Rednecks: more than meets the eye

The Tribune Papers

by Ken Bagwell

Recently I stopped to help a Jeep with a flat tire on I-26 North heading toward Johnson City. Yes, I know it is I-26 East and West but we all know it runs North and South. Anyway, the Jeep had a New York tag. Actually I was not the first one there. Another guy in pickup truck had stopped before me. I could see something was out of the routine so I pulled over and backed up. The occupants were a man and wife in their mid 50s. The right rear tire was shredded and the jack that came with the Jeep was at least a foot too short to lift the vehicle. The local do-gooder had pulled a floor jack from his truck but it was a tad short too. I grabbed a length of 6x6 to put under the jack. It did the job but a little more precariously than we were comfortable with. We told the driver he could patch the tire with some duct tape and he took us seriously.

As we dropped the Jeep off the jack after the tire change we overheard the wife ask, "Are they from Triple A dear?" He replied, "No sweetie, they are good Samaritans. They were just driving by." He turned to us and asked what he owed us. Before I could give my recommendation, my counterpart said, "Nothing. Don't worry about it. That is just the way we do things around here. Have a good weekend." We got the standard deer-caught-in-the-headlights look.

This was simply a case of one person doing something kind for another. It happens around here a lot. I begin with this story to set the stage for a few thoughts on some of the most maligned folks in America today:


I have heard a lot of theories about the origin of the term "Redneck." Many believe the term came from the sunburn on the back of the necks of those working outside in the fields on a hot, Southern summer day. A very credible etymology is one that traces the word back to Scottish Presbyterians who refused to adopt the Church of England as their official governing church. Many signed documents protesting the Church's rule using their own blood. To signify their defiant stance, many wore red bandanas around their necks.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, throngs of these "Rednecks" made their way from their native Scotland to America. Most of them settled in the mountains of Appalachia and the Ozarks, and other areas of the South. History confirms these regions as overwhelmingly Scots-Irish, and largely Presbyterian.

To quote directly from Wikipedia, "Rednecks" are referred to as "a particular stereotype of individuals living in Appalachia, the southern United States, the Ozarks, and later the Rocky Mountain States." Wikipedia also refers to their unwillingness to fully assimilate into the dominant culture. Jeff Foxworthy defines "Redneckism" as "a glorious lack of sophistication." I like that.

These folks don't watch Oprah or Leno, they don't drive those sissy little hybrids, they don't eat raw fish at some bar or sip Joe at Starbucks. They don't care how the guy on GQ dresses or much about popular culture. Gays turn their stomachs. They care little about politics and may or may not vote. They view 99 percent of politicians as liars. They march to a different drummer than the mainstream. They are comfortable in the mountains and open pasture, as well as in barns and bars. They like being at home with their families. There may even be a bit of hostility toward pop culture.

The guy who stopped to assist the helpless Yankees was a "Redneck." He is not a bad guy and is nice to have around, especially in a time of need. Watch for yourself. The person you see stopping on the side of the road to help a stranger is rarely if ever driving a BMW, or Benz. It is not a yuppie, or soccer mom, or even a cop. It is usually a guy in a dented pickup truck, or a primer gray '85 Monte Carlo, yet mainstream media paints them as boorish, toothless, inbred, spouse-abusing, immoral, tobacco-chewing, alcoholic criminals.

Dukes of Hazard, Dallas, John Travolta's Cowboy, Easy Rider, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Deliverance all depicted rural southern life as lopsidedly cornpone and downright malicious. The mainstream - politically, culturally, and in the media - has blurred the distinction between a tiny sliver of American citizenship and a hugely productive, downright vital segment of American society: blue-collar rural whites.

It is my contention that if these salt-of-the-earth folks could ignore the mainstream media and realize their profound power to shape both American culture and our nation's policies, they could unite into the single most powerful lobby in the country.

Who are they?

If we are going to approximate the effect these people have on every day America life, we need a working definition. Forget the Bill Maher and Keith Olbermann stereotypes. By almost any definition, "Rednecks" are white, and the vast majority of them are working class (blue-collar). Some are college degreed, some are not.

The contemporary American media's definition of "Redneck" also includes: any white male who hunts (around 15-20 million Americans are licensed hunters, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation), most any white male who owns a pickup truck for personal use (38 million Americans own pickups, per the 2000 Census), any white NASCAR racing fan of either sex (around 75 million Americans, per the San Francisco Chronicle),and most any white male who owns one or more guns (65-80 million Americans own guns, according to the NRA).

Of course this is not scientific. Not all gun owners are hunters and not all hunters and gun owners are NASCAR fans, but if you really want to count the number of "Rednecks" in America, these four criteria would be common to a lot of them. With that in mind, what the mainstream media considers "Rednecks" would number close to 75 million people. That's more than 1 in 4 Americans, and more than 1 out of every 3 whites living in the United States. Whether they know it or not, these folks represent an incredible economic force, both from the standpoints of productivity and consumer spending.

Space does not allow for the specific stats, but some number crunching will prove that "Rednecks" spend a far greater percentage of their income on hard goods and big-ticket items -- especially those that are made in the USA -- than their more affluent city-dwelling counterparts. They are pumping a huge amount of money into our economy by buying second vehicles, motorcycles, tractors, trailers, bass boats, fishing gear, dirt bikes, four-wheelers, power tools, guns, ammo, and on and on and on -- tangible hard goods that translate into jobs for American citizens in the critical manufacturing sector.

The far-richer-on-paper "urbanites" are shoveling their money into not only exorbitant taxes, but also the coffers of mortgage companies, insurance firms, and purveyors of overpriced consumables. Any economist worth his salt will agree that a strong manufacturing and industrial sector is the key to real, lasting economic stability.

There is more. Best selling author and journalist Tom Wolfe alludes to the inherent fighting spirit of "Rednecks," a trait without which the U.S. would not be what we are today. Wolfe cites the fact that these largely Scots-Irish "Rednecks" have formed the spine of every American combat force since the Revolution, including Civil War armies of both sides. Perhaps it is because of an inborn martial spirit of rural Americans of Scots-Irish and similar origins, that we owe the greatest debt to the "Rednecks" among us. Since they crossed the seas and moved south, they were the ones who pushed the pioneers westward and held their ground against the elements, the wilderness, and the Indians. They also banded together to fight off the British, the Spanish, and even their own brothers in the American Civil War.

"Rednecks" still do a disproportionate share of the fighting today. Consider this: according to a Chicago Tribune article from April 27, 2005, 35% of U.S. casualties in the Iraq War hailed from small, rural towns -- yet only 25% of the population as a whole call these places home. According to public data compiled by the Heritage Foundation Center for Data Analysis, U.S. military recruitment occurs from rural zones at more than DOUBLE the population-adjusted enlistment rate of urban zones. Also, according to the Heritage Foundation's compilation of public data from 1999 and 2003, the southern U.S. perennially leads the nation's nine territory zones in military recruitment. Remove the "Rednecks" from the American landscape and there are precious few left to do our fighting for us.

My point here is to simply reinforce just how important these people are to the entire fabric of America. What today is regularly maligned and ridiculed by the pseudo-intellectual community and the prissy girly-men types, I for one, don't want to see marginalized into extinction. It may be accurate to say that we owe our very existence to them.