Fans of American history who appreciate the view of iconoclasts such as Howard Zinn and Eric Foner will enjoy White Trash, subtitled The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, by Nancy Isenberg, as she persuasively and skillfully traces the role of class consciousness in our country.
From the earliest pronouncements and writings of colonial leaders and the Founding Fathers, the author demonstrates the expression of class in America by way of property ownership as a qualification to vote to poll taxes and, later, to urban migration dynamics. Her discourses on the way in which popular culture—television, films, music idols—reflect class perceptions is intriguing.
Well researched and with many helpful footnotes, Isenberg does not offer the proposition that class-consciousness in America established or created a dependent relationship between the undercurrent of popular belief in class and formal national or governmental laws or policies founded on class. This is not to say, however, that no relationship existed.
Commonwealth citizens should find, as did this reader, the section on Virginia’s participation in eugenics and sterilization of women disturbing, especially as the experimentation was not ended until 1979. Moreover, Virginia’s Racial Integrity and Eugenical Sterilization acts of 1924 gave rise to Buck v. Bell, the SCOTUS case that, in an opinion by Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1927, upheld the state’s forced sterilization of individuals deemed “unfit.” The Racial Integrity Act, anti-miscegenation legislation, endured until Loving v. Virginia overturned it [SCOTUS, 1967].
There is much to recommend to economists and policy planners here to develop responses to persistent poverty; but, then, as the author maintains, poverty and class are not synonymous. Some may read Isenberg’s work as a refutation of American exceptionalism, but, ironically, her views sharpen appreciation for exceptionalism. For example, the existence of an unalienable right that all are created equal while slavery and indentured servitude persisted requires overcoming cognitive dissonance. It may suffice to say that White Trash [somewhat of a misnomer] denies the existence of class structure in our nation, while acknowledging that class has operated to cause us to fail to see clearly the function class has played in social and political progress.
In the Epilogue, Isenberg asserts that our political leaders are “…anything but ordinary people after they are elected,” despite campaigning wearing blue jeans, Bubba caps, and camouflage. “Disguising that fact is the real camouflage that distorts the actual class nature of state power,” she concludes.
Among the more obvious dissonant facts informing this perception are those of woman suffrage, voting rights, school desegregation, and the several other constitutional amendments advancing basic freedoms. Our history in this respect is not one of a natural evolution of those rights, nor are they borne solely of enlightenment from government or societal leadership. All required political campaigning and years of civil struggle.
Isenberg also theorizes that class was utilized as propaganda with soldiers in the Civil War: “Confederates had to shield themselves from the odious charge of treason by fighting to preserve a core American identity that nineteenth century northerners had corrupted.” Slaves were born servants and raising them up by making them soldiers disrupted the entire class structure, an essential rationale for the war, the author observes when, toward the end of the war, Confederate military strategists suggested conscription of slaves.
It is not easy to reconcile the persuasive and meticulously documented analyses by the author with our more popular appreciation of the leaders of our nation and American exceptionalism. Perhaps, that is to the good. In today’s world, the wink-wink, nod-nod capacity to engage in anti-exceptional conduct makes reform all the more difficult. When crypto-conservative organizations in Virginia [the Center for Equal Opportunity or American Renaissance] aggressively advocate against affirmative action, felon voting, or, in favor of “white identity” and “facially neutral” statutes that promote racial, class, and economic barriers, the debate requires constant vigilance.