Buck, Pem Davidson
2001 Worked to the Bone: Race, Class, Power, and Privilege in Kentucky. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Notes: ISBN: 1583670475
Reviewed 4 Aug 2004 by:
Robert Lawless <email@example.com>
Department of Anthropology, Wichita State University, Wichita, Kansas, USA
Medium: Written Literature Subject
Social classes - Kentucky
Kentucky - Social conditions
Kentucky - Economic conditions
Kentucky - Race relations
ABSTRACT: This book is a provocative examination of race, class, and the mechanics of inequality in the United States. In an engaging and accessible style that combines thoroughly documented... insight with her own compelling personal narrative, Pem Buck illustrates the ways in which constructions of race and the promise of white privilege have been used at specific historical moments in two Kentucky counties to divide those who might have otherwise acted on common class interests (from the accurate advertising blurb)
This book is superb! And like most first-rate books it is difficult to summarize. Essentially Buck is dealing with the exploitation of the Kentucky underclasses by local, state, national (and to some extent international) power elites and she focuses on the manipulation of the justifying folk models by these agencies. Now, it is not news to anthropologists that in hierarchically organized societies the power elite manipulate the folk model to justify their exploitation of the masses. The beauty of Buck's book is that it provides an analysis of the details of this manipulation, specifically the changes that the power elite produce in the folk model to adjust to changing times and especially to the growing sophistication of the masses about their exploitation. In her own words, "My focus became the role of the elite and the policies they pursue in organizing a cheap labor force" (p. 3).
The book is also something more than an analysis of the mechanics of exploitation; the author admits, "It is only fair that I say up front that I have grown angry as I have learned more. I am angry at what I think the exercise of power has done to most people in the United States: angry at the way race, gender, and ethnicity have been used to divide and rule us, angry at the horrors that groups of people with slightly more power have inflicted on those with less power, and doubly angry at the horrors groups of elites have inflicted on us" (p. 4). Buck clearly has an agenda; she fears continuing and worsening exploitation. As she states, "I don't like the future that may be coming, and I hope this book will help to circumvent it" (p. 4). As any good anthropology should be, this book is frankly subversive.
Quite correctly Buck points out that the question of whether members of the power elite coordinate their activities or even whether they are consciously aware of the consequences of their policies is irrelevant from the viewpoint of the exploited masses. The dominant folk model justifies this exploitation, and the analytic model that Buck develops attempts to explain the exploitative system. Buck actually does not use the common anthropological terms folk and analytic but instead uses "the dominant understanding of the past" (p. 4) for folk models and "alternative histories" (p. 4) for analytic models. The dominant "history taught first in grade school, and then in gradually more complex versions through high school and often early college...assume[s] that more powerful groups naturally deserve their position because of the value of their contributions to the general welfare and progress of a community" (pp. 4-5). The alternative histories of Buck emphasize "the strategies used by the elite to fool people into agreeing to policies that hurt themselves and many other people" (p. 6) as well as documenting the historical resistance to these policies.
At some point in every exploitative system, as Buck states, "People with power...have[e] trouble getting everyone else to believe their power [i]s legitimate and natural" (p. 21). Instead of addressing the needs of the underclasses, which might lead to remedies that would include their losing their status as elites, these people with power chose to reorganize the exploitative system in various ways. Of course, the expose and interpretation of the "various ways" are the crux of this book. And although the book focuses on Kentucky, the elite strategies and the justifying folk models are clearly not limited to Kentucky, as Buck recognizes (p. 9). The book and the excellent analysis provide a microcosmic example of a "people in the United States burdened by a damaging history" (p. 9).
