“If You’re White, You’re All Right” An author explores the history of whites as “waste” in America.

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

Nancy Isenberg (2016, New York, Viking Press) 480 pages with illustrations, notes, and index

Arguably the most controversial comment made by Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign involved a blistering critique of presidential candidate Donald Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters. While at a Democratic fundraiser she asserted that half of her opponent’s adherents were racist, xenophobic, and Islamophobic, and that their ways of thinking made them a “basket of deplorables.” This not only elicited reactions from Trump’s devotees, but Trump himself seized upon Clinton’s rhetoric to bring a stark sense of class conflict into the election. “You can’t lead this nation if you have such a low opinion of its citizens,” Trump declared, blithely implying a disconnect between urban pluralism engendered by white elites, and rural or working-class whites who felt abandoned by neo-liberal policies of racial appeasement and identity politics. Nancy Isenberg’s well-timed book, White Trash: the 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, seeks to insert economic caste into the historiography of whiteness and politics, understand the rift between these two groups, outline the struggle that defines that fracture, and appreciate the diversity and experiences of poor whites while recasting them as important historical actors. “In many ways,” she writes in the introduction, “our class system has hinged on the evolving political rationales used to dismiss or demonize (or occasionally reclaim) those white rural outcasts seemingly incapable of becoming a part of the mainstream society.” (xiv) White Trash meets this goal with a densely written, vividly told history of political and cultural developments around whiteness and class. It is laced from beginning to end with a persistent and urgent consciousness of topical debates about race and politics, and a sensitivity to the ideals, desires, and fears of “lubbers,” “clay-eaters” and “crackers.” The book’s timely release during the divisive 2016 presidential campaign has become ever more exigent in the wake of Trump’s unforeseen victory, and should be instrumental in any exchange about the historical precedent leading up to it. (2)

In his book Notes on Virginia (1785) Thomas Jefferson extolled the virtues of American agrarianism and suggested that vast expanses of open land would be the new nation’s salvation. In his view the United States had the opportunity to avoid the pollution, crime, inequality, and class stratification of Britain by remaining rural, limiting the growth of urban centers, and nurturing individual autonomy. Although Jeffersonianism never prevented the growth of great cities and industrial centers, the myth of classlessness has remained an aspect of American psychology. Addressing this mythology in the first of twelve chapters, Isenberg establishes the roots of white class inequality in America with a discussion of the “expendable … waste people” sent from England to develop the American wilderness, and successive generations of “unwanted and unsalvageable” citizens that followed. (2) Here she demonstrates the importance of class in the formation of white identity and national politics, which has historically been shrouded in a mythology of classlessness. This mythology, she explains, makes it seem as though “in separating from Great Britain,” America “somehow magically escaped the bonds of class and derived a higher consciousness of enriched possibility. (1) White Trash pokes at this falsehood with the purpose of exposing a history often cleansed of class division, but also intending to better “appreciate the gnawing contradictions still present in modern American society.”(2) The depth of poverty of the landless poor and the rigidity of the British class system did not dematerialize with independence in 1776, it only transmogrified into something uniquely American. As a result class remains to be reckoned with in the 21st century.

Although Jeffersonianism never prevented the growth of great cities and industrial centers, the myth of classlessness has remained an aspect of American psychology. Addressing this mythology in the first of twelve chapters, Isenberg establishes the roots of white class inequality in America with a discussion of the “expendable … waste people” sent from England to develop the American wilderness, and successive generations of “unwanted and unsalvageable” citizens that followed.

Working towards comprehending this past, Isenberg’s first five chapters provide a sweeping history of colonial and post-independence thought on the subject of the underclass by focusing on a number of prominent thinkers, politicians, and philosophers. Chapter one outlines Richard Hakluyt’s writings on the “waste firm of America” in the early 17th century and provides the basis for Isenberg’s overall argument about the nascent structure of American class. She characterizes the colonial perception of the New World as one shaped by commercial interest leveraged on the backs of the poor, and one that saw the physical land itself as a workhouse reformatory. Hakluyt envisioned the country as a place where criminals and immoral people “could be converted into economic assets.” (21) Hard labor felling trees, digging mines, and building infrastructure spared convicts and criminals their fate in prison or death, and consumed their very bodies in the churning machinations of progress in the British colonies. “The land and the poor,” Isenberg writes, “could be harvested together, to add to—rather than continue to subtract from—the nation’s wealth.” (21) Though their status remained steeped in the opprobrium of an elite colonial aristocracy, workers, builders, laborers and “waste men and waste women” were crucial to the success of the colonies. (42)

