Reading 'White Trash' and Discussing Economic Mobility

The historical roots of our hidden biases towards the poor.

January 3, 2017

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

Published in June of 2016.

Nancy Isenberg, a professor of history at Louisiana State University, has written a book that attempts to provide the historical foundations as to why today’s poor (in this case poor whites) are usually blamed for their own poverty.  She makes the case that the foundation myth of the US as a classless society is just that - a myth.  

Isenberg believes that generations of historians have systematically downplayed the importance of economic exploitation.  Looking at American history through the lens of social class, and in particular through the experiences of poor whites, changes how we make sense of the American experience.

The promise of a book like White Trash is that it can help uncover the historical roots of today’s implicit bias against the poor.  If we understand the roots of our own class-based blindness, perhaps we have a chance of thinking and acting differently.  

The parts of White Trash that I connected with most are when Isenberg takes the story of how poor whites have been portrayed in media.  Our society’s bias towards low-income whites is apparent in 1960s sitcoms like The Beverly Hillbillies and Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C, to films such as the 1970s Deliverance, and into recent reality shows such as Here Comes Honey Boo.  

Modern depictions of poor whites are aligned with, and determined by, historical perceptions in ways that I did not begin to understand before reading White Trash.  These deeply ingrained ideas about the causes and consequences of poverty are perhaps holding us back from making the political and economic choices required to ensure opportunity for all Americans.  

White Trash is not always an easy read - both in the books content and its style.  The story of how poor whites have been treated in America from our country’s founding to the present is not an uplifting one.  

Isenberg is at her best when she is making meaning of the historical record - when she allows herself to make judgements and observations that go beyond the (depressing) historical facts that she describes.  Particularly in the early chapters, I was wishing that Isenberg had cut out some details, and omitted some of her research, in order to make sense of her story in the modern American context.  

Despite this complaint - which I attribute more to my own impatience to apply the lessons of the book to my own work in higher ed as opposed to any shortcomings of the book - I recommend that our IHE community make the effort to read and discuss White Trash.  

What are you reading?


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