In her new book, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, Nancy Isenberg rips apart the myth that the United States is a class-free society where hard work is rewarded by social mobility. She examines a piece of America’s social fabric that is older than the nation but is often ignored and even hated.
In this email exchange, Isenberg says that poor whites have been at a disadvantage since the British sought to unload their expendable “waste people” onto colonial America. Unable to compete equally in their quest for the American Dream, they remain marginalized — a reality that Trump has tapped into through his “riches-to-rags stage act.” While Bernie Sanders underscored the vast wealth differences between the top 1 percent and everyone else, Isenberg says he also “reflected a great blindness” to the plight of America’s white poor.
Karin Kamp (KK): You write that by re-evaluating our history in terms of class, you expose what is “too often ignored about American identity.” What did you learn about poor whites that we need to know?
Nancy Isenberg (NI): First of all, the poor have always been disparaged by elites and blamed by the middle class for being lazy and uncouth. In America’s past, the most important measure of class identity was land ownership; it was literally the measure of civic worth, of what it took to have a stake in society. But a large segment of the US population was landless. Even today, home ownership is still the mark of middle-class attainment. Yet class has never been about income or financial worth alone. It is more about physical traits and bodily conditions, bad blood and wayward breeding.
Poor whites in the antebellum South were described as diseased, as yellow — as not quite white. Having heirs and healthy children was another sign of class value — poor white children were associated with hookworm, pellagra, clay-eating, wrinkled and deformed bodies that appeared old before their time. To live in a dingy cabin, a “hovel,” “shebang” or trailer park, is to live in a transitional space that never acquires the name of home. For most of American history, then, poor rural whites were associated with crude habitations, uncouth habits and degenerate patterns of breeding. They were seen as a “breed” apart, unable to assimilate into normal society, which meant that nothing could be done to improve their condition. They were also seen as extrusions of the scrubby, barren or swampy land their occupied. A British vocabulary of “wastelands” and “breeds” continued to define them throughout American history.
KK: America holds onto this idea that we are a classless society, that anyone can move through the ranks by being successful. Is that not true?
NI: Social mobility is one of the myths Americans tell about themselves — that America is a land of opportunity, that somehow we escaped the rigid class system that existed in the Old World at the time of the American Revolution. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, two of the earliest proponents of America as an exceptional society, only really promised horizontal mobility. They argued that the US was a vast continent where the poor could move west and start over. Franklin insisted that the continent would reduce the excesses of great wealth at the top or extreme poverty at the bottom of the social hierarchy. He called for the creation of a “happy mediocrity.” But what he failed to acknowledge is that as poor, landless squatters headed west, they could not compete as equals because of the wealthy investors who monopolized the best land. The West was never an open space. Powerful land speculators always held an advantage. Western land wasn’t free, and the poor rarely had the funds to buy the parcels sold by the federal government. Even today, land ownership and land regulation is skewed to favor the interests of the elite classes. In 1990, the top 10 percent held equity in 90 percent of the land.
KK: Why have we as a nation swept our identity, our truth, under a big old red, white and blue rug?
NI: It is difficult for Americans to talk about class because it contradicts our myths and rhetoric about the promise of the American Dream. Americans celebrate the abstract notion of equality, but history tells us that we have never embraced genuine equality. It is much easier to sing the lyrics of Hamilton than to accept the cold, hard facts. In Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures (1791), the treasury secretary was quite clear that the classes to be exploited as factory workers were women and children, even children of a “tender age,” as he coldly put it. So while popular commentators and politicians with a superficial knowledge of early America can praise Hamilton for anticipating an industrial economy, they miss the fact that it was to be built on the backs of poor women and children. Child labor was legal in this country until 1919. So which story do we want hear? Hamilton as the self-made “hero” who marries well and rises up the social ladder? Or Hamilton the elitist, who understood that the poor were mere cogs, meant to be exploited in creating an industrial empire?
KK: Poor whites have been called all kinds of names over the years — waste people, rubbish, low-downers, trailer trash and worse, you write. Why has this group been so vilified?
