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

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Oct 10 16:32:54 MDT 2016


An Underclass of Their Own
Nancy Isenberg's cultural history of America's poor southern whites


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

It’s no great exaggeration, these days, to say that the state of the 
white American working class is driving the American commentariat crazy. 
The non-college-educated white voter is notoriously the bedrock 
demographic aligned behind likely GOP presidential nominee Donald 
Trump—and leaders of the conservative movement, which has long pivoted 
on elaborate bait-and-switch appeals to its aggrieved, antigovernment, 
downwardly mobile base, are appalled to see that base swallowing whole 
the nativist, protectionist, and belligerently class-baiting nostrums 
bursting forth from the GOP’s unlikely orange-hued tribune of populist 
resentment. National Review writer Kevin D. Williamson recently sized up 
Trump’s ardent working-class supporters and came away with a litany of 
toxic failings of morality, character, and family discipline. “Even the 
economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the 
dysfunction and negligence—and the incomprehensible malice—of poor white 
America,” Williamson marveled. Poor white communities “deserve to die,” 
he wrote: “Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are 
indefensible. . . .The white American underclass is in thrall to a 
vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin 

In reality, Williamson’s plaint—which now echoes far and wide in the 
leadership circles of the GOP—is but the latest installment in a 
founding catechism of American class contempt, as Nancy Isenberg 
chronicles in her richly detailed, indispensable study White Trash. 
Isenberg, a historian at Louisiana State University, takes pointed 
exception to the social mythology of American exceptionalism—which holds 
that the unique conditions of mobility and economic opportunity issuing 
from the frontier settlement of the New World effectively quarantined 
the American experiment from the punishing crucibles of European class 
conflict. Instead, she shows that the settlement of America was steeped 
in precisely the sort of ugly marginalization of the non-propertied 
white poor that Williamson uses to excuse the many moral and economic 
failures of the modern GOP.

To take just one notable example, the Fundamental Constitutions of 
Carolina, promulgated in 1669 and composed in large part by the revered 
British philosopher of social-contract constitutionalism John Locke, is 
a revealingly brutal by-product of a system of feudal privilege. 
Carolina was emphatically conceived, under the direction of Locke’s 
benefactor the Earl of Shaftesbury, as a slave colony—a proviso that 
also greatly benefited Locke himself, who was the third-largest 
shareholder in the Royal African Company, the concern that held the 
monopoly charter of the English slave trade. But Locke—the well-known 
theorist of individual political liberty—also used the Fundamental 
Constitutions in a thankfully theoretical effort to create both an 
inherited noble caste among Carolina colonists and a hereditary white 
servant class, known as Leet-men. Like feudal serfs, these workers would 
be the property of nobles, inherited across generations. Their 
offspring, likewise, would become part of their masters’ estates—and so 
they would be encouraged to breed robustly. The harsh provisions of the 
Fundamental Constitutions were “really a declaration of war against poor 
settlers,” Isenberg writes, setting North Carolina on the trajectory to 
be “the first white trash colony” (emphasis in original).

As the colonies recombined into the American republic, the nation’s 
animus toward the white landless class became a fixed organizing 
principle. Even nominal social democrats like Thomas Jefferson frankly 
avowed the proto-eugenic imperative to breed out the reprobate common 
workers and promote a “natural aristocracy” founded on a “fortuitous 
concourse of breeders.” In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson 
asked, rhetorically, “The circumstance of superior beauty is thought 
worthy of attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other 
domestic animals; why not in that of man?”

Indeed, powerful Americans seeking to pathologize poor whites followed, 
to a remarkably consistent degree, the early agrarian republic’s 
rhetoric of livestock husbandry, supplemented by land-bound metaphors of 
social stagnation, as they anathematized their social inferiors on 
grounds of moral and biological unfitness. Under this logic, Isenberg 
observes, “poverty has been naturalized, often seen as something beyond 
human control. By this measure, poor whites had to be classified as a 
distinct breed.” Before “white trash” became the catchall term of 
derision for poor whites (particularly in the South), they were known, 
variously, as “waste people,” “mudsills,” “fungus growth,” and 
“scalawags” (a runt-sized animal, later adopted as a term of derision 
for southern collaborators with the Republican occupation of the former 
Confederacy). And since the forces of natural history had singled them 
out as evolutionary nonstarters, they all displayed telltale behaviors 
that disqualified them from full participation in the land of 
opportunity’s bounty: To be poor and white was to be deemed lazy, 
shiftless, sallow-colored, diseased, criminal, and (quite often) inbred.

