White Trash: A Book Review—Plus A Little about Tonya Harding

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We watched I, Tonya (the movie about figure skater Tonya Harding) on the weekend I finished reading Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America (Penguin, 2016). Whether the movie is accurate or not, I don’t know. But it illustrated the central theme of Isenberg’s book: the idea that America is a classless society where people get ahead based solely on their talent and hard work is a myth. 

In the last year or so, there’s been renewed interest in the Harding/Kerrigan incident, and a common theme is that Tonya Harding was a great skater who didn’t fit the upper class image of figure skating. She was white trash in a white-collar sport. And because she didn’t wear the right outfits or skate to the right music or have the right manners, she consistently lost out to inferior skaters. In other words, she grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, and that meant more than her skill. 

Nancy Isenberg argues in White Trash that things have always been this way, that while Americans like the idea of America as the place where “ordinary folks seized opportunity” by breaking the class distinctions of England, in fact America’s founders were committed to clear class distinctions based on birth and “breeding.” 

The focus of her book are the white folks at the bottom of the class ladder, folks who were known through the centuries as “waste people,” refuse, crackers, clay eaters, mudsills, white trash, the feculum (feces) of America (and more)—the “wretched and landless poor.” 

Her argument is arranged in three parts: 

The Very Short Version

  • Part 1 covers the first English settlements in America through the presidency of Andrew Jackson (1829–1837), the country’s first “white trash” president. 
  • Part 2 runs the century from the Civil War to the middle of the 20thcentury, a period in which “waste people” become useful (but not valued) as a political bloc. 
  • Part 3 covers the rise of redneck pride from the 1970s or so through the present, in which some adopted the terminology of redneck or white trash as a self-designation. Culturally, these folks gained some clout but remained largely feared and/or despised by the broader culture. 

The Longer Version (if you don’t care about this, skip to the next section)

Four hundred years worth of history is a lot to summarize, so I’ve tried to hit the highlights. 

In part one, Isenberg shows that the private writings (and sometimes public statements) of some of our founding heroes (Locke, Franklin, Jefferson among them) show that democracy for all was never the plan. Only white people were included in the commitment to “liberty and justice for all”—and not all white people, either. The poorest white folks were excluded, along with African slaves and their descendants. 

Isenberg claims the value of poor whites was limited to their productivity in America’s first century or so, whether in homes (as servants), in boosting the population (as breeders), or in industry (as cheap labor). Some English prospectors envisioned America as “one giant workhouse” where “the surplus poor, the waste people of England, could be converted into economic assets.” The “criminal class” (i.e., the jobless poor) could be shipped to America and put to work in factories. 

Like black slaves and their descendants, poor whites were at times considered “chattel.” The children of servants could be passed down as property in their masters’ wills. Poor women (including prostitutes) were shipped to America as breeders to increase the working population. To justify treating white people this way, elites determined that poor people were naturally deficient—by blood—which meant that if they weren’t a separate raceof human, they were certainly an inferior breed. They were born either to commit crimes or be put to work. Might as well put them to work.

Perceptions of poor whites became more complicated over the course of a century. The “frontiersman”—the poor log cabin squatter on the edge of civilization—morphed into a mythical American role model who “embodied the best and worst of the American character.” 

In his most favorable cast as backwoodsman, he was a homespun philosopher, an independent spirit, and a strong and courageous man who shunned fame and wealth. But turn him over and he became the white savage, a ruthless brawler and eye-gouger. This unwholesome type lived a brute existence in a dingy log cabin, with yelping dogs at his heels, a haggard wife, and a mongrel brood of brown and yellow brats to complete the sorry scene (107). 

The power of this group became clear when, near the mid 19thcentury (and eventually armed with the vote), frontiersmen helped elect Andrew Jackson president. Jackson had been a squatter and even as president remained a crude, violent, and unrefined “cracker” who violated the rules of polite politics. Though he elevated the importance of the rural poor, he didn’t advocate for the rights of poor whites in his policies. He used them, but he didn’t help them. Even so, after his presidency, the poor white rustic had to be wooed in his own language if you wanted his vote.

While there was white trash everywhere, the breed was increasingly associated with southern slave states. In part two, the Isenberg argues that white elites in the South leveraged poor whites to drum up support for secession. Southern leaders before the Civil War criticized the North for debasing poor whites by making them do menial labor. The south had used blacks instead of debasing whites. In this way, Southern elites made poor whites “white” for political purposes. That is, instead of emphasizing the differences between well-bred whites and poor whites, they emphasized the differences between poor whites and black slaves. Still, the southern elites who stood to benefit most from the war sent poor whites to fight for them, reinforcing the old class distinctions.

Fast forward a couple generations and rising unemployment during the Depression resulted in huge populations of poor whites. It also forced some to recognize that poverty was an economic reality, not a genetic one. Efforts to lift the poor showed that a change of circumstance could (often) address the problem. Maybe poverty wasn’t “in their blood” after all.

By the 1960s, TV shows like The Andy Griffith Show and The Beverly Hillbillies illustrated America’s mixed opinion of poor (and rural) whites. Some, like Sherriff Andy, were hardworking, wise, and gentle. Others, like the Clampetts, were irredeemably backward. No amount of money or new circumstances could assimilate them into polite company. 

The most interesting theme of part three is the emergence of a proud redneck subculture. White trash rebranded in the 1980s, Isenberg argues, as an ethnic identity “with its own readily identifiable cultural forms: food, speech patterns, tastes, and, for some, nostalgic memories” (270). It had its own celebrities (Jeff Foxworthy) and its own sports (NASCAR). Redneck culture was something of a protest movement that “embraced a certain species of freedom—the freedom to be a boor, out in the open and without regrets” (281).

Assessment

Isenberg over-argues the evidence in places. She editorializes a lot, making sure we know she disapproves of the misbehavior of historical figures. I understand her desire to argue a cohesive narrative over the course of 400 years, but doing so confuses important categories. For example, she collapses the categories of “rural” and “poor” in places. She claims Bill Clinton made the redneck acceptable by transforming him into “Bubba”—but overlooks the fact that a lot of self-described rednecks, especially from Clinton’s home state of Arkansas, despised him precisely because he abandoned his redneck roots. 

Even so, White Trash is an important read for anyone who wants to better understand the animosity rural America feels for urban elites. America’s lower-class white population might not know this history, but I believe they feel it. 

I was surprised to resonate with parts of White Trash and I, Tonya. I didn’t grow up white trash—maybe white trash adjacent. White trash was a constant reminder to those of us slightly higher up the ladder that one mistake, one stroke of bad luck, can send you to the trailer park. And I know from my brief time living in New York that the term “white trash” is often applied to whole regions of the country. You don’t have to be white trash to be haunted by it. 

Maybe the most helpful part of Isenberg’s history for me personally is that it has helped me articulate a reality I’ve struggled to name in conversations about race, justice, and identity. I acknowledge “white privilege” and have begun to understand “white identity.” But I’ve wrestled with my relationship to “whiteness.” Whiteness obviously excludes people of color. I can’t help but think “whiteness” is a standard even some white folks struggle to achieve.