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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

Critic Reviews

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

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

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.

403 of 437 people found this review 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.

67 of 81 people found this review helpful

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Nothing Exposed Here, There's Better Elsewhere

What disappointed you about White Trash?

I guess I expected it to be a more informative account of the history and evolution of class structure in the country. But, full disclosure... it sat in my wish list for several months, languishing as I chose more interesting titles. So deep down, I probably did know better.

The problem is, who is this book for? Progressives or liberals (as I would identify) already know, or should already know, ALL of this. There is literally nothing "untold" being told in this book. Moderates, I expect, would be turned off by the contemptuous tone of the book, and look for some middle ground. And conservatives would never even read/listen to it, dismissing it as liberal propaganda. It just fails to fulfil its promise all around the course.

What could Nancy Isenberg have done to make this a more enjoyable book for you?

She could have followed through on the promise of actually exposing myths and laying bare the intrinsic hypocrisy of America. To be fair this has been done in many other, far better books. Charles C. Mann's 1491/1493 touches on some of the earlier elements of this. Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen also gives a much richer account. Even The Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, not a great read by any measure, gives better information. I'd thought this book could be a good companion to those, but was disappointed.

Furthermore, the author uses some terms, like Anglo-Saxon, over and over again... sometimes correctly, mostly not. The problem is, it's hard to tell if she is reflecting the racists' appropriation of the term, or she herself misunderstands it. Similar sketchy passages referring to Darwinism, survival of the fittest, and eugenics don't fill the listener with confidence that the author is completely conversant in these fields.

Similarly, it's hard to follow if the author is condemning the systems which created the waste people, or in fact condemning the waste people themselves. In some cases, each may be warranted, but where I think she really lost me was when she utterly fails to recognize the difference between Lonesome Rhodes (a fictional white trash character in A Face In the Crowd) and the actor portraying him, Andy Griffith. She also gives similar shoddy treatment to Dolly Parton, ignoring the difference between the stage persona with the artistry (She does later call Dolly "talented", but only to distinguish her from the likes of Sarah Palin and Tammy Faye Bakker... faint praise at best).

But most odd is the adoration for LBJ. Not even his closest contemporary allies could possibly be as sycophantic. I had to replay some of those parts.

What three words best describe Kirsten Potter’s voice?

Sufficiently condescending snark. I think it accurately portrayed the author's contempt.

One particularly interesting point in the reading though, was the pronunciation of the South Carolina town of Beaufort. Knowing the theme of the book, it would have seemed significant for the narrator to recognize, or in fact the author to point out in the text, that the name does not have a French pronunciation, as the same named town in North Carolina has, and how this town was pronounced in the book. The South Carolina town is pronounced like "Buford", befitting the theme of the book.

You didn’t love this book... but did it have any redeeming qualities?

It's mostly all true. I agree with virtually all the assessments of historical machinations to perpetuate a class system. A lot of it is well documented, and as stated previously, presented much better in other, more entertaining books. But some of it is speculative, retrofitting the author's notion into places it really has no business.

60 of 73 people found this review helpful

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  • X
  • 10-03-17

Fails to live up to it's title

White Trash claims it will tell “The 400-year untold history of class in America”. Instead, the book relays the 400-year history the ways in which poor-whites have been derogated in America, but largely omits the origin of the white lower class. The history begins with the arrival of criminals, beggars, and other “waste people” (as they were called at the time) from England. We are quickly given the litany of slurs and admonitions hurled against this lower class, but nowhere are we told how they came to be. They simply “are”, and this theme persists throughout the book. In era after era, “white trash” simply exist. “White trash” are presented as a poor, malnourished, uneducated group viewed by the rest of society as lazy, aggressive, incestuous, and ignorant, and Dr. Isenberg really never provides any alternative explanation for their state. There is little time spent on discussing social conditions that might have led to the existence of the “waste people” in the first place, nor of how external factors might have perpetuated their poor state. Dr. Isenberg focusing more on describing the insults hurled against the white poor by the more fortunate, and occasionally on questioning the egalitarian bonafides of the founders (certainly a worthy endeavor, but not particularly useful to advancing the aim of the book), but spends little time explaining where white trash came from and why they still exist.

