Every election cycle, pundits obsess about lower-income white voters—will they vote, have they abandoned the Democrats, are they just racist? Then the election ends, and they are forgotten for another four years until they are revived once again as a quasi-exotic species that needs to be examined, a strange Other discovered anew.
The wealthy and powerful have long obsessed over the behavior of the poor and working classes, and long projected all sorts of negative characteristics onto them, as historian Nancy Isenberg shows in her new book, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. Isenberg guides readers from colonial experiments in slave and “free” labor, the Civil War, the obsession with eugenics and the New Deal and Great Society attempts to end poverty, bringing us up to the present-day obsession with reality television shows like Duck Dynasty and of course, to Donald Trump. Throughout it all, she notes, Americans have been obsessed with dividing people into hierarchies, belying our image of ourselves as a classless society.
Isenberg spoke with Fusion about the book, the connections between class and race, why politicians like to play “Bubba,” and why the one percent isn't the sole evil that ails America.
Sarah Jaffe: Your book is a history of “white trash” in America through the minds of the wealthy and powerful. Why study what people think of the white poor?
Nancy Isenberg: I was trying to dispel the myths that we tell ourselves to this day, that America is the Promised Land, that we broke free from Britain and we alone allow for a high degree of social mobility. History doesn’t back that up.
We inherited this obsession with equating the poor with wastelands and calling them “waste people,” assuming that good lands produce good people, and bad lands, scrubby, barren swamps produce inferior people. I really wanted to develop the way this idea of white trash evolved throughout history. It is essential to understand what people think, what people say, because that is what justifies and rationalizes ignoring the poor, or not helping them.
SJ: You show that the terms for the poor have had similar implications through all of these hundreds of years of history. What does it mean that certain people are described as “trash” or “waste?”
NI: I have done a lot of work about land and property law, and I realized that this idea of “waste” has all the negative connotations you could associate. It is not just land that is left fallow. It is land that is fecal waste. But the important theme here that is persistent is that this class, this group of people, are expendable. From the British point of view, they were surplus, they were parasites, they were undermining the British economy. The solution was to dump them somewhere else. This is part of our colonial history that most people don’t realize, that the colonies were not considered the City on the Hill. They were considered a dumping ground to reduce the level of poverty that existed in Great Britain. When you treat people as waste, assume they are expendable, it means that you don’t have to do anything to help them to change their status.
SJ: What does this idea of the land tell us about the relationship of class and property ownership in this country?
NI: We forget that for over half of our history we were an agrarian nation. We forget how important the symbolism is that is attached to the land. Those themes are still embedded in the way our society operates.
For example, it is actually quite interesting that Donald Trump, who is a real estate mogul, is running for president, because we tend to forget that it is not just Wall Street that monopolizes wealth. The one percent are also the largest landowners today. We haven’t lost that inequality that is attached to land ownership. People who are seen as in the middle class, their major investment is their home.
We have a very deeply ingrained class geography. We all know about the importance of the rise in suburbanization in the post-World War II period. We know the idea of redlining and racial segregation that occurred with the rise of suburbia and the development of urban ghettos. At the very same time, those neighborhoods were increasing class stratification. It is race and class that defines our geography. The neighborhood you live in comes with its own set of amenities, its own set of privileges. We say, “If you work hard, you can buy your way into that neighborhood.” But it is not true. Sociologists have found that the major predictor of success in our society is the wealth that is passed from your parents.
SJ: In the book, you put the history of class into the context of the history of race. Can you talk a little bit more about the way class and race have been intertwined throughout American history?
NI: We can’t just say that race alone is the defining criteria for inequality. It is race and class. The experiences of poor blacks are substantially different from the experiences of wealthy blacks. When we go back to the British colonial period, what we see is not only the importance of slavery. It was impossible to support a “free labor” society when you had a slave society, because the slave society monopolized land, and then the value that was attached to slaves and slave ownership became more ingrained as we moved into the 19th century.
Racial ideas in the 19th century were so important, because they celebrated this idea of pedigree. This is an old class idea. We think about aristocrats having social breeding and pedigree. But that idea of pedigree also came from animal husbandry, which emphasized the idea that like breeds like. If you were born to a lower class, your fate is already determined by who your parents are. The Dred Scott decision [was not only used] as a way to shore up the power of the institution of slavery, but it also made the idea of pedigree into a Constitutional principle.
SJ: These days people often talk about class like it's a matter of taste and culture. If you like NASCAR and hunting, you are working class. The power angle gets lost. How have these two concepts, this biological conception and this quasi-benign identity politics of class, shaped each other?
NI: What you are calling the benign class identity really begins to take root beginning in the 1970s. There was an emphasis on saying, “Class is still something you inherit, but we want to make it more like an ethnic identity.” People wanted to recover their roots and they wanted to celebrate their heritage.
There are different periods where Americans feel like they have lost their masculinity, they are too feminized. Theodore Roosevelt said war and breeding were good, because they made hardier stock. We find the same kind of thing happening in the 1970s where people begin to identify as working class, or rednecks, something that is more raw and masculine. I talk about the Bubba image, which is divorced from class—all you have to do to be a Bubba, which is what I see Donald Trump doing when he wears his red Bubba cap, is put on a trucker’s cap and pair it with blue jeans. Politicians play this game of pretending to be one of the people. Think about how ridiculous it is. It is an act, a performance, and it is not available to everyone.
SJ: What can we learn from your book about the ways the pundit class tends to still talk about poor white people?
NI: One of the biggest problems with journalists and the way they talk about class, especially the working class, is they talk as if it is a monolithic entity. It is not. It has never been. They talk about voters in blocs. Like all women are going to vote for Hillary or all the working class somehow are attracted to Trump, which is not true.
Trump has revived Nixon’s silent majority, which was meant to attract middle-class whites away from the Democratic party. There was a very strong racial element to it, because it was all about attacking welfare. But people forget, there were 17.4 million more whites at the time who were on welfare. Trump is tapping into that same kind of racist resentment and anger over dependency with his infamous wall. The wall reflects a larger trend that has been used in partisan politics, that it is poor Mexicans who are crossing the border and becoming freeloaders. It is tapping into that idea that the poor are deadbeats, the poor are the ones who receive welfare, and that the white men embody the working class. But they don’t. Even today, in most unions there are more women who are joining unions than men.
Part of the problem with class is there are certain things that we don’t want to admit are true. If you actually think about our class system and you start questioning your own class privilege, that can be really threatening.
SJ: You end the book calling for us to grapple honestly with our class history and inequality as a result of power. What would you like people to take away from this and actually do going forward?
NI: I would like people to throw the myth that we do not have a class system out the window. Try to understand how race and class are intertwined. Try to understand that you can’t have a middle class without a lower class. The same way we compare white and black behavior and make stereotypes, the middle class defines itself and its signs of success and breeding in contrast to the lower. While we want to think of the poor as marginal, they often have been pushed to the center of the key political issues throughout our history.
I think we have to get rid of that rhetoric of just talking about the one percent and think that if we tame them, suddenly our problems with go away. It is not that simple. What keeps our class system in place is a set of ideas, a set of assumptions, and particularly the way we vilify the poor and blame the poor and see them as Other. That has to be tackled in a constructive way.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America” is available now from Viking.
Sarah Jaffe is a Nation Institute reporting fellow and the author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, out in August 2016 from Nation Books.