24 May 2019

Poor white Americans

Excerpts from the best article I've read this year about the American "underclass."
Today, less privileged white Americans are considered to be in crisis, and the language of sociologists and pathologists predominates... social breakdown among low-income whites was starting to mimic trends that had begun decades earlier among African Americans: Rates of out-of-wedlock births and male joblessness were rising sharply. Then came the stories about a surge in opiate addiction among white Americans...

And then, of course, came the 2016 presidential campaign. The question was suddenly no longer why Democrats struggled to appeal to regular Americans. It was why so many regular Americans were drawn to a man like Donald Trump.

Equally jarring has been the shift in tone. A barely suppressed contempt has characterized much of the commentary about white woe, on both the left and the right... The barely veiled implication, whichever version you consider, is that the people undergoing these travails deserve relatively little sympathy—that they maybe, kinda had this reckoning coming. Either they are layabouts drenched in self-pity or they are sad cases consumed with racial status anxiety and animus toward the nonwhites passing them on the ladder. Both interpretations are, in their own ways, strikingly ungenerous toward a huge number of fellow Americans...

Welcome to America as it was,” Nancy Isenberg, a historian at Louisiana State University, writes near the outset of White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. Her title might seem sensational were it not so well earned. As she makes plain, a white lower class not only figured more prominently in the development of the colonies and the young country than national lore suggests, but was spoken of from the start explicitly in terms of waste and refuse...

For England, the New World beckoned as more than a vast store of natural resources, Isenberg argues. It was also a place to dispose of the dregs of its own society... The Puritans were likewise “obsessed with class rank”—membership in the Church and its core elect were elite privileges—not least because the early Massachusetts settlers included far more nonreligious riffraff than is generally realized. A version of the North Carolina constitution probably co-authored by John Locke was designed to “avoid erecting a numerous democracy.”

Class distinctions were maintained above all in the apportionment of land. In Virginia in 1700, indentured servants had virtually no chance to own any, and by 1770, less than 10 percent of white Virginians had claim to more than half the land. In 1729 in North Carolina, a colony with 36,000 people, there were only 3,281 listed grants, and 309 grantees owned nearly half the land. “Land was the principal source of wealth, and those without any had little chance to escape servitude,”

The Founding Fathers were, as Isenberg sees it, complicit in perpetuating these stark class divides. George Washington believed that only the “lower class of people” should serve as foot soldiers in the Continental Army. Thomas Jefferson envisioned his public schools educating talented students “raked from the rubbish” of the lower class, and argued that ranking humans like animal breeds was perfectly natural...

By the time her account reaches the late 20th century, though, the social and economic texture thins. Instead, Isenberg resorts to cataloguing representations of poor whites in pop culture (Deliverance, Hee Haw, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo) and celebrity politics (Tammy Faye Bakker, Bill Clinton, Sarah Palin), and offers some fairly trite commentary on the current political scene. Isenberg’s history is a bracing reminder of the persistent contempt for the white underclass...

The government and corporations have presided over the rise of new monopolies, the effect of which has been to concentrate wealth in a handful of companies and regions. The government and corporations welcomed China into the World Trade Organization; more and more economists now believe that move hastened the erosion of American manufacturing, by encouraging U.S. companies to shift operations offshore. The government and corporations each did their part to weaken organized labor, which once boosted wages and strengthened the social fabric in places like Middletown. More recently, the government has accelerated the decline of the coal industry, on environmentally defensible grounds but with awfully little in the way of remedies for those affected...

One of the most compelling parts of Isenberg’s history is her account of the help delivered to struggling rural whites as part of the New Deal. Projects like the Resettlement Administration, led by Rexford Tugwell, which moved tenants to better land and provided loans for farm improvements, brought real progress. So did the Tennessee Valley Authority, which not only spurred development of much of the South but created training centers and entire planned towns—towns where hill children went to school with engineers’ kids...

As Isenberg documents, the lower classes have been disregarded and shunted off for as long as the United States has existed. But the separation has grown considerably in recent years. The elite economy is more concentrated than ever in a handful of winner-take-all cities... The clustering is intensifying within regions, too. Since 1980, the share of upper-income households living in census tracts that are majority upper-income, rather than scattered throughout more mixed-income neighborhoods, has doubled. The upper echelon has increasingly sought comfort in prosperous insularity, withdrawing its abundant social capital from communities that relied on that capital’s overflow, and consolidating it in oversaturated enclaves...

