The origin of ‘white trash,’ and why class is still an issue in the U.S.

In “White Trash,” Nancy Isenberg delves into the history of class in America, starting with British colonization. At that time, America was seen as a wasteland -- a place to discard the idle poor. The agrarian communities they subsequently formed often remained poor due to a phenomenon Isenberg calls “horizontal mobility.” Jeffrey Brown speaks with the author about how we can evolve past class.

Read the Full Transcript


    Now: a look at the history of poor white Americans.

    That's the focus of the latest addition to the "NewsHour" Bookshelf.

    Here's Jeffrey Brown.


    "This book tells many stories. Arguably, the most important is the one we as a people have trouble embracing, the pervasiveness of a class hierarchy in the United States."

    That line comes from a new book with the provocative title "White Trash," which makes a provocative argument that, from the nation's earliest history to now, ideals such as opportunity and upward mobility haven't characterized the lives of many Americans.

    Author Nancy Isenberg is a professor of history at Louisiana State University.

    And welcome to you.

    NANCY ISENBERG, Author, "White Trash": The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America": Well, thanks for having me.


    I think what hit me most is the idea that the poor have not only been accepted, but expected, that it's a part of our national DNA. That's the argument you're making?


    Well, I think one of the things we forget is that, for half of our history, we were an agrarian nation.

    So, white trash really comes out of notions of rural poverty. And it goes all the way back to British ideas, because, in the colonial period and well throughout the 19th century, the mark of being a successful American was being a property owner.

    And what we have forgotten is that large numbers of Americans didn't own property. For example, in Thomas Jefferson's Virginia at the time of the revolution, 40 percent of white men were landless.


    So, when you refer to white trash, I just want to be clear. And the idea of white trash, literally, the term was used, the terms like waste. Who do you mean?


    Yes, the word white trash, at least as far as we have been able to discover, first appeared in newspaper print in the 1820s.

    But it has a much older meaning, because, if we go back to some of the leading promoters of British colonization, when they imagined what were they going to do with the new world, the new world, first of all, was imagined as a wilderness, what they called a wasteland.

    And it was the perfect place for literally dumping the idle poor. And these were referred to as waste people.


    So, those are the beginnings, but your argument is that that has pervaded up to our own time, that we have the national myth of opportunity and social mobility. Are you saying that those don't exist for everyone, or that they don't exist for one subset of people?


    No, I think there is clearly — you can find examples of people who have been able to rise up and improve themselves.

    The problem is that we exaggerate the idea that, at the time of the revolution, we abandoned the class system, we created an exceptional society, where we celebrated upward mobility.

    But, in fact, what the founders like Franklin and Jefferson really believed in is similar to what the British had in mind, that the poor would be allowed to move into the frontier, what was known as the southern backcountry and the old Northwest, and what they were really promising was horizon mobility, not upward mobility.


    And land then, as you say, was the key factor, not education, not energy or earning. But what about now?


    I would say that land is still extremely important. Class has a geography.

    If we think about the way most Americans live — and the other measure of class that I highlight is homeownership. If you're poor, the same way they have different names for the poor, they have different names for what they live in, a shack, a shebang, or if we talk about trailer trash.

    What we live in today, we live in class-zoned neighborhoods. We have taken into account the importance of racial segregation, and we know that history, but we also live in neighborhoods that are divided by class. And if you live in a better neighborhood, you have more amenities, you have better infrastructure, better schools.

    And so geography still plays a very important part, and land — owning a house is a very important measure of being a member of the middle class.


    I know you wrote the book before we got into the politics of the current campaign, but how do you see class driving our politics today?


    I don't see Donald Trump and the issues brought up by Bernie Sanders as that surprising, because at crucial moments when politicians are involved, they do use class language. They do heighten and emphasize class distinctions.

    So, that gets pulled — we get pulled in two directions there, too, because, sometimes, politicians like to say, we are all in the middle class, or we all have ambition to be in the middle class, or we're all capable of being in the middle class. That's when they want to sort of draw from the more positive script.

    But, at other times, I talk about key politicians who use class as a way to mobilize political divisions or to accentuate political divisions in our country.


    Let me ask you briefly, if you could, does anything at all that you have studied through history give you any hope that there's — that we could lessen these kind of class divisions in the country?


    Our history forces us to confront things that at times we don't want to deal with. We would prefer to have the myth.

    But I actually think it's healthy if we can get to the point where we can talk about class, not just use it as a slogan, not just use it as political rhetoric, but actually to think about it more deeply and to think about how it affects who we are.

    And I often like to refer to the musical "My Fair Lady." We judge people by the way they're dressed, by the way they talk, by the unwritten codes of class behavior.


    All right, the book is "White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America":

    Nancy Isenberg, thank you very much.


    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment