White Trash

A new window into the time-honored tradition of American politicians stoking racial and class tensions for personal gain.

Hazel Bryan and Elizabeth Eckford, Little Rock, Ark., September 1957.
Hazel Bryan and Elizabeth Eckford in Little Rock, Arkansas, September 1957.

Will Counts/Indiana University Archives

In one of the iconic images of the Civil Rights movement, Elizabeth Eckford, a 15-year-old black student, was photographed trying to enter Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas, as part of the 1957 court-ordered desegregation of the school. Eckford looks dignified and serious. Behind her stands a snarling white girl, described by Nancy Isenberg in her new book, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, as “the face of white trash. Ignorant. Unrepentant. Congenitally cruel. Only capable of replicating the life into which she was born.” The girl, whose name was Hazel Bryan, had a history to back up that stereotype. She grew up in a house without indoor plumbing, with parents who had never graduated from high school themselves and a father who beat her. Later on, she would drop out of school, marry, and move into the quintessential domicile of the American white underclass in the 20th century: a trailer.

A less familiar element of this story is R.C. Hall High, built on the west side of Little Rock for the city’s affluent white families—and nicknamed “Cadillac High.” Unlike Central, whose students were working class, Cadillac High was not selected for desegregation in 1957. An opponent of the action complained that the “only race-mixing that is going to be done is in the districts where the so-called rednecks live.” The man was a racist, but he wasn’t wrong on that point. What happened in Little Rock is typically portrayed as a binary opposition—black vs. white—but the truth was a three-party affair: blacks vs. rednecks vs. white elites. Call it a hate triangle.

White Trash offers a deep-diving history of people like Bryan going all the way back to the first European incursions into the Americas. From the founding of the Jamestown settlement to the present day, Isenberg insists, America has always had a class hierarchy and has never offered equal opportunity to all (white) comers. A history professor at Louisiana State University, she writes, “Most colonizing schemes that took root in 17th- and 18th-century British America were built on privilege and subordination, not any kind of proto-democracy.” The rich, powerful and well-connected men behind those schemes stocked their ships and settlements with “expendable people—waste people,” typically indentured servants bound to work off the price of their passage, workers who could be used up in taming the wilderness. The authorities back in England welcomed such plans as a way to drain Britain of its human dregs: convicts, vagrants, the orphaned children of paupers. If the hard work didn’t redeem them, the hard conditions would eliminate them.

Tapping into scores of sources, Isenberg traces the emergence of the white-trash stereotype from its roots in British beliefs that the working class was truly a separate race from the middle and upper classes: congenitally stupid, lazy and shiftless—when they weren’t sly and conniving. Poverty, in the form of miserable living conditions, dirtiness, ignorance, illness, violence, and despair, was viewed as the inherited misfortune of blighted bloodlines. Isenberg shows how consistent this prejudice has been over the centuries, carrying on with only a few alterations right down to the present.

The first few chapters of White Trash can be heavy sledding due to the density of information and occasional clumsiness of Isenberg’s prose. (“If [Benjamin] Franklin thought of class as principally conditioned by demography—the human compulsion to seek pleasure and avoid pain— … ” begins one sentence, nonsensically.) She organizes the material around significant figures, founders like Franklin and President Thomas Jefferson, as well as theorists, scientists, landowners, politicians, administrators, and artists. It’s when she gets around to President Andrew Jackson that things pick up.

Jackson, aka “Old Hickory,” campaigned as the embodiment of the backwoodsman “cracker” spirit, as his critics put it, even though by the time he was elected he’d become a slave-owning planter just like the wealthy elites who had bamboozled or bullied so many freeholders out of their small plots. He lacked “statesmanlike qualities” and he failed even to defend his lower-class constituency from the depredations of the upper crust. But the fact that “Jackson did not look or act like a conventional politician,” Isenberg writes, “was a fundamental part of his appeal.” He was boastful and overbearing, not “a government minion or a pampered courtier,” an outsider who promised to clean up Washington corruption by the bluntest methods available. As one of his enemies wrote, “boisterous in ordinary conversation, he makes up in oaths what he lacks in arguments.” A ruthless and successful general, Jackson was “quick to resent any who disagreed with him,” and eschewed reasoned debate in favor of challenging his opponents to duels.

This, of course, sounds awfully familiar. If White Trash is rather weak at weaving its assorted elements into a coherent narrative, it sheds bright light on a long history of demagogic national politicking, beginning with Jackson. It makes Donald Trump seem far less unprecedented than today’s pundits proclaim. When it came to reining in the big landowners, Jackson betrayed the economic interests of working-class whites but won their favor all the same by prosecuting a brutal Native American removal policy, targeting unpopular, powerless “barbarians.” His rough ways endeared him to the humble folk whose interests he couldn’t be bothered to defend. When opponents ridiculed his partisans for their lack of “taste and breeding,” it only sweetened his victories in that constituency’s eyes.