The chapter on Hakluyt is followed by other deep studies on contributions from theorists on social structure and class like John Locke and James Edward Oglethorpe, and on to an idiosyncratic exploration of Benjamin Franklin’s theory of breeding and prosperity. Isenberg then investigates spiraling connections and contradictions between these early voices and the political environments created by the lives and presidencies of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana territory, and his idealized agrarian fantasies of personal and economic regeneration through hard work and soil cultivation, created generations of backcountry settlers. Jackson, on the other hand, “was inseparable from a wild and often violent landscape” in popular imagination, and he crafted his image in “the cracker mold” with aggressive behavior and disregard for politeness. (120-121) Through the prism of Jackson’s presidency, land-grabbing poor whites, or squatters, became a part of presidential politics, if only in symbolism. By 1840, appeals to the sensibilities of squatters became unexceptional for both the Whig and Democratic parties in their respective presidential campaigns. Isenberg very skillfully connects the evolving history of class in these two administrations to a broader continuum of white social division. Simultaneously, she links it to a history of exploiting the image of poor whites, and the sentiments of fear and anger pervasive among them, for political purposes. Indeed, as Michael Kimmel puts it in Manhood in America, Andrew Jackson’s presidency was “both the last gasp of Jeffersonian republican virtue and the first expression of the politics of class-based resentment” on the national stage.[1] This statement only rings more loudly true in the fledgling days of Donald Trump’s presidency, particularly as the new president compares his own campaign and tenure in office to that of Andrew Jackson, who he insists had a “very mean and nasty campaign.”[2] While the political culture surrounding the poor white “squatter” may have panned out to be exploitative, Isenberg points to a sense of political consciousness and leverage that lower-class whites had in the transaction. “[The white squatter] had to be wooed for his vote … [and] had not patience for a candidate who refused to speak his language.” (132)

Part two of the book outlines the continued decline in mainstream conversations about poor whites, primarily along lines of the adoption of a pseudoscientific tropology of genetic degeneration, contagion, social immobility, and racialized, almost non-white physical attributes. Discourse about a “cursed lineage” among Jackson’s celebrated backwoodsman prevailed in cultural touchstone publications such as Hinton Rowan Helper’s The Impending Crisis of the South and Harriett Beecher Stowe’s 1856 novel Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. Jefferson Davis’ rebuttal during his inauguration speech as the president of the Confederacy fossilized the separation between Northern elites and Southern white planters with characterizations of Unionists as themselves genetically inadequate, “spawned from vagabond stock and swamp people” of Europe, and cowardly beyond reconciliation. (155) Thus Isenberg presents the Civil War as a conflagration between classes. Commentators, social scientists, and politicians influenced the underclasses of both regions to dehumanize the other for the specific purpose of large-scale bloodletting, and ultimately a “clash of class systems wherein the superior civilization would reign triumphant.” (173) Chapter eight, entitled “Thoroughbreds and Scalawags,” neatly connects this history of wartime divisions to the fashionable social Darwinism and eugenic sentiments that characterized Reconstruction and the first few decades of the 20th century. Throughout the Progressive era and into the Roaring Twenties poor whites appeared in popular culture as backward, animalistic, and dull, as in the Sherwood Anderson novel, Poor White, where the protagonist lived in ignorant bliss along the Missouri shores of the Mississippi. This chapter’s analysis of the work of people like Albert Priddy and Charles Davenport is standard fare for studies on biological determinism, yet a discussion of whiteness and eugenics is essential to the broader project.

One of Isenberg’s most compelling undertakings is her outline of the transformation of the Poor White character into the popular and political “country boy” cultural icons of the post-WWII period. The “cool and sexually transgressive” act of Elvis Presley merged black visual and sonic vogue into a “‘Hillbilly Cat,’ someone many teenage boys wished they could be.” (231) Transporting the likeness of Southern folksy tropes to the White House, Lyndon Johnson likewise proffered a similarly defined persona as president, and upended decades of unfavorable press for white Southerners as “the country boy at the pinnacle of the world.” (266) Both Presley and Johnson simply formed the edge of a dense tapestry of cultural products that celebrated the “redneck roots” of a “white trash” aesthetic. (269) From NASCAR to Jayne Mansfield, and the music of Dolly Parton, the popularization of hillbilly culture seemed to appeal to a sense of weariness with suburban oblivion and a hankering for antimodern versions of self-identification. “Redneck, cracker, and hillbilly were simultaneously presented as an ethnic identity, a racial epithet, and a workingman’s badge of honor,” Isenberg explains in a final chapter on contemporary, Jeff Foxworthy-esque portrayals of backwater pride. (291) As evidence, she then explores the political fascination with Sarah Palin’s putative timberland sincerity during the 2008 presidential campaign. Her cautionary final statement about “pundits who fear the lower classes,” and a future of continued shock “at the numbers of waste people” who inhabit the country is prescient from the historical perch of early 2017; the memories of entire liberal news panels with eyes wide and mouths agape on the night of Trump’s victory have not yet begun to fade. (309)

One of Isenberg’s most compelling undertakings is her outline of the transformation of the Poor White character of Sherwood Anderson’s novel into the popular and political “country boy” cultural icons of the post-WWII period. The “cool and sexually transgressive” act of Elvis Presley merged black visual and sonic vogue into a “‘Hillbilly Cat,’ someone many teenage boys wished they could be.”

