The deep roots of "white trash" in America: "Not only are we not a post-racial society, we are certainly not a post-class society"

Salon talks to Nancy Isenberg about America's history of race, class, eugenics and the myth of social mobility

Published July 9, 2016 8:30PM (EDT)

Nancy Isenberg   (Penguin/Mindy Stricke)
Nancy Isenberg (Penguin/Mindy Stricke)

Nancy Isenberg’s book “White Trash” begins by looking at the characters in "To Kill a Mockingbird." Both the book and the movie play with the divide between Atticus Finch, who is saintly and proper, and the poor white family, the Ewells, whose daughter’s false rape accusation is at the story’s center, as an example that there are two kinds of white people in the South. The book has been on Isenberg’s curriculum for 15 years, as part of a history class called “Crime, Conspiracy, and Courtroom Dramas,” which she teaches at Louisiana State University.

From “Mockingbird,” Isenberg’s book travels back to the first English arrivals on the American shore, tracing four centuries of how we talk and think about class (and race) in our most unequal union. It’s a bracing, sometimes upsetting read, beginning with its name, a term which still causes deep offense in some quarters.

When did you first start working on the idea of the “poor white” or “poor white trash?”

When you’re a historian, you gravitate toward certain issues. Part of it has to do with my graduate training; my first book dealt with race, class and gender. But it also had to do with when I was working on “Madison and Jefferson,” which I coauthored with Andrew Burstein. I became very aware of the importance of how Jefferson talked about the poor. He has this amazing line where, at the same moment that he’s calling for the education of the poor, something the Virginia legislature would reject, he refers to the poor as “rubbish.”

I became interested in figuring out the language: how do Americans talk about the poor? And then I realized that this is connected to the larger problem Americans have about class, that they believe a myth. We are told over and over again by writers, sometimes journalists, but mainly politicians, that we are an exceptional country, that we embrace the American dream. And that's rooted to this idea that we believe in social mobility. And we think that that idea, that promise, goes all the way back to the American revolution, that at that moment we broke free from the British system and that somehow we unburdened ourselves from the English class system. Now this is a problem that Americans have – they often prefer the myth over reality.

I began to look more closely at how Americans talk about class. There are a long list of slurs and of terms such as waste people, vagrants, rascals, rubbish, lubbers, squatters, crackers, clay-eaters, degenerates, rednecks, and of course, trailer trash. And you’ll see that just by paying attention to the words people use … what comes up over and over again, is the way the discussion of class throughout our history has forced on the centrality of land and land ownership, as well as what I call breeds, or breeding. And both of these big concepts come from the British. For example, the early indentured servants, the poor who the British wanted to dump into British colonial America, they were called waste people. And where does that term come from? It comes from the idea of waste land.

If a rich field, a productive field, is the sign of success, then fallow and untilled soil, soul that is ignored, the scrubby, swampy, completely worthless tract of land, is what waste land was. We forget – through most of our history we were an agrarian nation. That means that land ownership was the most important marker for designating an individual – and course we’re talking about, primarily, men – it was the most important signifier of civic identity, it was the first way to measure who had the right to vote, it also was a measure of independence. Americans didn’t believe everybody was free, you were only free if you had the economic wherewithal to control your destiny and where did that come from? It came from owning land.

It’s interesting, because you talk about the fact of owning land versus not, but you also talk about the very type of land: the idea that if you come from poor soil, weak soil, soil without nutrients, it also by osmosis makes you weak, less than vigorous, with these markers of poverty on your body. And this sort of leads to the eugenics idea of breeding, and good blood and bad blood.

The idea that the quality of the soil determines the quality of the people is an old English idea. And it also ties into ideas of demography. Another English idea is that the wealth and the strength of the nation are based on the size of its population. And how do you get a large population? By healthy land, healthy soil. So, those ideas are really important. And it becomes a common way to dismiss the poor. Part of it is that they are denied opportunities to buy the land, they’re always on the worst land, the marginalized land. But it’s also this idea that you do receive an inheritance. And this is another English idea I focus on – not only bloodlines, and lineage, and pedigree, but inheritance – this is what lays the foundation for the eugenics movement. Another theme the English were obsessed with was pedigree, and so these ideas become really central in the 19th century, to talk about race and to talk about poor whites, because they begin to be seen in the early 19th century as clinical specimens.

Particularly when they talk about the clay eaters and the sand hillers, they are identified by their yellow skin, which is equated to tallow or parchment – this is a theme that picks up later, that poor whites are not quite white. And their children are seen as taking on the qualities of the poor soil they live on. Their hair is compared to crops, because it’s bright white. They’re seen as a strange breed apart. And that’s also really important for class, because what it means is that there’s no point in giving the poor charity, because they’re trapped, their fate is set, their destiny is set, because they pass on these qualities, these traits, form one generation to the next.

One of the other really strange things that I think we’ve forgotten about the way in which race and class get intertwined. If you look at the embrace of social Darwininsm and evolutionary theory, and again this is building on the old ideas of animal husbandry, that you can breed people the way you breed dogs, there is the idea that poor whites are evolutionarily backward, they are unevolved people. And this particularly gets attached to those who live in Appalachia, the hillbilly. At the end of the 19th century there’s an attempt to recover these people as a kind of purer Anglo Saxon, that they have been protected from being corrupted. But the dominant theme is that they have not evolved at all. 

