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White Trash: A Class Relevant Scapegoat for the Cultural Elite

Abstract: Multiculturalism has emerged as both a fact of the modern workplace and an important value reflecting needed tolerance in a diverse global society. Researchers have measured the emergence of this new value with “patterned tolerance” and cultural omnivorous-ness among the elite. Other research has focused on the possibility of racism implied in the musical genres rejected by this elite. The cultural omnivorous-ness also reflects the growth of a cosmopolitan elite tied neither to local places nor to local people. Finally, writers about “white trash” discuss the stereotypes and attitudes associated with poor whites. This paper examines these elements to find that poor whites are demonized both for what they represent as stereotypically racist and closed minded, and for what they are as local people left out of the global cosmopolitan culture, and against which that culture is defined.

The nature of the modern economy is global, creative, and changing (Barnett 1994; Reich 1992). This internationalism has changed the work place. The burgeoning importance of multiculturalism reflects this new economy. The international nature of the modern economy insists that businesses cannot afford to close their doors to diverse, talented people because they are not WASPs1 (Gardenswartz 1994).

As the economy changes, so does the culture of the elite. Modern elites are well-educated participants in the global economy. Their consumer tastes are eclectic and global. They enjoy products worn from use and inspired by less-industrialized people (Brooks 2000). They search for the real and identity is related to authenticity (Giddens 1991; Seabrook 2001).

This changing economy influences the infrastructure of the modern elite as well (Garreau 1991; Stalnaker 2002). Hubs of business and cultural activity are places where international people live and work. International restaurants, bohemian coffee shops, and boutique furniture stores serve them. All members of the elite enjoy the businesses that cater to these people, and these businesses form part of the critical mass for successful edge cities.

Peterson and Kern (1996) suggest that the nature of elite taste has changed in the last two decades. Highbrow taste has traditionally been used to exclude non-elites. Peterson and Kern argue that this is no longer the case. They contend that instead of using high culture to exclude other non-elites, elite taste is now inclusive and broad. Elites are now marked by their eclecticism regarding taste.

Between 1982 and 1992, Peterson and Kern found that highbrows had increased the numbers of both low- and middle-brow musical genres they liked. This contrasted expectations of the snob model where highbrows would dislike low-, and middlebrow musical genres (Lynes 1954; Sontag 1966) .

Peterson and Kern suggest that omnivorous-ness signifies openness to different genres, which is antithetical to the active dislike expected under a snob model. Where a snob model is based on rigid exclusionary rules, an omnivore model is open to different genres (Bourdieu 1984; Murphy 1988).

Peterson and Kern caution against making overly strong generalizations using this data because it relies on two time points only ten years apart. Yet, they do offer some suggestions why the elite cultural perspective has changed. They list structural change, value change, art-world change, generational politics, and status-group politics as possible sources for this shift to omnivorous-ness. Structural change refers to the greater accessibility of elite culture, as well as the geographic and social mobility that tends to blur borders of different tastes. Value change refers to a shift towards greater tolerance in general, reflected in the shift from snobbishness to omnivorous-ness. Art-world change refers to the opening of the art world to market forces that pushed artists to look for ever-broader sources of influence. Generational politics reflect a shift from expecting youth to abandon pop culture through the first half of the century, to youth culture being seen as a viable adult alternative culture (Arnowitz 1993; Lipsitz 1990). Finally they suggest that status-group politics have shifted from avoiding popular culture to absorbing elements of popular culture into the dominant status-group culture (Arnold 1875; Bloom 1987; Elliot 1949; Leonard 1962; Tichi 1994).

Bryson (1996) tests Peterson and Kern’s omnivore hypothesis using the culture module of the 1993 General Social Survey (GSS2). This module asked about musical likes and dislikes. Bryson assumes that liking and disliking musical genres is a political statement symbolizing affiliation or acceptance of the social groups most often associated with those genres. Using this assumption she argues that musical and cultural tolerance should rise with education, behaving as political tolerance does. Similarly, less education should correlate with less musical and cultural tolerance, as it does with political tolerance.

She specifically tests symbolic racism and patterned tolerance. Symbolic racism is the disliking of different groups’ musical genres as a symbolic exclusion of that group. Patterned tolerance is the carefully cultivated breadth of omnivorous likes and dislikes of the cultural elite, which does not include genres for those groups for whom inclusion is not politically or culturally beneficial. Schuman and Bobo’s (Schuman 1988) findings suggest, according to Bryson’s assumptions, that the patterned tolerance of the educated elite reflect a consistent dislike of those genres whose populations have little political and cultural power.

