White Trash vs. The American Dream: Dr. Nancy Isenberg Plays Moderator
A couple weeks ago, I bounced downstairs sporting my new Ralph Lauren t-shirt, emblazoned with the motto “Land of the Free” in red, white, and blue letters, of course! Three hours later, my review copy of Dr. Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash. The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America arrived and I began studying it right away. After reading a few chapters, the truth of Dr. Isenberg’s premise–that class structure is embedded in our society and opportunity is not equal for all–began to challenge my long-held belief and pride in the American Dream. Was it true that my beloved country wasn’t the “land of the free” for everyone? Should I change my shirt? I laughed at myself–it wasn’t my shirt that needed changing. It was my mind.
I determined to learn all I could. Maybe by understanding the true roots of class and poverty in America, I might begin to understand where to find answers and then be able to take informed action, so that one day, and hopefully in my lifetime, the motto on my t-shirt wouldn’t need an asterisk.
After finishing the book, I have a deeper understanding of the complexity of what it takes to actualize the American Dream, but I’m not giving up on it! Dr. Isenberg’s book is both groundbreaking and critically important if we, as a society, want to live up to our ideals and our potential. I’m deeply appreciative of the time she took to talk to BCB.
Amy M. Hawes: If you don’t mind, I’d like to begin by discussing the end of White Trash. I’m talking about the one hundred and twenty-three pages of footnotes which conclude your book. I found them to be potent evidence of the care and time you’ve taken with this topic. Those who might refute your premise should take a look at those footnotes first.
Nancy Isenberg: I’m glad you’ve brought attention to that because it’s what it means to be a professional historian. You have to know a lot and there has to be evidence. This is one of the problems I have with modern society. We don’t want facts. We don’t want data. We don’t want evidence. We’re willing to either go with our gut, or we’re willing to accept an opinion because it ratifies what we already think. The footnotes are not only there for other historians to realize that this is a serious book. They are also there to point out that we have to return to a time where we think that information and evidence are really important. In our modern society where information is so readily available on the Internet, people have lost sight of that. How do you distinguish between what’s a reliable source and what isn’t?
AH: In our historical memory, we cherish the notion of those who came to the colonies, seeking change and opportunity. Yet White Trash explains how so many were forced to come here. History is told by the victors, is that why their story is a relatively silent one?
NI: Part of what I’m trying to emphasize is that Americans prefer the myth as opposed to the reality. And the myth that we have celebrated is the idea that we are an exceptional society. We have the American Dream, which promises social mobility. And as far as British colonization goes, we highlight the notion of the ‘City on the Hill,’ the idea that the colonies were a prized territory that promised religious freedom.
But the fact is, the majority of the people who came to the New World came for economic reasons because they were viewed by the British as the idle-poor and they needed to be dumped somewhere. They were compared to the dregs of society and seen as useless vagabonds who added nothing to the economy back in Great Britain. This idea is really important. It’s an idea that persists well into the nineteenth century. It advocates that what should be done with the poor is not to give them charity or help them overcome obstacles, but move them somewhere else. That’s the same idea that was integral to western migration–the unoccupied territories would be a dumping ground for the poor.
AH: You started off your beginning chapters highlighting personalities we all know from our U.S. history like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine. With the mention of each name, I kept hoping there would be one among them who had an enlightened view of poverty, but each time their ideas were woefully colored by the prejudices of their time and class. Yet, they did seem to care about solving the problem of poverty, if not necessarily about the impoverished as individuals. Who do you think came closest to a solution that had the potential to work if it could have been realized?
NI: I think the most progressive thinker, and he was considered to be eccentric, was James Oglethorpe, the colonist who founded Georgia. He was intent on using the colonies to help better the poor. He introduced a whole series of ideas; one of them was keeping slavery out of the colonies. Both Jefferson and Franklin endorsed the idea later. He definitely wasn’t a modern-day progressive, but what he realized was that slavery would create a society where an elite group would monopolize the land. And that is exactly what happened. Georgia has a period when slavery is prohibited, but then it’s introduced and the powerful slave-holding elite begin to dominate the economy. Oglethorpe is really one of the most fascinating figures because he really had an insight into the connection of slavery and class.
I realize I don’t tell a very optimistic story about the British colonial period. Still, Oglethorpe is the one I would say stands out as a forward thinker. Of course, he ends up failing. But it’s also fascinating to me that he puts his life on the line for what he believes in. He leads the colonists into Georgia and lives among them and refuses to act like an elite. I think he’s the most interesting figure out of the whole group.