While this work wraps snuggly around the subject of white working-class rage and the mistaken impossibility of Trump’s election, Isenberg does not look as closely at other races as such a study might warrant. A book of this size would have benefitted from more of a conversation about how African Americans, Native Americans, and other groups of people of color figure into the worldviews of poor whites, and how competition with those groups strengthens racial animosity and identity, and impacts political thought. This history is mentioned in White Trash, however, one can imagine an entire chapter on how the institution of slavery impacted the identities of landless whites, or a study of connections between poverty-stricken citizens and violent white supremacy groups. Other historians have more willfully walked this balance and defined the contours of American whiteness, at least partially, by its interaction with blackness and with other races. Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People, and David Roediger’s Wages of Whiteness, both referred to the racial category on its own while being certain to take account of a fathomless history of interracial interplay. Likewise, Grace Elizabeth Hale, in Making Whiteness, discerns a history of racial definition through physical separation.[3] However, such an intense social history focused on marginalized working-class whites is overdue, and the progressively structured and chronological nature of the book’s chapters give it a textbook-like quality which should lend well to historical, sociological, and political seminars on race and class.

Isenberg’s work also leaves some questions about diversity among poor whites unanswered. While her subtitle implies she will look at the “Untold History of Class in America,” the narrative settles solidly on the history of white rural Southerners and the culture, and cultural perceptions, associated with them. Concluding with conversations about Smokey and the Bandit, the film Deliverance, and the contemporary popularity of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty, the book feels more like a history of popular perceptions of “hillbilly” culture from external and internal sources than a meditation on the broad problematic of class itself. This is certainly already a worthy and formidable task, but it seems as though multiple groups of urban working-class whites have been left out of the account. The poor Irish New Yorkers of the Civil War era, late 19th and early 20th century white ethnic immigrants to various American cities, and the 21st century reality of whites in declining urban communities like Braddock, Pennsylvania, and those of South Boston should be included in this sort of study since the moniker of “white trash,” and the political, social, and economic immobility associated with it, affect their lives just as well.

The pejorative and uncomfortable title of the book hints provocatively at a tripartite division between poor whites and elites, and people of color separated from both.

In spite of these omissions, ultimately Isenberg’s very opportunely timed work puts into deep historical context discussions about class and whites that have been isolated since the nation’s founding. Urgent and timely because of the seizure and exploitation of populist rhetoric in the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, this work contextualizes the creation of a white underclass and explains the anger that exploded into mainstream conversations in 2016. This group of people may be marginalized, however, Isenberg would argue they are essential, and foundational, to our understanding of white America. More concisely than Trump has made the case, she reasons that “[w]e can no longer ignore the stagnant, expendable bottom layers of society in explaining the national identity.” (xv) White Trash, by extension, becomes a study on how whiteness enters the arena of 21st-century identity politics, and joins a host of other cultural productions that explore the “forgotten” rural white community that presumably feels rescued by the new president. Most notably, a number of documentaries, such as Spanish Lake (2014), and Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race, & America (2016), have silhouetted a currently distending racial divide; one that pivots on broader problems of economic dislocation, political bitterness, and racial scapegoating. The pejorative and uncomfortable title of the book hints provocatively at a tripartite division between poor whites and elites, and people of color separated from both. This partition, according to Michelle Alexander, stems from a “racial bribe” proffered to white “waste people” in order to “give them a stake in the existence of a race-based system of slavery” after Bacon’s Rebellion in 1675.[4] While White Trash points to the political and social significance of a group of marginalized Americans, it also puts structure around questions of President Trump’s sincerity in his many oaths to working-class whites, and whether or not their whiteness is being used as a “bribe.” That alone makes it a consequential branch in the historiography of race, class, and politics.

[1] Michael Kimmel, Manhood in America, A Cultural History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) 25

[2] “Trump: ‘Why was there the Civil War?’” The Hill, accessed May 1, 2017, http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/331349-trump-why-was-there-the-civil-war.

[3] Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People (W.W. Norton & Company, 2011), David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London: Verso Press, 1999), Grace Elizabeth Hale, Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940 (New York: Vintage Books, 2002)

[4] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010) 24.