Sunday, October 9, 2016

White Trash by Nancy Isenberg

  • THE BOOK
    • White Trash: The 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg
    • Published June 21, 2016
    • Other works by author include Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America, and Mortal Remains: Death in Early America

  • THE PREMISE
    • This is a study of class from the time of America's colonization in the 1600s until today, specifically those who are considered to be "poor white trash".
    • The United States, in general, considers itself to be a classless society, rejecting the system of England during the American Revolution. Unfortunately for the poorest people this is patently untrue.
      • We see celebrities, athletes and other rich people treated better than everyone else. We see poor people treated like garbage (and this is leaving out for the moment the matter of race). Class is everywhere.

  • MY THOUGHTS
    • This book is quite thought provoking. When you accept the "middle class" you inherently accept the existence of upper and lower classes too.
      • Once people have made it into the upper or middle classes they like to "pull up the ladder" so the lesser fortunate have a harder time following in their footsteps.
    • The founding document of the nation extols "All men are created equal..." but that is not the reality. There are always poor people. We see them every day and feel superior to them.
      • Assumptions are made that they are lazy, dirty, uncouth, uneducated, and so forth.
      • These assumptions go back to the 1600s when the writers of the time referred to these poor as "rubbish", "waste people", "crackers", "lazy lubbers", "clay eaters", "rednecks" and "trailer trash".
        • There WERE people who were lazy, dirty, uncouth and uneducated. Society was such that it was almost impossible for them to rise above their circumstances.
        • Many of them were living in the South and the Appalachian Mountains.
    • During the Civil War the slave owners worried that the non-slaveholders would not fight for the Confederacy and needed to be convinced that freeing slaves would make it worse for the poor whites.
      • It seems to be a fact of human nature that we like to know we are better than someone else. No one wants to be on the bottom rung.
    • I remember using and referring to people as "poor white trash" when I lived in the South as a child. There was a way they dressed or acted that immediately identified people as such. 
      • I burn with shame to think of this. Overall this name-calling was done behind their backs and not to their face but that still doesn't make it right, does it?
        • People are people and they were just trying to make do in a difficult world with less money. 
        • My family was lucky. The suburb I lived in (in the New Orleans, Louisiana, area) was not a wealthy area and we were middle class even though my parents lived from paycheck to paycheck like everyone else. The difference comes in that they owned their home and home ownership practically defines a family as middle class.
    • Anyway, this book was quite interesting. The early chapters are a bit of a slog until you reach the pre-Civil War years. Then it picks up speed until the end.
    • One interesting point made is the vast popularity of "The Beverly Hillbillies" about a family who become millionaires due to an oil strike. The author has us try to imagine a group of hillbillies trying to move into Beverly Hills without the money. It would never happen, would it?
    • Recommended for those interested in American history.

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