NI: The phrase “white trash” has its origins in the forceful imprint left by British colonization. Before it became that fabled “City upon a Hill,” America was, in the eyes of the earliest English adventurers, a foul, weedy wilderness — a “wasteland,” they called it, where the Old World could unload the idle poor. The great majority of early colonists came to North America as “unfree laborers.” They were the indentured servants who sold themselves into servitude for seven to nine years; slaves; adults burdened with debt; convicts who chose exile over a prison term or hanging. We forget, too, that the large majority of indentured servants were children, many of whom never survived to adulthood.
These people were classified as expendable, called “waste people,” which is where the word “white trash” comes from. Thomas Jefferson and Abigail Adams called poor rural whites “rubbish.” All the vicious names they were called underscored four traits. First, that the poor were identified with trash or idleness; second, they were associated with inferior kinds of lands, such as hillbillies and “rednecks,” the latter of whom were linked in the late 19th century with swampland; third, they were vagrants, undesirably mobile, failing to contribute to the economy — as landless squatters or trailer trash; and four, the poor were analogized to inferior breeds of animals: briar hoppers, tackies (inferior breed of horse), scalawags (diseased cattle) or curs (mongrel breed of dog).
KK: Donald Trump is doing particularly well with white, non-urban, blue-collar workers — many of whom are angry about their economic prospects. What is it about a billionaire real estate mogul who inherited wealth from his father that makes him so appealing to this group?
NI: Donald Trump’s success is rooted in a raw, unscripted speech, outright rudeness and his ability to project anger without being constrained by the well-measured idiom of the politician. His campaign manager admits he is “projecting an image.” Who’s surprised? Our electoral politics has always countenanced con artists and has abided identity politics. An Australian observer described the phenomenon succinctly back in 1949, and it’s true today: Americans have a taste for a “democracy of manners,” he insisted, which was in fact different from real democracy. Voters accept huge disparities in wealth, he observed, while expecting their leaders to “cultivate the appearance of being no different from the rest of us.” By talking tough, by boasting that he’d love to throw a punch at a protester or squash Michael Bloomberg, Trump pretends he is stepping down from his opulent Manhattan penthouse to commingle with the masses. Wearing his bright red Bubba cap, and crooning at one rally, “I love the poorly educated,” he has built upon a familiar strain of American populism. A dose of redneck bluster goes a long way. It helped Bill Clinton to call himself Bubba and play the sax. It helped, too, that journalists dubbed him the “Arkansas Elvis.”
Beyond his riches-to-rags stage act, Trump’s message is that he is a headstrong businessman who will not only create jobs, but also make sure the government defends hard-working Americans. As he exploits the fear of labor competition from immigrants, he taps into the anxiety produced by the erosion of unions and manufacturing jobs and the increase in low-paying service jobs that is shifting the ground beneath working-class Americans. In the game of identity politics, complex social processes are reduced to a convenient bogeyman. Trump’s mostly symbolic wall represents an imagined power to keep immigrants out; but for many of his followers who hate free trade globalism, it really means keeping jobs in the country. There may be no substance behind the words, but it can be argued that overgeneralization is any candidate’s stock-in-trade.
KK: Do you think it’s meaningful that Trump is talking to this group differently? He’s not saying you’re an embarrassment, or slouches, or lazy — which formerly was what many implied, including some in the GOP, about poor whites. He’s saying you were not taken care of by elites. You need to get what’s yours. You deserve it.
NI: Yes, he is not talking down to his audience, but he is certainly making empty promises. Since voters who feel unrepresented don’t expect anything new from practiced politicians, they have become convinced that Trump is talking to and not about them. Trump’s style echoes the story of the Arkansas Traveler, which dates to the 1840s. It told of a rich politician riding in the Arkansas backcountry, who comes upon a poor squatter. The politician asks the squatter for a drink, but the squatter ignores him. (The drink is a metaphor for his vote.) To obtain the man’s support, the rich politician must get off his horse, grab the squatter’s fiddle and play his kind of music. That is, he had to speak the poor man’s language. Of course, when the rich politician returns to his mansion, or gets re-elected, the condition of the poor squatter, living in his dismal cabin with his brood of children with dirty feet and faces, is left unchanged. Trump voters aren’t thinking that far ahead. They’re not identifying with those workers who actually experienced Trump’s unseemly business practices. They’re hearing his anger, an anger they recognize.
