Title: White Trash
Rating: 4 Stars
As I wander somewhat lost in this dismal post inauguration milieu, I find myself looking for answers.
Trump got 46 percent of the vote, something like 63 million votes. On the one hand, it’s so easy just to think that all of those people are racist or stupid or selfish or ignorant, but clearly that’s me seeing the world through my own closeted point of view.
I live in Seattle, which is definitely in a bubble of prosperity. Trump got eight percent of the vote in Seattle, so it’s not like I have a whole bunch of reference points.
I’m guessing that over the next couple of months I’ll be doing the usual pointy headed liberal thing of reading books and articles trying to puzzle out this mystery.
Here’s my first attempt. White Trash, by Nancy Isenberg, received a lot of positive news and made several best book lists. Even though it’s still in hard cover and I pretty much never buy hard cover, I just couldn’t resist, bought it, and dove right in.
The premise is that for some, the American Dream is a sham. This has been true from day one, going all of the way back to Plymouth and Jamestown. Even back then, there were people in London that were of no use to anyone. In fact, they were called waste people. These people were convinced (or tricked, or if you were a street urchin, kidnapped) that they could earn their freedom and a new life if they emigrated to the colonies.
In fact, the people that were doing the convincing were trying to solve two problems. London had an excess lower class population and there was a need in the colonies for hard manual labor. The kind of manual labor that will wear you down and eventually kill you.
People were convinced (or tricked or kidnapped), arrived in the colonies, signed to some multi-year indentured contract, and then were worked to death. They never had a chance for their freedom, let alone to pursue anything approaching a dream.
This is a theme running throughout the entire 400 year history of the United States. There is always a class of people that basically just survive. They have no chance to own land. In the early days of America, the poor would venture west, claim land, and would clear it (ie squatters). Rich speculators with inside connections would come in, buy huge tracts of land, and would use the federal government to push the squatters out. The squatters would move further west, rinse and repeat.
Historically, due to its relatively poor soil and terrain not conducive to traditional farming, pretty much the entire state of North Carolina was composed of such people. Upper class people on a voyage or government officials sent out to survey would wonder at these backwards people, amazed at how poorly they dressed, at the nearly incomprehensible English that they spoke, and the brood of wild children running around.
This also is a theme running throughout the book. Not only are these poor not given a chance to pursue their dreams, they are held in contempt. Since most Americans have bought into the concept of everyone getting what they want if they just work hard enough, they look upon these poor with absolutely no compassion and very little empathy. The inclination is to think that they are poor because they are lazy or shiftless and have no self respect to want to better themselves.
You can tell this by the terms that have been used to describe the poor: waste people, offscourings, rubbish, mudsill, clay eaters, squatter, cracker, white trash, scalawags, red necks, and trailer trash.
They truly never do get a break. Out of many, here are a few interesting facts:
- Slavery had a significant impact on poor Southern whites. So much of work during this time was agriculture based. Since there was this tremendous pool of free labor, the poor Southern whites were deprived of a potential labor market, which left them in an even more wretched condition.
- The fact that being poor was usually part of a multi-generational cycle, the poor was used as a basis and justification for eugenics. During the 1920’s there was an active eugenics program in America. People (women) were evaluated for mental degeneracy and sexual deviance and, if found wanting, were sterilized.
- During the 1950’s, there was a housing boom (think Levittown). Houses could be cheaply built and purchased via loans. However, in such suburbs as Levittown, there was a very definite opinion regarding the right kind of person who should live there, and if you were a poor person without class, well, you might as well move along.
All in all, not exactly a cheery read. However, this book does shine a light on a part of America that is never really recognized, let alone examined in any real detail.
How many such people heard the message of Trump with his boldly confident declarations that he alone and fix all that pains our country and thought, yeah, he’s probably full of bullshit, but what do I really have to lose? Trump did out poll Clinton 76 percent to 17 percent among white men with no college degrees. What percentage of them had lost all hope and voted for the demagogue that told them what they wanted to hear?