In White Trash, historian Nancy Isenberg charts America’s perennial exploitation of one of the country’s most derided groups.
By John Lingan
Jim Webb speaks to fairgoers at the Iowa State Fair on August 13, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
It’s hard to believe that we were ever so innocent, but for a brief moment in the third quarter of last year, Jim Webb was a candidate for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. Webb is a decorated veteran, a former Secretary of the Navy, a best-selling author, and a one-term Virginia senator — a model nominee in many ways. But he’s also self-identified redneck, and there just aren’t many of those in the current Democratic national leadership. Fittingly, Webb’s campaign, which lasted from July through October, looked suspiciously like the latest iteration of a years-long effort to berate the party establishment on behalf of poor, white Americans.
Webb summarized his core argument in a 2010 Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege”:
Forty years ago, as the United States experienced the civil rights movement, the supposed monolith of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant dominance served as the whipping post for almost every debate about power and status in America. After a full generation of such debate, WASP elites have fallen by the wayside and a plethora of government-enforced diversity policies have marginalized many white workers. The time has come to cease the false arguments and allow every American the benefit of a fair chance at the future.
Then, in early 2015, as the gears for his presidential campaign began turning, Webb told Yahoo! News: “This is where Democrats screw up … I think they have kind of unwittingly used this group, white working males, as a whipping post for a lot of their policies. And then when [the white working males] react, they say they’re being racist.”
With a line like that, it’s almost impressive that Webb’s eventual campaign lasted as long as it did. The post-Barack Obama Democratic coalition is largely built on ethnic minorities, women, and young, college-educated white people — to put it mildly, not the target audience for a lecture about how diversity programs create ruinous outcomes for rural white men. Despite his caveats about the special historical suffering of black Americans, Webb’s framing — to say nothing of his wooden, faintly frightening public persona — felt like a holdover from an uglier era of zero-sum racial thinking.
In her dense and important new book, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, Nancy Isenberg identifies a clarifying precedent for the Webb model of political aggrievement. In 1858, South Carolina’s James Henry Hammond, a leading intellectual of the white supremacist movement, argued before the Senate that, “there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life” in order to allow elites to cultivate “civilization, progress, and refinement.” Hammond argued that the South had done the right thing by enslaving genetically inferior blacks, the natural fit for such a role in the U.S. But Yankees, by forcing poor whites to compete with blacks for menial work, had essentially become traitors to their race. “The North had committed a worse offense,” Isenberg writes, “it had debased its own kind.”
For a variety of cultural, political, and social reasons that Isenberg outlines, there is basically no one in power looking out for the well-being of lower-class white Americans anymore. Arguably, there never has been.
Webb, of course, has never made any claim so vile or ill-informed as Hammond’s, but there’s a hint of Hammond in his messaging, and any amount would be too much. It’s disconcerting, even nauseating, to hear a white Virginian chastise a political party’s largely white leadership for their supposed favor to minority voters at the expense of white people. Caveats or no, Webb’s message sounds too much like a dog whistle, a safely diluted version of “Why aren’t we looking after our own?” And his unceremonious rejection by Democratic voters hasn’t chastened him a bit. After the recent announcement that Harriet Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, Webb promptly appeared in the Washington Post opinion page to reprise his role as the Nation’s Angry Uncle. “Any white person whose ancestral relations trace to the American South now risks being characterized as having roots based on bigotry and undeserved privilege,” he extrapolated. “Meanwhile, race relations are at their worst point in decades.”
It’s a shame that Webb has chosen to wage this embittered, doomed war on perceived political correctness since it buries his broader, crucial point about rural white suffering. Less than two weeks after he ended his campaign, for example, the New York Times reported on a new study of mortality rates among middle-aged white Americans without college degrees. Uniquely in the first world, this group is dying more often than it used to, largely from pills, alcohol, and suicide. Dr. Angus Deaton, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Professor of Economics and International Affairs at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School and a co-author of the study, offered his chilling assessment of the scope of the problem: “Only H.I.V./AIDS in contemporary times has done anything like this.”