Jefferson, Franklin, and Paine are really ideologues, talking about ideas. And, they’re using British ideas, which is the other point I try to emphasize over and over again. They didn’t invent the idea of America in isolation. Most of the ideas about poverty and class came from the British. And we couldn’t really expect Franklin and Jefferson to step outside of that. But, it’s very important to realize they are very powerful and influential because the myths they created are the ones that get reinvented persistently.
Franklin, for example, introduces the idea that the real promise of America is the size of the continent. He believed that if people did migrate westward that would break down the class hierarchy to some degree because people would be spread out over a larger area. He thought that would lead to what he called a happy mediocrity, meaning there would be more people in the middle as opposed to the extremes of an elite wealthy class and a poor class. Yet, I do have to highlight the dark side of Franklin. He didn’t really have any sympathy for the poor and is, in a sense, reflecting a pre-Darwinian notion of the survival of the fittest. He’s basically saying that if you move west, work hard and have a lot of children, you’ll make it. And if you don’t, you’ll have to move on or die. He believes that if people aren’t coddled they will be stimulated to work harder.
AH: That’s a concept that resonates with many people today. What has your research shown about that kind of reasoning?
NI: It’s a myth, which I really tried to expose–the notion that hard work and talent are the secrets to getting ahead. Early Americans got attached to the concept of the importance of breeding and pedigree, willingly embracing the belief that the way to rise up the social ladder is through your family name, marrying well, and having important connections to powerful people. The influential people in American society were people who were heirs, people who inherited land and status. It was a great stigma if you didn’t have any heirs. At the same time, there were a lot of negative associations given to the children of white trash who were viewed in the antebellum period as being sickly and were compared to withered cadavers of dwarfs. They were seen as an inferior breed, which is another important theme we have to accept.
You just can’t generalize and say that all Americans believed in social equality. Not all Americans believe in social equality today. Even if you think about the hard-work motif, it emphasizes that some will make it and some won’t. And that’s what we forget about. When politicians celebrate the middle-class, we have to remember there can’t be a middle-class if there isn’t a lower class. You have to be willing to accept the idea that some people just aren’t going to make it. That’s what we like to gloss over and pretend isn’t part of our history.
AH: According to your research, one of the motivations behind Emancipation was improving the circumstances of poor whites but it really seemed to backfire. How responsible were both slavery and its demise for the continued plight of impoverished whites?
NI: You just can’t ignore the fact that slavery undermines social mobility and increases class inequality. There are a variety of reasons for that. One of the things we have to remember is that agrarian societies do not promote class mobility. In fact, during the time of the American Revolution there was more class mobility in Great Britain because they had a more developed commercial class. Mobility is connected to commerce. Agrarian societies tend to have less mobility. That’s one of the problems. Another problem is the monopolization of the best land because wealthy slave owners are holding it all.
We also know that in the antebellum period slaves themselves become a very important commodity and only the wealthiest own slaves. There are the elite plantation owners and then there are those we would put in the yeoman class, who might have owned a few slaves. What scholars have shown is that even small landowners who had slaves tended to be related to the large landowners. Again, we see inheritance is power.
Slaves were also a means of credit. If you wanted to improve your land or buy more land, a slave was also a valuable commodity in that respect. There becomes an ever-increasing gulf between slaveholders and non-slaveholders. At the end of the antebellum period, even with large migrations of the landless from the South, their numbers stay consistent. What we see in the 1850s, leading up to the Civil War, is a set of assumptions the Southern elite believes in. They’re not just going to defend slavery; they’re more than willing to defend their class hierarchy. One of the ideas most people have trouble accepting is that large slave owners, who were prominent elites, valued their slaves more than they did poor whites. Slaves, they argued, were productive and part of the economy. They saw white trash as individuals who were completely idle and living on other people’s land, adding nothing to the economy. On top of that, poor whites created an underground criminal market, which was seen as very dangerous and threatening to the social order of the elite Southerners.
Going to back to James Oglethorpe’s time and before, slavery and class are intertwined. That’s why you can’t just talk about race. It’s really an important point I’m trying to make about how we talk about problems today. If you’re poor and black your position is substantially different than if you’re wealthy and black. We need to acknowledge that and understand how class is the most divisive parameter.
