‘White Trash’ history reveals why class is crucial in U.S. election


Air Date: Aug 02, 2016 12:00 AM ET

with Anna Maria Tremonti

Author Nancy Isenberg on her book “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America” and the roles of race and class in this year’s presidential election.


here is the transcript:


Tuesday August 02, 2016
August 2, 2016 full episode transcript
Note: Transcripts may contain errors. If you wish to re-use all, or part of, a transcript, please contact CBC for permission. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print. Copyright © CBC 2016
The Current Transcript for August 2, 2016


[Music: Theme]


He says to them what they want to hear. They want some hope. Look at this place. You come out of school now, where do these kids go? They have no jobs. Now it’s at the point where it’s hopeless despair.

LAURA LYNCH: The he this mayor of a struggling Pennsylvania town is referring to is Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, and one of the keys to Trump’s success so far has been the support of people — especially white men — who live on the margins. Trump’s Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton is now campaigning hard to win them over. Today we look at the long history of those who have a hard time believing in the American dream. Those labeled white trash. And then…

As a little girl, you accept what your situation is. But that sort of motherly love was missing from a very early age as a young child.

Phyllis Whitsell was brought up in a strict Catholic orphanage in the 1950s and told that her parents were dead, but she never quite believed that. Today she shares the lengths she went to to uncover the truth about her origins, and with the truth came a twist. That story in half an hour. But first, the clash of class in the United States.

WILLIE ROBERTSON: It’s been a rough year for the media experts. It must be humbling to be so wrong, about so much, for so long. But, I have a theory about how they missed the Trump train. They don’t hang out with regular folks like us, who like to hunt, and fish, and pray, and actually work for a living.

[crowd cheering]

LL: That was Duck Dynasty star and self-described redneck Willie Robertson at the Republican National Convention, sticking it to the so-called media elites and their contempt for what he calls regular folks. From the start, the 2016 US presidential election has been consumed with the role of class in American politics and life. From Bernie Sanders’ campaign against the one per cent, to Donald Trump’s “Make America great again” baseball caps. Standing with the powerless against the powerful has been a key message. Nancy Isenberg has studied the role of class in the United States. She’s a professor of American history at Louisiana State University, and author of the new book White Trash: The 400-year Untold History of Class in America. And Nancy Isenberg joins us now from Charlottesville, Virginia. Hello.

NANCY ISENBERG: Hello, how are you?

LL: Fine, thanks. So, tell me what do you think about what Willie Robertson had to say about why the media missed Donald Trump’s appeal to so many Americans?

NANCY ISENBERG: Well, we know the media often has blind spots about a lot of big complicated issues, but part of the problem is Americans in general don’t like to talk about class. We have invented a myth that if we trace it all the way back to the American Revolution, that somehow we escaped the British class system. That is what has made us different and exceptional. But the truth is that at crucial moments in American history, class is moved front and centre. It was crucial to the sectional divide, it was crucial to Western migration, manifest destiny, it was central to the civil war. It also became important to the extremely disturbing, but popular eugenics movement. And then it also was important in some of the major landmark pieces of legislation that came out of the New Deal, as well as Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. So we have this conflicted notion about class, and we also at times like to imagine that there is this populist tradition, and this is what Willie Robertson is trying to play into. And as I also argue, the idea of playing the hillbilly is something that goes all the way back to vaudeville. And it’s something that has been revived by reality TV, because Willie Robertson as we know was a very successful businessman, and used to belong to the country club and wore polo shirts, until his family came back and reinvented themselves for the Duck Dynasty show.

LL: So you’re telling me that Willie Robertson is a fake?

NANCY ISENBERG: It’s not that he’s a fake. I think that from the 1970s forward, there’s been a popular cultural movement about rediscovering our roots. This was captured in Alex Haley’s very famous book, as well as mini-series, Roots. We also had people who wanted to rediscover their ethnic roots. And of course, that also influenced this idea of rediscovering one’s redneck roots. And this was a movement that wanted to get rid of some of the negative baggage that as I show historically had been attached to poor whites and rednecks. The idea that they were people who are not only poor, but particularly from the eugenics movement were seen as degenerate, as permanently trapped in their class position. And not only that, that they passed on their status, their pedigree, to their children.

