Sometime during the past few years, the country started talking differently about white Americans of modest means. Early in the Obama era, the ennobling language of campaign pundits prevailed. There was much discussion of “white working-class voters,” with whom the Democrats, and especially Barack Obama, were having such trouble connecting. Never mind that this overbroad category of Americans—the exit pollsters’ definition was anyone without a four-year college degree, or more than a third of the electorate—obliterated major differences in geography, ethnicity, and culture. The label served to conjure a vast swath of salt-of-the-earth citizens living and working in the wide-open spaces between the coasts—Sarah Palin’s “real America”—who were dubious of the effete, hifalutin types increasingly dominating the party that had once purported to represent the common man. The “white working class” connoted virtue and integrity. A party losing touch with it was a party unmoored.
That flattering glow has faded away. Today, less privileged white Americans are considered to be in crisis, and the language of sociologists and pathologists predominates. Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010 was published in 2012, and Robert D. Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis came out last year. From opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, they made the case that social breakdown among low-income whites was starting to mimic trends that had begun decades earlier among African Americans: Rates of out-of-wedlock births and male joblessness were rising sharply. Then came the stories about a surge in opiate addiction among white Americans, alongside shocking reports of rising mortality rates (including by suicide) among middle-aged whites. And then, of course, came the 2016 presidential campaign. The question was suddenly no longer why Democrats struggled to appeal to regular Americans. It was why so many regular Americans were drawn to a man like Donald Trump.
A barely suppressed contempt has characterized much of the commentary about white woe.
Equally jarring has been the shift in tone. A barely suppressed contempt has characterized much of the commentary about white woe, on both the left and the right. Writing for National Review in March, the conservative provocateur Kevin Williamson shoveled scorn on the low-income white Republican voters who, as he saw it, were most responsible for the rise of Trump:
Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence—and the incomprehensible malice—of poor white America. So the gypsum business in Garbutt ain’t what it used to be. There is more to life in the 21st century than wallboard and cheap sentimentality about how the Man closed the factories down.
The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs … The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin.
Analysis on the left has been less gratuitously nasty but similarly harsh in its insinuation. Several prominent liberals have theorized that what’s driving rising mortality and drug and alcohol abuse among white Americans is, quite simply, despair over the loss of their perch in the country’s pecking order. “So what is happening?” asked Josh Marshall on his “Talking Points Memo” blog in December. “Let’s put this clearly,” he said in wrapping up his analysis of the dismal health data. “The stressor at work here is the perceived and real loss of the social and economic advantages of being white.”
The barely veiled implication, whichever version you consider, is that the people undergoing these travails deserve relatively little sympathy—that they maybe, kinda had this reckoning coming. Either they are layabouts drenched in self-pity or they are sad cases consumed with racial status anxiety and animus toward the nonwhites passing them on the ladder. Both interpretations are, in their own ways, strikingly ungenerous toward a huge number of fellow Americans.
They are also unsatisfying as explanations for what is happening out there. Williamson, for one, mischaracterizes the typical Trump voter. As exit polls show, the candidate’s base is not the truly bereft white underclass Williamson derides. Those Americans are, by and large, not voting at all, as I’m often reminded when reporting in places like Appalachia, where turnout rates are the lowest in the country. People voting for Trump are mostly a notch higher on the economic ladder—in a position to feel exactly the resentment that Williamson himself feels toward the shiftless needy. As for liberals’ diagnosis that a major public-health crisis is rooted in racial envy, it fails to square with, among other things, the fact that blacks and Hispanics have hardly been flourishing themselves. Yes, there’s an African American president, but by many metrics the Great Recession was even worse for minorities than for whites.
Two new books—one a provocative, deeply researched history and the other an affecting memoir—are well timed to help make better sense of the plight of struggling whites in the United States. Both accounts converge on an important insight: The gloomy state of affairs in the lower reaches of white America should not have caught the rest of the country as off guard as it has—and mobilizing solutions for the crisis will depend partly on closing the gaps that allowed for such obliviousness.
“Welcome to America as it was,” Nancy Isenberg, a historian at Louisiana State University, writes near the outset of White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. Her title might seem sensational were it not so well earned. As she makes plain, a white lower class not only figured more prominently in the development of the colonies and the young country than national lore suggests, but was spoken of from the start explicitly in terms of waste and refuse.
For England, the New World beckoned as more than a vast store of natural resources, Isenberg argues. It was also a place to dispose of the dregs of its own society. In the late 16th century, the geographer Richard Hakluyt argued that America could serve as a giant workhouse where the “fry [young children] of wandering beggars that grow up idly and hurtfully and burdenous to the Realm, might be unladen and better bred up.” The exportable poor, he wrote, were the “offals of our people.” In 1619, King James I was so fed up with vagrant boys milling around his Newmarket palace that he asked the Virginia Company to ship them overseas. Three years later, John Donne—yes, that John Donne—wrote about the colony of Virginia as if it were England’s spleen and liver, Isenberg writes, draining the “ill humours of the body … to breed good bloud.” Thus it was, she goes on, that the early settlers included so many “roguish highwaymen, mean vagrants, Irish rebels, known whores, and an assortment of convicts,” including one Elizabeth “Little Bess” Armstrong, sent to Virginia for stealing two spoons.