Bryson proposes the term multicultural capital to capture this pattern of exclusion. This is an aptly chosen term. Multicultural means a plurality of cultures, and carries broader connotations of politically liberal policies and actions. Bryson’s terminology taps into both meanings and I will argue it is the specifically multicultural nature of the modern workplace that is reflected in omnivorous cultural taste.

She finds that education reduces musical exclusiveness. She also finds that political intolerance is positively related to musical exclusiveness. She asserts that political intolerance and musical exclusion may both be measures of symbolic exclusion of groups. Testing for racism and musical taste she finds elements of symbolic racism but notes that racism does not fully explain dislike of black musical genres. She finds that the musical genres most often disliked by tolerant respondents are associated with groups lower on the socioeconomic scales for both blacks and whites: gospel, country, heavy metal, and rap.

Her most interesting findings are first, “with respect to educational attainment, exclusion of low-status musical genres is stronger than identification with high status genres.” Secondly, “country and gospel music are two of the most favored genres among the general population while they are the two genres most likely to be rejected by tolerant respondents!” She concludes that cultural omnivorous-ness reflects class-based exclusion in the US. She asserts that this creates a tolerance line that separates high-status, cosmopolitan groups from lower status groups, which she calls group based cultures. It is with this final assertion that I turn to another writer.

The Cosmopolitan Elite

Bryson suggests a distinction that patterned musical tolerance may denote. This symbolism of patterned tolerance may draw the line between elite and non-elite. She calls this a cosmopolitan culture as opposed to a group-based culture. Kaplan (1998) focuses on the emergence of just such an elite in the United States, one that is globally cosmopolitan and urban. This elite’s culture is eclectic and global in its tastes. Despite this eclecticism, this emerging cosmopolitan culture is homogenous through different global cities.

People in suburban pods such as Omaha’s western suburbs – each as similar to the other as oases in the wilderness—are creating an international civilization influenced by the impersonal, bottom-line values of corporations for which these people work. (p. 73)

And in LA:

The crowd here was young, heavily Oriental, and fiercely middle-class, in fashionable leisure and beach gear like the crowds I had seen in Brazilian cities. I sat down at an outdoor Thai-Chinese restaurant for an early dinner. The manager was Japanese, the hostess Iranian, and the other help Mexican immigrants. (p. 81)

Kaplan develops the idea that this urban cosmopolitan elite lacks a sense of place. The underclass in the localities he studied consisted of people who were rooted to place. They are not rooted by a sense of environmentalism, but from their lack of access to the urban cosmopolitanism and the circles of power of the elites.

The ethic of multiculturalism reflects the realities of the professional world. The national economy is wedded to the global economy and success in such an economy requires an individual to be open to dealing with people of other races and nationalities openly and respectfully. Even if the professional world were not diverse, the fact that a multicultural ethic has been embraced by the work world makes it culturally necessary for professionals to embrace it as well.

This ethic of the urban elite is captured in Brooks’ work of “comic sociology” Bobos in Paradise (Brooks 2000). Bobos are Bourgeois-Bohemians. They have the adventurous tastes of bohemians, and the well developed, often-expensive tastes of the bourgeois. Brooks suggests that this collapsing of the bourgeois and bohemian categories is a result of the increasing importance of education and intelligence in professional life.

Bobos’ tastes include broad variety, tending toward the global. They shun too much shine and newness, spending more for objects that are prematurely worn, or poorly constructed. The irony is that while they are aiming for consumption that is not conspicuous, they create consumption that is even more conspicuous in its paradox.

Most importantly for this paper, Brooks argues that Bobos are trying to reconcile Bohemian ideology with Bourgeois lifestyle. Bobos attempt to deal with the problem of privilege, for those who ideologically are anti-privilege, through consumption compromises.

Those who want to win educated-class approval must confront the anxieties of abundance: how to show – not least to themselves – that even while climbing toward the top of the ladder they have not become all the things they still profess to hold in contempt. How to navigate the shoals between their affluence and their self-respect. How to reconcile their success with their spirituality, their elite status with their egalitarian ideals. (p. 60)

How better than to exclude those do not share the open-minded ideology of the elites?

The shift towards a multicultural environment in the US has been conflicted. Hunter’s (Hunter 1991; 1996) culture wars thesis posits that there has been a battle over cultural values in the US. The opposing sides represent two fundamentally different worldviews, one orthodox and one progressive. Regardless of the ideological merits of either side, I argue that the professional world demands of its members that they be at least nominally progressive.