Jackson employed what Isenberg dubs the “Arkansas Traveller” strategy for winning over the white rural poor. The name comes from a mid-19th-century folktale about a city slicker journeying through the backcountry who comes upon a squatter sitting in front of his hovel. The slicker repeatedly asks the squatter for information, help and/or refreshment—and gets nothing but evasive answers. It’s only after the slicker proves his down-home cred by picking up a fiddle and sawing out a hillbilly tune that the squatter welcomes him and provides what he needs. Generations of politicians would follow this formula by posing for photos with hogs, or mules, or crooning hill-country ballads to win votes. An Australian visitor Isenberg quotes dubbed America, “ ‘a democracy of manners,’ which was not the same as real democracy.”

If Andrew Jackson was the first “white trash” presidential candidate, Trump is surely the most recent despite the paradox presented by his wealthy urban upbringing. He has followed Jackson’s playbook where he can, updating other chapters for the post-industrial 21st century. In place of a martial career spent whuppin’ redcoats, 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. Instead of dutifully adopting upper-class tastes and decorum, he is, like Elvis, empowered by his wealth to flaunt his vulgarity. Even the springboard of his fame among the white working-class—reality television—is one of the few mass-culture arenas where rednecks can win renown just for being their unapologetically trashy selves.

And, like Jackson and his successors, Trump has singled out dark-skinned others as a threat to the American way of life. White Trash is weakest in its handling of race, a theme intimately entangled with the notion of a white-trash identity, but a subject Isenberg avoids when at all possible. Slavery was an institution that benefited rich plantation owners to the catastrophic disadvantage of small farmers and free laborers; it made the rich richer and the poor poorer. The Confederate Army, which granted service exemptions to slaveholders and other elite Southern whites, consisted largely of subsistence farmers and other workers expected to fight to preserve the very economic system that had kept them down. Many deserted. One Alabama recruit said, “They think all you are fit for is to stop bullets for them, your betters, who call you poor white trash.” Many of those so-called betters ranked poor white trash as equivalent to, if not lower than, slaves. After the war, two-thirds of the farmers who worked the South’s land under the bone-breaking, dead-end system of sharecropping were poor whites.

Yet, for all that the South’s white underclass resented the elites, they nevertheless allowed themselves, in great numbers, to be manipulated into believing that blacks and other people of color were their real enemies. Even politicians who identified and sympathized with poor whites found this exasperating. President Lyndon B. Johnson, whose Great Society program focused on helping not only urban blacks but also the crushingly impoverished whites of Appalachia, told a reporter, “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.”

Isenberg clearly means White Trash to be a rebuke for generations of middle- and upper-class Americans who write off poor rural whites as worthless and blame their miserable, marginalized existence not on poverty and civic neglect but on bad genes and weak character. As Toni Morrison observed during the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998 when she called Bill Clinton “our first black president,” the attributes Clinton’s haters found so revoltingly white-trash about him—“single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas”—replicate the “tropes of blackness.” In addition to being slapped with virtually the same stereotypes, poor blacks and poor whites have, as Isenberg observes, “similar economic interests.” But the one trait now most commonly associated with white trash—overt, vicious racism—keeps them at odds.

Writing for the New Republic after the June 2015 mass shooting that killed nine black worshippers from a Charleston, South Carolina, church, Frank Guan complained that the murderer would most likely be called “white trash.”* This, he argued, allows higher-status whites to ignore the structural nature of white supremacy and to pretend that “anti-black racism is purely the province of accented simpletons in greasy overalls.” While this argument is true, it misses how easily the formula reverses itself, how the overt racism expressed by underclass whites gives educated, middle-class Americans permission to disregard the entrenched deprivation, fear, and hopelessness that foments it. It’s a mistake to think class prejudice, whatever form it takes, can’t be as visceral as racism. If you are a disgusting, contemptible racist and display it shamelessly, it’s easy to view you and everyone like you as beyond the pale of humanity. Even if a lot of the repulsion you inspire has to do with how you look or talk or dress or manage your sex life and front lawn, your racism provides others with moral cover for all those petty loathings. You are, as the internet puts it, a garbage person, so you and your degenerate kind can be left to rot in the hinterlands without a second thought.

Which is more or less how the wealthy British officials and corporations viewed the poor white riffraff sent to hack colonies out of this continent all the way back in the 17th century. “They are who we are,” Isenberg writes in the final sentence of White Trash, “and have been a fundamental part of our history, whether we like it or not.”

*Update, June 16, 2016: This sentence originally referred to eight black worshippers who died in a Charleston, South Carolina, church in June 2015. A ninth victim died in the hospital after the shooting.(Return.)

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg. Viking.

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