Deaton’s research makes the same point that Webb has unartfully proffered, and for which Isenberg’s White Trash supplies an abundance of historical context: Poor white people have long been, in James Agee’s phrase, the country’s “undefended.” For a variety of cultural, political, and social reasons that Isenberg outlines, there is basically no one in power looking out for the well-being of lower-class white Americans anymore. Arguably, there never has been.
The typical white trash origin story,illustrated, among other places, in Webb’s own 2004 book Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, says that the lowliest men in the British Isles came early to the colonies and served as the muscle of westward expansion. These men pushed down the Piedmont into the Carolinas and over the Blue Ridge Mountains into the Shenandoah and the Appalachians, mixing frontier individualism with Celtic string music and stark pre-Enlightenment Calvinism. From there, the proud lineage encompasses figures as disparate as Davy Crockett, William Faulkner, Johnny Cash, and Bill Clinton. What a saga it is — what proof of American exceptionalism! A man can arrive from the muddy, diseased wilds of England and, within a century or two, his descendant might become a folk hero, a Nobel laureate, a famous troubadour, even the president. Thought of this way, white trash belongs in the same noble American color wheel as Babe the blue ox or amber waves of grain.
The truth, unsurprisingly, is more fraught and depressing. Rather than a determined, proud band of amateur pathbreakers, the British poor were exploited in the New World just as they had been at home. “From 1618 to 1623,” Isenberg writes,
a good many orphans from London were shipped to Virginia — most indentured servants who followed in their train were adolescent boys. As a small privileged group of planters acquired lands, laborers, and wealth, those outside the inner circle were hard-pressed to escape their lower status. Those who did become poor tenants found that little had changed in their condition; they were often forced to do the same work they had done as servants.
This arrangement set the tone for the next four centuries. Wherever new land or new work appeared in the U.S., a group of malnourished, undereducated white people filed in, and a ruling class benefited from their heavy lifting while tossing mere scraps as thanks. Isenberg is a fount of historical and cultural detail, and a keen tracker of white-trash heritage stretching from Jamestown through the Mississippi Delta and into mainstream sitcoms. She’s less convincing as an interpreter of this journey. Isenberg claims early on that “popular American history is most commonly told … without much reference to the existence of social classes,” and she stakes her whole project on undermining this assertion. It’s an odd notion to begin with; Class is a major focus of historical benchmarks like W.J. Cash’s The Mind of the South and Frank L. Owsley’s Plain Folk of the Old South, both written in the 1940s. Thanks to Isenberg’s defensiveness, the book occasionally feels like a series of broad set pieces, each with a Zelig-like zoom-in: Look, white trash were present during Reconstruction too!
White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. (Photo: Penguin Random House)
But Isenberg identifies a number of fascinating undercurrents in her narrative, ones that complicate the curiously stubborn notion that we must somehow decide whether race or class is the ultimate dividing line in America. The first is breeding. Isenberg tracks the many ways in which the upper crust and its apologists sought to legitimize their exploitation of the poor by proving they were genetically superior. In the 19th century, the white poor were dismissed as descendants of the “scum of Europe.” In the early 20th century, they were the target of social Darwinists and eugenicists. Even the term “white trash,” which Isenberg traces to the early-17th-century English historian Richard Hakluyt, is a mark of dehumanization. (There’s a reason many people, rich or poor, self-identify as rednecks, but few do as garbage, unless defensively.) Hakluyt, who was widely read and celebrated during the Elizabethan age, advocated North American exploration on the grounds that the continent was an empty vessel awaiting Christianity. The New World, which he never saw firsthand, was an uncivilized wasteland that necessitated “waste people” to tame it, and he recommended the children of criminals and the unemployed. “The fry [young children] of wandering beggars that grow up idly and hurtfully and burdenous to the Realm, might be unladen and better bred up,” he wrote.
