White book cover with black words White Trash the untold history of class

Not since President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty have we seen so much attention paid to poor white people. The iconic Life magazine photo of Johnson sitting on the front porch of a poor white Appalachian family was in part to ensure them that they, too, would be included in his War on Poverty.

The sub-title of Isenberg’s book is The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. Yet it is hardly untold, especially here of late. In the last several years we’ve seen a number of books about working class and poor whites: Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance, Angry White Men by Michael Kimmel, Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil and Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South by Keri Leigh Merritt immediately come to mind. (Why is there a book about slavery on this list? Because regardless of what the majority of whites think, everything in this country is connected to slavery.)

Isenberg goes back to the Founding Fathers and their deliberate practice of using enslaved Africans and whites on the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder to build this country. Both these groups were considered unfit for civilized–read white–society: degenerate, undeserving and expendable.  

Furthermore, slavery and the Civil War were deeply entwined with classism. The New York draft riots saw an uprising of white working class men against the elite who were exempted from the draft if they would pay a commutation fee of $300 for a replacement. They quickly turned into race riots during which poor white men turned the brunt of their anger on poor black men, with whom they competed for work.  During Reconstruction, the old planter elite did an excellent job of pitting poor whites against newly freed blacks, the better to tamp down whites’ anger over low wages, poor working conditions, and a miserable standard of lively. Being able to look down upon blacks, Mexican migrant workers and indentured Chinese laborers who built America’s railroads out west instilled race pride in poor whites. For many of them, that pride was virtually all they had.

Isenberg tells us that America’s first white trash president was Andrew Jackson. Indeed, the current president, who considers Jackson a hero, may be the Old Hickory of the twenty first century. Unlike Jackson and the foes he vanquished, “Trump crows about his prowess in the battlefield of business. He manfully rejects the lily-livered politesse of the snooty, educated classes who look down on him and his followers. His policies matter less than his personal style, because his selling point is not what he will accomplish but who he will gleefully offend and bulldoze.”

Trump’s crude, boorish, downright disgraceful behavior has no time for even the smallest of courtesies; he’s got to start right now making America great again. Furthermore, his campaign and election to the presidency–God help us– ripped off the mask of politeness about race worn by millions of Americans since the death and near canonization of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and has proved beyond a doubt that we have not reached racial nirvana. After the racial tsunami aimed at the entire Obama family during its eight years in Washington, it should come as no surprise to us that the first president elected after the first black president is Donald Trump. He convinced millions of white Americans that he has the courage and fortitude those feeble trumpeters of diversity and inclusion lack and America needs. America is once again safe in the hands of white people.

As I frequently remind the students in my African American history classes, if one is poor and white in America, the only difference is color. Poor white people are as badly off as poor people of color. Furthermore, Isenberg shows us middle-class and wealthy whites treat poor white people almost as badly as they treat people of color.         

And therein lies the rub. The people Isenberg refers to as white trash are people who will be badly hurt by politicians of Trump’s ilk. They don’t see their connection to poor people of color because they can’t get past color.

In explaining the racism so prevalent among poor whites, Lyndon Johnson said it best. “I’ll tell you what’s at the bottom of it. 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.” Yet like Vance in Hillbilly Elegy, race takes a back seat in Isenberg’s book.  Both authors all but swear that this issue is not about race but about class. They both forget that race was at the foundation of slavery, and that politicians throughout American history have used it to both stoke white anger and instill white pride.

Isenberg’s weighty tome could have used some more pruning. Just about every chapter repeats the list of nasty euphemisms for white trash. The Lyndon Johnson quote shows up in the book several times, and the book is wordy. But White Trash is propitiously timed and serves the important task of disabusing the high minded rhetoric of America’s founders.

During the kitchen debate in 1962 with Nikita Krushchev, then Vice President Richard Nixon said “The United States, the world’s largest capitalist country, has from the standpoint of distribution of wealth come closest to the ideal of prosperity for all in a classless society.” He was clumsily trying to convince the world that capitalism is the best method for achieving that classless society.

White Trash reminds us that truth will out.    

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