Monday, August 22, 2016


"The origin of ‘white trash,' and why class is still an issue in the U.S." PBS NewsHour 8/16/2016


SUMMARY:  In “White Trash,” Nancy Isenberg delves into the history of class in America, starting with British colonization.  At that time, America was seen as a wasteland -- a place to discard the idle poor.  The agrarian communities they subsequently formed often remained poor due to a phenomenon Isenberg calls “horizontal mobility.”  Jeffrey Brown speaks with the author about how we can evolve past class.

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  Now, a look at the history of poor white Americans.

That's the focus of the latest addition to the “NewsHour” Bookshelf.

Here's Jeffrey Brown.

JEFFREY BROWN (NewsHour):  “This book tells many stories.  Arguably, the most important is the one we as a people have trouble embracing, the pervasiveness of a class hierarchy in the United States.”

That line comes from a new book with the provocative title “White Trash,” which makes a provocative argument that, from the nation's earliest history to now, ideals such as opportunity and upward mobility haven't characterized the lives of many Americans.

Author Nancy Isenberg is a professor of history at Louisiana State University.

And welcome to you.

NANCY ISENBERG, Author, “White Trash”:  The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America”:  Well, thanks for having me.

JEFFREY BROWN:  I think what hit me most is the idea that the poor have not only been accepted, but expected, that it's a part of our national DNA.  That's the argument you're making?

NANCY ISENBERG:  Well, I think one of the things we forget is that, for half of our history, we were an agrarian nation.

So, white trash really comes out of notions of rural poverty.  And it goes all the way back to British ideas, because, in the colonial period and well throughout the 19th century, the mark of being a successful American was being a property owner.

And what we have forgotten is that large numbers of Americans didn't own property.  For example, in Thomas Jefferson's Virginia at the time of the revolution, 40 percent of white men were landless.

JEFFREY BROWN:  So, when you refer to white trash, I just want to be clear.  And the idea of white trash, literally, the term was used, the terms like waste.  Who do you mean?

NANCY ISENBERG:  Yes, the word white trash, at least as far as we have been able to discover, first appeared in newspaper print in the 1820s.

But it has a much older meaning, because, if we go back to some of the leading promoters of British colonization, when they imagined what were they going to do with the new world.  The new world, first of all, was imagined as a wilderness, what they called a wasteland.

And it was the perfect place for literally dumping the idle poor.  And these were referred to as waste people.

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