Buck begins by documenting the Europeans' misinformed opinion that the Native Americans did not properly use the land in Kentucky, that is, that they only hunted and fought there, thereby allowing the Europeans, who used land more "efficiently," to steal the land of the Native American with few qualms. She ends with the plea, "If we understand elite strategies of the past we may see ways to derail their present strategies" (p. 226). Between this shameful beginning and the hopeful ending Buck explores the vagaries of race, class, power, and privilege in the development of inequalities in Kentucky society. Among other revelations she is precise in pointing out how the state provides welfare for the elite -and rugged individualism for the poor. An obvious example of this intervention of the state on behalf of capitalists was that "the legislators agreed to pay for sending in troops to put down riots and to control strikers.... They agreed that the many deaths of rioters and strikers at the hands of soldiers were not murder any more than was the killing of revolting slaves by soldiers" (p. 55).
Although Buck doesn't make a point of it, state-supported public schools also subsidize private industry by providing disciplined and trained personnel. She does reveal how the family subsidized the capitalists, pointing out that when women could no longer produce salable commodities or produce products for the home, the folk model shifted its definition of women's work to focus on their role in subsidizing "the wage received by the husband.... The employer got two employees for the price of one. One of these employees worked at the employer's workplace and the other performed support services in the home" (pp. 147-148). Interestingly when I was in publishing in two different houses in New York City for several years, I did a couple of surveys of the clerical staffs (overwhelmingly unmarried women) that showed about 85 percent lived with their parents or other relatives. About 80 percent gave low pay as the reason. In other words, these families subsidized private industry.
The institutionalization of racial segregation gave the overworked and underpaid whites what Buck terms a "psychological wage of superiority" (pp. 57-59) as a substitute for an adequate income, allowing whites to "express their superiority over non-Whites and define them, rather than the capitalists, as the enemy" (p. 57). As Buck explains, "Countless numbers of Whites bought into the psychological wage of superiority.... They saw the world and interpreted their continuing struggles through the lens of the dominant perspective of white male supremacy, which replaced or modified any remaining class-consciousness" (p. 100). As Buck points out, it was some time after the Civil War that Jim Crow laws became widespread; "Despite their belief in white supremacy many independent farmers and craftspeople hadn't felt the need to fall back on using the fact that they were white to make up for the 'shame' of working to enrich someone else, even after the Civil War. But as more and more Whites faced the prospect of lifelong industrial jobs or sharecropping, it became important to more and more of them to be able to say, "I'm better than they are, even if I don't have a cent more than they do and have to work like a slave to survive" (p. 100).
Buck documents that many of the poverty-stricken peoples of Kentucky are aware of their exploitation and that they develop their own theories of this exploitation often using the opposition phrase "big guys versus little guys" (p. 3). I would term such perspectives as "cynical knowledge," which in itself does not lead to analytic models or alternative histories but which is a good and probably necessary first step. A full understanding of the exploitation, and especially of the manipulation of the folk models, comes from the hard work of research in the field and in the archives -such as the work that Buck has done.
One of the latest of these manipulations comes from the fact that "it has not been possible to pretend that white poverty in Kentucky is anything else" (p. 225) and the effort to explain that through the creation of the concept of "white trash." As Buck explains, "Talking about white trash works best when Whites who are being drained within an inch of their lives are a fairly small percentage of the white population, and where a large percentage of killing poverty occurs among people of color. That a large percentage of 'ordinary' white people in Kentucky are poor threatens the illusion of whiteness itself" (p. 225). While the white trash explanation created a cruel stereotype about exploited Kentuckians and other Whites living in poverty in other states, it hasn't always worked when the exploitation became too obvious and even spread into middle-class white consciousness as, for example, "when the mountains were initially taken over by timbering and coal-mining operators, or when tobacco farmers rose in revolt, or when coal miners battled in bloody Harlan" (p. 225).
