This is the second in a series of posts reviewing the NY Times’ 6 Books to Help Understand Trump’s Win. The first installment is here.
Nancy Isenberg, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. New York: Penguin Books, 2016.
Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash uses class and the history of poor whites to reveal the lie at the heart of the American dream. Isenberg seeks to tell a story that “we as a people have trouble embracing: the pervasiveness of a class hierarchy in the United States” (xxviii-xxix). The continual presence of the poor “reveals an uneasy tension between what Americans are taught to think the country promises—the dream of upward social mobility—and the less appealing truth that class barriers almost invariably make that dream unobtainable” (xxvii-xxviii). Something, she argues, is rotten in the United States.
American class hierarchies, Isenberg stresses, emerged from English ones. Proponents of colonial settlement, like Richard Hakluyt, viewed the Americas as “one giant workhouse” (21). England’s excess poor—too lazy to work for themselves—would migrate to the Americas where they would transform the themselves and the abundant natural resources around them into valuable products for England. Or they would die trying. These class concerns became a staple of early American political thought. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Americans believed that the frontier and westward expansion would deal with the problem of the poor. Appalachia, the Midwest, Kansas-Nebraska, California, and Oregon all served as opportunities for elites to rid themselves of their excess poor. Yet the problem never went away. There were always too many poor people and not enough land for America to become Jefferson’s ideal republic of small, independent farmers. By the late 19th century, with no more frontier to conquer, elites turned to eugenics and sterilization to solve their poor problem. Waste people, they believed, were morally degenerate, physically deformed and enfeebled, and incapable of elevating themselves from their own backwardness.
Throughout White Trash, Isenberg traces the historical origins of terms like “white trash”, “hillbilly”, and “cracker.” At various times, these epithets did not have wholly negative connotations. Davy Crockett embraced his “cracker” roots and played them to his advantage, using his fame to push for the rights of the landless poor. In modern times, pop cultural figures have embraced their white trash roots to demonstrate their own virtue. Sarah Palin bragged of her hunting ability and her role as a “momma grizzly.” The Robertsons of Duck Dynasty fame have parlayed their family business into a fleeting cultural phenomenon. J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, similarly expressed pride in his hillbilly roots while climbing the social ladder. Yet Isenberg points out that many of those who came from white trash roots, like Vance, have forsaken their fellow poor. As she explains, “The same self-made man who looked down on white trash others had conveniently chosen to forget that his own parents escaped from the tar-paper shack only with the help of the federal government. But now that he had been lifted to respectability, he would pull up the social ladder behind him” (277).
White Trash, however, is less successful when it tries to separate race and class. Isenberg contends that “Class had its own singular and powerful dynamic, apart from its intersection with race” (2). In recasting the Civil War along class terms, she ignores the racial views of poor white southerners in favor of elites. Well-to-do Northerners, she argues, viewed the Civil War as liberating both African-Americans and poor whites. Elite Southerners, meanwhile, attacked Northerners as race traitors for condemning their fellow whites to the permanent class of menial labor. In doing so, Isenberg minimizes the racism against African-Americans that existed across class lines in the South. In the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, white Virginians (in circumstances replicated elsewhere in the colonies) engaged in a conscious decision to elevate white skin over black in order to protect their own elevated position. This racial union explains why poor southerners fought for the Confederacy, terrorized African-Americans during Reconstruction, and opposed Civil Rights in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet Isenberg largely ignores and underplays the importance of race in explaining the history of poor whites.
Isenberg’s White Trash serves as a powerful reminder of the role of class in American history. The American dream, she points out, is largely a myth, masking deeper and darker truths about the United States. We are not all equal, we are not all born with the same opportunities, and even our government institutions are infected by the power of elites. Political elites, she points out, mock the American dream: “Instead of a thoroughgoing democracy, Americans have settled for democratic stagecraft: high sounding rhetoric, magnified, and political leaders dressing down at barbecues or heading out to hunt game” (311). Yet by sidestepping the importance of race, Isenberg detracts from her own argument about the pervasiveness of class distinctions and inequality. As I wrote last week about Hillbilly Elegy, race, as history often reminds us, is inseparable from class.