Author: Nancy Isenberg
My usual disclaimer: I honestly try to avoid both religion and politics here on the blog. But sometimes it's unavoidable. And in truth, Isenberg's book isn't about politics. It's about a history we've chosen to ignore in the United States. Here we go...
The American Dream is a sham. Yup, that's more or less Isenberg's thesis and she makes her case quite convincingly. Our government and economic structures are not built to encourage social mobility. They never have been. Don't believe me? How about our ongoing debates over paying for healthcare and higher education, problems other industrial nations have sorted out? Or how about reproductive rights? Or consumer debt? It's all about keeping everyone in their own social stratum. The rich get richer. The poor get poorer. Everyone in the middle wonders why it's so hard to make ends meet.
It's nothing new. Isenberg goes all the way back to the first white settlements in Jamestown and Plymouth. Those with land had all of the power. Everyone else was exploitable and expendable labor. It's been more or less the same story ever since, through wars, Reconstruction, red lining and all the rest.
The stars, as it were, of Isenberg's historical narrative are poor southern whites. They've been scapegoated and forgotten. They've been exploited, seduced and duped politically. They've been the primary targets of the New Deal and the War on Poverty. They've been a voyeuristic attraction of our reality television-loving 21st century culture. And they're still poor, neglected and undereducated. And they're consistently fooled into voting against their own interests.
The story of America is the story of race. Our country was built on the backs of not one but two genocides. I don't think Isenberg would disagree with my assertion but she does offer a nuanced perspective on race, particularly in the South. Even before the Civil War, the rich and powerful in the South used the fear of an empowered freed slave population to scare poor whites into supporting secession and, most importantly, becoming soldiers. After all (and I honestly never thought of this before), the only people in the South who actually benefited from slaves were those who owned them. Most people didn't. And all those rich people needed someone to fight the war for them because they sure weren't going to do it themselves. What's more, they were able to use the same fear to suppress the Black vote and cement Democratic Party control of the South for the next 100 years.
That's right, folks. Let us never forget that the Dems were the segregationist party until LBJ signed the Civil Rights Bill. Back to the book...
Without question, I've learned a lot from White Trash. I have a new perspective on class in America. I guess I've always naively believed that poverty is a bad thing and everyone else thinks so, too. I mean, I know that many Americans live in denial of the fact that social class exists in our country. I know that too many see poverty as a moral choice - "Get a job! Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!" - rather than an inescapable reality of capitalism. I always thought that was all merely a matter of short-sightedness.
But Isenberg has shown me a darker truth: many believe that others deserve to be poor. In order for some to have plenty, others must lack. And those who lack are lesser humans - indeed, trash. And it's not just a few "bad" people who see things that way. It's enough to perpetuate the same cycles over multiple generations. I don't want to believe it's true. I want to think better of my country and its citizens. But the evidence is damning.
So yes, you should read the book. Just don't expect it to improve your opinion of humanity.