I picked this audio book off the shelf at a library wine tasting because of it’s catchy Title. I mean, how can you see the glaring title, “White Trash,” and not be intrigued? And I haven’t listened to an audio book in a while, so it seemed like a good idea.
And it was, mostly. White Trash chronologically unpacks the history of white poverty in America from the 1600s to 2012. Isenberg begins with the English penal colonies where the British government literally rounded up hundreds of poverty stricken men and orphan boys and either pressed them into the navy, or shipped them (and anyone in debtors’ prison) off to America to get them out of the crowded London slums. They were seen as an expendable work-force who could be easily replaced if large quantities of them died on the harsh frontier. So right off the bat, America starts out as a kind of wilderness slum for all of Britain’s ‘unwanted’ in society. The poor, Isenberg suggests, have been with us since the very beginning.
She goes on to explain the contribution land ownership and slave ownership had on societal status, and how the great influx of white indentured servitude that defined the early American colonies perpetuated the class structures of England as wealthy landowners moved across the pond, meaning that the great land of opportunity was just a new place for old class systems. Owning good land remained the pinnacle of high society throughout most of the 17th and 18th centuries, and since indentured servants often never made it to land ownership thanks to corrupt systems and even more corrupt owners, an entire class of people were kept at the bottom of society in perpetuity.
As she entered the 19th Century, Isenberg brought her focus solely into the South, discussing the state of poor whites forced to work bad plots of land that produced little volume, while the great plantation owners harvested billions on the backs of their slaves. She spent some time examining the beginning of the hatred between poor whites and black slaves, noting that most often during the 19th Century, poor whites, or ‘waste people’, as they were called, were considered lower than slaves, which, she claimed, was the beginning of the troubles that spark much of the racism we still suffer from today. She goes on to use several presidents to pinpoint different eras of the class systems and the political struggles that have been raging between the needs of poor whites and the wealthy, ruling elite for centuries, while also hinging some of her chapters around societal movements such as the Eugenics movement of the 1920s, and the trailer park movement of the 1950s.
There are many things this book does well, especially in the earlier chapters discussing the inception of the United Sates and the class system we’ve never really gotten away from. Each chapter also has the unique ability to mostly stand on its own, so for research purposes of a particular time period, this book would be an excellent resource.
However, I found the content to be a bit biased. I don’t know if this was because I listened to it on audio book, and I was picking up the inflections of the reader in certain areas as opposed to reading it on the page myself, but it’s easy to tell what Isenberg’s opinions are of the things she’s relating, and not always in a good way. I was bereft that she spent 90% of her book focusing on poor whites in the south, without ever talking about the intense poverty issues happening in Northern cities. There was zero mention of the 5-Points in New York City, or the poverty wracking Detroit in the 20th Century. I got the feeling that she was silently condemning the South for its treatment of “White Trash” without bothering to look at anything happening north of Virginia.
Then later, when talking about political elections and presidents, she compares presidents such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton’s ‘southern roots’ upbringings against the policies or political leanings of Reagan, Bush, and Obama. It felt shoe-horned; like she was trying to compare apples to cucumbers, and I felt politically manipulated by Isenberg’s own opinions of the presidents rather than being led to the truth through the facts of their offices.
In sum total, I found this book to be insightful and interesting, and if you’re doing research, I highly recommend looking at a couple of these chapters. But if you’re looking for a book about poverty and history, I’d recommend Tyler Anbinder’s Five Points, or Matthew Desmond’s Evicted instead.
3 stars for good writing and interesting details. -2 for potential bias.