KK: How does America’s treatment of poor whites compare to its treatment of people from other races? How do the issues of class and race overlap?
NI: Class and race have always been intertwined. James Oglethorpe, the 18th-century founder of the Georgia colony, understood that slavery not only oppressed slaves, but reinforced a class hierarchy and made it impossible for poor white men to be free laborers and compete with wealthy planters. The party of Abraham Lincoln made the same argument in the 1850s and 1860s, and poor whites and poor blacks were pitted against each other during the Jim Crow Era. Martin Luther King understood that poverty was a tool of racists — hence his Poor People’s Campaign of 1967-68. Southern white Democratic leaders long fueled racial conflict between poor blacks and whites in order to redirect the anger of the white lower classes away from the white elite. Governors James Vardaman of Mississippi in the early 1900s and Orval Faubus of Arkansas in the 1950s exploited racial violence and white thuggery to advance their careers.
But it is just as important for middle-class Americans to appreciate class on its own terms: white privilege should not be conflated with class privilege. All white Americans are not in the same boat, nor do all white Americans have access to the same educational or job opportunities, nor do all whites live in the same neighborhoods. In fact, today we live in class-zoned neighborhoods. Sociologists have found that in 2015 the best predictor of success are the privileges and wealth bestowed from parents and ancestors.
KK: Bernie Sanders focused much of his campaign on the privileges of the 1 percent and the problems of the 99 percent. Do you think his message will change the way we look at poverty in America?
NI: Sanders is right to underscore the gross concentration of wealth among the 1 percent. But he also reflected a great blindness to class when he said in one debate: “When you’re white you don’t know what it’s like to be living in the ghetto. You don’t know what it’s like to be poor.” He’s dead wrong in this, denying the long history of white poverty. Today 19.7 million people below the poverty line (42.1 percent) are white.
It is essential that upper-middle-class and middle-class Americans recognize their class biases when they dismiss the poor as lazy, or tell themselves that everyone has a chance to rise up the social ladder. We don’t all start in the same place; we don’t all have the luxury of living in safe neighborhoods with all the amenities; and we don’t all have wealthy parents who are willing to spend 50 percent of their wealth on their children (as sociologists have found for upper-middle-class parents today).
KK: In your concluding chapter, you write that “American democracy has never accorded all the people a meaningful voice.” We all have a number of rights, including the right to vote, what else is missing?
NI: The right to vote has never been extended to all Americans. Andrew Jackson was “sold” to the voting public as the hero of the common man; yet a number of the states in Jackson’s column were not in the least interested in giving poor, unpropertied men (let alone women) the right to vote. In 1821, when New York removed its property qualifications for white male voters, it retained those qualifications for free black men. Louisiana and Connecticut had property requirements for voting until 1845; Virginia until 1851; North Carolina until 1857. Eight states passed laws disenfranchising the urban poor, while towns and cities passed suffrage guidelines for municipal elections that were even stricter than those enacted in state legislatures.
The Southern states effectively disenfranchised poor blacks and whites by authorizing poll taxes during the Jim Crow era. From 1900 to 1916, only 32 percent of the South’s population voted in presidential elections, dropping to 20 percent in the period 1920–24. (It was not until 1966, following the passage of the 24th Amendment, that the Supreme Court finally prohibited polls taxes in both federal and state elections.). Until 1920, of course, the female half of the US population was denied the right to vote.
Today, 22 states have recently passed some form of voter-identification law. The use of driver licenses discriminates against the poor who do not own a car. College students are classified as transients, and the elderly poor are disenfranchised in states that arbitrarily complicate voting regulations. Limiting early voting periods and same-day registration penalizes those who don’t have the luxury of taking time off work.
KK: What do you hope that individuals and policymakers will take away from this group?
NI: I am not a policymaker but a historian. I hope that readers, pundits and politicians will stop repeating the tired myth of the American Dream and appreciate instead that the dismissal of the poor has been a crucial and consistent part of US history. Until we fully comprehend that past, our country will continue to paper over class divisions with empty rhetoric. For whether we like to acknowledge it or not, the history of “white trash” lies dangerously close to the heart of our deeply conflicted, long-ignored class politics.