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Revised: July 29, 2016

Word count: about 727


Pete Willows willows@aucegypt.edu

Americas Caste System


White Trash: the 400 year-old untold history of class in
America. By Nancy Isenberg. 2016. 480 pps. Viking.
ISBN: 9780670785971. $28.00.
The American Dream is a belief that any American,
regardless of their background, can rise to prosperity,
success and leadership through upward social mobility,
opportunity and hard work. The United States was, by
design, engineered to break away from kings, queens and
nobility. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Bill Clinton did not come
from the privileged families of an aristocracy.
Author Nancy Isenberg tells us, however, that the
United States has been, and remains a class-based society
with roots going back to the original colonies of the 1500s.
Isenberg claims that England emptied its jails and shipped
vagrants, the feeble-minded, beggars, orphans and the
homeless to the New World to do the heavy work in
agriculture and mining. This human waste from the bowels
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of England remain as todays American white trash having


been relegated to generations of manual labor and poverty.
Skilled labor, sent to the colonies artisans, millers,
tailors, cobblers, coopers and tinkers had access to
indentured servants with longer-than-usual contracts of five
to seven years, instead of two to four years. The servants
were essentially property that could be sold off or traded.
Upon completion of servitude, the workers would not have
had enough money to buy property from wealthy
landowners, and would have instead lived a life of lowincome wages and perpetual debt.
Isenberg tells of life after the US Civil War: the lowest of
White classes, refugees from the civil war, were distinct from
the freed Blacks, who were prepared to work and better
themselves. White trash were perceived as shiftless morons,
and given to living off subsidies and hand-outs during the
Southern Reconstruction. Their social issues were long in
place, and ran deeper than war-related problems this,
according to The New York Times articles on southern

poverty in the late 1860s, which reported on the prevalence


of dirt-eating among the White rural poor, and the relevant
medical issues that arose with such a diet.
But Isenbergs evidence is largely anecdotal, and she
would have done well to have provided quantitative analysis
in the form of hard data. For example, what are the white
trash infant mortality rates? What percentage of White
Americans are and were living off of government subsidies,
as compared to Black Americans? How have these numbers
changed or stayed in place over time? Where is the data on
incarceration and recidivism?
This is not to take away from the reality of social
segregation in todays United States. Isenberg is correct in
that the salaried middle class have their backyard barbeques
and baseball fields in their parks, which are located in leafy
green suburbs. The wage-earning working class have their
bowling alleys and diners, and are closer to the urban
centers. The white trash have their notorious trailer-parks,
which are far and away from prime real estate but close to

the temporary employment agencies, pay-day loans and


pawn shops.
The hillbillies in the Appalachian Mountains southern
Ohio, northern Kentucky and upper West Virginia still
languish in their tar paper shanties, outhouses, and with
shoeless children running in the yard among chickens and
pigs. I grew up in Ohio, and have seen it. Today, one does
not have to stray too far off the interstate highway to
witness the fetid squalor.
Isenberg is astute: even when despairing in hopeless
generations of abject poverty, one has an identity, a place, a
social group and an ancestry. In order to move out of the
lowest social class, one must leave their identity behind,
while watching the upper classes categorize them as coming
from poor white trash and with all the cruel stereotypes of
in-bred relatives, mental retardation, and bizarre religious
practices that invoke snake handling and speaking in
tongues.

If there is an irony to upward mobility, it can be seen in


this years presidential election. Bill Clinton, a two-term
president, came from a broken home, with an abusive
alcoholic step-father, and from one of the poorest states in
the union. Frequently in his political career, Clinton was
called the white trash candidate, who self-admittedly
brought in the cracker vote. However, today the Clintons
are widely criticized as being part of the elite class, who are
working in the interests of Wall Street and the corporations:
oblivious to the needs of the working poor. Instead,
Americas white trash, the poorly educated, are preparing
to elect a billionaire child of privilege, Donald Trump.
Pete Willows is a contributing writer to The Egyptian
Gazette, and its weekly magazine version, The Egyptian Mail.
He can be reached at willows@aucegypt.edu