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Larry Miller reviews his pick for Book of the Day:
White Trash is a book you ought to read, but you may not like reading it. Americans have certain fundamental beliefs: individual worth and freedom, hard work and character lead to success, democracy, equal opportunity, tolerance. They are a reality for many Americans. Nancy Isenberg asserts, however, that these beliefs have been an empty promise for many. Isenberg suggests that this empty promise has been an unwelcome and unfortunate part of our history in its entirety.
Isenberg demonstrates her thesis with a careful, meticulously researched – there are 123 pages of reference notes – overview of American history from colonial times to the present, with an emphasis on the least-favored and most-maligned members of society. She points out that social classes, class consciousness and class prejudice have been persistent. It has existed in every section in the country, perhaps most particularly in the South.
The South developed a stratified society from the time of the first settlements on the east coast to the newly-opened land in Mississippi and Alabama. Except for the slaves, the poor whites were at the bottom of the hierarchy. They lived in poverty and had few opportunities to improve themselves. With the development of Social Darwinist thought in the latter part of the 19th century, many people came to believe that "No longer were white trash simply freaks of nature on the fringes of society; they were now congenitally [emphasis added] delinquent, a withered branch on the American family tree." Southern demagogues like James Vandaman used racial appeals to enforce the social hierarchy. Jim Crow laws in the South and forced sterilizations were upheld by the Supreme Court in Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896) and Buck vs. Bell (1927). Nationally, immigration laws limited the number of "undesirables" in the 1920s. One should remember that anti-miscegenation laws were in force until the 1960s.
The Great Depression affected everyone. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal did provide some aid, but most of the New Deal programs were designed to help the urban working class, rural proprietors and the middle class. African Americans, tenants, sharecroppers, migrants and residents of certain regions like the Dust Bowl or Appalachia suffered the most.
World War II and the postwar period brought prosperity, but the benefits were not spread evenly. Federal, state, and local policies supported suburban sprawl in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet this period also saw the proliferation of trailer parks which, in many cases, were located in marginal areas for marginal people: "Cheap land, a plot of concrete and mud, and a junkyard trailer – the updated squatter’s hovel – became the measure of white trash identity."
In more recent years, one continues to see the white trash trope. Isenberg uses the example of Rev. Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker in that they preached "the white trash dream of [material] excess." Likewise, she suggests that some opponents of Bill Clinton thought he was white trash whose "slick Willie" persona made him unfit to be President.
Isenberg concludes that the persistence of the American mythology has led to a perpetuation of the underclass. The belief that unfettered markets will help everyone has resulted in the exploitation of the weak and vulnerable. The belief in untrammeled individualism has almost guaranteed that those on the bottom of society will stay on the bottom. The belief that we are the “city on the hill” and the light to all nations has blinded us to the injustices within our own borders.
This book is intended for the general reader. Isenberg's writing is clear and lively. Her argument is developed carefully and supported abundantly by artfully chosen data from a broad range of sources. This book challenges our beliefs and is therefore a must-read.