Prof. Nancy Isenberg told the history of American politics through the experiences of “white trash” to a packed Lewis Auditorium Thursday.
Isenberg, a history professor at Louisiana State University and author of White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, outlined perceptions of impoverished white Americans throughout the country’s history, dating back to British colonialism. She said colonial elites stigmatized the white poor in a time when land and property ownership were essential symbols of class.
“First known as ‘waste people,’ … and later ‘white trash,’ marginalized Americans were stigmatized for their inability to be productive, their failure to own property, and their unhealthy children,” she said.
Isenberg explained how many elites saw social class as something heritable by blood and used the language of breeding in a way that dehumanized poor white people.
“It was about an imposed inheritance in which poor whites could not be saved by charity or assimilated into normal society, because it was their corrupt pedigree that determined their fate,” she said.
Ill-will for this marginalized class was not confined to a small fringe of elites. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin both supported western expansion as a means of taking “white trash” elsewhere, Isenberg explained.
“They argued that the poor would be drawn into the western territories, and this would alleviate high concentrations of poverty and population along the East Coast,” she said. “What they were talking about wasn’t a promise of upward mobility. They were promising horizontal mobility instead of upward mobility.”
The concept of ‘white trash’ existed for long after the revolutionary era, playing a large role in Civil War tensions, Isenberg said.
“Abraham Lincoln’s new Republican Party celebrated free labor and social mobility, and Southern white trash became a very potent symbol for Republicans of the stagnant, slave-based economy which trapped poor whites as a permanent underclass,” she said. “As a response, Confederates openly defended a racial and class hierarchy.”
Even into the 1900s, poor whites remained marginalized, Isenberg said. A eugenics and sterilization movement against poor white people emerged in the early 1900s, and a downward trend in social mobility would soon follow during the Great Depression. Later that century, in the 1950s, “white trash” became a class of trailer-dwellers. Isenberg placed these phenomena in the context of class politics.
“What this story… tells us and what it reminds us is that class has never been about income and financial worth alone,” she said. “It has been fashioned in bodily and corporeal terms.”
Isenberg concluded her talk by emphasizing how white poverty fits into American society and perceptions that continue today.
“I wrote [my book] because white trash, I believe, is a central and disturbing trend in our national narrative. The very existence of such people is proof that American society obsesses over the mutable labels we give to neighbors we wish not to notice,” she said. “My message is, they are who we are, and have been a fundamental part of our history and our political culture, whether we like it or not.”