This battery of vices acquired a pseudoscientific gloss at the height of 
the eugenics movement during the early-twentieth century. After the 
militant white leaders of the Jim Crow South tamped down the threat of a 
populist cross-racial alliance of poor whites and disenfranchised 
African Americans, more respectable, self-styled progressive 
intellectuals embarked on their own fantasies of a permanent social 
regime of laboratory-bred racial purity. However, the patrician rhetoric 
of genetic husbandry still shone through. Popular eugenics lecturer C. 
W. Saleeby, for example, trumpeted a brand of “eugenic feminism,” under 
which women would not merely gain the voting franchise but also dedicate 
themselves to selfless, scientifically managed breeding for the 
betterment of the species. Female society would resemble a bee colony, 
with putatively superior women pressed into service as hyperfertile 
queen bees, “while educated sterile women (or postmenopausal) were best 
suited for reform activity.” Harvard professor William McDougall 
proposed the founding of a separate breeding colony, Eugenia, which 
would function, Isenberg writes, as both “a university and a stud farm. 
Raised as ‘aristocrats’ in the tradition of ‘Noblesse oblige,’ the 
products of the special colony would go out into the world as skilled 
public servants.” The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina could 
scarcely have put things any more plainly.

Gradually, the image of poor whites became sanitized, as bona fide 
white-trash figures like Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill 
Clinton acceded to the highest office in the land, and a suburbanized 
middle-class mass culture started to evince a nostalgia for the more 
colorful features of rural life in the American interior. A wide range 
of postwar TV franchises, from Petticoat Junction, Green Acres, and The 
Beverly Hillbillies to Hee-Haw and The Dukes of Hazzard, turned the 
once-odious moral failings of the southern underclass into the stuff of 
soothing televisual camp.

In real life, however, poor southerners were arraying themselves against 
the civil-rights revolution, with proud, self-styled cracker political 
leaders such as Arkansas governor Orval Faubus summoning the specter of 
violent white resistance to desegregation and extending the demagogic 
southern political tradition of employing “the threat of poor white 
thuggery to stay in power.” George Wallace would follow the same 
playbook in Alabama—as did presumptive Republican presidential nominee 
Donald Trump, who dispatched his GOP-primary opponents in every southern 
state save Ted Cruz’s native Texas and neighboring Oklahoma. Meanwhile, 
as poor white southerners became identified with the worst kinds of 
racist reaction, the term “redneck,” Isenberg writes, had “come to be 
synonymous with an almost insane bigotry”—so much so that the lead 
militant in a Nashville antidesegregation-mob action, who was in fact “a 
paid agitator from Camden, New Jersey,” came replete with his own phony 
southern accent. Even pathological racism could attract its own perverse 
form of carpetbagging.

Indeed, the racial boundaries alleged to shore up the ever-vulnerable 
social status of poor whites gradually became blurred during the postwar 
era, at least in elite pundit discourse. As Isenberg observes, 
influential thinkers on the right like economist Thomas Sowell have 
argued that many of the social ills unfairly ascribed to poor black 
populations—“laziness, promiscuity, violence, bad English”—were in 
reality “passed on from their backcountry white neighbors.” (Though 
Isenberg doesn’t mention it here, the same basic argument is taken up in 
Fox Butterfield’s 1995 book, All God’s Children.)

At the same time, though, the logic of racist backlash remains very much 
at the forefront of American life, and is by no means confined to the 
South, as the powerful, polarizing reminders of both the Trump movement 
and Black Lives Matter protests readily attest. One of the limitations 
of Isenberg’s study is its regional bias, which makes racial tensions 
among working-class Americans come across as a virtual southern 
monopoly. This means, for example, that while she dissects the historic 
showdown over the desegregation of Little Rock schools in 1957, she 
bypasses the 1970s Boston busing wars, in which working-class Irish 
Catholics in South Boston and Charlestown showed an antiblack animus 
every bit as strong and ugly as that in Faubus’s Arkansas or Wallace’s 
Alabama. Likewise, she doesn’t follow the migrant poor white populations 
in northern and western cities, nor the pitched battles over scarce 
resources and racial privilege that ensued there. The ethnic, racial, 
and class history of Los Angeles alone could make for a book as long and 
revealing as White Trash.

Still, in exposing the tangled origins and richly variegated 
articulations of America’s signature civic faith of baiting and 
biologizing its poor population, Isenberg has done an inestimable 
service. She also starkly lays out the many deep and unresolved costs 
involved in the deliberate repression of the history she patiently 

	A corps of pundits exist whose fear of the lower classes has led them 
to assert that the unbred perverse—white as well as black—are crippling 
and corrupting American society. They deny that the nation’s economic 
structure has a causal relationship with the social phenomena they 
highlight. They deny history. If they did not, they would recognize that 
the most powerful engines of the U.S. economy—slaveowning planters and 
land speculators in the past, banks, tax policy, corporate giants, and 
compassionless politicians and angry voters today—bear considerable 
responsibility for the lasting effects on white trash, or on falsely 
labeled “black rednecks,” and on the working poor generally. The sad 
fact is, if we have no class analysis, then we will continue to be 
shocked at the numbers of waste people who inhabit what self-anointed 
patriots have styled the “greatest civilization in the history of the 

In other words: Take that, Kevin D. Williamson.

Chris Lehmann is an editor of Bookforum and the author, most recently, 
of The Money Cult (Melville House, 2016).

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