From “waste people”
to “white trash”

White Trash:

the 400-Year Untold History of Class in America

"Waste people. Offscourings. Lubbers. Bogtrotters. Rascals. Squatters. Crackers. Clay-eaters. Tackis. Mudsills. Scalawags. Briar hoppers. Hillbillies. Low-downers. White niggers. Degenerates. White trash. Rednecks. Trailer trash. Swamp people. . . . They are renamed often, but they do not disappear.” These are the people at the center of Nancy Isenberg’s newest book, White Trash.

Her book begins in colonial America—where surplus poor people were sent by the British Empire to form what Richard Hakluyt envisioned as “one giant workhouse.” In the colonies, aristocrats extended the empire’s system of class hierarchy with the introduction of chattel slavery. From the beginning, Isenberg argues, a permanent underclass of whites was essential to the new ruling class, as laws required one white servant for every six slaves purchased. This white servant class was fostered as a “racial and class barrier between the slaves and landed elites.” Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, however, exposed the real problems the colonial rulers had maintaining that barrier.

Although white, this underclass was never bestowed with the full rights given to middle- and upper-class whites in either the colonial administrations or after the American Revolution. Isenberg shows how the “waste people” of the British Empire were transformed into landless squatters, with names like lazy crackers and hillbillies deployed to justify their impoverished status.

Early promoters of the backwardness of the poorer classes of white people drew their inspiration from popular animal husbandry journals. These proto-eugenicists argued that poor white people were not only poor, but also ugly, because of their breeding. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The circumstance of superior beauty is thought worthy of attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other animals; why not in that of man?” Others noted that poor whites in the South had sunk to such a miserable level that “bad blood and vulgar breeding” had turned them into an irredeemable “notorious race.” 

Isenberg shows how the southern plantocracy’s approach to poor whites differed from those of the northern elites—intentionally keeping the lower class of whites “utterly ignorant,” as Chancellor William Harper of South Carolina put it. She also demonstrates how the lives of poor whites brought them into opposition with the Confederacy; through army desertion, raids of warehouses and depots, conspiracies with slaves in maroon communities, and even the establishment of the Free State of Jones in Mississippi. 

The rise of “scientific” eugenics in the United States, fueled by World War I, further legitimized and institutionalized ideas of the innate inferiority of poor whites. Isenberg notes that, by 1931, twenty-seven states had passed sterilization laws, with targets outlined in thirty-four categories, in order to “stamp out” the genetically inferior. While the racist eugenicists were certainly preoccupied with “race mixing,” the primary target of the sterilization laws during the first few decades were white women—the case of Carrie Buck being the most infamous. For racists like Albert Priddy, the superintendent of the State Colony of Epileptics and Feebleminded in Virginia, the “new race problem” was not primarily the “negro problem,” but “the shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South.”

Isenberg makes a point to connect the anti-white trash politics with class. In an important chapter on the New Deal era, she notes that, “Two-thirds of the nation’s tenant farmers were in the South, and two-thirds were white. . . . The entire tenant system operated by coercion and dependence.” Unfortunately, she focuses most of her analysis on politics at the top; discussing, for example, the liberal Henry Wallace or the racist windbag Senator Harry Byrd, who maintained that “mountain people” didn’t deserve electricity, refrigerators, or indoor toilets. Her book would have benefited from including a discussion of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, which brought Black tenant farmers together with their “white trash” cousins.

The book’s history-from-above approach is useful insofar as we get a picture of how the process of racialization evolved at the top of society, and how racist demagogues often latched onto a “redneck” identity in order to win votes and whip up racist backlash. It helps us to understand why Sarah Palin and even Donald Trump can be lumped into the white trash category by the mainstream media. 

But the book does little to help us to understand how race is navigated by poor whites: Why would they join in Bacon’s Rebellion? Why would they join the interracial prison-labor rebellions in Eastern Tennessee? Why would they conspire with runaway slaves in the swamps of Mississippi? Alas, the only time we’re treated to the “why” in the voice of a white trash person, is why Hazel Bryan hurled racist insults at fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Eckford when she attempted to go to school in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957.

Isenberg applies the white trash label broadly across the class spectrum, lumping landless tenant farmers, President Lyndon Johnson, cotton-mill workers, and Tammy Faye Baker together as “white trash.” Further, the subtitle of the book, The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, implies a broader discussion that should include the many nonwhite workers central to American history—but they rarely make an appearance. 

Moreover, she accepts the popular framework for understanding class as differences of income, culture, language, and any number of other things, rather than defining it in terms of exploitation. “Class has never been about income or financial worth alone,” she writes. “It has been fashioned in physical—and yes, bodily—terms. Dirty feet and tallow faces remain signs of delinquency and depravity. To live in a shack, a ‘hovel,’ a ‘shebang,’ or in a Shedtown or in a trailer park, is to live in a place that never acquires the name of ‘home.’”

While various waves of European immigrant workers suffered racist nativism and xenophobia, the white trash label was reserved for only a section of white workers born in the United States. Isenberg doesn’t explore how these other working-class whites—those not burdened with the “white trash label”—figure into her analysis. Along with the entire working class, the white trash, crackers, and hillbillies of Isenberg’s book have been exploited economically in a myriad of ways; through land tenancy, low-paying dangerous jobs, and underdevelopment. Yet, sterilization, discrimination, imposed illiteracy, and worse underscore a more specific dynamic to the oppression of white trash—a dynamic not explored sufficiently in the book. 

While Isenberg tacitly accepts the idea of anti-Black racism as essential for the legitimation of slavery, she doesn’t seek to uncover the utility of anti-white trash ideology in a similar way. After all, how could the mining companies of Eastern Kentucky send people into dangerous holes in the ground, for little pay, without first dehumanizing them? How could poor squatters be forced from their land without comparing them to wild savages? How could landless whites be pressed into the emerging prison labor system without first comparing them to Blacks? This logic of racist ideology, in this instance as it applied to a section of white people, is never made explicit by Isenberg.

Despite these shortcomings, White Trash is a very welcome corrective to the mainstream of whiteness studies. What emerges from Nancy Isenberg’s engaging book is the oppressive nature of capitalism—including for poor white people. It is an antiracist book throughout, and a breath of fresh air in a time when J. D. Vance’s retrograde Hillbilly Elegy masquerades as a legitimate voice of marginalized whites. Rather than Vance’s victim-blaming approach, Isenberg’s book puts class at the center of understanding the plight of poor whites, concluding:

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—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-appointed patriots have styled the “greatest civilization in the history of the world.”

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Issue contents

Top story