Saturday, July 1, 2017

White Trash


White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
Nancy Isenberg (Viking, 2016)

    There's a long-running class war among white people in this country, which the upper class is winning. Nancy Isenberg's White Trash explains why it could hardly be otherwise. Generation after generation, the class of people with property, education, and money ascribe undesirable traits to the class without, as though they somehow deserve to be dirty, uneducated, and landless. This war tends to be underground, or invisible; or perhaps it's hiding in plain sight.

    From the days of the Jamestown and Plymouth settlements, America was seen as a place to send people England considered expendible. Paupers, orphans, and petty criminals were sent to these shores, usually in indentured servitude, so that a householder would be responsible for them. Indebtedness could become a legacy, and many such immigrants had no other. Especially in Virginia, a few wealthy men claimed all the good land, leaving swampland or the rocky hills for those who had no legal claim.

    This was still true after the colonies became the United States. "Both crackers and squatters–two terms that became shorthand for landless migrant–supposedly stayed just one step of the 'real' farmers, Jefferson's idealized, commercially oriented cultivators. They lived off the grid, rarely attended school or joined a church, and remained a potent symbol of poverty. To be lower class was to be one of the landless." These were the people who were so cut off from state governments that, when the southern states left the nation, they tried to leave the states - in the case of West Virginia, actually succeeding.

    After the Civil War, Freedman's Bureaus brought federal help to refugees both white and black, but "[I]n the race for self-reliance, poor whites seemed to many bureau agents never to have left the starting gate." The moneyed interests in the southern states had not seen fit to provide an education for their poor neighbors, preferring to keep them desperate and indentured as share-croppers, an attitude that has not entirely disappeared. The unstable equilibrium between pity and censure usually leaned toward the latter: there must be something wrong with people so backward. Was it genetic? In some places, the proposed solutions included sterilization of women at the behest of the state. 
 
    The Great Depression opened the way for a renewed Federal effort at helping the rural poor; electricity and sanitation were definite improvements, while some housing projects were public catastrophes. Photographers and sociologists roamed the South, gawking at the crackers and rednecks, who understandably bridled at the resulting portrayals.

    Isenberg covers the past fifty years by way of some of the cultural and political figures you may remember. We meet the Joads, the migratory clan from The Grapes of Wrath, and Robert E. Lee Ewell, the scrawny, brutish villain in To Kill A Mockingbird, who lives behind the town dump "in an old Negro cabin." There was a vogue in the 1960s for comedy about rural whites, exemplified by Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies; later, The Dukes of Hazard glorified moonshining and the Confederate flag.

     Country singer Dolly Parton played the part of the redneck made good. "Her image, as Parton confessed in her autobiography, expressed the desire of poor white trash girls to see themselves as magazine models." Evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker, though she came from Minnesota, captured the same hyper-feminine image in her Pentecostal television ministry, which she and her husband Jim produced in North Carolina. They enjoyed lavish wealth, while fund-raising almost continuously. "The people whom the Praise the Lord Ministry conned were mainly poor whites; the majority of the program's viewers were born-again, with less than a high school education, and were most pitifully, unemployed." 
 
    White Trash is a serious, comprehensive history, seemingly distilling a book into each paragraph. The primary conclusion seems to be that we always have the poor with us. It's essential to be aware of the history, though, because people don't deserve to be invisible. Knowing what has happened before lets us see how it's happening now, and how far we fall short of our democratic ideals. We may not be able to cure poverty, but there's no good reason to be blind to it.

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