One of America’s founding myths, of course, is that the simple act of leaving England and boldly starting new lives in the colonies had an equalizing effect on the colonists, swiftly narrowing the distance between indentured servant and merchant, landowner and clerk—all except the African slave. Nonsense, Isenberg says: “Independence did not magically erase the British class system.” A “ruthless class order” was enforced at Jamestown, where one woman returned from 10 months of Indian captivity to be told that she owed 150 pounds of tobacco to her dead husband’s former master and would have to work off the debt. The Puritans were likewise “obsessed with class rank”—membership in the Church and its core elect were elite privileges—not least because the early Massachusetts settlers included far more nonreligious riffraff than is generally realized. A version of the North Carolina constitution probably co-authored by John Locke was designed to “avoid erecting a numerous democracy.” It envisioned a nobility of landgraves and caciques (German for “princes” and Spanish for “chieftains”), along with a “court of heraldry” to oversee marriages and make sure they preserved pedigree.
For England, the New World was a place to dispose of the dregs of its own society.
Class distinctions were maintained above all in the apportionment of land. In Virginia in 1700, indentured servants had virtually no chance to own any, and by 1770, less than 10 percent of white Virginians had claim to more than half the land. In 1729 in North Carolina, a colony with 36,000 people, there were only 3,281 listed grants, and 309 grantees owned nearly half the land. “Land was the principal source of wealth, and those without any had little chance to escape servitude,” Isenberg writes. “It was the stigma of landlessness that would leave its mark on white trash from this day forward.” This was not just a Southern dynamic. The American usage of squatter traces to New England, where many of the nonelect—later called “swamp Yankees”—carved out homes on others’ land only to be chased off and have their houses burned.
The Founding Fathers were, as Isenberg sees it, complicit in perpetuating these stark class divides. George Washington believed that only the “lower class of people” should serve as foot soldiers in the Continental Army. Thomas Jefferson envisioned his public schools educating talented students “raked from the rubbish” of the lower class, and argued that ranking humans like animal breeds was perfectly natural. “The circumstance of superior beauty is thought worthy of attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs and other domestic animals,” he wrote. “Why not that of man?” John Adams believed the “passion for distinction” was a powerful human force: “There must be one, indeed, who is the last and lowest of the human species.”
By the time the nation gained independence, the white underclass—its future dependents—was fully entrenched. This underclass could be found just about everywhere in the new country, but it was perhaps most conspicuous in North Carolina, where many whites who had been denied land in Virginia trickled into the area south of the Great Dismal Swamp, establishing what Isenberg calls “the first white trash colony.” William Byrd II, the Virginia planter, described these swamp denizens as suffering from “distempers of laziness” and “slothful in everything but getting children.” North Carolina’s governor described his people as “the meanest, most rustic and squalid part of the species.”
Accounts of this underclass as “an anomalous new breed of human,” as Isenberg puts it, proliferated as poor whites without property spread west and south across the country. These “crackers” and “squatters” were “no better than savages,” with “children brought up in the Woods like brutes,” wrote a Swiss-born colonel in the colonial army in 1759. In 1810, the ornithologist Alexander Wilson described the “grotesque log cabins” where the lowly patriarch typically stood wearing a shirt “defiled and torn,” his “face inlaid with dirt and soot.” Thomas Jefferson’s granddaughter came back from an 1817 excursion with her grandfather telling of that “half civiliz’d race who lived beyond the ridge.” In 1830, the country even got its first “Cracker Dictionary” to document the slang of poor whites.
At various junctures, politicians (think Davy Crockett and Andrew Jackson) turned humble roots into a mark of “backwoodsman” authenticity, but the pendulum always swung back. The term white trash made its first appearance in print as early as 1821. It gained currency three decades later, by which point observers were expressing horror over these people’s “tallow” skin and their habit of eating clay. As George Weston warned in his widely circulated 1856 pamphlet “The Poor Whites of the South,” they were “sinking deeper and more hopelessly into barbarism with every succeeding generation.” Speaking of this class as a separate breed—a species unto itself—was a way to skirt the challenge it presented to the nation’s vision of equality and inclusivity. Isenberg points up the tension: “If whiteness was not an automatic badge of superiority, a guarantee of the homogeneous population of independent, educable freemen … then the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were unobtainable.”
With so much talk of breeds, it is no surprise that, in the early 20th century, the U.S. was gripped by a eugenics craze, which Isenberg sees as motivated by revulsion over the supposed degeneracy of poor whites, especially those in the South. State fairs held “fitter family” contests, Teddy Roosevelt fretted about Americans’ “germ protoplasm,” and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. issued a ruling upholding the forced sterilization of a poor Virginian named Carrie Buck, deemed a “moron.”
