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White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
Author:Nancy Isenberg

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America

Nancy Isenberg


One of the most memorable films of all time is To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), a classic portrait of the legacy of slavery and racial segregation in the South. It is a film that I have been teaching for over two decades, and is one of President Obama’s favorite movies. Yet when my students watch this film (even if they were exposed to it in high school), they see for the first time that the drama within has not one but two disturbing messages.

One plotline is about the brave, principled lawyer Atticus Finch, who refuses to perpetuate the racial double standard: despite opposition, he agrees to defend an Afro-American, Tom Robinson, on the charge of raping a poor white girl, Mayella Ewell. Though the court finds Robinson guilty, we the viewers know he is innocent. An honorable, hardworking family man, he stands well above the degraded Ewells, his accusers. The shabbily attired Mayella is cowed by her bully of a father, a scrawny man seen in overalls, who is devoid of merit or morality. Bob Ewell demands that the all-white jury of common men take his side, which they do in the end. He insists that they help him avenge his daughter’s honor. Not satisfied when Robinson is killed trying to escape from prison, he attacks Atticus Finch’s two children on Halloween night.

Bob Ewell’s full name is Robert E. Lee Ewell. But he is not an heir of one of the aristocratic families of the Old South. As Harper Lee described them in the novel from which the classic film was adapted, the Ewells were members of the terminally poor, those whose status could not be lifted or debased by any economic fluctuation—not even the Depression. They were human waste. In the author’s words, “No truant officers could keep their numerous offspring in school; no public health officer could free them from congenital defects, various worms, and diseases indigenous to filthy surroundings.” They lived behind the town dump, which they combed every day. Their run-down shack was “once a Negro cabin.” Garbage was strewn everywhere, making the cabin look like the “playhouse of an insane child.” No one in the neighborhood knew how many children lived there: some thought nine, others six. To the town of Maycomb, Alabama, the Ewell children were simply “dirty-faced ones at the windows when anyone passed.”1 The Ewells are unmistakably what southerners (and a lot of other people) called white trash.

Americans today have a narrow and skewed understanding of white trash. One of the most powerful and most familiar symbols of backward attitudes associated with this unfavored group is that captured in newspapers and in television footage of 1957, showing the angry white faces of protest amid school integration in Little Rock, Arkansas. In 2015, tattooed KKK protestors defending the Confederate flag outside the Charleston, South Carolina, statehouse evoked similar feelings, demonstrating the persistence of an embarrassing social phenomenon. The stock of the Food Network’s popular performer Paula Deen, a Georgia native known for her cholesterol-rich recipes, suddenly took a nosedive in 2013, when it was revealed that she used the “N word”; almost overnight, her down-home reputation sank and she was rebranded as a crude, unsophisticated redneck. At the other extreme, television viewers have been treated to such repackaged vaudeville characters as Jefferson Davis “Boss” Hogg in The Dukes of Hazzard (1979–85), which could be seen in reruns until 2015, when it was dropped because of the Confederate flag painted on Bo and Luke Duke’s car, “General Lee.” The very title of this show was a pun on class identity, since the Dukes are poor Georgia mountain folk and moonshiners, yet their name implies English royalty.2

These white trash snapshots offer an incomplete picture of a problem that is actually quite old and regularly goes unrecognized. In their conversations about viral events such as those noted above, Americans lack any deeper appreciation of class. Beyond white anger and ignorance is a far more complicated history of class identity that dates back to America’s colonial period and British notions of poverty. In many ways, our class system has hinged on the evolving political rationales used to dismiss or demonize (or occasionally reclaim) those white rural outcasts seemingly incapable of becoming part of the mainstream society.

The Ewells, then, are not bit players in our country’s history. Their history starts in the 1500s, not the 1900s. It derives from British colonial policies dedicated to resettling the poor, decisions that conditioned American notions of class and left a permanent imprint. First known as “waste people,” and later “white trash,” marginalized Americans were stigmatized for their inability to be productive, to own property, or to produce healthy and upwardly mobile children—the sense of uplift on which the American dream is predicated. The American solution to poverty and social backwardness was not what we might expect. Well into the twentieth century, expulsion and even sterilization sounded rational to those who wished to reduce the burden of “loser” people on the larger economy.

In Americans’ evolving attitudes toward these unwanted people, perhaps the most dramatic language attached to the mid-nineteenth century, when poor rural whites were categorized as somehow less than white, their yellowish skin and diseased and decrepit children marking them as a strange breed apart. The words “waste” and “trash” are crucial to any understanding of this powerful and enduring vocabulary. Throughout its history, the United States has always had a class system. It is not only directed by the top 1 percent and supported by a contented middle class. We can no longer ignore the stagnant, expendable bottom layers of society in explaining the national identity.

The poor, the waste, the rubbish, as they are variously labeled, have stood front and center during America’s most formative political contests. During colonial settlement, they were useful pawns as well as rebellious troublemakers, a pattern that persisted amid mass migrations of landless squatters westward across the continent. Southern poor whites figured prominently in the rise of Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party, and in the atmosphere of distrust that caused bad blood to percolate among the poorer classes within the Confederacy during the Civil War. White trash were dangerous outliers in efforts to rebuild the Union during Reconstruction; and in the first two decades of the twentieth century, when the eugenics movement flourished, they were the class of degenerates targeted for sterilization. On the flip side, poor whites were the beneficiaries of rehabilitative efforts during the New Deal and in LBJ’s “Great Society.”

At all times, white trash remind us of one of the American nation’s uncomfortable truths: the poor are always with us. A preoccupation with penalizing poor whites reveals an uneasy tension between what Americans are taught to think the country promises—the dream of upward mobility—and the less appealing truth that class barriers almost invariably make that dream unobtainable. Of course, the intersection of race and class remains an undeniable part of the overall story.