White Trash: an American tragedy

Isenberg’s 2016 book, “White Trash,” traces the history of this American
underclass, and underscores the little-known fact that what we call “white
trash” is not a new phenomenon, but has scarred the American landscape almost
from the first moment Europeans set foot on our shores.

Isenberg reports (and I’d never before heard this) that large numbers of the original Britishers (including Scots and the Irish) that settled the new North American wilderness were considered undesirables in their home country, and were exported here in order to rid the Mother Country of them.

They were called “the waste people,” but acquired other monikers over time (all of these terms are attested to in the book through historical citations): filth, offal, sluggish idlers, losers, debauched, offscourings of society, parasites, landlubbers. They were unhealthy: had ghastly complexions, open sores on their bodies, with missing limbs, noses, palates and teeth, ignorant wretches: an early Governor of North Carolina called them “the meanest, most rustic and squalid part of the [human] species,” whose hovels had “dung and nastiness” on the floor.

The South quickly became their habitat. Northerners, who felt superior to them, argued that the “peculiar institution” of slavery had debased poor white people. Because labor was so cheap, white people did not really have to work; black slaves–a “natural servant class”–would pick the cotton and tobacco and do all the dirty work, leaving poor whites free to eat, drink, fornicate, forage, sleep and drink themselves to death, in the “dismal swamps” where they erected their shanties and hovels.

to say, “gentlemen and gentlewomen”—the productive, educated class—did not much
care for the waste people, who were a blemish on the “city on a hill” they were
trying to build. Ben Franklin called them “the vilest and most abandoned of
mankind,” a “scandalous Collection of drunks and low white servants.” His
friend, Thomas Jefferson, called them “rubbish,” squatters who were the
opposite of the “cultivators of the earth” who worked hard to build
civilization out of the wilderness.

the late 1700s the waste people were called “crackers,” described by a British
official (in the 1760s) as “a lawless set of rascals on the frontiers of
Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas and Georgia.” Crackers—white trash—it doesn’t
matter what you called them. Decent people knew what they were: an undesirable
population, antithetical to American values if not actually dangerous, a people
to be deplored. By the time the Civil War came, northerners had identified
white trash as “the bogeyman of southern hypocrisy.”

the next century, the epithets continued to pile up to describe this class of
vagabonds and illiterates: scalawags, poltroons, poor folk. W.E.B. DuBois
called them “some of the worst stocks of mankind” and noted the irony of
southern whites describing Negroes as “inferior” when the southern states were
crammed with such “degenerates.” Today, we might call these people “trailer
trash” or “rednecks” or, in Hillary Clinton’s apt phrase, “a basket of
deplorables.” But the old descriptor, white trash, still seems the best.

They are, of course, Donald J. Trump’s base. They didn’t always used to be Republicans. To the extent they voted at all, in the mid-twentieth century they were for Franklin Roosevelt, and remained Democrats for a generation. Some bolted away from the party when it nominated John F. Kennedy, in 1960; white trash has always been anti-Catholic. More went over to the Republican Party after Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights laws were passed. In the 1970s and 1980s, evangelicalism swept through the south (and Midwest) like a prairie fire, and the unholy alliance of Reagan-style Republicans, unscrupulous pastors such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, and conservative…

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