One of the stories I sometimes tell involves a date, one date, I went on back in 1968, He was a black photographer with NBC news that I had met at an Operation Breadbasket meeting. I was in my early 20’s, and dumb as they come. We were chatting politely over dinner about this and that, when he said something about how white folks were always making themselves out to be the descendants of some kind of European royalty. I laughed, in a self-deprecating manner, and said that actually there was a crest associated with my birth name, but that the only English lit characters named Bates I had ever run across had been yeomen or clerks.
He laughed more heartily. “Face it,” he told me. “You’re descended from syphilitic sailors off the docks of Liverpool.”
Which is why I call White Trash, The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, by Nancy Isenberg, the story of my family. Because in actual fact, my father’s branch of the Bates family were poor dirt farmers, itinerant working men, or small, very small, businessfolk from central Illinois via Kentucky, Indiana and Arkansas. My paternal grandfather, who died when my father was quite young, was a railroad worker and apparently a drunk who sometimes beat my grandmother. She lived long enough to produce 7 or 8 children, 6 of whom survived long enough to become my dad and 5 uncles. I may have left out one or two.
According to Isenberg, White Trash (I’m going to keep capitalizing the words, as if they are an ethnic group) have been a part of the American experience since the Old World began transporting vagrants and petty criminals into the colonies as punishment or as indentured servants. The American colonies were used as a dumping ground for those the mother country considered “waste people.”
Among these unheroic transplants were roguish highwaymen, mean vagrants, Irish rebels, known whores, and an assortment of convicts…lowly street urchins and debtors.
Isenberg traces the history of these “waste people” through several iterations, from their pre-Civil War heroes like Andrew Jackson and Davy Crockett to their unsettled position in the War’s aftermath, when the Freedmen’s Bureau paired impoverished whites and freed people not as cutthroat adversaries, but as the worthy poor. By 1903, however, politicians had learned how to pit poor whites against all blacks, and a political base was discovered that has been useful ever since.
In the 1920’s and ‘30’s, eugenics was all the rage, and much as we have heard about eugenics and African Americans, a main target seems to have been those who we have learned to call White Trash.
All in all, the rural South stood out as a place of social and now eugenic backwardness. Tenant farmers and sharecroppers, wandering the dusty roads with a balky mule, seemed a throwback to eighteenth-century vagrants. The ‘lazy diseases’ of hookworm and pellagra created a class of lazy lubbers. Illiteracy was widespread. Fear of indiscriminate breeding loomed large…For many in the early twentieth century, then, the ‘new race problem’ was not the ‘negro problem.’ It was instead a different crisis, one caused by the ‘worthless class of anti-social whites.’
It seems that all this time, it was assumed that poverty was an inherited condition, that the diseases brought on by deprivation were the result of bad breeding and laziness, not unhealthy conditions. It took, according to Isenberg, the Great Depression to put a dent in these assumptions, when those who had previously been thought of as hard-working, industrious people found themselves reduced to penury due to circumstances far beyond their own control.
In the years following WWII, there arose what Isenberg calls the “cult of the country boy,” beginning with Elvis Presley and including television shows like The Beverly Hillbillies and The Andy Griffith Show, elevating a few of the White Trash into culture heroes. The rise of the civil rights movement, however, shone a light on the negative image, with figures like Orville Faubus and George Wallace, who once again whipped the poor white population into a frenzy over their forced integration with the only class they had formerly thought themselves above.
It’s impossible to do justice to the scope of this book. I have severely abridged the arc of the history painted by Ms. Isenberg, and done little justice to one of her major points – that class consciousness is alive and well in the United States and always has been. The poor have often been made to feel that poverty of body, mind and spirit are things inborn, conditions above which they cannot and must not be encouraged to rise.
A result, one might conclude, could be a population that is overly threatened by change, by the concept of equal rights, or by the influx of a foreign population with whom they must compete.
The book was published in 2016, just before the advent of Donald Trump to the presidency. Referring to the Republican ticket of McCain/Palin eight years earlier, Isenberg seems to want to rescue Sarah Palin from her own trailer trash image, which was what a girl friend of mine, raised in Alaska, had called her from the first, and she might have a point. Palin was criticized not so much for her policy positions, which criticisms would have held water on their own, but for her trailer trash origins and behavior. In other words, she was White Trash, in spades, and it’s probable that she would have been lampooned as such even had she come out for single payer or gay marriage.
But she gained a following of her own, and even though that ticket lost, and to a black man, the following gathered steam and was still there eight years later. To paraphrase Isenberg, should anyone be shocked at Donald Trump? “When you turn an election into a three-ring circus, there’s always a chance that the dancing bear will win.”