Putting Class Back Into the Classroom
I’m guilty of being one of those scholars who too glibly use the words “important book” in reviews and academic discussions. We often mean, simply, a work that advances some argument within our narrow specialty—not a book we could actually teach, or one that undergraduates would find provocative. Every now and then, however, a book appears that truly is “important.” Such a work is White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (New York: Viking, 2016). Its author, Louisiana State University history professor Nancy Isenberg, hit the market at a propitious time: during the Donald Trump political tsunami. Whether or not Trump wins in November, his campaign has energized many of the people about whom Isenberg writes: the white working class, especially those who live on the economic margins, often–but not exclusively–in the proverbial hinterlands. Educated Americans and those with financial resources have, historically, evolved a host of terms to dismiss these folks: waste people, sturdy beggars, clay-eaters, crackers, hillbillies, rednecks, trailer trash, lubbers, tar-heels, underclass, white trash…. Isn’t it odd that few of these terms are ever discussed during campus cultural sensitivity sessions?
Isenberg asserts that we ignore this group at our own peril. By most accounts, white wage-earning Americans make up 30% of the electorate. This means they’re no longer a majority, but given the stark divisions within American society, that 30% has the potential to alter elections. I think this book needs to be taught, so allow me to highlight a few of Isenberg’s assertions and add questions I think could spark lively debate:
* First and foremost, Isenberg asserts that the working poor are not a recent phenomenon; they are sewn into the very fabric of white North American society. Isenberg catalogues this pattern from British colonization to the present. It’s not really the “untold history” she bills it, but few have marshaled as much evidence for the claim that outcast underclasses are not merely unfortunate; they are the deliberate creation of economic elites that exploited them for their own gain. Moreover, white trash has been conditioned to see itself as such; Isenberg’s is a pathology of powerlessness.
* This will ruffle feathers, but Isenberg argues that those who discuss race or gender without referencing social class are futilely talking to themselves. This is because elites have successfully inserted the mudsill theory into the national dialogue. (The mudsill theory holds that society, like a house foundation, sits upon a bottom layer of social “mud” upon which all power relations are constructed.) In essence, the white working class–often masculine in character–compensates for its lack of power by defining others as inferior: non-whites, recent immigrants, and women. This has also been done in ways familiar to pop culture scholars: when crude power fails, use manufactured flattery of the sort we now see in the “new rage of slumming” (291), or what I’d dub “redneck glorification,” as seen in Elvis, Dolly Parton, Bill Clinton’s presidency, and TV shows such as “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Honey Boo Boo,” “Redneck Island,” and “Duck Dynasty.”
*This will also rankle: Isenberg sees class as the essential analytical category. She has little patience with using social class as a sort of “drive-by” tool in the way we view history or contemporary sociology.
*Isenberg has even less patience with those who equate white trash traits with the Scots-Irish. Such ethnic identification isolates, stigmatizes, and ignores both the pervasiveness of the white underclass and the power relations that created it. She dismisses–and I agree–Grady McWhiney’s Cracker Culture. I’d toss J. D. Vance’s recent Hillbilly Culture (Harper, 2016) into the not-to-be-taken seriously pile.
*Another target of Isenberg’s analytical sword: conservatives that dismiss white poverty as proof of degeneracy, lack of initiative, or cultural/regional norms. She bristles with indignation when someone like Mitt Romney insists upon the personhood of corporations, given the systematic manner in which the 1% he represents has denied the humanity of poor whites. If you think she exaggerates, see her chapter on eugenics.
* She reminds us that the Civil War was as much of a class war as one about race. Scholars know this as well, but it’s good to be reminded.
*Isenberg suggests that cherished American ideals of equal opportunity, equality under the law, and freedom are largely ahistorical descriptions of the true American past.
So how can we use this book in the classroom? Here are ten discussion questions that occurred to me. Other readers will easily come up with others:
- Isenberg says discussions of race and/or gender without references to social class are worthless. If you agree, list concrete reasons why you find Isenberg to be correct; if you disagree, move beyond personal preference and enumerate reasons why you think she’s wrong. (One could easily devise a classroom debate of opposing sides on this question.)
- Isenberg has a very pessimistic view of American ideals. Do you think she’s right that these are more mythic than historical? What does the evidence suggest? (Have students do sociological investigation into poverty. Who is poor? Where do they live? How many poor people are full-time workers? What is the racial breakdown on poverty?)
- Question two could be approached in political terms like this: Mitt Romney made a major gaffe in the 2012 election when he said that 47% of Americans were reliant on some form of “government handouts,” even though he was (mostly) correct. What happens, though, is we ask: Why are 47% of Americans dependent upon government handouts?
- What is a secondary labor force/market? What did Marx say about the exploitation of working people? What is Antonio Gramsci’s “hegemony theory?” Do any of these ideas fit Isenberg’s analysis? (Obvious “egg hunt” possibilities here.)
- Donald Trump’s campaign attracted a lot of white working class voters? Why? In what ways were his followers similar to those attracted to Bernie Sanders? How did they differ?
- An interesting recent phenomenon: In the late 20th century, nearly 80% of Americans thought of themselves as “middle class;” now just 51% think so (and many sociologists would place the objective number at closer to 35%.) What are the differences between being middle class and working class? How have those definitions changed over time? Why are fewer Americans seeing themselves as middle class? Does this mean that the “white trash” is growing in numbers?
- Isenberg gives us an incomplete (and dated) list of TV shows and entertainment that present the white underclass and she’s not very good at all with movies. Come up with your own list of music, shows, and movies that deal with the white underclass she describes. How is class represented in these?
- Other than a handful of characters such as Davy Crockett and the “common man” meme of the 1930s, Isenberg gives very few examples of working-class heroes and heroines. Can you compile a list of positive working class and/or poor folks that ought to be part of the discussion?
- Is Isenberg guilty of casting underclass whites as historical victims without agency? What about, for example, the labor movement? Welfare rights advocates?
- This is controversial, but needs to be discussed: Does Isenberg unintentionally justify boorish, racist, and sexist behavior? Does she make excuses for people to wallow in ignorance? Does the underclass have any responsibility for liberating itself? Do we believe in Isenberg’s pathology model? How does one escape the past? Should one? (Aren’t these the same questions we raise about non-white poverty?)
- Bonus question: If your students are mature enough to grapple with this—and if you’ve set it up as a discussion, not an assertion–ask students if it’s as racist to use terms such as “white trash” as it is to use the “N” word. (This could spark intriguing discussion of white privilege. How does it work in the face of economic depravation and social marginalization?)
Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts Amherst