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Jul 03

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

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

This was a hard book to read (listen to). It’s one of those books where you’re glad to have read it, but you don’t really enjoy the journey. I started it over a month ago, but I had to take it in small pieces because it depressingly dismantles most of America’s myths of a classless society.

The book takes a chronological journey, starting with indentured servants and Jamestown all the way up to Sarah Palin and Honey Boo Boo. The author uses piles of history to posit her theory that class stratification in America not only exists and has always existed, but has been deliberate and intentional.

The word “trash” used to describe poor people came along very early. As Australia was in the 1800s, America of the 1600s and 1700s was seen as a rubbish heap where the wretched undesirables could be shunted to, a septic tank where lesser people could go, die, decay, and fertilize the soil for the better folk. As class was (and is) so heavily tied to the quality of land, the best land was preserved for the folk with the best breeding: ie, those who already had plenty of money and advantages.

Isenberg reserves special vitriol, albeit polite pedantic vitriol, for those obtuse enough to pretend that the Civil War was about state’s rights. Much of the evidence she presents is weighted towards dispelling that notion. The Civil War was about the elite pseudo-aristocratic Southerners with power using that power to retain the status quo of slavery and disenfranchised whites to maintain their feudal fiefdoms. It’s hard to be lord of the manor if you don’t have control over the poor peasants who do the actual work your luxurious lifestyle depends on.

I don’t think this is the only picture of class in America, but it’s a gritty, realistic, and depressing picture. Isenberg describes an America where most of its citizens are the abused victims of a systematic structure of oppression that has been designed from the beginning to keep them powerless and disenfranchised. It has a lot of valid points, but it’s a hard book to listen to. I don’t think this is the only picture of class in America, but if you want a solid understanding of social structure in this country, it’s probably one that should be on your to-read list.

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