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White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America Paperback – April 4, 2017
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“This eye-opening investigation into our country’s entrenched social hierarchy is acutely relevant.” –O Magazine
“A gritty and sprawling assault on…American mythmaking.” —Washington Post
“An eloquent synthesis of the country’s history of class stratification.” –The Boston Globe
“A bracing reminder of the persistent contempt for the white underclass.” –The Atlantic
“[White Trash] 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.”—Slate
“Isenberg . . . has written an important call for Americans to treat class with the same care that they now treat race…Her work may well help that focus lead to progress.” —TIME
“With her strong academic background and accessible voice, Isenberg takes pains to reveal classism’s deep-seated roots.”–Entertainment Weekly
“Carefully researched…deeply relevant.” –Christian Science Monitor
About the Author
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In the last two years of turmoil, I started reading more news online than just the BBC. I discovered Slate and The Economist, and my world view started changing. I ran across a review of this book on Slate.com. I bought it on Amazon. I started reading it early last summer, and couldn't put it down. It is meticulously researched and extremely well-written. I hated it, mainly because of how stupid it told me I was, but also for how it made me almost physically ill about how people, especially those in power with vested interests, think about and manipulate others, and about how the manipulated people are brought to commit heinous acts that are ultimately against their own interests.
During a week surveying railroad in the Mojave Desert, I finished the book and then read it again. It made me understand a lot of things that seemed kind of muddled before, like what my black friends in the military had told me, and where some of the redneck adults from my lower middle class childhood were coming from, and also what a lot of "trouble-making activists" from the 1960's to now were really saying.
While definitely lower middle class on the economic scale, my family has always put huge stock in reading and education. We were raised to never look down on others for their social and economic status. I was taught to look down upon self-proclaimed "elites", and yet to have tastes and education that were usually available only to elites. I later learned that "elites" is a term with a lot of vagueness about it. Academics and elites are definitely two different things, culturally, socially, and economically. Culturally, most "elites" wouldn't know Anatole France from the Tour de France, if they had, in fact, heard of either. Having a college degree (and I DO NOT disparage the accomplishment) does not confer upon the graduate any real claim to academia or even literacy. Often, it seems to be a hurdle that has to be taken and suffered due to family expectations. As a former military officer, I knew fellow officers who were college graduates who were yet barely literate. However unbelievably ignorant they were, they were acceptable, having come from the "right" background.
Thanks to Nancy Isenberg's book, my seventh decade (I recently turned 60) has become far more complex for me. While having been taught NOT to ever despise people of lower social/economic standing, I have to despise many of their prejudices and beliefs. While disliking elites and elitism, I find that many of them share beliefs and tastes with me (although definitely not most of them). Trying (and hopefully achieving at least a fraction) to live an "examined life" has been far more difficult after reading Ms. Isenberg's words. To say the least, learning that Locke was a major shareholder in a slave trade company makes for a certain piquancy while reading his philosophy. My semi-retired life might have been emotionally easier had I not read her book, but I will always be grateful (however annoyed) that I'm less of a stooge of politically acceptable history (not to be confused with the partizan/political battle cry of "politically correct"). In this case, "correct" and truth are two very different things. Thanks, Nancy, for bringing me the truth.
This author is stretching the truth, obviously to warp history, with an obvious political agenda.
I made I to the Civil War chapter, when I could no longer tolerate it.
Britain saw sending the poor and criminals to distant lands as a good way to get rid of them. And often done forcefully, as Bailyn’s book “The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675” explains in great detail.
English writer Richard Hakluyt (1553-1616) envisioned America as becoming a workhouse, “a place where the surplus poor, the waste people of England, could be converted into economic assets. The land and the poor could be harvested together, to add to—rather than continue to subtract from—the nation’s wealth. Among the first waves of workers were the convicts, who would be employed at heavy labor, felling trees and burning them for pitch, tar, and soap ash; others would dig in the mines for gold, silver, iron, and copper. The convicts were not paid wages. As debt slaves, they were obliged to repay the English commonwealth for their crimes by producing commodities for export. In return, they would be kept from a life of crime, avoiding, in Hakluyt’s words, being “miserably hanged,” or packed into prisons to “pitifully pine away” and die.”
“During the 1600s, far from being ranked as valued British subjects, the great majority of early colonists were classified as surplus population and expendable “rubbish,” a rude rather than robust population. The English subscribed to the idea that the poor dregs would be weeded out of English society in four ways. Either nature would reduce the burden of the poor through food shortages, starvation, and disease, or, drawn into crime, they might end up on the gallows. Finally, some would be impressed by force or lured by bounties to fight and die in foreign wars, or else be shipped off to the colonies. Such worthless drones as these could be removed to colonial outposts that were in short supply of able-bodied laborers and, lest we forget, young “fruitful” females. Once there, it was hoped, the drones would be energized as worker bees.
The colonists were a mixed lot. On the bottom of the heap were men and women of the poor and criminal classes. Among these unheroic transplants were roguish highwaymen, mean vagrants, Irish rebels, known whores, and an assortment of convicts shipped to the colonies for grand larceny or other property crimes, as a reprieve of sorts, to escape the gallows. Not much better were those who filled the ranks of indentured servants, who ranged in class position from lowly street urchins to former artisans burdened with overwhelming debts. They had taken a chance in the colonies, having been impressed into service and then choosing exile over possible incarceration within the walls of an overcrowded, disease-ridden English prison. Labor shortages led some ship captains and agents to round up children from the streets of London and other towns to sell to planters across the ocean—this was known as “spiriting.” Young children were shipped off for petty crimes. One such case is that of Elizabeth “Little Bess” Armstrong, sent to Virginia for stealing two spoons. Large numbers of poor adults and fatherless boys gave up their freedom, selling themselves into indentured servitude, whereby their passage was paid in return for contracting to anywhere from four to nine years of labor. Their contracts might be sold, and often were, upon their arrival. Unable to marry or choose another master, they could be punished or whipped at will. Owing to the harsh working conditions they had to endure, one critic compared their lot to “Egyptian bondage.” Discharged soldiers, also of the lower classes, were shipped off to the colonies.”
At all times, white trash reminds us of one of the American nation’s uncomfortable truths: the poor are always with us. A preoccupation with penalizing poor whites reveals an uneasy tension between what Americans are taught to think the country promises—the dream of upward mobility—and the less appealing truth that class barriers almost invariably make that dream unobtainable.
Whatever you've read in school was fake history, finally the true story of our nation.
Top international reviews
Relegated to the underclass, the White Trash have never recovered. The myth of the American dream lands the responsibility for their poverty in their laps despite having few opportunities for advancement. For some reason, “white trash” are willing buy into the system. What I don’t understand is why they fought for the huge plantation owners during the Civil War. They gained little or nothing from sacrificing their lives. The slaves made their labour virtually worthless. Were the African American population freed, at least they would no longer be commodities. As Lyndon Johnson said, “If you can convince the lowest white man that he’s better than the best coloured man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give somebody for him to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” Sad but seemingly all too true.
Particularly welcome was the discussion of John Locke's constitution for the Carolinas and his proposal to establish a complex class hierarchy. This is not exactly what you would expect from someone who so influenced American democracy.
Also interesting was the history of the founding of Georgia which began as a state opposed to slavery since Oglethorpe that it would be morally bad for the white settlers