With a provocative title, historian Nancy Isenberg delves into the hidden if not the taboo subject of economic and social class in America. Rigid class structures were undeniably an integral part of Europe, and most definitely in America’s “mother country,” England, for hundreds of years, beginning with the age of feudalism. But the United States was ostensibly founded on the notion that “all men are created equal,” and that anyone who shows initiative and hard work can rise above their station in life. In the 21st century, however, with huge economic inequality and declining social mobility, the U.S. now ranks 27th in the world, according to the World Economic Forum’s index. Isenberg’s 2016 book, “White Trash: The 400-Year History of Class in America,” challenges popular mythology and offers a ground-breaking history.
In a PBS News Hour interview, Isenberg pointed out that the U.S. inherited its class structure from the British during colonization. “At that time, America was seen as a wasteland — a place to discard the idle poor.” The agrarian communities they subsequently formed often remained poor due to a phenomenon Isenberg calls “horizontal mobility.” Jeffrey Brown of PBS spoke with the author about how we can evolve past class.
Isenberg observes that class in America is revealed by property ownership and neighborhood. Some forty percent of Americans still are not homeowners, meaning they have far less chance to build wealth that can be passed down from generation to generation. “Owning a house is still a very important measure of the middle class.” Better neighborhoods have better amenities, better schools, less crime, fewer worries about survival. “We (still) judge people by the way they dress, the way they talk, the unwritten codes of behavior,” she said.
Kirkus Review: “Poor Americans 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. Surveying political rhetoric and policy, popular literature, and scientific theories over 400 years…Isenberg upends assumptions about America’s supposedly class-free society––where liberty and hard work were meant to ensure real social mobility. Poor whites were central to the rise of the Republican Party in the early nineteenth century, and the Civil War itself was fought over class issues nearly as much as it was fought over slavery. ‘A riveting thesis supported by staggering research,” our reviewer writes in a starred review.’ ”