White Trash by Nancy Isenberg

Takeaway: Class matters. The idealism of a classless society and the myth that everyone can move up the social ladder with a little hard work has never been true for the majority in the United States.

Class matters. That shouldn’t be a controversial idea, but it is. It is controversial because it flies in the face of the American myth. It is possible to point to many that have risen up from their poor roots to achieve more than those that grew up around them. But the very pointing out that you know someone that grew up poor and is now rich only serves as a reminder that it is not the story of the majority.

White Trash is a provocative book. I do not think it is a particularly untold story as the subtitle suggests, but I think it is an under-represented story. Early US immigration was primarily fueled by lower classes. Early history of government is a master class in how the powerful can manipulate government to remain in power and use that power to enrich themselves at the expense of the poor.

From the early days of America, there was an understanding of poverty as something that was ‘congenital’. Prior to Darwin, Isenberg widely quotes founding fathers and essayists using language of animal husbandry. Whether the image was of dog breeding or horse breeding, the point was that if you have a cur, it is probably because the animal was of bad stock.

Later history, once Darwinism and full blown eugenics was an option, is even more clear about the lack of value that is placed on lower classes. As a Christian, this matters because I believe in the inherent worth of the individual. But apart from Christianity, the ethics of a democracy that claims universal suffrage, but discriminates based on income, class, race, education, gender and a host of other issues is an ethic that needs questioned.

That being said, I think one of the problems of the book is that Isenberg uses a too broad understanding of eugenics. That overly broad understanding of eugenics probably made sense to her because this is written as a secular book (I don’t know anything about the religious background of the author), but as a Christian the inherent worth of the individual I think matters rhetorically.

The author I think also has a real weakness in dealing with Christian theology, especially in the modern history section. Suggesting that Jimmy Carter was falling trap to eugenic thinking, and not his Christian morality, when signing the Hyde Amendment is a misunderstanding of both eugenics and Christianity. It also doesn’t really make sense that by preventing abortions of lower income people would be eugenic.

I think the early sections of the book were more convincing to me than the later sections. Although the basic point, that the United States is not classless and that class still matters to how we understand different groups. The epilogue spends a little time on how lower class White and other racial minority groups are pitted against one another, but I wish there was more discussion of that in the book.

I also would have liked a bit more discussion of why southern lower classes are viewed differently than northern lower classes. Part of it, I think is a difference in urban and rural biases. But there seems to be more to it than that. Urban northern white poor of the 20th century are almost completely absent from the book.

While there was discussion about how welfare and social safety net programs were primarily targeted at White poor and specifically designed to limit the access of minority poor, I think there should have been a discussion about how the political theory of government mattered as well. Generally, southern states and communities have prioritized a government system that is smaller and less intrusive. While northern states and communities were more intrusive and provided more benefits. That does not necessarily mean that one is better than another, but it does matter how social safety net program work and are designed.

Overall, even though I am not completely sold on all of the history and analysis of the book, I think it is a book worth reading. The broader issues of how class, economics, race, rural and urban and other issues impact how we think of ourselves and how we think of others I hope sparks some good discussion.

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook

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