Nancy Isenberg. White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. New York: Penguin Books, 2016.
The term “identity politics” has recently entered our political vocabulary, mainly as an accusation against Democrats. The complaint is that Democrats divide the country by appealing especially to women and minorities. In contrast, Republicans like to claim that they aim to unite the country with an economic growth agenda that will help everybody.
The truth is a lot more complicated. For one thing, a facade of unity politics can hide a reactionary kind of identity politics. A campaign’s overt message may be that it is not specifically about women’s rights or minority rights because it’s for everybody. But the underlying message may be that it’s really about defending white, male privilege. Isenberg’s history of America reveals an even deeper problem, that identity politics goes beyond issues of race and gender to infuse discussions of social class. People of the same race and gender–such as white men–have often been assigned different social identities based on their class level. The persistent use of slurs like “white trash” reveals this, and it tell us a lot about the dark side of the American class system.
Politicians have a long history of claiming to identify with one class of people or another, in order to invoke deep feelings of class superiority or class resentment. Donald Trump is only the latest and most obvious example. “Like many before him, Trump…tapped into a rich vein of identity politics: the embrace of the common man, the working stiff, the forgotten rural American.” What I find most fascinating about this phenomenon is that Trump tries to have it both ways, combining policies favoring the wealthy with populist rhetoric appealing to the poor–but especially the white, male poor. That this has worked for him shows just how powerful identity politics can be, whether the identification is authentic or manipulative.
White poverty and its stigmatization
Isenberg is interested in how Americans have characterized the white, rural poor, usually in some pejorative way: “First known as ‘waste people,’ and later ‘white trash,’ marginalized Americans were stigmatized for their inability to be productive, to own property, or to produce healthy and upwardly mobile children–the sense of uplift on which the American dream is predicated.”
Such pejorative descriptions are a response to the tension between the American dream of upward mobility and the class barriers that have made it unrealistic for those born into poverty. Attributing poverty to the innate characteristics of the poor rather than to a lack of opportunity helps preserve the American dream and deny the need for social reform. “Rationalizing economic inequality has been an unconscious part of the national credo; poverty has been naturalized, often seen as something beyond human control. By this measure, poor whites had to be classified as a distinct breed.” If rich and poor are distinct breeds, then the class system reproduces itself naturally, and there’s little to be done about it.
Occasionally, “populist themes have emerged alongside more familiar derogatory images, but never with enough force to diminish the hostility projected onto impoverished rural whites.” This makes their class struggle as much about respect as it is about financial gain. And that goes a long way to explain their enthusiasm for politicians who seem to speak for them, even if the tangible support they promise never quite materializes.
The roots of poor white stigmatization go back to Colonial times, especially in the Southern colonies originally created for economic gain.
British colonists promoted a dual agenda: one involved reducing poverty back in England, and the other called for transporting the idle and unproductive to the New World. After settlement, colonial outposts exploited their unfree laborers (indentured servants, slaves, and children) and saw such expendable classes as human waste.
Land was the major source of wealth, but it was considered wasteland until it was put to commercial use. People who were not engaged in economically productive activity were seen as a kind of waste as well. “…Colonizers denoted some people as entrepreneurial stewards of the exploitable land; they declared others (the vast majority) as mere occupiers, a people with no measurable investment in productivity or in commerce.” Southern colonies became divided between a hereditary class of owners and a hereditary class of landless servants, with only limited opportunities to cross class lines. Actual slavery was a “logical outgrowth of the colonial class system.”
By 1770, most of the land in Virginia was owned by less than one-tenth of white people. The society of “freeholders” imagined by Thomas Jefferson never came to pass because too few people could acquire the land or resources to become successful farmers.
In 1663, King Charles II granted a charter creating the Carolina colony with eight “absolute Lords and proprietors.” Several years later, John Locke wrote the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, a document that not only gave every freeman “absolute power and authority over his Negro Slaves,” but established a servant class whose status would be inherited from generation to generation. (This reminds us that in those days, even the advocates of democracy placed severe limits on it.) While South Carolina conformed to the hierarchical model pretty closely, North Carolina became somewhat of a “swampy refuge for the poor and landless,” with a weaker planter elite. For that it got the reputation of a “wasteland resistant…to the forces of commerce and civilization,” a land of “useless lubbers.”
“Squatter” or “common man”?
After the American Revolution, many of the landless poor looked westward for land and opportunity. Even along the frontier, however, upward mobility was more limited than Americans like to imagine. “Speculators and large farmers–a mix of absentee land investors and landowning gentry–had the most power and political influence, and usually had a clear advantage in determining how the land was parceled out.” Many settlers eked out a meager living on small pieces of land, often as squatters who could not obtain ownership.