There’s this idea that the poor white is marked by the connection to this terrible land and this bad inheritance, but at the same time there’s this anxiety that some of them could pass into respectable society, and then bear children that would take you back, and that’s what leads to the sterilization movement.

Yes, this is a really disturbing thing, and it also similar to race. The idea of passing goes back to the English idea of class passing – the servant who marries the lord – that same fear becomes really important, particularly at the beginning of the 20th century, and it overlaps with the eugenics movement. One of the things I focus on is the racial integrity act of 1924, which is passed in Virginia, and it’s a perfect example. Because what is acknowledged by elites and the middle class is that if you look at where poor whites live and socialize, they’re more likely to interact with free blacks, so their fear is that somehow that if we don’t clearly distinguish who can marry who, which is what the racial integrity act does, and we make sure that we designate all people who supposedly have black blood, and red blood, because they became equally concerned about Native Americans, there’s also this equally important fear that blacks and Native Americans are more easily going to have sex with poor whites, and then the poor white will rise up and contaminate the middle class and the upper class. What we’ve forgotten about is that this obsession with pedigree, this obsession with controlling the boundaries between not only races but classes, is a really central part of our past and our history. 

This goes hand in hand with this myth that we’re a socially mobile country. So, we say that social mobility is a good thing, but if people were truly socially mobile, it terrifies people who are at the top of the heap.

Right. There’s this strange idea – I talk about this particularly in the 1960s and early 70s – suddenly the middle class has become boring. And if you think about the language of assimilation, what that means is that you erase all the traces, anything that would be seen as contributing in a negative way to society. You have to fit in, so that means you have to adopt the dominant language, you have to dress a certain way. And this is across the board of how we measure assimilation.

But in the '60s and '70s, suddenly the middle class is being associated with TV dinners, and all Americans somehow want to rediscover their roots. And this is linked to Alex Haley discovering his African roots, and Jewish writers who looked at the New York Jewish ghetto praised the idea of [as one wrote] of having “a ghetto to look back to.” “But while it’s nice when the ghetto is in the past, or the people coming over on Ellis Island are at a distance, people are still very fearful about living next to someone who isn’t of the same class or the same background.

So, the other thing I talk about is that class has a geography. Not only has our country particularly since the World War II period, where you have the rise of suburbia and the middle class, reinforced racial segregation, we’ve also imposed class zoned neighborhoods. And what could be a better way of ensuring that people are divided, that people measure each other by the value of the land that they own – owning a home is still considered the most important measure of being in the middle class.

The pedigree issue, not only does it raise the importance of the eugenics movement – and I highlight that this wasn’t a marginal movement, it was promoted by academics, politicians, prominent speakers, president Theodore Roosevelt was a eugenicist, and by 1931 you have 27 states that had sterilization laws on the books, so this was not a marginal movement. But when we pay attention to pedigree, that explains why this movement could be so widespread and so popular and so readily accepted as a justifiable way for Americans to protect the population. And we know that this is still with us today. This is one of the things I’ve been noticing about Donald Trump. He’s obsessed with pedigree! It starts with birtherism and his attacks on President Obama. It’s played out when he attacks the judge, and claims this guy couldn’t make a decision because of his Mexican heritage. And now he’s been going after Elizabeth Warren and calling her Pocahontas and claiming any of her claims to Native American background is a lie, is a fraud.

But at the same time, Trump appeals to voters who some people might call white trash voters. He embodies this kind of excess that you talk about when writing about Dolly Parton, Tammy Faye Baker. He’s tacky. He’s like a caricature of a rich person that appeals to poor people.  

Right. And this is one other thing I talk about: the problem of our American democracy. And we can take it back to Andrew Jackson. An Australian writer wrote in 1949 that we don’t have a real democracy, we have what’s called a democracy of manners. Which means that people will accept huge disparities of wealth, but they will vote for someone who pretends to be just like us. And how do politicians do that? In Trump’s case, he steps down from his penthouse, puts on his bubba cap, and yes, he sounds as if he’s someone who could work on the docks, the fact that he refuses to ever be polite – which as we know, in terms of the old measure of social breeding, politeness was the most important marker of class status.

Early on he was seen as cornering the white trash vote, his rabble rousing and race-baiting was inciting the revenge of the lower classes. But the problem with that is that someone like Nate Silver has argued that Trump’s voters are wealthier than either Clinton’s or Sanders’s constituencies. So we have two things going on. The visual images of the rallies and the racial tension, which I wrote about for Salon, harkens back to people like [early 20th century Mississippi Governor] James Vardaman, who engaged in this kind of race-baiting, who pitted poor whites against blacks. And he has tapped into class fears and anxieties, particularly in his emphasis on global grade. I think his wall, his famous wall which will never be built, what it really represents is not only the fear of poor immigrants from Mexico and south American coming into the country and creating job competition and lowering the wages of typical Americans, but it’s also a metaphor for keeping jobs in this country, there’s a certain isolationism that’s very appealing to voters who are attracted to Donald Trump.

