• White Trash

  • The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
  • By: Nancy Isenberg
  • Narrated by: Kirsten Potter
  • Length: 15 hrs and 5 mins
  • 4.2 out of 5 stars (4,111 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

The wretched and landless poor have existed from the time of the earliest British colonial settlement. They were alternately known as "waste people", "offals", "rubbish", "lazy lubbers", and "crackers". By the 1850s the downtrodden included so-called "clay eaters" and "sandhillers", known for prematurely aged children distinguished by their yellowish skin, ragged clothing, and listless minds.

In White Trash, Nancy Isenberg upends assumptions about America's supposedly class-free society. Poor whites were central to the rise of the Republican Party in the early 19th century, and the Civil War itself was fought over class issues nearly as much as it was fought over slavery. Reconstruction pitted poor white trash against newly freed slaves, which factored in the rise of eugenics. These poor were at the heart of New Deal reforms and LBJ's Great Society; they haunt us in reality TV shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty.

We acknowledge racial injustice as an ugly stain on our nation's history. With Isenberg's landmark book, we will have to face the truth about the enduring, malevolent nature of class as well.

©2016 Nancy Isenberg (P)2016 Tantor
  • Unabridged Audiobook
  • Categories: History

Critic Reviews

"This is breathtaking social history and dazzling cultural analysis at its best." (Michael Eric Dyson, author of Holler If You Hear Me)

What listeners say about White Trash

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  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars

Snarky and condescending

Basically just a long series of stories to prove that America has always been classist, without offering any alternative path. It's a take down of our history and society without any offer of improvement or recognition of any advancements that have been made. She ignores any data on social mobility or the statistics showing that literally half the people in America's top quintile were not born into that class. Things are not perfect in America, but I fail to see how this book offers to make anything at all better.

27 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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Necessary, excellent, readable

4.5 stars. A most excellent history of class in America. Isenberg is meticulous in her details, balancing broad historical and cultural trends with individual stories, details, and anecdotes. She obviously has poured over myriad primary and secondary sources: journals and diaries of individuals over the past four centuries, newspaper accounts, and the works of other historians. This results in a work that manages to illuminate the persistent impact of class in America and, despite national mythos to the contrary, how often class is immutable. In doing so, one is reminded that the lines of division in America are not just based upon race--that in some ways, class is the more telling demarcation when it comes to treatment and quality of life and opportunity. Though racial minorities frequently find themselves in the lower classes, class nonetheless casts a wider net and the lowest class of whites have been the subject of ridicule and discrimination, as well as the target of legal actions (ranging from disenfranchisement to exclusion from education to eugenics). This interesting history, belying the overused trope that America is a class-less society where any may ascend and better themselves, highlights that though we typically see race as the foremost identifier, ideas of class may be equally insidious and just as important. Particularly interesting reading now, with identity politics in flux and racial and class tensions coming to the fore under the current administration. Recommended.

22 people found this helpful

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400 Year Head Start Squandered

As a person of color and first generation college during the age of affirmative action debates, I am shocked to silence. During these debates I often wondered out loud how my white peers could be first generation college. My grandparents were brutally opressed and enslaved for 400 years, what did their grandparents do with a 400 year head start, that was my question to my peers. In truth I never received an adequate answer. Thanks to White Trash I am in a better position to understand their struggles to rise in the face of class warfare. Now I understand the visceral response to Clinton and Sarah Palin. Now i understand why so many whites hate affirmative action, becuase it tries to remedy the effects of slavery and oppression for ex-slaves while confining the mobility of poor whites, or so it would appear.

This is a must read book for all humanity, especially for those who are the offspring of former slaves. Having an understanding of class in America will help you understand that we have more in common with our poor white brothers than we would like to admit, mainly the reality that we have all been mislead.

837 people found this helpful

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Well written history, too much narrative spin

If you could sum up White Trash in three words, what would they be?

History , social class

What other book might you compare White Trash to and why?

EP Thompson The Making of the English Working Class because it studies the relationships of social and historical forces to the development of a whole class of people..

Who would you have cast as narrator instead of Kirsten Potter?

.

Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

The narrator has chosen to express an attitude of judgement and disdain for the past. A "can you believe this?" is present in every sentence. Her emotional reactions to the facts became tedious to Me.

