An Underclass of Their Own

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America BY Nancy Isenberg. Viking. Hardcover, 480 pages. $28.

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

It’s no great exaggeration, these days, to say that the state of the white American working class is driving the American commentariat crazy. The non-college-educated white voter is notoriously the bedrock demographic aligned behind likely GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump—and leaders of the conservative movement, which has long pivoted on elaborate bait-and-switch appeals to its aggrieved, antigovernment, downwardly mobile base, are appalled to see that base swallowing whole the nativist, protectionist, and belligerently class-baiting nostrums bursting forth from the GOP’s unlikely orange-hued tribune of populist resentment. National Review writer Kevin D. Williamson recently sized up Trump’s ardent working-class supporters and came away with a litany of toxic failings of morality, character, and family discipline. “Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence—and the incomprehensible malice—of poor white America,” Williamson marveled. Poor white communities “deserve to die,” he wrote: “Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. . . .The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles.”

In reality, Williamson’s plaint—which now echoes far and wide in the leadership circles of the GOP—is but the latest installment in a founding catechism of American class contempt, as Nancy Isenberg chronicles in her richly detailed, indispensable study White Trash. Isenberg, a historian at Louisiana State University, takes pointed exception to the social mythology of American exceptionalism—which holds that the unique conditions of mobility and economic opportunity issuing from the frontier settlement of the New World effectively quarantined the American experiment from the punishing crucibles of European class conflict. Instead, she shows that the settlement of America was steeped in precisely the sort of ugly marginalization of the non-propertied white poor that Williamson uses to excuse the many moral and economic failures of the modern GOP.

To take just one notable example, the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, promulgated in 1669 and composed in large part by the revered British philosopher of social-contract constitutionalism John Locke, is a revealingly brutal by-product of a system of feudal privilege. Carolina was emphatically conceived, under the direction of Locke’s benefactor the Earl of Shaftesbury, as a slave colony—a proviso that also greatly benefited Locke himself, who was the third-largest shareholder in the Royal African Company, the concern that held the monopoly charter of the English slave trade. But Locke—the well-known theorist of individual political liberty—also used the Fundamental Constitutions in a thankfully theoretical effort to create both an inherited noble caste among Carolina colonists and a hereditary white servant class, known as Leet-men. Like feudal serfs, these workers would be the property of nobles, inherited across generations. Their offspring, likewise, would become part of their masters’ estates—and so they would be encouraged to breed robustly. The harsh provisions of the Fundamental Constitutions were “really a declaration of war against poor settlers,” Isenberg writes, setting North Carolina on the trajectory to be “the first white trash colony” (emphasis in original).

As the colonies recombined into the American republic, the nation’s animus toward the white landless class became a fixed organizing principle. Even nominal social democrats like Thomas Jefferson frankly avowed the proto-eugenic imperative to breed out the reprobate common workers and promote a “natural aristocracy” founded on a “fortuitous concourse of breeders.” In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson asked, rhetorically, “The circumstance of superior beauty is thought worthy of attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man?”

Indeed, powerful Americans seeking to pathologize poor whites followed, to a remarkably consistent degree, the early agrarian republic’s rhetoric of livestock husbandry, supplemented by land-bound metaphors of social stagnation, as they anathematized their social inferiors on grounds of moral and biological unfitness. Under this logic, Isenberg observes, “poverty has been naturalized, often seen as something beyond human control. By this measure, poor whites had to be classified as a distinct breed.” Before “white trash” became the catchall term of derision for poor whites (particularly in the South), they were known, variously, as “waste people,” “mudsills,” “fungus growth,” and “scalawags” (a runt-sized animal, later adopted as a term of derision for southern collaborators with the Republican occupation of the former Confederacy). And since the forces of natural history had singled them out as evolutionary nonstarters, they all displayed telltale behaviors that disqualified them from full participation in the land of opportunity’s bounty: To be poor and white was to be deemed lazy, shiftless, sallow-colored, diseased, criminal, and (quite often) inbred.