Gardenswartz and Rowe (Gardenswartz 1994) discuss the challenges and rewards of using diverse work teams in the professional world. Among the differences they discuss are age, gender, race, physical ability, and sexual orientation. Their title, Diverse Teams at Work: Capitalizing on the Power of Diversity, suggests the ‘celebration’ of diversity common to academic circles. However, it is more a manual for applying a teamwork model for professional production despite the realities of a diverse workforce. Those who do not embrace the cosmopolitan cultural eclecticism of the elite will find themselves on the wrong side of both the debate over cultural wars and the class line.

As the ability and willingness to move about the country and globe become prerequisite to participating in professional life, local people and cultures are left behind. The character of the local cultures that get left behind will often be one against which the cosmopolitan urban culture is specifically defined. Studying poor whites in Detroit, Hartigan (1997) finds a “Hillbilly” or “White Trash” stereotype that reflects the lifestyles both of such poor whites and the attitudes the surrounding society holds toward them.

Hiding from White Trash Culture

For whites, this poor local culture can be closely tied with several problematic cultural components. Poor whites are stereotyped as being ignorant, and intolerant. This intolerance may be overtly racist and even manifest itself in white supremacy groups and ideology (Newitz 1997). For the purposes of the discussion, I will not challenge that stereotype. Let us assume that poor whites are racist and intolerant. Nevertheless, opposition to poor whites is two-fold. The first opposition is to this stereotypical intolerance. Second, and more the focus here, is opposition to the underclass itself. This particular combination allows elites to dislike the poor (opposition number two), for being poor (opposition number one). It allows elites to blame the victims, and thus diverge their privilege from these underprivileged people.

By studying the images and symbolism of poor whites in film, Newitz shows the fear and disgust that middle-class whites bear towards white trash. Avoiding the racist implications that accompany the poor white culture, this intra-racial, cross-class disgust and loathing sets middle class whites apart from poor whites and the implications of being associated with them. Wray and Newitz (1997) point out that “…the white trash stereotype serves as a useful way of blaming the poor for being poor.” Moreover, it “…helps solidify for the middle and upper classes a sense of cultural and intellectual superiority.” (p. 1)

Among aspiring whites then, there has been a denial of whiteness especially as it applies to race issues. Distancing oneself as far as possible from such poor whites’ attitudes is a tactical decision made by professional and “open-minded” whites. As an example of this, there is a “white nihilism” among the alternative rock culture that avoids the damning social entitlements of being white (Newitz 1997).

However, there is another side to middle class whites distancing themselves from poor whites. In an era of multiculturalism in the work force and in an era where global economies make multiculturalism more than simply a liberal ideology in the US, distancing oneself from the attitudes of poor whites is a necessity. Behind distancing themselves from such racist and sexist attitudes, lies the troubling fact that middle class and professional whites are still benefiting personally from their structural power as elites. It is in acknowledging this problem that Newitz concludes her piece.

Ultimately, whites in poverty make a perfect target for displaced white racist aggression, for one can denigrate them but avoid feeling like or even being called ‘racist.’ Furthermore, the idea that poverty is ‘primitive’ shores up many of the most cherished beliefs of a capitalist—and imperialist—culture…. And as the savagely humiliated [through films and movies], the upper classes are absolved of guilt…by consuming images of white self-punishment at the movies, on TV and radio, and in social criticism. (Newitz 1997: 152)

It is this recognition of white guilt that exists in liberal culture that I would like to inform a discussion of Bryson’s findings. I would argue also that the liberal guilt Newitz discusses applies more broadly than simply to race. This guilt des not simply address whiteness. It addresses all the privilege of the upper middle classes, as Brooks points out (Brooks 2000). It is not about distancing themselves from blacks or other minorities. It is about distancing themselves from everyone else, as well as from their responsibility to everyone else.

Before I continue, I will add a personal experience that provides a transition from a discussion of white trash culture and musical tastes of the aspiring elite. While spending time with friends in professional school, I was quite interested in what seemed to me to be obvious contradictions in their thoughts and attitudes. Being inclusive and tolerant, as professionalism required, these students were modern liberals. They had progressive attitudes towards women, minorities and gays, both regarding their places in the workforce and in society in general. They listened to ABBA, and danced in gay bars. They questioned their sexuality while surrounding themselves with a racially diverse group of fellow professional students.

Missing from their cache of friends were people who were poor. There was a poverty chic to be expected among professional students, but all of their tastes and attitudes betrayed that their time in poverty was expected to be temporary. Poor blacks, Latinos, and whites, in fact all poor, were categorically different from them.

Their attitudes toward all poor people illustrated this. When discussing why they disliked or distrusted a person, that person’s cultural flaws (always related to poverty) disturbed them. If that person in question were a minority, then it was pointed out specifically that the person had some other flaws that condemned them. They were not condemned for being a minority, but rather for being ignorant or closed-minded. If the person in question was white, there was no hesitation in condemning this person for being “white trash.”