LL: OK. Let’s get down to basics. What’s meant by the term white trash?

NANCY ISENBERG: White trash. Now, a lot of scholars have argued that white trash and the term itself goes back. We can find its first appearance in newspaper print in the 1820s. But what I try to argue is it has a much longer history. In fact, it goes back to the period of British colonization. Richard Hakluyt who was Elizabethan, and he offered his very important proposal for why the English should settle in North America. He argued that what the colonies promised was a dumping place for the poor. And the term that he used to describe the poor, the expendables, the people in the British economy who he saw as parasites, as a drain, as a burden. Basically, he referred to them as waste people. And this is one of the consistent themes that we see over and over again to talk about the poor. Thomas Jefferson and Abigail Adams referred to poor whites as rubbish. And this theme reappears over and over again, because the assumption is that these people don’t have a stake in our economy, that they’re not productive. And they become a dangerous burden, not only because they aren’t part of the economy, but they are producing a generation after generation of children, of the poor, who will never be able to be integrated into the American economy, the American society.

LL: At one point the term white trash becomes associated with the southern United States. When was that?

NANCY ISENBERG: Yeah, and this is also about politics. I mean, it never is completely associated with the South. We have to realize that it’s a rural definition of the poor. So therefore in areas such as New England, the term that they used to refer to the rural poor were swamp Yankees. There also is poor whites that are associated with the northern parts of Wisconsin, Michigan. And what’s really unique is throughout the 19th century, different areas would create new names for the people who were called the poor. The people who ended up in California were called pikes, because again another major theme of poverty is movement. Because the British hated vagrants. So the poor again are seen as people who are mobile, who don’t put down roots. This is why today, and this actually goes to the post-World War Two period, we have poor whites identified with trailers, or are called trailer trash. Houses on wheels. These are not places that we associate with land ownership, with having a stake, with owning a real home.

LL: You’ve been focused on the poor whites, and I’m wondering what the relationship is like between poor whites and poor blacks in America?

NANCY ISENBERG: And that’s complicated. Let me just say it becomes politicized in the 19th century as well. Because the rise of the party of Abraham Lincoln, the Free Soil party, they begin to argue that they didn’t want slavery to expand into the West, because they argued that slavery undermines the idea of social mobility for poor whites. So there is this longstanding problem where slavery was seen as in competition with free labour. Then we have the problem of the way in which politics exploits that tension. And this becomes a really divisive part of American politics, particularly at the end of the 19th century, the early 20th century, where you have what become the new Democratic demagogues. People like James Vardaman of Mississippi, who exploit that tension. Who argued that he represented only poor whites. And he saw that American society, if we think of it in that old framework of a zero sum game, the idea that if you give advantages to African-Americans, somehow that is going to deprive or detract from the status and the position of poor whites. And I think one of the things that we also need to remember, is that this tension certainly has it not disappeared. But I think it is a consistent strain in American politics. And one of the things I like to emphasize is how John Adams in 1790, captured this idea of class in the same way Lyndon Johnson would. In 1790, John Adams argued that Americans not only scrambled to get ahead, they needed someone to disparage. And he wrote “there must be one, indeed, who is the last and lowest of the human species.” Lyndon Johnson came to the same conclusion in explaining the racism of poor whites. He argued “if you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best coloured man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him someone to look down on and he’ll empty his pockets for you”. So this this idea of exploiting racial tension has been a way to divide poor whites and poor blacks, and it only bodes well for the elite as a way for the elite to stay in power.

LL: OK. Let’s dig into this a little bit more. Popular culture hasn’t been very kind to southern white trash. And I’m going to play you a clip from the classic 1962 movie To Kill a Mockingbird. Here the issues of class, race, and sex, come together in an explosive courtroom scene. Just have a listen.


