This is a very intense look into the really horrible ways that America has treated poor people — particularly white people — for centuries (and when I say “particularly white people”, I mean that’s the focus of the book — not that white people have been subjugated more than other races!). Like, starting with the colonies and running right up to last week. It’s a very, very long book, but if you like that sort of thing, it’s incredibly well done. I certainly learned a lot.
“How does a culture that prizes equality of opportunity explain, or indeed accommodate, its persistently marginalized people?”
Isenberg touches on a lot here. She starts with when the British began to first colonize the Americas, and how there was a lot of focus on wasted (uncultivated) land and wasted (lazy, useless) people. The wealthier residents felt that the poor just needed to be mobilized and put to work. They all just assumed that these people — at the time, often called “squatters” — were poor because they were lazy, not because they were uneducated and oppressed by upper classes. Sound familiar?
Vocabulary plays a big part here. Isenberg traces the origins and evolutions of terms like redneck, hillbilly, cracker, squatter, good ol boy, po’ white trash, etc. I was also amazed and disgusted by the huge role eugenics has played in American history. Ideas about sterilizing the poor, to keep their lazy genes out of society, have gone back for decades and haven’t entirely disappeared. Isenberg also talks about media portrayals of rednecks, etc — from Elvis to the Beverly Hillbillies to Sarah Palin.
It’s well-written and meticulously researched. Not necessarily a gripping read, but definitely an interesting and educational one.