How England’s “waste people” became “white trash” in the US
Sukey Wolf
volume 38
issue 5
October 2017

White trash, redneck, clay eater, cracker. This is only a partial list of all the sneering names developed over hundreds of years to stigmatize poor white people in the United States. In her new book White Trash: The 400-Year History of Class in America, Nancy Isenberg traces the evolution of language, perception and public policy behind this sorry story.

Key myths exposed. Isenberg first takes aim at one of this country’s most enduring falsehoods: that the U.S. is a classless society with equal opportunity for all. Nothing could be further from the truth. Long before the U.S. was a country it was a capitalist enterprise. Companies set up to trade with Native American tribes were the first to recognize the development of land as a profit bonanza. Back in England, wealthy men began to plan for its settlement.

All of these well-heeled social planners had one thing in common: the colonies would be the perfect place to dump Europe’s poor “waste people” as they were called. These landless, often unemployed people were viewed as lazy and above all unproductive. They included prison convicts — often simply debtors — who were given a one-way ticket to North America. Banishing them to clear the wilderness would provide needed labor in the colonies.

The other key myth Isenberg uncovers is that contrary to national lore, the U.S. was not settled primarily by Puritans seeking religious freedom, but by scores of indentured servants. Puritans were only a fraction of the population. Life for most newcomers was harsh. Indentured servitude could last a decade or more. Punishment for infractions ranged from whipping to lengthening the period of servitude, or having a mother’s bondage transferred to her children. Servants were both white and Black, with few distinctions drawn between them.

The birth of racism. Isenberg’s treatment of Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 illustrates a central weakness of the book. Although she is extremely detailed in her description of events, analysis is slim. The rebellion, consisting of Black and white indentured servants and those recently freed; besieged, captured and burned colonial Jamestown, Virginia. This scared the colonial ruling class to death.

In his essay “Class Struggle and the Origin of Slavery,” Theodore William Allen wrote, “The transcendent importance of (the Bacon Rebellion) is that there, in colonial Virginia, one hundred and twenty-nine years before William Lloyd Garrison (the famous abolitionist) was born, the armed working class, black and white, fought side by side for the abolition of slavery.”

The Bacon Rebellion was overpowered, and the ruling class began at once to undermine, penalize, abuse, outlaw and eventually destroy the natural solidarity of indentured workers. How? By turning Black indentured servants into slaves, and whites into slightly better off, but very “low class” workers. Poor whites were hired to support the institution of slavery as overseers and militia to prevent slaves from escaping. They were force-fed their “superiority” to Blacks and their own “inferiority” to their “betters,” the wealthy planters.

This was the beginning of racism in the English colonies — bigotry based on skin color. It was deliberately developed by early English and American capitalists to prevent working-class solidarity. Isenberg does not mention this.

Degradation of whites. After the revolution, more westward migration took place and again it was the landless poor who settled the wilderness. Often this land was inferior, the most fertile and productive of it taken by wealthy landowners, particularly in the South. This insured perpetual poverty for poor whites who were known as “squatters,” since they could eventually own the acreage they landed on. They eked out a living by farming the poor soil, stalked by hunger and disease. “Clay eaters” were so named because they ate clay to stave off hunger.

The Civil War and beyond. Isenberg’s treatment of the Civil War is disappointing. While she gives an exhaustive account of the Confederate justification for slavery, she does not see Black slaves as workers, whose very enslavement created horrendous living conditions for white tenant farmers. She leaves out Black sharecroppers, Mexican farmworkers, and Asian workers imported to the post-Civil War South. She ignores Filipino agricultural laborers, and 19th-century Chinatown residents — all impoverished and considered “inferior.”

But as historian and reviewer Thomas J. Sugrue wrote, “A history of class in America that assumes its whiteness and relegates the nonwhite poor to the backstage is one that misses the fundamental reality of economic inequality in American history, that race and class were — and are — fundamentally entwined.”

What White Trash does do well is teach the historic abuse of poor Southern whites and their struggle to survive centuries of brutal, cynical exploitation.

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