Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Dispelling The Myth Of A Classless Society In 'White Trash'


It's time for The New Middle, our look at what it means to be middle class in America today.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I think middle class is you can pay your bills comfortably. You're steady.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I mean, my sleeves only roll up so far (laughter). There's got to be a light at the end of the tunnel.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Being able to afford a place to live and enjoy life.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We do the entertainment, but we work hard for it, you know, so it means more to us when we're able to do that.

SHAPIRO: Here's a thought for you. We cling to the comfort of the middle class, forgetting that there can't be a middle class without a lower. Nancy Isenberg wrote that line in the opening pages of her latest book, which is provocatively called "White Trash: The 400-Year Untold Story Of Class In America." Nancy Isenberg, welcome to the studio.

NANCY ISENBERG: Well, thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: The phrase white trash brings to mind a lot of things for a lot of people. You say that this group has been called many things over the years. What were some of the other names?

ISENBERG: Yeah. I take it all the way back to the 1500s because the British basically imagined that the New World was a wasteland, and they were going to dump their expendable waste people into the New World. So that's where we get white trash - this idea of waste.

Thomas Jefferson and Abigail Adams - their word of choice was rubbish. There was offscourings. That's a really horrible...

SHAPIRO: Offscourings.

ISENBERG: Look that up in the OED, and you'll be quite shocked.

SHAPIRO: Oxford English Dictionary, yeah.

ISENBERG: When we look at the 20th century, the group that I focus on are trailer trash. Each generation creates its new set of stark slurs. And you have to realize the middle class in this country was not a secure class, really, until the post-World War II era. So we can't fantasize there was always a stable middle class.

SHAPIRO: Why does the middle class need a lower class? Why are these more than just, as they were called, trash people? Why are they an essential part of our Society?

ISENBERG: Well, I think Americans like to believe that they support the idea of equality. We think that equality is something that can be earned. This particularly from a more conservative point of view - the idea that if you work hard, you'll get ahead.

SHAPIRO: Pull up by your bootstraps.

ISENBERG: Or if your parents work hard, they'll pass on that inheritance to their children. But the problem with that - with the middle class, the upper middle class - we often don't want to acknowledge our own privilege.

SHAPIRO: Does the middle class need the lower classes for more than just a perspective on the self and a distinction - that's who we're not? Does the lower class serve a function in an actual, practical, valuable way?

ISENBERG: Yeah. The other thing to think about - one of the other disturbing terms is the term mudsill. This is the term that was used in the Civil War. It was created by a pro-slavery Confederate idealogue, James Hammond, who talked about the structure he was creating. He was saying this is the way societies are created. You have the mudsills. Now, if you don't know what a mudsill is, it is the post that's stuck into the mud that's supposed to form the foundation of a home.

The mudsill, he argued - these are the people who do the drudge work. These are the people that create the possibility for a middle and an upper class to develop. You always have to have your mudsills. You always have to have people who are at the bottom. Now, in the Civil War, he argued that the South was superior because they kept African descended slaves on the bottom. And then he went on a rant attacking the north because they were supposedly oppressing their own kind.

SHAPIRO: This is such an interesting theme in the book. You argue that the Civil War was partly about class and that the South said, we're better because we don't oppress our poor white people. We have black people to fill that role. In the North - how dare they treat poor white people as badly as they do.

ISENBERG: Right. And he even said that in the North, there was going to be a class revolution, and this is something we forget. I mean, the same way conservatives today talk about socialism or talk about class war, the Southern Confederacy used that same fear. They said that in the North, too many people who were poor or uncouth had been given the vote, that there was the potential for this class war. And this is one of the things we really have to understand - that the Confederacy also argued they were superior because they had less social mobility.

SHAPIRO: So after this 400-year history of the lower classes being oppressed and taken advantage of and beaten down, my takeaway from your book is for 400 years, this problem has been unsolved. And in fact, the country was, in some respects, built on the lower class of people that has always existed and, in all likelihood, always will.

ISENBERG: This book is not going to offer, you know, a happy story in terms of an optimistic projection for the future. We have to be more aware of our historical roots. We have to stop telling ourselves stories about American exceptionalism. We can't keep repeating those myths that we are a land of social mobility when we're not.

The other thing that I think is unfortunate is we often confuse, you know, white privilege and class privilege. We have to realize that race and class are often intertwined. And that's another tool that people in power use to pit poor blacks against poor whites. That becomes a very effective political strategy, and it's used over and over again in our history.

SHAPIRO: Nancy Isenberg, thank you for coming into the studio.

ISENBERG: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Nancy Eisenberg is the author of "White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History Of Class In America." And tomorrow, a food that propelled America's middle class in the 20th century - Detroit Coneys.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Beautiful. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.