[Marxism] A Look at America’s Long and Troubled History of White Poverty

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Jun 26 09:59:37 MDT 2016

(Essentially the class that rose up against the Confederacy in "The Free 
State of Jones".)

NY Times Sunday Book Review, June 26 2016
A Look at America’s Long and Troubled History of White Poverty

The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
By Nancy Isenberg
Illustrated. 460 pp. Viking. $28.

No line about class in the United States is more famous than the one 
written by the German sociologist Werner Sombart in 1906. Class 
consciousness in America, he contended, foundered “on the shoals of 
roast beef and apple pie.” Sombart was among the first scholars to ask 
the question, “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” His 
answer, now solidified into conventional wisdom about American 
exceptionalism, was simple: “America is a freer and more egalitarian 
society than Europe.” In the United States, he argued, “there is not the 
stigma of being the class apart that almost all European workers have 
about them. . . . The bowing and scraping before the ‘upper classes,’ 
which produces such an unpleasant impression in Europe, is completely 

In “White Trash,” Nancy Isenberg joins a long list of historians over 
the last century who have sent Sombart’s theory crashing on the shoals 
of history. The prolific Charles and Mary Beard, progressive historians 
in the first third of the 20th century, reinterpreted American history 
as a struggle for economic power between the haves and have-nots. W.E.B. 
Du Bois interpreted Reconstruction as a great class rebellion, as freed 
slaves fought to control their own working conditions and wages. Labor 
and political historians in the 1970s and 1980s recovered a forgotten 
history of blue-collar consciousness and grass-roots radicalism, from 
the Workingmen’s Party in Andrew Jackson’s America to the 
late-19th-century populists of upcountry Georgia to the Depression-era 
leftist unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Historians 
of public policy, like the influential Michael B. Katz, emphasized the 
persistence of notions of “the undeserving poor,” an ideology that 
blamed economic deprivation on the alleged pathological behavior of poor 
people themselves and eroded support for welfare programs.

So Isenberg’s story is not, as her subtitle suggests, “untold.” But she 
retells it with unusual ambition and (to use a class-­laden term) in a 
masterly manner. Ranging from John Rolfe and Pocahontas to “The Beverly 
Hillbillies,” Isenberg — a historian at Louisiana State University whose 
previous books include a ­biography of Aaron Burr — provides a cultural 
­history of changing concepts of class and inferiority. She argues that 
British colonizers saw their North American empire as a place to dump 
their human waste: the idle, indigent and criminal. Richard Hakluyt the 
younger, one of the many colorful characters who fill these pages, saw 
the continent as “one giant workhouse,” in ­Isenberg’s phrase, where the 
feckless poor could be turned into industrious drudges.

That process of shunting outsiders to the nation’s margins, she argues, 
continued in the early Republic and in the 19th century, when landless 
white settlers began to fill in the backcountry of Appalachia and the 
swamps of the lowland South, living in lowly cabins, dreaming of 
landownership but mostly toiling as exploited tenant farmers or 
itinerant laborers.

In the book’s most ingenious passages, Isenberg offers a catalog of the 
insulting terms well-off Americans used to denigrate their economic 
inferiors. In 17th-century Virginia, critics of rebellious indentured 
servants denounced them as society’s “offscourings,” a term for fecal 
matter. A hundred years later, elites railed against the “useless 
lubbers” of “Poor Carolina,” a place she calls the “first white trash 
colony.” In the early 19th century, landowners described the landless 
rural poor as boisterous, foolish “crackers” and idle, vagabond “squatters.”

Not all stereotypes of the white poor were negative. In the Jacksonian 
period, populists celebrated Davy Crockett and his coonskin cap. Lincoln 
might be derided as a poor woodsman, but he was also valorized for his 
log cabin roots. During the Great Depression, New Deal photographers and 
writers depicted farmers displaced by the Dust Bowl as virtuous people, 
victims of economic forces beyond their control.

By the second half of the 19th century and into the 20th, Isenberg 
shows, crude caricatures gave way to seemingly scientific explanations 
of lower-class status. “Class was congenital,” she writes, summarizing a 
mid-19th-century view of poor whites. One writer highlighted the 
“runtish forefathers” and “consumptive parents” who birthed a “notorious 
race” of inferior white people. Essayists described human differences by 
borrowing terminology from specialists in animal husbandry. Just as dogs 
could be distinguished by their breeds and horses distinguished from 
mules, so could people be characterized as superior or inferior based on 
their physical traits.

By the late 19th century, some writers used family genealogies to trace 
the roots of criminality, illness and insanity, and warn of the dangers 
of “degeneration.” By the early 20th century, armed with increasingly 
sophisticated statistical tools and new understandings of genetics, 
eugenicists offered the most chilling of responses to poor whites: They 
argued that the state should use its power to keep them from 
reproducing. Those arguments shaped one of the Supreme Court’s most 
notorious decisions, Buck v. Bell (1927), in which Chief Justice Oliver 
Wendell Holmes upheld a Virginia sterilization program to prevent 
“generations of imbeciles” from proliferating and thus to keep the 
nation from being “swamped with incompetence.”

The story of eugenics offers an example of the ways that, throughout the 
American past, questions of class status have been entangled with 
notions of racial inferiority. Isenberg makes a strong case that one of 
the most common ways of stigmatizing poor people was to question their 
racial identity. Backcountry vagabonds were often compared unfavorably 
with the “savage,” nomadic Indian. Sun-browned tenant farmers faced 
derision for their less-than-white appearance. After the emancipation of 
slaves, politicians warned of the rise of a “mongrel” nation, fearful 
that white bloodlines would be contaminated by blacks, a process that 
might expand the ranks of “trash” people.

But Isenberg falls prey to one of the most common and pernicious 
fallacies in American popular discourse about class: For her, America’s 
landless farmers and precarious workers are by default white. “Class,” 
she writes, “had its own singular and powerful dynamic, apart from its 
intersection with race.” Thus we get a history of class in America that 
­discusses white tenant farmers at length, but scarcely mentions black 
sharecroppers or Mexican farmworkers, as if somehow their race 
segregated them from America’s history of class subjugation. Native 
Americans make cameo appearances playing their role as a degraded race 
or as the noble savage — as ideal types rather than as ­exploited and 
impoverished peoples themselves. The “coolie” Asian workers imported to 
the post-Civil War South, the Filipino agricultural laborers of 
California’s Central Valley and the inhabitants of San Francisco’s and 
New York’s 19th-­century Chinatowns, all workers, most at the bottom of 
the economic ladder, are virtually absent from these pages, even though 
they were subject to caricatures stunningly similar to those hurled at 
backcountry “squatters” and “hillbillies.”

It is a commonplace argument in American politics that somehow race and 
class stand apart. Pundits charge that racial minorities practice a 
self-segregating “identity politics” rather than uniting around shared 
economic grievances. But a history of class in America that assumes its 
whiteness and relegates the nonwhite poor to the backstage is one that 
misses the fundamental reality of economic inequality in American 
history, that race and class were — and are — fundamentally entwined.

Thomas J. Sugrue is a professor of social and cultural analysis and 
history at New York University.

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