Dr. Isenberg spends ample time discussing eugenics, but seems unable or unwilling to distinguish the theory of eugenics in particular from the broader concepts of evolution and heredity. She write as though she rejects the very notion of heredity, railing at one point against those who claim intelligence is heritable. Data show fairly unambiguously, however, that traits such an intelligence and self-control are heritable, at least in part. Rather than a nuanced discussion of the interplay between genes and environment, Dr. Isenberg sets up a false dichotomy between nature and nurture, falsely equates nature with eugenics, and then spends the better part of the book attacking her strawmen.

What makes this particularly frustrating is that she spends almost no time suggesting alternative explanations for the state of poor whites. If genetics are not to blame, than what is? To be clear, I believe there a numerous environmental factors in the history of United States which could be cited as reasons for persistent white poverty, but Dr. Isenberg largely ignores them, choosing instead to rail against eugenics. When the 20th century arrive, Dr. Isenberg adds the boogey-man of capitalism to the list of targets, but does little to explain how the free market system contributed to the plight of the white poor in America.
If you’re looking to better understand where the lower class in America came from, look elsewhere.

15 of 18 people found this review helpful

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  • Cynthia
  • Monrovia, California, United States
  • 02-26-17

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.

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67 of 87 people found this review helpful

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Wowed by Truth

From the African American perspective, I was drawn to this book by it's mere title. By the end of the first chapter I found myself engrossed in the historical foundation of America's diabolical institutions of race and class.

Quite astoundingly, I was amazed to discover that social Darwinism has not only been relegated to race although it has been known to me and my fellow humans of the Black race, that all are guilty of holding onto family and regional pride.

What does seem to be inevitable in these days of "occupiers" and "All Lives Matter", Equality here and there is...nothing will change. What has been confirmed for me is that human nature is so deeply ingrained that what seems to be rigged, is rigged indeed.

63 of 85 people found this review helpful

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Excellent history

Overall an excellent history, well researched and informative. Some bias becomes more evident from the Nixon administration forward, and the final chapters feel rushed. The conclusion of historical trends is well supported, but the assertion that a consciousness of "breeding" is still prevalent today is mostly supported by extrapolation rather than a thorough assessment of the modern status. Much recent research has examined the role of family and cultural lessons (as distinct from status) on economic outcomes of children. This is largely overlooked and as a result some potential remedies, such as teaching economic literacy and office soft skills in schools are left out, which weakens the final chapter of an otherwise excellent book.

24 of 32 people found this review helpful

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Challenge's the notion "American Exceptionalism"

What did you love best about White Trash?

The author's account of Classes in America is done in a chronological manner from Jamestown and early New England settlements up through early independence, the civil war, turn of the 20th century, WW1, WW2, LBJ, and today. The book was based on the writings of influential writers, forefathers, politicians, Hollywood and Presidents of the times. The topic challenged the very notion of American exceptionalism.

27 of 37 people found this review helpful

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Illuminating

I was drawn to this book because I wanted to know why this group keep voting against their own interest. The author took me on this journey. Though I don't get the phenomenon, I understand it better .

49 of 68 people found this review helpful

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Waste people are a tradition

Why should people relegated to the outside care about the opinions and class structures maintained by those on the inside? White Trash is a survey of history's outcasts in England and the USA. It is not a deep exploration of how these outcasts came to be nor does it offer remedies for their inclusion. You must accept that the indentured servants of Colonial America ended up in the South with slave labor prior to the American Civil War. Little attention is given to waste people anywhere else including the more modern US Rust Belt. White Trash is a worthwhile read if only as a reminder that we live in an unfair world and that Fairytales are rampant in USA history.

24 of 35 people found this review helpful