AH: There was a time in my life when I had very little money, yet I never thought of myself as poor or considered my circumstances as being permanent. I was fully committed to the American Dream, believing I would achieve it. Of course, I wasn’t actually poor, and I came from an upper middle-class background, but my recollection of those times had me wondering if the problem of poverty is more psychological than physical?
NI: One of the things sociologists have found is that a large portion of the population sometimes finds themselves below the poverty line. We can’t just talk about people who live below the poverty line because that line fluctuates. There are people who are above the poverty line but throughout their lives periodically slipped below it. And, you’re right, one of the really important issues is that we, in the United States, enforce class identity. Class isn’t just the amount of money you have, it isn’t just wealth. It’s really the way you’re socialized. The manner in which you’re trained as a child prepares you for certain kinds of class ambitions. Contemporary studies show that in terms of education there are substantial differences in the potential of very young children when we’re looking at how they learn and how quickly they learn, which is to say that even at a very young age, children already demonstrate advantages or disadvantages.
In White Trash I talk about the 1950s and suburbanization and how the United States truly acquired a middle class for the first time because the government took action to make that happen. But during that same period, class stratification is reinforced by geography.
Today you’re likely to be in a relatively safe environment if you’re in the middle class. And, if you did a study across the United States, you’d realize that there are towns that provide more amenities, whether it’s better grocery stores or whether it’s better schools. And, where you’re born matters. You’re already at a disadvantage if you’re poor. That’s why I really like the comment by Henry Wallace, who was FDR’s Secretary of Agriculture. He said that if you really wanted to change society you would take 100,000 children out of poor families and 100,000 children out of rich families and give them exactly the same amenities. You’d give them the same education, the same food, and the same clothing, the same everything! He argued that if you actually could do that, you’d prove that there was no difference between the potential of the rich and the poor. What he was saying was really radical because if you wanted to do that in the United States, you’d have to take them out of their families.
AH: As I read Wallace’s idea it really struck me. Even if you were trying to do the right thing by bringing these children into a beneficial environment, it could still be seen as interfering with the relationship between parent and child.
NI: Actually, the right parents have over their children is a very modern right. For example, children worked in factories until the early twentieth century. In the South until about 1919, poor children could be taken away from their parents and they could be apprenticed out and used as servants. A child’s status was measured by their poverty and it’s one of those things that we don’t talk about. When politicians, or pundits, or journalists, discuss class they never want to acknowledge that the major way class is reinforced is from parent to child. Who’s going to challenge that? Who’s going to change that?
AH: Your book inspired me to take a look at current poverty distribution maps, and it is clear that East Coast states from southern-most New Hampshire and Maine to Virginia have significantly lower poverty rates than the Southern states. In fact, the Mason-Dixon line could be seen as a poverty demarcation line. Quoting from White Trash, “ . . . [E]vidence exists to prove that southern whites lagged behind northerners in literacy rates by a least a six-to-one margin.” That was in the 1860s, but how much did lack of education contribute to the higher level of poverty in the South, which still exists today?
NI: 42.4 percent or 19.7 million of those in poverty are white. In the South, over half the poor are white. You’re correct. Part of the problem goes back to the early nineteenth century. Essentially, Southerners were not interested in investing in the poor. I talk about that in my chapter on Thomas Jefferson. In 1779 he created a proposal to enable a few boys from poor families to be given more education, which the state would pay for. He was only talking about a handful of boys, but the legislature rejected it because they had no desire to educate the poor. They preferred to send poor boys into a system of forced apprenticeship. Part of the problem was that the structure in the South didn’t reinforce the importance of education, unlike in the North, where education and literacy were seen as important. In the North, they wanted an educated citizenry. Those ideas really didn’t take hold in the South. And, they’re perpetuated over the Reconstruction period and then exacerbated.
AH: I’m going to switch tacks with my next question. Describing Andrew Jackson, you say, “His fiery temper and lack of scholarly deportment permanently marked him . . . Jackson was blunt in his opinions and quick to resent any who disagreed with him.” It sounds like you could be talking about Donald Trump. Do you see similarities between the circumstances that brought them forth as presidential candidates?