Different stereotypes of settlers coexisted in early nineteenth-century America. They could be courageous and hardworking frontiersmen, or lazy squatters who built nothing and stood in the way of real progress. Andrew Jackson promoted their positive image and represented their interests up to a point, but Isenberg believes that his presidency was “not about equality so much as a new style of aggressive expansion.” Jackson’s forcible removal of Native Americans from the southeast appealed to many white settlers (as Trump’s deportation of undocumented aliens appeals to many whites today), but Jackson did not support more egalitarian measures like universal male suffrage.
Identity politics in the Civil War
Beyond their obvious disagreement over how to view slavery, Northerners and Southerners had very different views of poor white Southerners as well. A common view in the North was that poor Southerners had been reduced to “white trash” by the plantation system. In fact, it was during the war that this derogatory term came into wide usage.
Northerners, especially those who joined the Free Soil Party (1848) and its successor, the Republican Party (1854), declared that poor whites were proof positive of the debilitating effects of slavery on free labor. A slave economy monopolized the soil, while closing off opportunities for nonslaveholding white men to support their families and advance in a free-market economy.
Ulysses S. Grant saw it as his mission to liberate not only the slaves, but also the poor whites, from the grip of the planter aristocracy.
Southern intellectuals like Daniel Hundley saw it differently, of course. They blamed the problems of poor whites on their own natural inferiority rather than on any injustice of the social order. At the same time, Southern aristocrats had the challenge of enlisting the enthusiastic support of the lower classes in the war effort. Many people who owned no slaves complained that it was a “rich man’s war and poor man’s fight.” The way to counter that complaint was to appeal to all classes of white Southerners as exactly that–white Southerners. James Henry Hammond of South Carolina argued that every society needs a “mudsill,” a class of menial laborers to do the lowest forms of work. By assigning such work to the most inferior of all races–Negroes–the South had elevated all whites to a somewhat better position. White Northerners, on the other hand, had debased their own race by confining too many of their fellow whites to the “mudsill.”
Social Darwinism and eugenics
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the idea that poverty was a natural, inherited condition for some segment of the population got additional support from a widespread interpretation of Darwinian evolution. (In The Descent of Man, published in 1871, Darwin himself distinguished “civilized” and “savage” races and predicted that the first would eventually replace the second through evolutionary competition.) The idea that whole categories of people were biologically more fit than others was a powerful weapon not only in racial and ethnic conflict, but in regional and class conflict as well.
Northerners who had opposed slavery wanted to believe that former slaves could become good citizens. “In account after account, freedmen were described as capable, thrifty, and loyal to the Union.” But many Northerners had far less confidence in the potential of chronically poor Southern whites, whom they saw as a “‘dangerous class’ that was producing a flood of bastards, prostitutes, vagrants, and criminals.”
Southern Democrats countered these ideas with their own racial arguments. For them, the former slaves were still the most unfit of races, still to be confined to the “mudsill” of society as much as possible. The mixing of the races would produce a “mongrel” race unfit for achievement or good government. That argument was useful not only for preserving white privilege in general, but for protecting the leadership class in particular. Keeping poor people of different color separate and unequal prevented them from joining together as a class to challenge the Southern elites.
Isenberg discusses the eugenics movement in some detail, since it represented Social Darwinism taken to a logical extreme. Eugenicists wanted to protect and improve racial fitness by discouraging the reproduction of inferior stock. One way to accomplish this was selective mating–encouraging people to marry only qualified partners. A more drastic measure, legalized in twenty-seven states by 1931, was the forced sterilization of the “unfit.” That term was defined rather broadly to include “feeblemindedness, epilepsy, criminality, insanity, alcoholism [and] pauperism,” according to one list. When IQ testing of recruits during World War I found the lowest scores in the Southern states–not surprising considering their lack of funding for public education–eugenicists focused their efforts in that region. In 1927 the Supreme Court upheld the right of states to regulate the breeding of its citizens, in a Virginia case involving the sterilization of a poor white woman.
A question of identification
Identity politics in general–and disagreement over how to characterize certain groups such as poor rural whites–is obviously not something invented by today’s liberal Democrats. The idea that one party divides the country with its identity politics while the other is above such things is ludicrous. All parties need to think long and hard about how they identify and relate to different segments of the electorate.
For Republicans, that means a lot of soul-searching about how they think about Blacks, Latinos and women. For Democrats, it means taking another look at poor southern white men. When they think about them, is what comes to mind a racist like Bob Ewell, the villain in To Kill a Mockingbird? Or do they see a victim of an oppressive race/class system, who clings to increasingly shaky white male privileges because upward economic mobility is so elusive? There was a time, not so long ago, when Democratic leaders identified strongly with the underprivileged of Appalachia, seeing them mostly as decent people who needed a decent break. I would like to see a time like that again.