But far more striking is the general aura of decline that hangs over towns in which medical-supply stores and pawn shops dominate decrepit main streets, and Victorians stand crumbling, unoccupied. Talk with those still sticking it out, the body-shop worker and the dollar-store clerk and the unemployed miner, and the fatalism is clear: Things were much better in an earlier time, and no future awaits in places that have been left behind by polished people in gleaming cities. The most painful comparison is not with supposedly ascendant minorities—it’s with the fortunes of one’s own parents or, by now, grandparents. The demoralizing effect of decay enveloping the place you live cannot be underestimated. And the bitterness—the “primal scorn”—that Donald Trump has tapped into among white Americans in struggling areas is aimed not just at those of foreign extraction. It is directed toward fellow countrymen who have become foreigners of a different sort, looking down on the natives, if they bother to look at all.
Apologies to the authors for excerpting so extensively from their Atlantic article, which is worth reading in toto.  I've requested from our library one of the books they recommend.


  1. Just a slight correction -- the non-religious weren't any more likely to be riff-raff than the religious. (I had ancestors who were both.) Oh and "In Virginia in 1700, indentured servants had virtually no chance to own any [land]." -- No, indentured servants didn't own land but after your indenture was up, you were granted it (certainly that was true in New England, and I'm nearly certain the same was true in Virginia.

    I'm hoping the historical references were thrown in for context and the author's field of expertise is in more modern scenarios or I'm afraid for the quality of information in the piece as a whole.

    1. I haven't read the book yet, but I think you're over-reading her riff-raff-reference. "... the early Massachusetts settlers included far more nonreligious riffraff than is generally realized" doesn't mean (to my ear) that the nonreligious were more riffraffish - rather that there were more of them than people tend to think when they visualize the early settlers as Pilgrims and Puritans.

      Re Virginia I found this -
      In some instances groups of investors promised to give land to their indentured servants after they fulfilled their contracts. The Society of Berkeley Hundred's investors offered their skilled servants parcels that ranged from 25 to 50 acres, to be claimed once they had fulfilled their contracts.

      here: https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/indentured_servants_in_colonial_virginia#start_entry

  2. I lived in DC for 10 years, then moved to rural Ohio to be closer to family and I see so much of this first-hand. I didn't want my kids to grow up in the bubble of privilege, but now I worry they'll be left behind by the crumbling schools and insular, angry environment (neighbors down the street fly a red Trump flag and I'm honestly scared of them). I always felt like the Midwest was a place of people who were, above all, reasonable, kind, and patient. I was proud of being an Ohioan. But these days things feel so stratified, and I don't know if it's the zeitgeist or it's me.

  3. This just goes to prove a point I've been trying to make for years. Adopted into a middle-class white Midwestern family (which is about as WASP as it gets), I have a Chinese sister and a Korean sister. The Korean sister is married to a wonderful man who is a mix of Caribbean, Puerto Rican, and some Native American ethnicity. Which naturally enough makes their kids... complicated. The point here is this; racially we're quite diverse, but culturally? My Asian sisters are every bit as WASP as I am, just without the W element.

    My conclusion? Race doesn't exist. At least, not in the way most people use the term. Culture exists, certainly; people who grow up in very different places will naturally enough be very distinct from one another. But this has little to nothing to do with ethnicity. And this commentary about 'white trash' proves that point. You see this in Europe a lot more than in America; here, 'division' is almost always about race. Black vs. white vs. Mexican vs. Arabic ad nauseam. But across the pond, it's about natural origin, not skin color, more often than not. British and French are both 'white' but they have centuries of contempt for each other.

    Race doesn't exist, period. Class distinctions do, and are what we need to focus on. Apologies for the rant.

    1. No apology needed. I think your insights are spot on.

    2. I don't think it's quite right to say that race doesn't exist full stop. Of course you're right that race does not equal culture but, as you say, the divisions in America (and elsewhere) are often about race. Those divisions exist, and are as real as divisions based on class.

      I also think this ignores how race and class interact - wealth can shield people from some of the manifestations of racism, the legacy of redlining and inadequate resources keep many communities of color intergenerationally poor, there are privileges that are only available to those who are both wealthy and white, etc.

      I think focusing on either race or class over the other is a mistake (as is treating the two as synonymous, which is part of how people wind up ignoring poor white folks). After all, the same unjust systems are responsible for both wealth inequality and racial inequality (and gender inequality, and so forth). I don't think there is any hope of undoing classism without undoing racism, and vice versa.

  4. Poor white people didn't elect Trump, middle-class and rich white people did.

    This whole narrative about angry poor white Trump voters serves one the one hand to legitimize trumpism as an expression of the righteous anger of the working class, and on the other hand serves as a cover for outright classism blaming poor white people (and for middle-class and rich white racists to hide their own racism by focusing all the attention on white racists who are poor). Don't fall for it.


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