NI: Not only have I thought about that, there are other people who have written op-eds comparing Trump to Jackson. And, there are a lot of similarities. One is that Jackson had very little political experience. He was different from Trump in the fact that he wasn’t a public figure. Close friends wrote Jackson’s campaign biography, creating an identity for him. What is similar between Jackson and Trump is how people from the working class, and also poor whites, identified with Jackson. They believed he was one of them, that he was a common man. What marked him as common were his lack of etiquette, his lack of diplomatic experience, and his lack of education. All of those things were turned around and made into virtues. It was only exacerbated in the two elections, 1824 and 1828, because he ran against John Quincy Adams who was probably one of the most highly educated men who ever became President. He was a Professor at Harvard and he spent numerous years as a diplomat. He was extremely knowledgeable about foreign policy and the law, unlike Jackson.
What happened with Jackson was that being elected President of the United States wasn’t about competence any more. It was about the manipulated identity of a candidate. Jackson really does usher in this new style of democracy, where who you’re voting for is not someone who has the skills to be President, instead you’re voting for someone who you think is like you. Or, whom you think will defend your interests. But the irony is Jackson was not a supporter of squatters’ rights, and yet the squatters voted for him. His party supported them, but he didn’t.
AH: Speaking of squatters, you discuss how Davy Crockett was a supporter of their rights, wanting people who lived on and improved otherwise unused government-owned land, to be able to purchase it for a reasonable price. Despite his evenhanded assessment, he didn’t have much success getting Congress to agree with him.
NI: Davy Crockett also had an identity invented for him–the identity of the cracker or backcountry man who symbolized the potential of the United States. But because his identity was created on the frontier, his real power only existed there. When he came east to participate in Congress, many people made fun of him. Still, there was a divided attitude towards him. There was the populist theme in which people embraced his ruggedness and his storytelling ability. But there was still an assumption that he didn’t really belong among the “‘civilized” population.
AH: Your description of Crockett sounds like it could be included in the chapter where you discuss President Clinton.
NI: When I wrote about Clinton I found it very fascinating that journalists seem to have completely forgotten that part of Clinton’s past. Whatever was said of him before, he became ‘the liar.’ It’s really telling that they’ve forgotten the way he was viciously attacked and seen as having the wrong pedigree to be President. Even his mother was attacked. They criticized him for being from Arkansas, which was an extremely poor state and was associated with redneck poverty. I really do believe that during the Monica Lewinsky scandal it was so interesting that they used sex to attack a President. As you know, there were many Presidents before him who had affairs. I believe they attacked him because it fed into the image of him being from the lower class and therefore more licentious, connecting his character to lewdness. That mindset is what made it possible for them to go after him in a way that was an unusually remarkable way to treat a sitting President.
AH: I heard you interviewed on NPR discussing the support of Trump by poor whites. But, I’m curious why they wouldn’t support someone with a socialist platform like Bernie Sanders, who seems to want to institute programs that might help them.
NI: It’s complicated, and people have claimed Trump is supported by either the working class or poor whites. And, he’s been criticized for getting the white trash and trailer trash vote. But then a closer look was given to the people who voted for Trump, they realized a lot of them were wealthier than those who voted for Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton. I think there are a lot of reasons why you can’t reduce Bernie Sanders to the left version of Trump. I think they’re offering really different things. Trump is offering his supporters a return to the golden age of the 1950s and 1960s. What he’s offering them with his magic wall, which we know will never be built, is not only the ability to keep immigrants out, but the imagined potential to keep jobs in the country because you’re essentially trying to wall them in. There are some reporters who’ve gone and listened to Trump’s rallies. They believe he taps into the fear of labor competition and the anxiety that comes from a reduction in unions and manufacturing jobs because the ground is shifting beneath the feet of the working class.
Donald Trump is not offering them a revolution. He’s not Bernie Sanders. His supporters don’t want revolution. They’d rather go backwards, which is, of course, impossible. They want to go back to a world where there are more blue-collar white male jobs. They don’t want equality or social justice. They want to turn the clock back and resurrect the white male family breadwinner.
Bernie Sanders has strong support among young people because he’s using the language of revolution and because he’s promising free tuition. But, I don’t think that would solve the problem of social inequality. The notion that college education is the answer to social mobility is also really misleading because large portions of Americans do not go to college. Right now it’s around thirty percent who will graduate from college. And, focusing on college misses all the other problems I’m highlighting–the problems of class segregation, the importance of where you’re raised and how you’re socialized. All of those factors are extremely important in determining how you can rise up in American society. Sociologists have all found that the most important predictor for success is the wealth and privilege that comes not only from your parents but also from your ancestors. If people think we’re all going to go to college, they’re wrong. Can you imagine what free tuition really means? It’s not going to affect the private institutions. The elite schools are still going to be creating the cognitive elite and the divide in the class system will increase.