This battery of vices acquired a pseudoscientific gloss at the height of the eugenics movement during the early-twentieth century. After the militant white leaders of the Jim Crow South tamped down the threat of a populist cross-racial alliance of poor whites and disenfranchised African Americans, more respectable, self-styled progressive intellectuals embarked on their own fantasies of a permanent social regime of laboratory-bred racial purity. However, the patrician rhetoric of genetic husbandry still shone through. Popular eugenics lecturer C. W. Saleeby, for example, trumpeted a brand of “eugenic feminism,” under which women would not merely gain the voting franchise but also dedicate themselves to selfless, scientifically managed breeding for the betterment of the species. Female society would resemble a bee colony, with putatively superior women pressed into service as hyperfertile queen bees, “while educated sterile women (or postmenopausal) were best suited for reform activity.” Harvard professor William McDougall proposed the founding of a separate breeding colony, Eugenia, which would function, Isenberg writes, as both “a university and a stud farm. Raised as ‘aristocrats’ in the tradition of ‘Noblesse oblige,’ the products of the special colony would go out into the world as skilled public servants.” The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina could scarcely have put things any more plainly.

Gradually, the image of poor whites became sanitized, as bona fide white-trash figures like Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton acceded to the highest office in the land, and a suburbanized middle-class mass culture started to evince a nostalgia for the more colorful features of rural life in the American interior. A wide range of postwar TV franchises, from Petticoat Junction, Green Acres, and The Beverly Hillbillies to Hee-Haw and The Dukes of Hazzard, turned the once-odious moral failings of the southern underclass into the stuff of soothing televisual camp.

In real life, however, poor southerners were arraying themselves against the civil-rights revolution, with proud, self-styled cracker political leaders such as Arkansas governor Orval Faubus summoning the specter of violent white resistance to desegregation and extending the demagogic southern political tradition of employing “the threat of poor white thuggery to stay in power.” George Wallace would follow the same playbook in Alabama—as did presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who dispatched his GOP-primary opponents in every southern state save Ted Cruz’s native Texas and neighboring Oklahoma. Meanwhile, as poor white southerners became identified with the worst kinds of racist reaction, the term “redneck,” Isenberg writes, had “come to be synonymous with an almost insane bigotry”—so much so that the lead militant in a Nashville antidesegregation-mob action, who was in fact “a paid agitator from Camden, New Jersey,” came replete with his own phony southern accent. Even pathological racism could attract its own perverse form of carpetbagging.

Indeed, the racial boundaries alleged to shore up the ever-vulnerable social status of poor whites gradually became blurred during the postwar era, at least in elite pundit discourse. As Isenberg observes, influential thinkers on the right like economist Thomas Sowell have argued that many of the social ills unfairly ascribed to poor black populations—“laziness, promiscuity, violence, bad English”—were in reality “passed on from their backcountry white neighbors.” (Though Isenberg doesn’t mention it here, the same basic argument is taken up in Fox Butterfield’s 1995 book, All God’s Children.)

At the same time, though, the logic of racist backlash remains very much at the forefront of American life, and is by no means confined to the South, as the powerful, polarizing reminders of both the Trump movement and Black Lives Matter protests readily attest. One of the limitations of Isenberg’s study is its regional bias, which makes racial tensions among working-class Americans come across as a virtual southern monopoly. This means, for example, that while she dissects the historic showdown over the desegregation of Little Rock schools in 1957, she bypasses the 1970s Boston busing wars, in which working-class Irish Catholics in South Boston and Charlestown showed an antiblack animus every bit as strong and ugly as that in Faubus’s Arkansas or Wallace’s Alabama. Likewise, she doesn’t follow the migrant poor white populations in northern and western cities, nor the pitched battles over scarce resources and racial privilege that ensued there. The ethnic, racial, and class history of Los Angeles alone could make for a book as long and revealing as White Trash.

Still, in exposing the tangled origins and richly variegated articulations of America’s signature civic faith of baiting and biologizing its poor population, Isenberg has done an inestimable service. She also starkly lays out the many deep and unresolved costs involved in the deliberate repression of the history she patiently documents:

A corps of pundits exist whose fear of the lower classes has led them to assert that the unbred perverse—white as well as black—are crippling and corrupting American society. They deny that the nation’s economic structure has a causal relationship with the social phenomena they highlight. They deny history. If they did not, they would recognize that the most powerful engines of the U.S. economy—slaveowning planters and land speculators in the past, banks, tax policy, corporate giants, and compassionless politicians and angry voters today—bear considerable responsibility for the lasting effects on white trash, or on falsely labeled “black rednecks,” and on the working poor generally. The sad fact is, if we have no class analysis, then we will continue to be shocked at the numbers of waste people who inhabit what self-anointed patriots have styled the “greatest civilization in the history of the world.”

In other words: Take that, Kevin D. Williamson.

Chris Lehmann is an editor of Bookforum and the author, most recently, of The Money Cult (Melville House, 2016).