Knowing this group’s generally progressive political viewpoints gave me reason to question how it was that they were so open towards political minorities and so closed to the poor. There was no hesitation in deriding whites, and they allowed little room for poor minorities. This indicated to me that there was something specific in their liberal ideology in how it dealt with the poor of all races and poor whites in particular. I argue that their vehemence toward poor whites provided the kind of catharsis Newitz discusses in relation to movies. By denouncing poor white trash, whose attitudes are often antithetical to those inclusive ideologies of the professional elite, these individuals are denouncing the troubling part of whiteness.

Patterned Tolerance Revisited

It is this symbolic tolerance and exclusion that Bryson acknowledges but does not develop deeply to which I now turn. Bryson makes the assumption that liking and disliking different musical genres is a politically symbolic statement which illustrates affinity for the groups usually associated with that genre. The students mentioned above did exactly this in making an effort to spend time with minority students and to frequent gay bars. Doing so made the symbolic statement that they were pro-gay, and pro-minority. It showed that they were open and inclusive towards others; they were omnivores. In avoiding their upper middle class privilege, they embraced this cultural openness more fully.

Bryson tells us that among tolerant respondents, the least disliked music genres are Latin/Salsa, Jazz, Blues/R&B, and Show Tunes. In order of most actively disliked, tolerant respondents disliked Gospel, Country, Heavy Metal, and Rap. These genres illustrate well the multicultural culture to which professionals conform. I argue that in not disliking the former genres, tolerant people are claiming a symbolic affinity with Hispanic minorities, blacks, and gays. These are minority groups for whom there is often legal protection, and who are becoming better represented in professional life. Speaking ill of these minorities is at least in poor taste, and potentially detrimental to one’s career.

Disliking these latter genres represents the exclusion of poor blacks, poor whites, and militant blacks. Bryson speaks of the symbolic racism of disliking Rap and Gospel. Rap represents ‘dangerous’ blacks, while Jazz and Blues represent musical styles that came out of oppressed situations. Insofar as white fathers and grandfathers created these oppressed situations, modern whites can safely sympathize with the sentiments and musical styles of both Jazz and Blues. The arguments surrounding their musical merit and the symbolic politics of those arguments are safely in the past. The debates surrounding Rap are firmly in the forefront of popular musical consciousness.

Regarding country and heavy metal however, the message from tolerant, educated people, insofar as those people are white, is clear: upper and middle class whites want nothing to do with working-class or poor whites. Poor whites are safe to reject, deride, and apart from which to set oneself. Poor whites are the contemporary acceptable Other to middle class and upper class whites for whom there are no more others. Further, by rejecting poor whites those professional whites are symbolically illustrating those attitudes necessary in today’s multicultural workplace culture.


I am pulling together here several different ideas to argue that elites use the concept and terminology of white trash in two ways. First, by objectifying white trash into a safely excludable Other, elites allow themselves a cognitive and social distance from someone “on the bottom” that has been lost in an era of multiculturalism. Poor whites on Jerry Springer become the failures against which others judge their success. Secondly, elites try to distance themselves from the stereotypical intolerance of poor whites.

The context for this discussion is the emergence of multiculturalism itself. Sociology textbooks define multiculturalism as the pattern of inclusion where “Ethnic groups exist separately and share equally in economic and political life.” (Giddens 2003:A15) Giddens then goes on to discuss how Hip-Hop uses varieties of other music through sampling (Giddens 2003:65). While illustrating what he means by multiculturalism, it does not capture the broader implications well. Multiculturalism has become such a debated topic the dictionary definition does little to capture the broader connotations.

Beyond the dictionary definition, multiculturalism has become a political football in the culture wars. One side sees multiculturalism as a way to fix the historical wrongs of the West. They see multiculturalism as bringing voices into academic discourse that have been traditionally excluded. The other side sees this inclusion happening sometimes at the cost of quality. Throwing out the good of the traditional simply to have variety is not a worthwhile tradeoff.

Into this debate critics venture carefully. Some will point out that the ideas of multiculturalism are good, but the quality of the traditionalists must be upheld. Others will say multiculturalism is superficial at best, leaving the same groups as underrepresented and underprivileged as before. This critique lies in the middle arguing essentially that the structural exclusion of the poor is the real problem. It also argues that the cultural omnivorous-ness now only superficially addresses this problem by putting simply a different kind of cultural capital between us and them.