There is a bitter irony that lower-class white people, once dismissed as the crude and impure race in Britain and the U.S., are now often mocked for incestuous racial purity. Inbreeding was a staple of comedic (and horrific) stereotypes of Appalachia for years before Deliverance. And in 2016, when multiple states have already crossed the majority-minority threshold and the national population is expected to do so within the next 30 years, a “White Pride” T-shirt is basically a white trash ID badge. You can be nearly certain that the wearer’s ancestors were more likely to have settled the Great Dismal swamp than to have presided over a plantation.
Which brings us to the second major focus of Isenberg’s research: land itself. From the first arrival of British settlers, the power structure of the U.S. was defined by who lived where. Poor whites were, per Hakluyt, pushed to the frontiers to ensure its safety for people who actually mattered. Far before the immiseration of sharecroppers captured by Depression-era writers and photographers, this class was trapped under landowners’ boot heels — “farmers without farms,” as they were known before the Civil War. “Whether they stayed put or moved west, poor whites occupied poor land,” Isenberg writes. As the U.S. steadily expanded throughout the 1800s, various politicians and policymakers foresaw opportunities for self-sufficiency that never materialized. And why would they? Who in power would have fought to ensure they did?
One of Isenberg’s great quick sketches concerns the painter Frederick Remington, who traveled to Florida in 1895 to do a series of portraits for Harper’s. He encountered a pack of filthy, “bedraggled” men on horseback whose clothes reminded him of swamp moss. Remington’s paintings and descriptions, published as “Cracker Cowboys of Florida,” show gaunt, unromantic figures ambling through the marshy low country with long guns hanging at their sides. They show, if you will, a Gilded Age ancestor of our beloved contemporary redneck-trainwreck: Florida Man.
The Florida Man meme has encompassed black people, Latinos, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and DJ Khaled, but the prototype is still a sunburnt hillbilly in a losing battle with wildlife, firearms, or his own bodily functions. There he is, boating through a protected manatee habitat before tossing marijuana overboard and defecating in the water. Watch him try and fail to smuggle a python in his JNCOs. Look at his haggard, mutilated mug on the Florida Man Twitter account. Scan the headlines and you’ll quickly win white trash bingo: drug addiction, economic desperation, unsafe living conditions, poor nutrition, sexual deviance, mental illness. This is the unregenerate cracker who makes Jim Webb’s pleas for equal dignity seem misguided.
Ultimately, “white trash” means “those people out there,” the ones whose physical displacement mirrors their wider lack of visibility and influence.
You can find these characters everywhere, of course; from central California to western Maryland, even the bluest states have pockets of Appalachia or Tallahassee. But there’s no Alabama Man or Cracker Cowboys of Carolina in the national imagination. Florida Man could only come from our most geographically self-contained, ecologically forbidding state, the one full of sinkholes, swamps, wild gators, and urban coastal flooding. Florida Man is a Yankee nightmare in human form. He is everything frightening about white trash life in one meme — particularly the fear that your poor, aimless life will beget little more than a backwater local news curio and subsequent jail time.
That’s the story that Isenberg has told most urgently in her book. Wealthy Americans have always taken land for themselves and pushed their wretched neighbors further afield. They’ve managed to applaud as the occasional cracker succeeded in sports, arts, or politics, but ultimately “white trash” means “those people out there,” the ones whose physical displacement mirrors their wider lack of visibility and influence. There are fewer and fewer ways for rural or poor people, whatever their race, to attain those things these days; political, financial, educational, and media power is increasingly concentrated in urban centers.
If you are poor in rural America in 2016, you may have access to an unbelievable amount of entertainment online and on television, but you don’t have much means of participating in it or shaping it. You are reminded each day that Wall Street and Washington, D.C., and Hollywood get along just fine without you, and that very few people are willing to make a genuine effort to improve your well-being. Meanwhile, it’s statistically probable that your wages are stagnant, your kids’ education is subpar, your water is at risk of sudden chemical poisoning, and your mom drinks too much. In your contemplative moments, you might consider that “trash” doesn’t mean poor. It means unwanted. Disposable. Non-human. And you may even consider that we accept trash as an inevitability, and simply stick it far enough away that we don’t have to smell it.