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

Book review by Deane Barker tags: society

This is the story of class in America. Specifically the “lower” class.

In contrast to the Utopian image of Colonial America, the early years of the country were marked with extreme poverty. Before the slave trade geared up, most of the people sent to the New World were poor white people, specifically shipped off because that had no ties to the community, and no choice other than to work. They were used and exploited as cheap labor to get the country started.

Over the years, “poor white trash” were regarded just above slaves and free Blacks. They were despised by land-owners, and there were multiple plans to sterilize them or otherwise selectively “re-breed” them. Particularly in the South, there were large inbred families full of birth defects and hookworm.

And this has pushed forward throughout history. Today, we still have subtle but distinct notions of “class,” whether we admit it or not.

The book examines modern day figures like Bill Clinton (he came from a backwoods family in Arkansas), Tammy Faye Bakker, Honey Boo Boo, and Duck Dynasty. With the Internet and mass media, “white trash” have become a spectator sport, since we can experience them without having to actually interact with them.

The book is well-researched, and well-written, but I had trouble engaging with it. There’s just a lot there, and sometimes it’s hard to follow. The chapter titles and section titles did nothing to help organize it.

However, it did succeed in giving me a new perspective on Colonial America, and it caused me to think a bit about my own class prejudices, known and subconscious.

On a personal note, two related things happened during the time I was reading this book.

  • It was Christmas, so I spent a few hours at The Empire Mall in Sioux Falls. I was waiting for my wife outside stores, and just watching people. This runs the risk of sounding arrogant as hell, but a mall cuts across a lot of class divisions, and I hardly ever go there, so I was suddenly…exposed (?) to a entirely new demographic I’m normally very isolated from. When I go out, I normally shop at a very specific set of stores, or eat at a very specific set of restaurants. I’m beginning to wonder if I pick these specifically because they match my notions of class. Do I self-segregate so I’m always with “my people”?

  • I had to have a blood test taken on Christmas Eve, and through a weird series of events, the only place that could do it was the emergency room at the local hospital. The staff sat me just inside the receiving area, and I waited for 90 minutes for the lab tech to show up. During my wait, I got a front-row seat to everything that comes in the door of an ER. I estimate that 90% of the patients were likely in the bottom 20% of average net worth. I listened to a lady check them all in, and I don’t remember a single one that said they had private insurance – it was all Medicare or Medicaid.

Both of these stories probably make me sound elitist and arrogant. But if anything, they just reinforce that I live in a ridiculously upper middle class bubble.

Book Info

Nancy Isenberg
  • I have read this book. According to my records, I completed it on .
  • A hardcover copy of this book is currently in my home library.

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