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

Americans lack any deeper appreciation of class. Beyond white anger and ignorance is a far more complicated history of class identity that dates back to America’s colonial period and British notions of poverty.

British colonists promoted a dual agenda: one involved reducing poverty back in England, and the other called for transporting the idle and unproductive to the New World. After

By 1770, fewer than 10 percent of white Virginians laid claim to over half the land in the colony; a small upper echelon of large planters each owned slaves in the hundreds. More than half of white men owned no land at all, working as tenants or hired laborers, or contracted as servants.

Every era in the continent's vaunted developmental story had its own taxonomy of waste people-unwanted and unsalvageable. Each era had its own means of distancing its version of white trash from the mainstream ideal.

First known as “waste people,” and later “white trash,” marginalized Americans were stigmatized for their inability to be productive, to own property, or to produce healthy and upwardly mobile children—the sense of uplift on which the American dream is predicated. The American solution to poverty and social backwardness was not what we might expect. Well into the twentieth century, expulsion and even sterilization sounded rational to those who wished to reduce the burden of “loser” people on the larger economy. In

For most Americans of the eighteenth century, it was assumed impossible for a servant to shed his lowly origins; the meaner sort, as one newspaper insisted, could never “wash out the stain of servility.” There were fears that the meaner sort were treading too close on the heels of those above them.

For much of American history, the worst classes were seen as extrusions of the worst land: scrubby, barren, and swampy wasteland. Home ownership remains today the measure of social mobility.

Governor Winthrop despised democracy, which he brusquely labeled “the meanest and worst of all forms of Government.” For Puritans, the church and state worked in tandem; the coercive arm of the magistracy was meant to preserve both public order and class distinctions.

Her rapist went unpunished, and yet she was sterilized.70

He was able to prove that the South had surrendered ninety-seven million acres to erosion (an area larger than the two Carolinas and Georgia); it had squandered the chances of millions of people by tolerating poverty and illiteracy; and it had ignored human potential by refusing to provide technological training, or even basic services, to its people. The overwhelming power of Odum’s data undercut (what Odum himself called) Gone with the Wind nostalgia—the collective self-image elite southerners had cultivated.

How does a culture that prizes equality of opportunity explain, or indeed accommodate, its persistently marginalized people?

If this book accomplishes anything it will be to have exposed a number of myths about the American dream, to have disabused readers of the notion that upward mobility is a function of the founders’ ingenious plan, or that Jacksonian democracy was liberating, or that the Confederacy was about states’ rights rather than preserving class and racial distinctions.

Instead of a thoroughgoing democracy, Americans have settled for democratic stagecraft.

In this sense, what Hakluyt foresaw in a colonized America was one giant workhouse. This cannot be emphasized enough.

In this sense, what Hakluyt foresaw in a colonized America was one giant workhouse. This cannot be emphasized enough. As the “waste firm of America” was settled, it would become a place where the surplus poor, the waste people of England, could be converted into economic assets.

More than any other colonial founder, Oglethorpe made himself one of the people, promoting collective effort.

Paine knew that class tensions existed. He understood that revolutions stirred up resentments. In Common Sense, he adopted an ominous tone at a key point in his argument, warning readers that the time was ripe to declare independence and form a stable government. Or else. In the current state of things, “the mind of the multitude is left at random,” he wrote, and “the property of no man is secure.” Therefore, if the leadership class did not seize hold of the narrative, the broad appeal to political independence would be supplanted by an incendiary call for social leveling.

Pedigree was the centerpiece of Supreme Court chief justice Roger B. Taney’s majority opinion in the Dred Scott decision (1857). Though this case assessed whether a slave taken into a free state or federal territory should be set free, its conclusions were far more expansive. Addressing slavery in the territories, the proslavery Marylander dismissed Jefferson’s prohibition of slavery in the Northwest Ordinance as having no constitutional standing. He constructed his own version of the original social contract at the time of the Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitutional Convention: only the free white children of the founding generation were heirs to the original agreement; only pedigree could determine who inherited American citizenship and whose racial lineage warranted entitlement and the designation “freeman.” Taney’s opinion mattered because it literally made pedigree into a constitutional principle. In this controversial decision, Taney demonstrably rejected any notion of democracy and based the right of citizenship on bloodlines and racial stock. The chief justice ruled that the founders’ original intent was to classify members of society in terms of recognizable breeds.

The innocuous-sounding term “fertility treatment” enables the wealthy to breed their own kind, buying sperm and eggs at “baby centers” around the country. Abortion and birth control, meanwhile, are for evangelical conservatives a violation of God’s will that all people should be fruitful and multiply, and yet this same fear of unnatural methods of reproduction does not engender opposition to fertility clinics. Antiabortion activists, like eugenicists, think that the state has the right to intervene in the breeding habits of poor single women. Poor

The leaders of Jamestown had borrowed directly from the Roman model of slavery: abandoned children and debtors were made slaves.

The theatrical performance of politicians who profess to speak for an "American People" do nothing to highlight the history of poverty.

The vagrant, the squatter, had been redrawn, yet qualitatively he/she remained the same: a piece of white trash on the margins of rural society. Observers recognized how the moving mass of undesirables in the constantly expanding West challenged democracy’s central principle. California was a wake-up call. Anxious southerners focused attention not only on their slave society and slave economy, but on the ever-growing numbers of poor whites who made the permanently unequal top-down social order perfectly obvious. Who really spoke of equality among whites anymore? No one of any note. Let us put it plainly: on the path to disunion, the roadside was strewn with white trash.

This is why Paine was careful to downplay the distinction between the rich and the poor. He wanted his American readers to focus on distant kings, not local grandees. He wanted them to break with the Crown, not to disturb the class order.

This was how he came to trust in the power of emulation; he believed that people could be conditioned to do the right thing by observing good leaders.

Throughout its history, the United States has always had a class system. It is not only directed by the top 1 percent and supported by a contented middle class. We can no longer ignore the stagnant, expendable bottom layers of society in explaining the national identity. The

Unlike others before him, Oglethorpe felt the disadvantaged could be reclaimed if they were given a fair chance.

Wars are battles of words, not just bullets. From 1861, the Confederacy had the task of demonizing its foe as debased, abnormal, and vile. Southerners had to make themselves feel viscerally superior, and to convince themselves that their very existence depended on the formation of a separate country, free of Yankees.

We know, for instance, that Americans have forcefully resisted extending the right to vote; those in power have disenfranchised blacks, women, and the poor in myriad ways. We know, too, that women historically have had fewer civil protections than corporations. Instead of a thoroughgoing democracy, Americans have settled for democratic stagecraft: high-sounding rhetoric, magnified, and political leaders dressing down at barbecues or heading out to hunt game.

Well into the twentieth century, expulsion and even sterilization sounded rational to those who wished to reduce the burden of “loser” people on the larger economy.

When you turn an election into a three-ring circus, there’s always a chance that the dancing bear will win.