I got something to say and then I ain’t going to say no more. [crying] He took advantage of me. [screaming] And if you find fancy Jim ain’t going to do nothing about it, then you’re just a bunch of lousy, yellow, stinking, cowards. The whole bunch of ya. And your fancy airs don’t come to nothing. Your ma’amin’ and your Miss Mayellerin’ it don’t come to nothing, Mr. Finch.

LL: That was Mayella Ewell, a poor southern white woman who had accused in the book, in the film, a disabled black man of raping her. Nancy Isenberg you write about the portrayal of white trash in that movie. Why?

NANCY ISENBERG: This film is seen as one that celebrates the rise of the liberal Atticus Finch, who comes to the defense of a black man, Tom Robinson, who was accused of rape. But what is the other message? As in most Hollywood films, you not only have to have a victim, but you have to have villains, you not only have to have a hero. And it is clearly the Ewells who are portrayed in the most negative light, even more than Mayella, it is Bob Ewell who in the novel, his full name is Robert E. Lee Ewell, but he’s not an heir of one of the aristocratic families of the Old South. Essentially, listen to how Harper Lee described the Ewell family. They basically get back to that idea of being human waste. Nothing can change their status. Even though the novel and the film are set in the Depression, that’s not what caused their poverty. She wrote “no truant officer could keep their numerous offspring in school. No public health officer could free them from the congenital defects, various worms, and diseases indigenous to their filthy surroundings. They live behind a dump, which they comb through regularly. Their rundown shack, once a negro cabin looked like the playhouse of an insane child”. So part of what we forget is that southern elites saw poor whites as beneath hard working blacks. That illusion that they had moved into a negro cabin, meant that they were a status below. And the tension in that courtroom scene is really about her calling on elite whites to face their own prejudice, because Atticus Finch even though he’s portrayed almost as godlike, as someone who’s morally superior to everyone else in the town, he’s not that sympathetic to Mayella at that moment. And I think it poses this problem of how at times in our culture, we want to sort of assume that the problem of racism is only replicated by poor whites. They’re the ones who uphold this entire system, when in fact it misses the way in which class and race get intertwined–

LL: [interposing] OK, let’s–

NANCY ISENBERG: And that’s something we need to pay attention to not only in understanding history, but here and now.

LL: Let’s come right back around now then to more present day and back in fact to Donald Trump. In 2007, a contestant on the show The Apprentice labeled himself as white trash, and I want you to have a listen to how Donald Trump responded to the use of that term.


VOICE 1: I would like to do it, but I’m not the lexus customer. I’m white trash, I’ll eat at restaurants with deep fried appetizers. [laughter] So I know I’m not lexus–

DONALD TRUMP: What do you mean you’re white trash?

VOICE 1: I’m just joking about that.

DONALD TRUMP: No, but what does that mean? You don’t joke about that. What does that mean you’re white trash?

VOICE 1: You know, I grew up in a small town, and I’m not sophisticated.

DONALD TRUMP: Does that make you white trash? Do you feel you’re white trash?

VOICE 1: No, sometimes I do–

DONALD TRUMP: That’s a pretty stinkin’ statement. Don’t you think that’s a pretty bad statement about yourself?

VOICE 1: No, not necessarily, I don’t think [crosstalk] people take it seriously.

VOICE 2: It doesn’t sound flattering.

DONALD TRUMP: Do you go around calling yourself white trash? [crosstalk]

VOICE 1: Ah–

DONALD TRUMP: Do you think I want to hire somebody that’s white trash?

VOICE 1: No. I say it as a joke sometimes–

DONALD TRUMP: [interposing] I don’t like it as a joke. You know what, Derrick, you’re fired.

LL: OK, a firing offense. What do you think of Donald Trump’s response to that man calling himself white trash?

