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White Trash

The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America

By Nancy Isenberg
13-minute read
Audio available
White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg

White Trash (2016) retells American history from the perspective of the poor whites who were by turns despised and admired by the upper classes. These blinks trace the biopolitical, cultural and social ideas that have shaped the lives of white trash Americans from early colonial days to the Civil War, through the Great Depression and up to the present day.

  • Readers fascinated by American sociology and the history of class
  • Students of American politics and culture
  • Those curious about alternative historical narratives for the United States

Nancy Isenberg is a professor of history at Louisiana State University. She is the author of several award-winning books on American history and the founding fathers. She’s also a regular contributor to Salon.com, where she reflects on contemporary political and cultural affairs from a historical perspective.

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White Trash

The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America

By Nancy Isenberg
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
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White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg
Synopsis

White Trash (2016) retells American history from the perspective of the poor whites who were by turns despised and admired by the upper classes. These blinks trace the biopolitical, cultural and social ideas that have shaped the lives of white trash Americans from early colonial days to the Civil War, through the Great Depression and up to the present day.

Key idea 1 of 8

American society has been shaped by social stratification since the beginning.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was the United States. The nation’s early history laid the foundations for its future class-based society.

In the 1600s, America presented England’s ruling class with a rare opportunity to get rid of the poor and profit from it. The vast, undeveloped and unoccupied landmass of North America seemed free for the taking – to the English, the “uncivilized” natives didn’t count as the country’s custodians.

So America became a dumping ground for England’s criminals, orphans and poor, who were then tasked with building up the first English colonies in America. Before long, the class inequalities embedded in English society were reproduced and intensified in the colonies.

Take Virginia, the first Southern colony, for instance. Its economy was driven by tobacco, a crop that demands large tracts of land that only the rich could afford, and vast numbers of laborers. Upon arrival, poor immigrants were forced to work in the tobacco fields for a period of time to pay off their passage to America.

The class system was also entrenched in the Northern colonies. For example, although New England society contained a thriving religious community, its principles were far from egalitarian. Puritan doctrine established a stiff social hierarchy with poor outsiders – both black slaves and white servants – at the bottom.

Gender inequality was also rife in the American colonies. In the minds of early Americans, the ideas of fertility and “good breeding” were key to a prosperous and healthy nation. The importance of fertility led to women being seen in the same terms as land: both required able-bodied men to take responsibility for them if the economy and the population were to grow.

And, in order to protect good breeding, inter-class marriage was frowned upon in early American society. Those at the top feared that allowing the upper and lower classes to reproduce together would lead to a decline in their superior pedigree.

If this was the face of American society in its nascent decades, what did it look like during the time of independence? We’ll explore this in the next blink, along with the vision that the founding fathers had for America’s future.

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