Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

“THE white poor have been with us in various guises as the names they have been given across the centuries attest,” writes Nancy Isenberg in her provocatively titled book White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. She catalogues those names as follows: “Waste people. Lubbers. Rascals. Rubbish. Squatters. Clay-eaters. Mudsills. Hillbillies. Degenerates. White trash. Rednecks. Trailer trash” and so on. Fundamentally, these were landless migrants from England. Indeed, America even got its first Cracker Dictionary in 1830 to document the slang of the poor whites.

Notwithstanding an unusual title, the book is a rigorous and detailed history of America’s poor rural whites. Isenberg, a history professor at Louisiana State University, includes 100 pages of footnotes that allow the text to delve deep into the frustrations and despair of the poorly educated and unskilled workers living mainly in the Rust Belt and Appalachia in the United States, what Sarah Palin famously called “real America”. 

Isenberg writes: “American democracy has never accorded all the people a meaningful voice. The masses have been given symbols instead, and they are often empty symbols.” For example, the so-called American exceptionalism or the jeans that multimillionaire Mitt Romney wore to appear to be like the ordinary people. But the clincher today, let me add, is Donald Trump’s dog-whistle “Make America Great Again.”

Looking beyond appearances to uncover the social hierarchy entrenched in the United States

The main point in the book is that scholars look at American history and see the racial divide between blacks and whites as the main story. What is often glossed over is class and the social divide. There is this pervasive myth of a classless society in the US. A ‘land of equity’ is the usual way most people define America. Not so, says Isenberg.

White Trash dismantles this grand myth of America as a classless, egalitarian society where social and economic mobility distinguished the American experiment from the social and political orthodoxies of monarchy and nobility of its colonial forefathers. According to Isenberg, the truth is that the American colonies were viewed by European social planners as a kind of garbage heap, where “waste people”, mainly criminals, vagrants, and other socially undesirable people could be exported as a kind of “manure” to “fertilise the wasteland with their labour”.

Isenberg writes: “Independence did not magically erase the British class system nor did it root out long entrenched beliefs about poverty and the wilful exploitation of human labour.” By saying so, she undermines the US’s foundational myth of “all men are created equal”. Her idea that stratification exists within the white race goes further. According to her, this has always been so through the entire history of America. Today’s one per cent elite is nothing new, according to the book. Nor is the revolt of the Tea Party movement or Occupy Wall Street movement. It has been this way all along. Chapter after chapter details this point, beginning with the American founding fathers such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, to today’s TV programme Duck Dynasty. She even interprets the Civil War as a result of class struggle alongside a racial one.

Thus, Washington perpetuated these stark class divides when he said that only the “lower class of people” should serve as foot soldiers in the continental army. Jefferson envisioned his public schools educating talented students “raked from the rubbish” of the lower class, and argued that ranking humans like animal breeds was perfectly natural. This underclass, says Isenberg, “could be found just everywhere in the new country, but it was perhaps most conspicuous in North Carolina, where many whites who had been denied land in Virginia trickled into the area south of the Great Dismal Swamp, establishing the first white trash colony.”

The Ewell family in Harper Lee’s famous novel To Kill a Mockingbird “may be American literature’s purest distillation of white trash”, writes Isenberg, “emblematic of how ‘redneck’ had come to be synonymous with an almost insane bigotry”.

As you read this rather weighty book, Isenberg’s scholarly discourse combines political philosophy, popular culture, literature, and cultural studies to examine the importance of class in the US. She goes overboard to show how lower-class whites have been ignored and forgotten and mistreated in many ways since the founding of the republic.

 However, examined critically, her main thesis is only partly correct. Indeed, during the 19th century, poor whites were not the only group that suffered. Needless to say, blacks and Native Americans suffered worse. In this regards this book is less than insightful. It does not explore slavery, segregation, and nativism, and how these shaped the American class system. What about the genocide of the Native Americans? Instead, she exaggerates that poor whites constitute a distinct racial category engineered by the rich whites so as to supply a steady source of cheap labour. 

A broader problem with White Trash is that it misses the most famous examination of poor whites: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee. Isenberg details how poor and working class whites are seen by others, but doesn’t offer much insight into how they have seen themselves and the rest of society. Also absent are accounts of all the ways that lower-class whites have fought back to keep from being oppressed, for example, the agrarian populism of the 19th century, which saw white small farmers confront powerful banks. Isenberg is carried away by her overarching theme and ignores the post-war era in which prosperity did spread all over the US and to all classes, including the poor whites in rural areas.

Recent books blame the Great Recession of 2008 for the rise of populism in the US which resulted in the popularity of Bernie Sanders on the left and Donald Trump on the right. Again, it was not the poor whites who were alone in this economic stagnation. The blacks and the Hispanics suffered much worse. The majority who lost their homes to foreclosures were indeed black middle class families. So why is it that only the despair of the whites became headline news and made books like White Trash so popular? The same can be said of other current books such as Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance or Strangers in Their Own Land by A.R. Hochschild.

Writing for the National Review in March 2016, the conservative journalist Kevin Williamson criticised low-income white Republican voters who were responsible for the rise of Trump. He wrote: “Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster like war or famine or a plague or foreign occupation. ... The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically they are negative assets. ... Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. ... The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin.”

Other liberal critics from The New York Times describe the rise of Trump as a primal scream and death rattle of the poorly educated white rural voters against the demographic change sweeping America. The result is that once again these prejudiced white voters have voted against their own collective self-interest by handing over the White House to a billionaire-friendly Republican who will do nothing tangible to alleviate their economic despair.

To repeat the question: why has this outrage by the poor whites made a reality show host president of the US? What about the black and brown minorities who suffered worse?

Isenberg answers this question, but not fully. She narrates an interesting story from 1840 called The Arkansas Traveller in which a politician campaigning for political office stops in the back country and asks a squatter for support. The squatter has no patience for a candidate who refuses to speak his language. So the man dismounts his horse, takes the squatter’s fiddle, and shows he can play his kind of music. Once the politician returns to the mansion, however, nothing has changed in the life of the squatter. “Trump, if nothing else,” writes Isenberg, “has shown he knows how to play the fiddle.”

Good parable. But what was this music of Trump’s fiddle that won him the presidency? Was it not the exploitation of the perceived real loss of the white folks of the social and economic advantage of being white? Was it not a tremendous backlash to having a black president for eight years? No wonder the mock-proletarian baseball cap with the title ‘Make America Great Again’ (read ‘white’ instead of ‘great’) was a brilliant piece of racist and nativist propaganda which did the subliminal trick.

The reviewer is a retired diplomat and a former editor and bureau chief at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
By Nancy Isenberg
Viking, US
ISBN: 978-0670785971

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 22nd, 2017



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