116 people found this helpful

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'Make America Great Again' is about Class

If you're scratching your head wondering why poor white folks vote for billionaires, wonder no longer. She traces it from Pilgrims to Honey BooBoo. We know what global colonialism gave the modern world, and here's what Southern slavery impoverishing a white underclass gave us Americans: Duck Dynasty. I've probably quoted her in recent discussions more than any other writer in my library.

7 people found this helpful

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Meanness to the Nth degree. An ugly book;

narrated in like manner. sending it back. a more even and scholarly treatment called for.

7 people found this helpful

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Yankees Were a Degenerate Race

Esquire published a piece called, "20 Essential Books to Prepare You for What's Next" Emma Dibdin, February 3, 2017. Nancy Isenberg's "White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America" (2016) is on that list, along with other notable works like George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four" (1949), Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" (1985), and Suzanne Collins' "Hunger Games" Trilogy (2008-2010). The latter three are haunting dystopian fictions, a future or a past imagined, but not lived. "White Trash" is all too wretchedly true.

Isenberg's book and an opinion piece she wrote for The Washington Post "Five myths about class in America" (July 1, 2016) presaged the rise and election of Donald J. Trump, stating bluntly, "The 2016 election is about class." It was. Isenberg's scholarly work posits that class has always been present, from the colonies' inception and its use as a dumping ground for a landless, uneducated and starving populace by England's aristocracy. She describes Appalachian born Andrew Jackson "Old Hickory" as the first populist president, a common man who was elected by a constituency of miners and hillbillies. He wasn't the last, of course. "White Trash" doesn't address Donald J. Trump's presidency - he was elected at the end of 2016 - but his base of power is the white, America First voters she described.

"White Trash" is thought provoking and seriously depressing, especially when the mythical dividing line has always been, by popular acclaim, monetary only. There are the 'have-too-much', 'have some' and the dirt poor. It's more than just that. It's grandparents and great-grandparents that were uneducated and malnourished. There's the low Ewells in Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1960), literally living in a dump and the downtrodden and peripatetic Joads In "The Grapes of Wrath," John Steinbeck (1939). They are the real life Mama June from "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" (2012-2014), undone by her unwillingness or inability to protect her children from a registered sex offender.

As important as Isenberg's topic is, the book simply is not well written. It overreaches to make arguments about perceptions of class, particularly from centuries ago. It ignores the very real divide of wealth, and perhaps even more key since the end of World War II, education, and the rolls both play in class mobility. It also misses the correlation between religion and stagnation of social position - although that would have made the book much longer. It meanders and repeats, but that may be because each chapter is meant to stand alone as an academic piece. Finally, it's simply as depressing as a seabird living in Prince William Sound in 1989, watching the Exxon Valdez hearing towards a reef.

Kirsten Potter was fine as a narrator.

The title of this review is a quote of Confederate States President Jefferson Davis used in the book.

[If this review helped, please press YES. Thanks!]

209 people found this helpful

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Eye Opening!!!!!!!

It was incredibly informative and educating. It honestly made me mad at how much the decisions of some large landowning elites affect our modern day even though they’ve been dead for hundred of years. I was amazed at learning about such a unique historical view on the working class and poor of this nation. I highly recommend this book if you want to learn more about social and societal injustices within this nation.

6 people found this helpful

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Eye-opening

Exploring the history of America's White underclass is helpful in understanding the political climate we find ourselves in today. As the attention of progressive politicians turn understandably to issues of racial justice, it's become easier to see why the members of America's disaffected White working-class, who feel increasingly forgotten, are willing to turn to demagogues who promise a return to an American middle-class Utopia that for the most part never really existed.

The author painstakingly chronicles the trials and tribulations of, and attitudes towards America's White underclass; from our colonial beginnings, through to present-day. It is an eye-opening read, that helped me understand both my own family history and the attitudes of those I disagree with politically.

142 people found this helpful

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Painful little understood dynamic

This painful series of historical dynamics of the US culture reveals much about our present political situation. Racism and classism is deeply and deliberately imbedded in our collective psyche to the advantage of the very few who truly rule the USA.

23 people found this helpful