One thing I’ve always been curious about was that, while there have always been poor white people in every part of this country, at some point the idea of poor whites, of “poor white trash,” became a Southern thing. How did that happen? And why, now, do so many who reclaim that identity – no matter where they live – look to the South, to the confederate flag for instance, as a symbol of their heritage?

 You’re right. One of the things I’m trying to emphasize is that poor white trash comes out of the rural notion of talking about the poor. There are differences when we deal with the urban poor as opposed to the rural poor. We have to remember that rural poverty isn’t just restricted to the South, but the reason it becomes identified with the South has more to do with politics. I talk about the importance of the sectional controversy in the middle of the 19th century, the rise of Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party. They made the argument of free soil, and it goes back to James Oglethorpe, the founder of Georgia, that when you have a slave society where slave owners become the most powerful class, they monopolize the land, and that hurts the ability of poor whites to experience social mobility. That idea starts with Oglethorpe, it’s repeated by Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, and then it reemerges as part of the Free Soil party and the Republican Party. And what they argue is that slavery’s not only wrong because it oppresses slaves, but it undermines the ability of poor white men to achieve economic independence and also to achieve social mobility.

It’s actually ironic that working class men would want to embrace the confederacy, because one of the things I highlight about the confederacy is that it very much relied on reinforcing a racial and a class hierarchy, and this is a hangover from the antebellum period. The planter elite saw themselves as very much to the manor born. They assumed that they were the class that should exercise political power and rule. They began to defend the idea that a born to rule elite should control southern states, and particularly South Carolina, and they are very dismissive of poor whites. Not only was it reinforced during the confederacy, it existed before the confederacy.

So the confederacy is one of the most elitist political systems that we’ve had in this country. To assume that somehow the confederacy embraced poor whites, it even goes against the history of how the conscription laws worked. As we know the poor always suffer the worst during wars: they lose their land, they’re the ones who are put on the front lines, and you have high numbers of poor whites who desert from the confederacy because they don’t think it’s fighting for their interests.

So if it’s 1861 and you’re a poor white person, you’re going to be very wary of the confederacy, because they’re trying to recruit you to this war because you’re going to be cannon fodder. But if it’s 1961 and you’re a poor white, you might fly the confederate flag because you’re so threatened by the civil rights movement.

Again, it goes back to the fact that most Americans don’t know their history. Or the history they’ve been told has been grossly distorted. When writing about the civil rights movement, I focus a lot on Little Rock, Arkansas, and Governor Orval Faubus. First of all, he’s attacked as a hillbilly and seen as poor white trash. But he’s more than willing to fan the flames of race and class tension. And he can do that in Little Rock, because part of what we often miss from that history is that there were three high schools in Little Rock. There was the elite white school called Cadillac High, which was not integrated, and then there was an all-black school, and then there was a poor working-class high school, Central High School, which was the one that was chosen for desegregation. And he exploited that. On the verge of the first day of school, he claimed that poor whites were going to come from around the state of Arkansas, and they’re going to come in droves, and we’re going to have a race war.

And it also goes back to the confederacy, because when the confederate elites began to feel threatened by mass desertions,there was even talk of taking the vote away from some of the poor whites who were allowed to vote. But they decided we’d better not do that because then they won’t fight in the war. But at the same time they start trying to come up with a rationale to convince poor whites to fight for the confederacy, and the argument that they make is that poor whites don’t fight for the confederacy they’re going to lose out on their end, they’re going to drop down to the level of free blacks or slaves. And again, there’s this idea of pitting these two groups against each other, but it also completely contradicted the way the south and the Southern elite really felt about poor whites. Because in the antebellum period they felt their slaves were more valuable than poor whites, because slaves at least contributed to the economy.

So we have to realize that first of all poor whites are not always the enemies of black Americans. Because at times they lived next to each other, they socialized with each other. But it’s a very, very effective tool for politicians when they feel the elite is threatened to focus on pitting those on the lower ranks of society against each other. And this has been used again and again. Why do you have all these negative terms for the poor, why do these ideas persist? Because to project hatred onto the lower classes is a very effective way to transfer the problem, to blame the poor. Not only do you say they’re lazy and deserve their fate, it makes everyone else less accountable. It’s so fascinating how these ideas go all the way back to the 18th century.

For example, in 1790 John Adams argued that Americans not only scrambled to get ahead but they needed someone to disparage. “There must be one,” he wrote, “indeed, who is the last and lowest of the human species.” His argument is exactly what Lyndon Johnson said, when he talked about the racism of poor whites: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

People will tolerate having people above them, they’ll defer to an elite class, just as long as they have someone beneath them. We forget the psychological power of that. Americans like the rhetoric of equality but they don’t like it when it’s real, and they don’t really defend it when it comes to how can we create an equal society. When it’s so easy to dismiss different groups, usually in very shallow ways, just as a way for us who are of the middle class to feel that somehow we deserve what we have. We always want to mask it, we always want to rationalize it, but it’s been with us and it’s still with us. Not only are we not a post-racial society, we are certainly not a post-class society.

By Kate Tuttle

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