NANCY ISENBERG: Well, I think it reflects Donald Trump because for him there’s only two categories, either you’re great or you’re a loser. And I think it also demonstrates that he doesn’t understand the broader cultural implication. The idea that this particular person on the show is sort of drawing on that tradition of saying I’m a redneck, to say I come from a poor rural background, and that he can claim the idea of being white trash, and that is a more recent phenomena, because white trash was originally used as a term of disparagement, that was used by elites and middle class to look down on the poor, but from the seventies forward, now it becomes a part of identity politics, the way people define themselves. But it also reflects the idea that he assumes that if someone says that about themselves, if someone admits their background, where they came, that knowledge, that self-knowledge somehow is to him, undermines their ability. Because the kind of people he wants to hire are the people who think they’re great, who think they’re wonderful, who think that their whole life is about transcending whatever limitations they faced in our society.

LL: Let’s talk about another presidential aspirant who made class an explicit part of his campaign. I’m talking about Senator Bernie Sanders. He campaigned against economic inequality, and the power of America’s wealthiest one per cent is a key part of his message. Why did that resonate with so many people?

NANCY ISENBERG: Bernie Sanders sort of fell into that game of making class somewhat fuzzy, but a form of self-identification. When he won in West Virginia, he called himself one of the working class of this country. But if you went to the Feel the Bern website, he described his upbringing as lower middle class. And we shouldn’t forget that he graduated from the University of Chicago and that he certainly hasn’t made his career being a manual worker. So I think there is a tendency of all politicians, when they want to make a bridge to the larger electorate, part of what they need to say is that I’m a common man, this is my experience. But often it isn’t their experience.

LL: If class is so entrenched and it has been, as you say, for centuries, how is a conversation about it going to change anything?

NANCY ISENBERG: I’m not going to exaggerate that suddenly people’s eyes are going to open, because there are powerful interests that don’t want to have this discussion about class. Not just the one per cent, I would also say that some journalists, the middle class, feel very uncomfortable talking about class privilege. And I think that it is something that needs to be addressed on a regular basis. And I find that it’s not enough for politicians to just make claims about who the enemy is and assume that the one per cent is the enemy. They have to have real policies to back it up. And then on top of it, you can’t sort of assume that it isn’t about changing the way Americans think about themselves, our national identity and the myths that we tell ourselves. And that’s really difficult to dislodge, it’s really hard to challenge that, but we have to start somewhere.

LL: So how are the issues of class going to play out in this election?

NANCY ISENBERG: Well, I mean it’s curious to see. I think that when Trump was being identified with white trash, that was during the primary when he was running in the south. And I think that it’s all a matter as far as I can tell, whether the politicians or the candidates begin to say OK this is the actual class conditions that we live in today, and here are the policies that we could actually institute that would reduce the incredible class divide and class division that defines America. But I’m not that optimistic, because that gets back to that idea that campaigns in elections are more about entertainment. They’re more about making people feel good. They’re more about manipulating people so that they want to believe in some promise that a candidate makes. But if it’s not backed up by something real, then as we discover after the campaign and the hoopla’s over, essentially, things don’t really change. So, politics has its limitations in terms of how it can really change our society. And this is something we’ve seen over and over again. That’s why I always talk about the Great Depression. One of the incredible things about the Great Depression is you have 20 per cent of the population out of work by 1932. And this is where you have people across America, probably begin to talk about class in the most sophisticated ways. Why? Because when 20 per cent of the population is out of work, you can’t blame the individual. You can’t say someone’s lazy. You begin to have to talk about the structural foundation of economic inequality. And then the cultural repercussions of how we as I show in my book we want to dismiss the poor, we want to label them. We want to somehow blame them for their condition, when in fact we know that it’s impossible for our economy to employ everyone. So the assumption that if you just work hard, you’ll make it, really again does not show how our society, and our economy really works.

LL: Nancy Isenberg, interesting book. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us about it.

NANCY ISENBERG: Well, thank you for having me.

LL: Bye bye.


LL: Nancy Isenberg is the author of White Trash: The 400-year Untold History of Class in America. She was in Charlottesville, Virginia. I’m Laura Lynch, and you’re listening to the summer edition of The Current.


CBC would like to acknowledge the support of the Broadcasting Accessibility Fund.
Broadcast Accessibility Fund


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