Those of us who grew up in the Central Valley in the 1940s and ’50s didn’t need books to tell us about white poverty or attendant bigotry. It was summarized by an infamous sign in a Bakersfield movie theater just before World War II: “N------ and Okies upstairs.”
The former remains a racist epithet, but “Okie,” as a variation of “white trash,” has lost much of its sting hereabouts due to the accomplishments of migrant progeny such as Jess Unruh, David Smith, Willie Brown, Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel, Rafer Johnson, Merle Haggard, Dale Scales, etc. – most but by no means all whites.
For many so-called Okies and others, World War II heated up the state’s economy and provided abundant jobs. To take advantage, Texas-born novelist James D. Houston recalled, it was necessary to let go of a “stubborn attachment to the way your father or your grandfather did things.” Forced by circumstance to try new things, they did so successfully.
Coaches at Bakersfield College visiting the homes of outstanding high school athletes from migrant families in the 1950s often were told that high school was book-learnin’ enough. But after much persuasion, some athletes were allowed to attend classes and compete for the college if they also picked cotton in season. Many graduated and one athlete/cotton-picker, Jim Young, later became chancellor of Bakersfield College. Far more folded into the society as contributors and enrichers.
Recently a spate of books – the most celebrated of which seems to be J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” – has examined white poverty and its political consequences. It seems clear that many hardworking whites in the Southeast have made the mistake of relying on a sense of racial entitlement and old economic patterns.
Some spin their wheels with outrage that a black man has leapfrogged them and become president of the United States. Barack Obama must have cheated – thus the spate of goofy theories. In truth, a key to Obama’s success was that he, like Unruh, Smith, Brown, et al., understood that education and change were not their enemies. He knew the past would not be returning.
Now we must instill that same sense of the possible in more contemporary blue-collar whites and browns and blacks, so we can reap their abilities. Too many good minds are wasted yearning for old jobs and comforting styles. Unfortunately this comes at a time when higher education in America has become unconscionably expensive. Correcting that must be our next great challenge.
Gerald Haslam is a California author. His 2006 novel, “Grace Period,” won this year’s Legacy Fiction Eric Hoffer Award. Contact Haslam at firstname.lastname@example.org.