Kaplan (Kaplan 1998) and others (Leach 1999; Reich 1992) provide us a picture of an emerging cultural system that reflects an economic structure of polarization. Local people, economies, and cultures are left behind while a cosmopolitan elite develops an eclectic global culture that reflects the emerging global economy. This elite enjoys eccentric tastes from around the world, global travel and commerce, and works in an economy that is increasingly one of symbolic manipulation. The local people in these areas suffer the worst kind of urban fragmentation as their city services erode and their local economies suffer. In a radio interview, Dean MacCannell, (MacCannell 1976), has commented that geographic differences matter little now because the big differences, including cultural differences, are between classes. This reflects the divide Kaplan points out, that elites in an area share a culture with other urban cosmopolitans. They do not share much culture with the local people of an area. Bobos are the people who are at once trying to be eclectic, global, cosmopolitan, as well as authentic, sensitive, and rooted to place. Kaplan’s underclass is the group that is truly rooted to place, and they have few options. It is this rooted underclass that is targeted by elite discussions of white trash, or by elite dislike of country and heavy metal music.

Poor whites have been stereotyped as being racist. Any such real racism might result from a people who have little power focusing on the only power they do have: any structural power associated with being white. If this is true, such poor whites are expressing modes of thought that are outdated, and it is those modes of thought that openly privileged whites and contemporary elites try to avoid.

Sociological approaches to understanding the dynamics of culture in the social structure traditionally focus on the exclusionary aspect of high culture to define the elite. Contemporary research has pointed out the omnivorous aspect of modern elite culture, focusing on the inclusiveness and breadth of contemporary elites’ tastes. Bryson finds that modern elites are inclusive in their tastes. She makes a key assumption in her analysis, assuming that musical likes and dislikes can act as symbolic affiliations or symbolic exclusions. She tests for symbolic racism, but this paper broadens that insight. This same dynamic exists between elites and non-elites, especially white non-elites. In disliking the musical genres of poor whites, contemporary elites make a symbolic stand against the white racism and white supremacy for which poor whites have been stereotyped, and from which those elites wish to distance themselves.

Multicultural values such as openness and inclusion have become requirements in the contemporary workplace. Because these values are so important, contemporary elites exclude those whose attitudes do not conform to these values. By objectifying poor white trash, modern elites effectively make a symbolic political stance against a group of people who stereotypically do not conform. By attacking white trash, modern elites are symbolically attacking white racism.

The kernel of this discussion lies in bringing together the research and analyses of cultural omnivorous-ness, patterned tolerance, theories of white trash, and discussions of emerging divides between elites and non-elites, between cosmopolitans and local people. The emerging divide is both cultural and structural, and is related directly to the globalization of the economy. Further, this elite and its culture values multiculturalism, reflecting a globalized workplace. Finally, this new elite defines itself against the non-elites by its symbolic choices as illustrated through “patterned tolerance.” Those choices illustrated in patterned tolerance reflect the multicultural nature of the globalizing economy and reflect the culture difference between urban elites and less-sophisticated local people. Further, this cultural omnivorous-ness reflects a certain cultural capital to which local people do not have much access.

Multiculturalism well accompanies an omnivore model of elite taste. The open-mindedness toward people of different cultures easily translates into open-mindedness towards appreciating their cultures. This open mindedness is now requisite in professional life. Those who do not maintain open minds toward people and cultures will harm their careers.

However, this paper argues that one downside of cultural eclecticism is blaming the victim of poverty. Modern elites are smart enough to be sensitive to the plight of those in poverty. This accompanies their signature open-mindedness. However, when those people in poverty do not respond with similar open-mindedness, they are open for dislike. This allows the elites to then dislike the non-elites, without being prejudicial or classist. I argue that this open-mindedness is itself a class value, and while it is a good thing, it is not something to be expected outside of elite circles. As such, expecting non-elites to have the mindsets and values, in short the culture, of elites is unrealistic. Omnivore culture allows elites to cleanly disassociate themselves from non-elites, because the non-elites are not cultural omnivores themselves. This amounts to blaming the victim, and divorces elites from any responsibility to those in the larger society not like themselves.


1 WASP – White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. This category refers to some of the earliest and wealthiest American settlers. When used colloquially it tends to refer to the ruling elite. This is however somewhat misleading since many of the “white trash” in the US are Appalachian mountain people. These are some of the poorest people in the US, and they are heavily WASPish.

2 The GSS is a yearly social survey conducted by the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (IUCPS) at the University of Michigan.

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Author: Michael Gibbons is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Evansville. His interests are in the social construction of identity, culture, urbanism, and anarchy through cycling.

Published inIssue 5.1Issues
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