Isenberg, for all her efforts to clarify the role of class in the national culture, succumbs to a different kind of distortion herself. She is frustratingly hazy about regional distinctions within the white lower class, a blurriness that also skews some of the contemporary liberal theorizing about white despondency. As her account progresses, she focuses increasingly on the South, without squarely addressing that choice and its implications. To zero in on the white underclass in or near slaveholding areas is, understandably, to dwell on the fraught dynamic between poor whites and enslaved African Americans and its role in the national debate leading up to the Civil War. On the one hand, opponents of slavery argued that the association of labor with servitude dulled the work ethic of poor whites. On the other, defenders of slavery claimed that being spared the lowliest toil kept poor Southern whites a step above their Northern counterparts.
But there were whole other swaths of the country where many poor whites lived without any blacks nearby to speak of—not least the broad expanse of Appalachia. Isenberg makes plain in a brief aside that she does not buy the idea, enshrined in so many books in recent years, of a separate cohort of “Scots-Irish”—hard-drinking, hard-scrapping brawlers from the “borderlands” of Scotland, northern Ireland, and northern England who, cherishing their freedom and wanting nothing to do with the coastal elites, settled up in the Appalachian hills in the mid-18th century. One such account, Grady McWhiney’s Cracker Culture (1988), earns Isenberg’s brisk dismissal as a “flawed historical study that turned poor whites into Celtic ethnics (Scots-Irish).”
Regardless of the merits in that dispute, Isenberg ought to have reckoned more fully with the distinctions between poor whites in the Deep South and those elsewhere. At points, she mentions “hillbilly” whites (a k a “mountaineers” and “briar hoppers”) as a subset of her white underclass. But at other points, she makes it sound as if all poor whites lived with blacks in their midst and, when the Civil War came, went off with varying degrees of enthusiasm to fight to maintain their superiority over those blacks. In reality, many poor whites in Appalachia avoided what they saw as the war of the slaveholding planters of the Deep South and the cavaliers of the Tidewater region of Virginia—and even created a new state, West Virginia, in their resistance. Whether or not one buys into the Scots-Irish version of events, the history of greater Appalachia is one of provincial upstarts asserting themselves against elites, not merely one of dispossessed victims.
The distinction’s relevance persists today. Large areas of “real America” are almost entirely white. In Appalachia, that homogeneity, along with the region’s populist tradition, helps explain why white voters there took so much longer to flip from Democrat to Republican than in the Deep South. This does not mean that racism is absent in these areas—far from it. But it suggests that the racism is fueled as much by suspicion of the “other” as it is by firsthand experience of blacks and competition with them—and that political sentiment on issues such as welfare and crime isn’t as racially motivated as many liberal analysts assume. A focus on the South also eclipses places where low-income whites consist mainly of descendants of later European immigrants. (Think of the South Boston Irish, or Baltimore’s Polish American dockworkers depicted in the second season of The Wire.)
As Isenberg’s chronicle moves into the middle of the 20th century, she offers a fascinating account of how the trailer parks built to provide housing for war-industry workers gave rise to a whole new demeaning stereotype: trailer trash. She captures the reflexively pejorative depictions of poor southern whites during the civil-rights years. And she shows how, starting in the 1970s, the new preoccupation with ethnic heritage instilled a semi-ironic pride in “redneck” identity. The upgraded self-image prefigured the elevation of the “white working class” in the years to follow.
“Today’s trailer trash are merely yesterday’s vagrants on wheels.”
By the time her account reaches the late 20th century, though, the social and economic texture thins. Instead, Isenberg resorts to cataloguing representations of poor whites in pop culture (Deliverance, Hee Haw, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo) and celebrity politics (Tammy Faye Bakker, Bill Clinton, Sarah Palin), and offers some fairly trite commentary on the current political scene. Isenberg’s history is a bracing reminder of the persistent contempt for the white underclass, but you will have to look elsewhere for insights into why the condition of this class has taken a turn for the worse—and what its members think of themselves, and of the elites who have trashed them for so long.
To have become a memoirist when he’s barely cracked 30, J. D. Vance suggests at the outset of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, is “somewhat absurd”—except that the result couldn’t be better-timed. Vance’s story amounts to a one-family composite of nearly all the worrisome trends affecting poor white Americans. The cover image of a mountain cabin is slightly misleading. Vance’s family straddles “hillbillies” who have remained in Appalachia and those whose ancestors left for work in the Midwest and are now struggling across the postindustrial flatlands. He still has relatives in Breathitt County, Kentucky, and feels a strong bond with that place. But most of the book is set where his grandparents moved decades ago and he grew up, the small manufacturing city of Middletown, in distinctly un-hilly southwestern Ohio.
Unlike Isenberg, Vance subscribes fully to the notion of the Appalachian Scots-Irish as a distinct breed of low-income Americans who have brought their pugilistic ways with them wherever they have gone. His family fits the bill to the point of straining credulity. His beloved maternal grandmother, Mamaw, once nearly killed a man who stole the family’s cow. His great-uncle forced a man who made a leering comment about the young Mamaw to eat her panties at knifepoint. Later, when Mamaw got angry that her husband, Papaw, had come home drunk again, she set him on fire. (One of their daughters put out the flames.) Papaw was no slouch himself, having once apparently killed a neighbor’s dog by feeding it steak marinated in antifreeze after it nearly bit Vance’s mom.