There’s no simple solution that can suddenly make America equal. There’s this larger problem with Americans and democracy. There was a comment made by an Australian observer in 1949. He basically said American democracy doesn’t do anything to challenge the wide disparity of wealth. What we offer instead are politicians who pretend to act like one of us.
You have southerners who pretend to dress down or talk with a drawl. And, unfortunately, it’s part of the appeal of Donald Trump. People who support Donald Trump say they like him because of his raw honesty, when he’s really just crude and vulgar. But they see him as having come down from his penthouse and become part of the unwashed masses.
There are all these silly things politicians have to do. They have to eat corndogs. They have to wear Bubba caps. In Iowa, they all have to wear those plaid shirts. They’re putting on this performance to show they’re one of the people. But it’s all an act. And, that’s why we shouldn’t be surprised with Donald Trump’s success. One of the funniest articles I read discussed the fact that he’s currently not wearing high fashion–he’s wearing big bulky suits and old-fashioned ties. And, that isn’t the way he used to dress, always wearing the most expensive suits.
AH: White Trash thoroughly defines the history and problems of class in America. After having done all that research and identified the problem, how do you suggest we transition to solution?
NI: That’s a very hard question for an historian to answer. We’re so involved with understanding the past that sometimes we don’t know how to predict for the future. I’ve read studies on modern-day policies and I’ve read sociology. But, I don’t know if I could design a series of policies that would solve all the problems. There is a clear case to show that you need to restructure our tax system. If we go back to the 1950s, the wealthier class was taxed more than they are now, no one was complaining about it and the economy was doing great.
At the state level the poor are grossly overtaxed, so you’d also have to change the tax system at the state level. And in the South, they pass many more taxes that hurt the poor. There are Southern states that tax prescription medicine, which is just insane.
As far as what else to do, the hardest question is how do you change class geography? There have been experiments on the subject. I studied Urban Planning when I was an undergraduate. There are ways you can integrate people into society so you don’t just have monolithic communities. You would have a diverse range of housing options.
Today we have dying industrial communities, like in the rust belt. We also have impoverished rural areas, and poverty in the inner city. In all these places we need to invest in infrastructure. I argue that when we allow areas of our country to turn into wastelands we end up with pockets of poverty. It’s not just that poor people are living there, there’s no commerce in these areas. The area is essentially zoned off and no one is investing in it. We have massive investment in certain areas and other areas are completely ignored. And we have to accomplish urban renewal in a way that doesn’t discriminate against the poor, which means you can’t move in and push the poor someplace else. That’s just going back to the old British colonial model.
These are really big problems but, as I said, I’m an historian. What I want to do with this book is to force people to think about history and not assume class has never been an issue until now. There are young people who think the ‘one percent’ is the enemy, but that’s not the answer either. It’s a much more complicated problem.
People can be afraid of social change. Some worry if you lift up a segment of society it brings someone else down. There’s always been that fear–that if you improve a portion of the society, another section of the society will suffer. But the key is to make sure the people who don’t have all the privileges, don’t come from wealthy families and don’t live in the best neighborhoods, are extended a safety net.
This is why I think my chapter on the Great Depression was so important. Then you had people really talking about how you can’t ignore the poor because it hurts all of society when you allow people to suffer and live in miserable circumstances. We need to have a recommitment to the idea that in the long run uplifting the poor is for the good of the entire society. It helps everyone if you improve their conditions because they’re not going to go away and one way or another they can pose a threat. Why do we have crime? There is a direct connection.
If we admit we’re a society that still relies heavily on the concept of privilege, we would understand that the old motto of hard work and talent couldn’t erase inequality on their own; many other conditions need to be addressed.
AH: Thank you, Dr. Isenberg. You’ve certainly got my gears turning in the direction of what we all can start doing to help uplift our fellow Americans. As a society, we have to start taking ownership of our country. We need concern ourselves less with what the government is doing or not doing because there’s a lot that we can do ourselves. But we have to start with the mindset that we are all Americans and if we don’t want to abandon our belief that the American Dream is available to all, we simply have work to do to make it true.
Nancy Isenberg is the author of Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in biography and won the Oklahoma Book Award for best book in nonfiction. She is the coauthor, with Andrew Burstein, of Madison and Jefferson. She is the T. Harry Williams Professor of American History at Louisiana State University, and writes regularly for Salon.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Charlottesville, Virginia.