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White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America

Nancy Isenberg

Review by Paula Jones


As a child, I completely accepted the idealized American myth. You know the one: America is a land of equal opportunity, a country where anyone can get ahead if they are willing to work hard, a classless nation where one’s future is not predetermined by one’s birth. As I grew older, I learned that even though it is a lovely myth, accepting it as true has a very dark side: Those who do not ‘succeed’ simply do not try hard enough. They are lazy, and because they have brought poverty upon themselves, offering them any help will only enable their slothfulness further.  

Winston Churchill famously said, “History is written by the victors,” and like other victors, America prefers to feature her most flattering side in her histories. Nancy Isenberg, however, plunges deep into the murky waters the American story as she examines almost five centuries of white, European life on this continent, retelling the glittering story from the perspective of the underdogs. Reminiscent of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, she depicts an elitist, upper class gentry prevailing alongside a permanent underclass of the terminally poor. Known at various times as waste people, rubbish, mudsills, scum, squatters, crackers, rednecks, and trailer trash (among other demeaning slurs), Isenberg uses the all too familiar phrase ‘white trash’ to describe their less-than-inspiring history.

The America we have come to know is a product of its earliest European settlers who were accustomed to a hierarchy of classes. In 1601, when England established a system of public relief for the poor based on compulsory taxation, it was highly resented by the more financially able. Recipients were viewed not only as “. . . cannibalizing the British economy,” the New World was seen as a convenient place to sweep them from sight, a “giant rubbish heap” where expendable people could be dumped like manure to fertilize a new land and eventually make it productive. In one fell swoop, Europe could expell her undesirables and eliminate crime and poverty (or so they then believed).

And yes, a goodly percentage of settlers did come seeking religious liberty, but those Puritan elite enthusiastically cooperated in the expulsion of Europe’s undesirables. They required a work force of servants to perform the most menial tasks, a work force composed of the rejects of Europe––prisoners, orphaned and abandoned children, debtors, rebels, prostitutes, and beggars that littered her streets and were believed to be an irreparable and disposable breed. Fanatical about class-rank, Puritan class distinctions were spelled out graphically in designated seating charts in their churches.

Colonizing schemes were initiated by privileged investors and pushed by the profit-driven. It never occurred to them that they were constructing a classless society. An almost mythic upper class was created as landholders were granted deeds to tens of thousands of the most fertile acres. Then as now, class in the USA “begins and ends with land ownership” (or real estate ownership in today’s terms). By the mid-nineteenth century, at least 35% of the population owned no land.

Isenberg describes how class stratification continued to play out across time, including the use of voting laws written to prevent the landless poor from participating in democracy. During times of war, the lower economic class provided the bulk of foot soldiers and frontline fighters, suffered the most casualties, and were least likely to be deferred from service. Tax structures routinely hurt the poor. Whenever a politician has tried to pass legislation to improve their lot––Jefferson’s education reform bills, Roosevelt’s New Deal, Johnson’s Great Society, or Obama’s health care-reform––there has been a hostile outcry from those who firmly believe that poverty is a lifestyle chosen by the lazy.

Throughout her work, Isenberg explains how breeding has played into the problem. The word ‘breeding’ originally had nothing to do with good manners or cultural sophistication and everything to do with genetics and animal husbandry. From Jefferson’s time onward, poor whites were considered a congenitally malformed mongrel breed, while the wealthy were of a better stock, maybe even a different species! This disturbing idea reached it’s zenith in the eugenics movement of the 20th century with scientists and politicians calling for the sterilization of our ‘inferior stock.’ As late as 1927, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

As America has elected her latest President, this book proves especially germane. Isenberg details a long history of politicians artfully pitting the classes against each other in efforts to get elected. They do so using the tool of fear, playing to the rising panic in a struggling class, confirming that they are unjustly losing their tenuous position in the pecking order. Such fear has traditionally caused the electorate to vote against their own self-interests because they are convinced that it is better to have next to nothing than to have nothing at all. Tellingly, Isenberg writes, “Americans not only scrambled to get ahead: they needed someone to look down on.” Her book can help us better understand the campaign rhetoric of a candidate who only came to care deeply for the poor after they began running for office.

Considering her book is called “White Trash,” it should be expected that Isenberg devotes the majority of her attention to the Caucasian poor. In this area she does an admirable job, yet in doing so she frequently neglects the intersection of race and class (although she does not ignore it entirely). Isenberg asserts that “class has its own singular and powerful dynamic, apart from its intersection with race.” It does, but considering that we live in a time when almost every discussion of inequality hinges on the racial divide, it would have been judicious for her to connect the dots more clearly. Yes, poor whites have suffered from victimization, but they have also victimized. Early in our history, many poor whites came to this continent against their free will. So did the majority blacks. Both poor whites and people of color contend with a system than has been rigged against them, have born the brunt of war, have been considered an inferior breed of human, have been the brunt of jokes, and have been lampooned and denigrated. With much in common, self-interested politicians have profited from their sharp division. The American story might change dramatically for the better if they ever unite.