In drawing her book to a close, Buck states, "As the [exploitative] system is reorganized for the New World Order, more Whites in the United States are joining the ranks of the severely exploited. Whiteness across the country is becoming more like whiteness in Kentucky" (p. 223). She suggests, "Many poor Whites who partake of the view from under the sink are far more anti-elite, far more focused on class inequities, than they are anti-Black, anti-Mexican, or anti-welfare. But because their view is given no legitimacy, because they never hear a reflection of their voices in news analysis, or in textbooks, or on talk shows, they often discount their own analysis. They may be pulled into nativism by talk show hosts, politicians, and religious leaders who speak just enough of their language to attract them. But this doesn't mean that the other reaction isn't there, awaiting its chance" (p. 224). Buck certainly hopes (as do I) that this book will play a role in organizing this reaction.
In all hierarchically organized societies, then, the overarching folk model reflects the interests of the power elites. A major function of this overarching power elite controlled folk model is the obfuscation and camouflaging of the exploitative nature and activities of the power elite. Combine such exposÚs with the anthropological revelation that egalitarian societies may have non exploitative oriented folk models, and the potential exists that the analytic models of anthropology (if properly developed) are outright and downright subversive. People might start thinking about the unquestionable components of their folk models -much to the consternation of the powers that be. Buck's book is an exemplary step in this direction.
When I read the first sentence in the "Acknowledgments" and came across the words "deconstruct whiteness," I groaned in anticipation of more than 250 pages of postmodernish bafflegab. Happily this book is instead a wonderfully straightforward and jargon-free study of the underclasses of Kentucky by someone who knows exactly what she is talking about. The author and her husband survived below the poverty line before going into graduate school, and included in 42 pages of notes is an outstanding bibliography almost exclusively devoted to items that refer to Kentucky in particular and the South in general.
It is a bit difficult to place this book within the standard paradigms of anthropology, since no classic anthropologists are cited. Buck does rely on the work of Faye V. Harrison, who is Lindsay Young Professor of Anthropology at the University of Tennessee and well known as a political anthropologist active in the Association of Black Anthropologists with specialties in race, gender, class, and the African diaspora. Much of what Buck writes could be understood with the Marxist-Engels concept of "false consciousness." I believe, however, that she is writing for a lay public, not for anthropological colleagues, so her avoidance of anthropological, and certainly Marxist, jargon is understandable.
I do have one severe criticism that, however, relates only to a matter of style and does not in any way detract from my characterization of the book as superb in theory, method, and content. The use of the phrase and image of "drainage system" could be easily eliminated throughout the book without any harm to meaning or syntax. Buck introduces this phrase early in the book when she talks about her experiences as a plumber's helper in her husband's business (p. 2). She then talks about the "view of under the sink" as being "justifiably different from that of the sink owners" (p. 4). Okay, so far. But, then, she begins talking about how plumbing deals with drainage systems, which organize the flow of water, and she tries to connect the notion of drainage systems with "the flow of value produced by work" (p. 12), asking the reader to think of this flow of value as the flow of the sweat from people exploited for their labor and requiring the reader to "think of that flow of value as a uphill flow, going up in bigger and bigger concentrations into the hands of level after level of fewer and fewer but increasingly wealthy people. Sweat, in other words, is made to trickle up" (p. 12).
The analogy does not work for me. For an analogy to be successful the imagery must be easily acceptable, and I think that few people will be able to deal with the image of water flowing upwards and certainly not with the image sweat flowing upwards through a "drainage" system into the hands of the elite. Where the concept of system is necessary, she could have easily written "exploitative system" or "manipulative system" and have been perfectly understood.
Buck's topic is very closely related to the Marxist concept of surplus value. While I am not suggesting that she should have used Marxist jargon, which might have made her book inaccessible or unacceptable for her audience, her particular analogy does obscure her ideas.
I do not want to end on a negative note because I have been really favorably impressed by this book. In fact, I intend to make it required reading in some of my courses. Judging from her book, I feel safe in saying that Buck is an excellent fieldworker and researcher, and I think that I can safely speculate that she is an excellent instructor. Buck is, indeed, on the faculty of Elizabethtown Community and Technical College in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. The students in Elizabethtown are lucky to have her; she must provide some of these students with a rather startling introduction to their own surroundings.