I was as surprised as anybody by the 2016 election. I just mean the fact of what happened; like most people, I didn’t see it coming. As the descendant of what I believe many still call southern white trash, I took a special interest in that electoral statement—not the central buffoon in it, just the statement itself—and began trying to understand it.
I read memoirs and fiction and articles by and about this class that had re-surged to power, and by trying to inhabit that mode of thought—an exertion called empathy—I did come to recognize some of my own thinking as unexamined and self-serving, and began at least to feel the heat of that intense emotion I had thought alien. People just find it disagreeable to be looked down on, written off, especially as they feel what once made sense to them dissolving, and the circumference of their own possibilities shrinking. It is the perfect climate for a demagogue who tells them what they want to hear without the slightest means, or desire, to supply it.
Now I’ve just finished Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash, which I found eye-opening—not so much for its telling me things I didn’t know, as for making me face things I already did. A reviewer in National Review called it a “dreadfully stupid and lazy book . . . badly written, poorly conceived, and incompetently executed.” It is none of those things—and the vicious dismissal, true to the spirit of our times, served only to confirm that the book had hit a nerve.
Mostly the book argues for the hypocritical predominance of class, from the earliest colonies to now, in classless America, focusing on the people excreted by Europe who have gone by many names, white trash for short. Isenberg’s agenda is revisionist, an attempt to see these people that everybody else always has been and still is only too ready to discard as unsalvageable barely human vermin. White Trash is not sentimental, but one can detect the author’s empathy, or at least her desire for fairplay.
We can’t have that. We’re not giving up a permanent class of people to look down on without a fight.
Isenberg quotes a famous LBJ observation:
I’ll tell you what’s at the bottom of it. If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.
I’ve lived most of my life in the South, sharing with Quentin Compson a love/hate relationship with it. I lived through the Civil Rights era, and have always been aware that the hostile reaction of many white southerners to the idea of upward black movement was exactly the fear of losing a default class of people to be better than. And I marveled at how politicians turned those feelings into political capital. Why couldn’t poor whites and poor blacks see that they were in the same boat, and maybe even—outrageous idea—row in the same direction? No, they made enemies of each other, which enabled their mutual true enemy to rob them blind. The Great Society legislation, as LBJ prophesied, turned the South Republican, and I marvel today at the relative ease with which Republican politicians have turned white southerners against their own interests.
White trash started out being forced into circumstances where it was barely possible to survive, then being despised and blamed for their backwardness and sloth. When Thomas Jefferson rhapsodized about the “yeoman farmer,” he didn’t mean them. When the ruling class embraced the self-validating “science” of eugenics, they did.
It was not until well into the twentieth century that the following concept seems to have occurred to anybody: white trash are not backward, therefore ostracized, ignorant, denied opportunity, and despised—but ostracized, ignorant, denied opportunity, and despised, and therefore backward. Isenberg cites Henry Wallace’s belief that if 100,000 children from poor families and 100,000 children from rich families were put into a situation where they all received the same education, food, clothing, care, and protection, the result would prove the equality of human potential.
The eugenics mindset, obsessed like all elitist mindsets with “breeding,” has crumbled before the science of genetics. Wallace was right. Like seeds falling on barren as opposed to fertile ground, DNA lies latent until it falls on ground where it can realize itself.
Vestiges of the older South live on all around us, and it’s hard—and reading White Trash is no help—not to feel the human misery that saturates every inch of this intense and exploited land. A sharecropper’s cabin, or a decrepit trailer, are good coffeetable book fodder, but only when unpeopled and sanitized of their pain. Making my way through this modern techno-world like everybody else, I am never without some awareness of that pain, and equally aware that nobody outside its touch has the slightest trace of sympathy for it, or desire to understand it. A few years ago I wrote a response to a book entitled Better Off Without ‘Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession by Chuck Thompson (https://likethedew.com/2014/02/26/thinking-about-the-south/#.XH_qbC2ZMQk, if anybody’s interested) in which he joined the pile-on of the mob in despising southerners, and even though I share his distaste for many of the thought patterns in the South, I don’t see any shortage of them outside the South, and am still appalled at the callous hubris of that book. Isenberg’s book reminds us that it’s nothing new.
I’m white trash. Scots-Irish. My progenitors were pushed down the eastern seaboard and ended up in Alabama. There is no reason I shouldn’t be an emaciated face in a Walker Evans photograph. Wait a minute—yes, there is: the post-war boom, in which many families like my own were able to get a foothold in the middle class, with access to economic opportunity, socialist advantages like affordable nutrition and health care, and liberal giveaways like the GI Bill and tax-supported higher education, and other quaint examples of this country actually investing in its own people. Funny how well I and my cohorts have done. How much we’ve given back. The DNA was just waiting. And it hasn’t even been a hundred years since the well-bred were seriously discussing sterilization.
Or consider the progress of African-Americans over the last century. I know, I know, there’s a long way to go. But after directly experiencing the changes in my own lifetime, I can’t help but be a half-full guy. Once, like white trash, considered subhuman—now, free, creators of a brilliant and vibrant culture, and when given opportunity, great contributors to our common society. Poor blacks, poor whites, poor anybody. Cut off the oxygen and they can’t breathe.
Daddy worked hard, but that wasn’t as important to the upward movement he effected in his life as the opportunity to work hard. He felt he owed much of what he accomplished in life to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. And now unions are attacked by politicians cheered on by the very people who stand to lose. When capitalism is the operating system, many things are good, but one never fails: the rich get richer, and the poor fight over the scraps.
And the rich blame and hate the poor for it. And hire politicians and preachers to justify it.
And the poor don’t like it. That, I understand.
March 6, 2019