sometimes derogatory and sometimes comic label for poor rural whites. At the same time, as I continued to dig, the term’s meaning kept shifting under foot – sometimes it designated a specific breed of low skilled white agricultural laborer, sometimes it designated a lack of ‘purity’ at a time in the nation’s history when race came down to biology, and sometimes it designated a kind of mob spirit or racist violence thought to be particularly rife among rural southern whites, such as the Ewells of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. As it turned out, these varying meanings of “white trash” weren’t shifting nonsensically, but instead were shifting over time. More specifically, who could be credibly called “white trash” and for what reasons changed dramatically in the 1950s and 1960s, during a time of great racial and class upheaval in the South. 

I became very interested in what forces motivated this change, and what this meant. If there is a sense of failure in being called the “trash,” or the refuse, of whiteness, then we must think about what sort of political work this sense of failure secures for the racial order. That became my first research task in graduate school.

JT: The subject of your book is racial innocence. What is racial innocence and why does it matter in politics?

KT: Racial innocence is blindness, but of a particular sort. It’s no secret that, for instance, the United States incarcerates African American men and women at astronomically disproportionate rates relative to their population. In 2010, the U.S. incarcerated 2,000 African Americans per 100,000 in correctional facilities, but only 380 whites per 100,000, according to the Department of Justice. It is also no secret that racial patterns of wealth and home ownership today can be drawn back to government policies like redlining and restrictive housing covenants. These policies secured access to FHA-backed loans and property insurance for whites and denied these to blacks, effectively barring African Americans from white neighborhoods and thus from the wealth-making property values attached to those neighborhoods. We know these things. At the same time, the idea that the “problem” of race for the nation is over and dead, as if toppling Jim Crow was the nail in the coffin of racial discrimination, is a very commonplace idea. So is the insupportable assumption that patterns of wealth, access to jobs and housing, and access to the ballot box are not racialized aspects of American life. In many parts of the country, the notion that race is no longer a salient issue in America is un-interrogated to the point of being sacrosanct.

James Baldwin had a phrase for this state of affairs: racial innocence. It is the idea that Americans are at once knowledgeable of but steadfastly blind to the racial wrongs of the nation, past and present. He called this blindness America’s great “crime,” and understanding how it operates is important precisely because to change anything about our situation – of which incarceration and the racial wealth gap are but two elements – requires us to recognize the barriers to recognition.

JT: Your work is unconventional because it brings together two fields in political science that are often kept apart: political theory and American political development. How did it occur to you to work at this intersection?

KT: I arrived at American political development by way of Baldwin’s concept of racial innocence. When we take Baldwin seriously, we recognize that racial innocence is the crime of not seeing what is right in front of you. It is the crime of not seeing what is plain as day when you move through the world, which is that the United States is organized along racial lines, and that these racial lines have been, despite progress made, remarkably stable.

The next step for me was to ask: Where does innocence come from? What are its wellsprings? The first and most obvious answer, that it is blindness in the head or the heart, seemed a dangerous formulation. If innocence is principally ideological, it suggests that one would be able to educate it out of existence given enough time and patience. To me, the problem of innocence seemed more solid than that, and I began to think of it as an ideological evasion that is politically and maybe even institutionally motivated. This led me to the field of American political development. I decided that I needed to look to the historical development of political institutions to be able to locate the political sources of racial innocence. APD seemed exactly the field to turn to for the kind of investigation I had in mind. Luckily I found myself in a department with scholars in political theory and American political development supportive of this unconventional blend of fields.