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

by Linda Herrick / 16 October, 2017

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A share-cropping family in Alabama in 1936. Photo/Alamy

The ultimate meritocracy was class-ridden from the get-go and Donald Trump exploited the fact.

If there’s one face that symbolises American “white trash”, it’s the banjo-strumming teenager in the savage hicks versus townies movie Deliverance. The flat-faced, slit-eyed boy was Billy Redden, plucked out of school to play the inbred yokel when he was 15. He was paid a pittance. In an interview in 2012 to mark the film’s 40th anniversary, Redden said if he’d been given his worth, “I wouldn’t be working in Walmart right now. And I’m struggling really hard to make ends meet.”

So has it ever been for the United States’ underclass for the past 400 years, argues American history professor Nancy Isenberg in White Trash, which includes a damning discussion of Deliverance’s portrayal of backwoods “breeds”.

There’s always been a myth that America is classless, the land of equal opportunity. White Trash condemns that as a lie and explains why it has created lasting damage.

Isenberg wrote the book during last year’s presidential campaigns, then updated it after Trump’s “shocking electoral success”. Trump won, she says, because he tapped into the forgotten class: “the working stiff, the forgotten rural American … the predominantly white workforce”. They found their champion in a man who displayed “an utter lack of civility”. Now they feel they have licence to express their rage and behave the same way.

Isenberg’s thesis – 320 densely detailed pages, plus 125 pages of notes – drills down to the very beginning of the US through to today’s political landscape.

The book opens in the 1600s, when the New World was sold to mainly British investors as the ideal “giant rubbish heap” to unload the dregs of their society. It was a “waste people” disposal plan.

The wealthy slave lords and landowners created a controlling elite. A middle class of merchants and traders grew, but at the bottom were child labourers, indentured workers and the landless. Women were regarded as breeders to fill the empty land. And so the new colonies quickly evolved into a massive cruel workhouse, which has become a permanent fixture, Isenberg reasons.

Malnutrition was ever-present. Children with hookworm suffered from anaemia, which, in turn, caused mental handicaps and physical deformities that continued down through generations. Inbreeding did the same.

Used as cannon fodder during the War of Independence and the Civil War, menial whites became the subject of serious debates about eugenics – sterilisation, segregation and “fitter families” programmes.

When slavery was abolished, politicians coldly evoked Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” in depicting the upcoming struggle between illiterate whites and freed blacks.

Isenberg’s chilling narrative eventually fetches up in the 1950s and the emergence of ultimate white trash-er Elvis Presley, who became buddies with President Lyndon Johnson, a country boy who reinvented his southern backwater identity. Johnson’s reign also coincided with the rise of the “hick sitcom”: The Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle and The Beverly Hillbillies, all trading on, says Isenberg, “the worst stereotypes”.

But in the following decades, white trash began rebranding themselves as an ethnic identity with “a distinct (and perversely noble) heritage”, with “upscale rednecks” emerging in the form of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, celebrity stock car racers, Dolly Parton and evangelist-fraudsters Jim and Tammy Bakker. Isenberg is not alone in making a compelling argument that America’s economic structure has always served just a small proportion of the population. The old drivers were slave-owning planters and speculators. The new ones are “banks, tax policy, corporate giants, compassionless politicians and angry voters”.

Democracy is pure “stagecraft” in the US, she concludes. The politicians dress down at barbecues, wearing jeans and Bubba caps to play at being ordinary people. But they are not ordinary: “Disguising that fact is the real camouflage that distorts the actual class nature of state power.”

Master of disguise Trump ensured poor whites were duped yet again. White Trash is illuminating, but it reads as an extended horror story.

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, by Nancy Isenberg (Atlantic, $45)

This article was first published in the September 9, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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