Rock Creek, Montana Even in this age of fierce and abiding inequality and concentration of wealth, in the United States we undoubtedly have more “class deniers,” than we have “climate deniers.” LSU Professor Nancy Isenberg is fearless and uncompromising in her determination to call as many of them out as she can in her book, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. There’s no pussyfooting around in this book. Isenberg is not a two-handed scholar. When someone from President to pundit is dead ass wrong, she names them out, though they be legion, and that alone makes this myth-shattering book refreshing, despite the depressing analysis at the heart of her argument and its many examples. This is not a book for everyone perhaps or what most would see as pleasurable summertime, vacation reading, but it is an analysis that is inescapable and inarguable once examined in the kind of detail Isenberg brings forward.
If you have a pantheon of popular heroes in American history, if they included Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt, this is a spoiler alert, so be prepared for a huge letdown. If you thought John Locke’s political philosophy made a positive contribution to our republic, get ready for a shock. On the other hand Lyndon Johnson fares well in this history and Andrew Jackson, though despicable in part, gets credit for clarity. When it comes to the colonies, Isenberg calls North Carolina the “first white trash colony,” and not to be misunderstood puts it all in italics for emphasis. On the other hand James Oglethorpe of Georgia gets well-deserved praise among all of the founding fathers for making the effort in his years there to try and build a less class-bound society. Georgia of all places, who knew?
The derogatory appellations hurled were an education in themselves. As Isenberg details:
“…the names they [the white poor] have been given across the centuries attest: Waste People, Offscourings. Lubbers. Bogtrotters. Rascals. Rubbish. Squatters. Crackers. Clay-eaters. Tackies. Mudsills. Scalawags. Briar hoppers. Hillbillies. Low-downers. White niggers. Degenerates. White trash. Rednecks. Trailer trash. Swamp people.”
And, trust me on this, that’s not all of them!
From the beginning of the country, Isenberg documents the fact that “not only did Americans not abandon their desire for class distinctions, they repeatedly reinvented class distinctions.” She adds later in her epilogue, that “Instead of a thoroughgoing democracy, Americans settled for democratic stagecraft: high-sounding rhetoric, magnified, and political leaders dressing down…to come across as ordinary people…disguising the…actual class nature of state power.”
From the beginning, and arguably still, land and its ownership was the class dividing line, and lower classes and slaves, because race is embedded in these issues as well, were denied access to land, and essentially pushed to the frontier and back again. The years when voting rights were denied without land ownership are as well-known as the aristocracy that has tried to assert itself over those indentured or enslaved or in the case of women, Isenberg pointedly argues seen like horses and cattle for much of our history, little more than breeders. In fact, some of the more troubling arguments in this book focus on the role of eugenics in our history and its leaching influence from the White House and Supreme Court down to the local self-proclaimed gentry in waiting. Her treatment of the Civil War is also a helpful corrective for those still stuck in the South.
Finally, Isenberg argues that besides our myth of exceptionality, we are also carrying the weight since our founding as well of many trying to recreate a class-based society inherited from the British, while denying one exists. But, this book is not an excuse for Isenberg to poke her fingers in lots of eyes. She argues that,
“…the book’s purpose. I want to make the point unambiguously: by reevaluating the American historical experience in class terms, I expose what is too often ignored about American identity. But I’m not just pointing out what we’ve gotten wrong about the past; I also want to make it possible to better appreciate the gnawing contradictions still present in modern American society. How does a culture that prizes equality of opportunity explain, or indeed accommodate, its persistently marginalized people?”
She has no answers for that in the book other than to point out that even those who appeal to this underclass do so without any commitment or even interest in doing anything much to alleviate their situation or change the circumstances. That’s something, I guess, but reckoning class and its contradictions for the weight they carry, still leave the burden, and I would argue, the responsibility, on all of us to do something about it.