Class Society and Inequality: Debunking the Myth

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America

By Nancy Isenberg

Viking (2016)

Book Review

White Trash is a meticulously documented investigation of the historical roots of class inequality in the US. Despite the warm and fuzzy founding myths all American children are taught in school, the foundation for class inequality was laid during the early colonization of North America. The wealthy English elite who financed the colonies viewed the New World as a giant workhouse for England’s surplus poor (following the Enclosure Acts that drove them off the commons). British vagrants, vagabonds and convicts were both voluntarily and involuntarily transported to North America as apprentices, indentured servants and impressed* seaman. A surprising number of indentured servants, particularly in New England, were teenagers.

Most indentured servants (who functioned as virtual slaves) were promised land on completing their term of servitude. However nearly all went on to lose their land to property speculators and rigged taxation schemes, becoming squatters on the outskirts of established settlements. Comprising at least half of the population of most colonies, they were used by colonial elites as a wedge to encroach on Native American lands – only to be driven off their farms once the land was cleared and planted.

The lifestyle enjoyed by these squatters and their descendants was one of entrenched poverty and malnutrition, as well as hookworm, pellagra and other chronic illnesses associated with malnutrition. The disparaging attitude of wealthy elites and the emerging middle class towards this population clearly debunks ubiquitous corporate media claims about the “classless” nature of US society. Labels applied to them have changed over time, but the most prevalent have included “white trash,” “rednecks,” “mudsills,” and “mudeaters” (mud eating is a common symptom of hookworm). During her recent election campaign, Hillary Clinton referred to them as “deplorables.”

Isenberg reveals that post-World War II industrialization would lead many of these families migrate to northern cities, where they became “trailer trash.”

The wealthy elites have alternated between blaming white trash squatters and their descendants for their miserable circumstances and attributing their problems to genetic aberrations. The latter would lead to the eugenics movement and forced sterilization in the 20th century.

For me the most interesting parts of the book concerned the election of Andrew Jackson, the first “white trash” president, and the effects of slavery and the plantation system in creating a permanent “squatter class.” During his term as President, Jackson was repeatedly mocked by the elite-owned press for his lack of refinement – in much the same way as President-elect Donald Trump.

Isenberg assets that the creation of massive plantations maintained by slave labor created a permanent “squatter class” by driving an unprecedented number of poor white settlers off their land. She also maintains that the secession of seven states (which led to the Civil War) was more about preserving racial and class hierarchies than about preserving states rights. An astonishing number of poor southern whites either fought for the Union side, deserted or participated in food riots to protest shortages stemming from the exclusive dedication of prime agricultural land to cotton (rather than food).

*Impressment refers to the involuntary kidnapping of men, during the 18th and 19th century, into a military or naval force.

Originally published in Dissident Voice

6 thoughts on “Class Society and Inequality: Debunking the Myth

  1. A lot of this sounds true to me. But is it really the whole truth? I mean America assimilated so many different people from many different countries. What for instance about developing middle classes? It was not that either one belonged to the elite or the “white trash”, was it ? And could not some poorer landholders hold on to their land over many generations?


    • Aunty, it appears to me that Isenberg has devoted her life’s work to this area and her information is meticulously documented. She does write about working class people from other ethnic background (including Germans and African Americans), but it was impossible for me to cover all of this in a review.

      As she describes, the US was mainly agrarian till and there was virtually no middle class until the 1930s. In fact it was mainly Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation that created the middle class by setting out policies that allowed poor people to get ahead.

      She also documents really well the rigged taxation and banking schemes that the wealthy elite used to rob poor people of their land. There was also a whole period in the 19th century where the government simply seized land (without reimbursement) and handed it to the railroads.

      It’s a really interesting book and I think you would really like it.


  2. This seems to be mostly a ‘southern’ thing because I am pretty sure that there are no trailer parks in Midtown Manhattan or in Maine or Vermont, Rhode Island or New Hampshire. Although I could be mistaken because when I lived in Minnesota, I was quite surprised when it was pointed out to me, a trailer park community named, “The Estates.” Pretentious, eh?

    So, is the writer basically saying that as opposed to the convicts from England being sent to Australia, those who were not convicts but were from the lower orders were sent to America to do for the upper crust here, what their counterparts were doing for the upper crust in England? But then of course, slaves were more prominent here than in England.

    And it is my understanding that most of the so-called retarded or developmentally disabled were, for the most part, in the south because I have heard of many institutions in the south that were set up just to house the many ‘genetically deformed’. Hell! If truth be told, I am genetically deformed. Ask any of my doctors. I am surprised they didn’t ‘put me down’, I’m so genetically deformed especially seeing as how my x-rays are always exclaimed over. I just simply chalked it up to having lived near a nuclear reactor what with the Homer Simpson like workers who operated it. Meltdowns surely occurred daily and I wish that I was joking. What myself and others have mutated into is something for the circus and again, I kid you not.


  3. I don’t know about the East Coast, Shelby, but there are are lots of trailer parks in Milwaukee, Chicago and the poor suburbs of Los Angeles – I know because I have lots of trailer trash relatives.

    Yes, that’s my understanding of what Isenberg is saying – the poor of England were deliberately rounded up and sent to the US to be exploited. She maintains that African American slavery was pursued for economic reasons. Apparently growing cotton is so labor intensive that the only way you can make money from it is by using slaves.

    As for the eugenics movement, it was nationwide and didn’t just target the developmentally disabled – it targeted the poor and ethnic minorities. It called them genetically deformed, but this was before the nuclear industry started and the truth was, they were suffering from illnesses associated with poverty – mainly hookworm and pellagra.


  4. Pingback: The Deplorables: The 400-Year History of the US Working Class | The Most Revolutionary Act

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