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Who Are You Calling 'White Trash'?

Image from Nancy Isenberg.com

White Trash serves as an opening statement on the long ignored presence of class within a country that prides itself on freedom and equality for all.

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

Publisher: Viking
Length: 446 pages
Author: Nancy Isenberg
Price: $28.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-06

Given the hot button issue that is racial relations within the United States, there has been little to no outward discussion regarding the marginalization of the poorer, white class of citizens that make up a significant portion of the population (save for some excellent coverage of white poverty in America by the British owned paper, The Guardian). Having adopted something of a backwards -- at least in terms of perception -- approach to modern society in the glorification of a "backwoods" / "redneck" / "white trash" lifestyle, this segment of the population goes largely undiscussed in terms of representing an expansive lineage of continued class structure within a supposedly free, classless society. No one wants to be the one to point out that what contemporary white trash -- for lack of a better term -- individuals see as a point of pride and/or heritage is based in the subjugation of a people on the part of the ruling class.

Since the first Europeans made their way across the Atlantic in hopes of establishing a new, freer society, what is now America has largely proven to be little more than European society in miniature. At least in terms of class structure, something which, until Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, has largely gone unspoken and undocumented. While race has always been a clear, often violent delineation of social stature, class hierarchy within each has continued largely unabated for over 400 years. In this time, the poor have been continually marginalized, kept in a state of perpetual decline, and even faced with the prospect of eugenics, all designed to keep a firmly established, unspoken class structure in place.

With much of today’s reality television culture based around the exploits of these formerly marginalized citizens, Isenberg takes an unflinching look at the history of class within the United States. While there exist unsettling parallels throughout the narrative -- one could easily and disquietingly see in James Vardaman and even Andrew Jackson what contemporary conservatives see in Donald Trump -- much of the focus is placed on the perception of the class of poor whites than the poor whites themselves. Much of this, especially in the earliest accounts, is the result of there being no existing documentation of the lives they lived reported on from the inside. Instead, history, as always, is painted by those in a position of power and therefore these lower ranks are largely brushed to the side, derided as being, “an ill-defined class half-way between white and black”.

It isn’t until the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century that these people begin to exist as fully realized individuals and not stock characters as perceived by the upper classes. As they begin to take shape, they also begin to lose Isenberg’s sympathy to a certain degree. Indeed, she references James Agee as wondering how he could write about poor whites as an educated individual without making them seem pitiful or disgusting, a trap Isenberg finds herself falling into years later. It’s a fine line that often suffers from an outsider’s perspective that comes off as more anthropological than sociological.

As she begins her survey, she presents her subjects as the unfortunate victims of circumstance, born into the lowest level of British society and, in an attempt to rid the country’s streets of vagabonds, were shipped off to the colonies in America where they occupied largely the same role, thus perpetuating a vicious cycle of oppression and repression. But as time passes and those identified alternately as “clay-eaters”, “rednecks” and “po’ white trash”, are subject to harsher scrutiny.

It’s here that the narrative then fully begins to shift and those upon which pity was previously bestowed become the problem rather than the byproduct of a larger societal issue. Instead, these individuals, primarily in the 20th and 21st centuries, see their social retardation as not something to be scorned or broken free of, but rather a heritage to be celebrated and embraced. Yet by doing so these examples of modern day white trash miss the point entirely. When discussing Reconstruction and the storied South post-Civil War, Isenberg points out that the Confederate heritage that these modern rednecks purport to celebrate while taking to task the wealthy and liberal elite is based in a system by which the elite managed to stifle the growth of the lower and poor classes.

This whole system saw the true southern rednecks existing in a class somewhere between the black slaves and the white middle class. To celebrate this heritage as one in which the underdog took on the wealthier elite would seem to miss the point entirely as, according to Isenberg, it was the wealthier elite who fought to keep the so-called underdog down with no hope of social elevation or advancement.

In this, the modern incarnations of those defined as being white trash are seen as the imbeciles and societal dregs they were long claimed to be. It’s hard to reconcile this elitist view with the more sympathetic tone afforded similar individuals from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. If the basic argument of the unspoken class system within the United States is to be believed, modern white trash are no more responsible for their position than their ancestors, each the result of centuries of solidified and stratified class distinctions from which there is little hope of escape.

Ultimately, White Trash suffers from a tonal inconsistency. What starts off as a thoughtful historical exploration eventually devolves into contemporary social commentary struck through with a certain level of disgust and disappointment. But given the sensitive and long overlooked nature of the subject matter into which she dives head first, Isenberg cannot be faulted for letting a few of her prejudices slip into the narrative. As Agee indicated, it can be damn near impossible to present a truly sympathetic or genuine portrait of an experience and existence beyond that which we ourselves have ever or will ever know.

It’s a contentious subject that deserves a larger academic discussion. With any luck, Isenberg’s White Trash will serve as the opening arguments from which a broader discussion arises.


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