Most of my friends recognize that summer has officially arrived when I come sailing into their backyard barbeques with my incredible brownies in one hand and my “White Trash Potato Salad” in the other. It’s the salad that gets everyone excited: baby white potatoes, chunks of bacon, and scallions swim in a dressing of mayonnaise, vinegar, sour cream, and bacon grease—all topped off with a generous shredding of cheddar cheese (I’ve replaced the traditional Velveeta used in the dish with a cheese more recognizable to the refined Westchester County, NY palate). We all have a giggle and the bowl is emptied within minutes.
But I wonder if my pals would like it so much if, next time, I brought “Towelhead Couscous Salad” or a “Wetback Guacamole”? Would I be barbeque hero . . . or just a racist? I’m reminded of comedian Louis C. K.’s classic riff on White Trash (warning: NSFW).
White Trash is the only racial expression you can use and nobody gives a s**t . . . You could be talking to the most liberal hippie in the world and say to him “Hey, I saw this guy, he was White Trash,” and he’ll go: “Ha ha yeah! F**k that guy! White Trash piece of s**t!’ Let’s laugh at him cause he’s poor and starving to death! F****n loser! He lives in a trailer ‘cause he can’t afford a house, so let’s go s**t in his face RIGHT NOW!!!”
And who exactly do I think I am, with my artery-hardening potato salad, offered with a winking class snobbery? After all, my family tree is peopled with folks from Everett and Revere in Massachusetts, known as “Swamp Yankees,” as Ruth Schell outlined in a 1963 article in American Speech. Swamp Yankees, Schell explains, “were not among the religious and ambitious Pilgrims who had sailed to America on the Mayflower; but rather they were more among the undesirables who had left England as the result of some form of misconduct and retreated to the swamps when they arrived here.” Not exactly the Winthrops or Bradfords, my ancestors—just straight-up east-coast White Trash.
Well, Louisiana State University historian Nancy Isenberg would certainly call me out on my presumption. She has written a massive new history, White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America, which seeks to explain the American story as mostly about class struggle. Since the founding, Isenberg argues in classic Marxian fashion, the American economy has pitted poor people—and numerically, poor whites most of all—against an entrenched ruling elite, dedicated to perpetuating its class interests.
The White poor have been with us in various guises, as the names they have been given attest: Waste people. Offscourings. Lubbers. Bogtrotters. Rascals. Rubbish. Squatters. Crackers. Clay-Eaters. Tackies. Mudsills. Scalawags. Briar hoppers. Hillbillies. Low-downers. White N****rs. Degenerates. White trash. Rednecks. Trailer trash. Swamp people.
The names express a deep class hatred of the white poor, she says. From the beginning, White Trash “have existed in the minds of rural or urban elites and the middle class as extrusions of the weedy, unproductive soil. They are depicted as slothful, rootless vagrants, physically scarred by their poverty.”
Crudely reductionist, Isenberg’s analysis proceeds as if everything in the American experience is deception used to prop up the class interests of the economically powerful. Thanksgiving isn’t a foundational holiday that brings Americans together to give thanks for all their blessings, for example, but was cynically invented “to help promote the struggling poultry industry during the Civil War.” Isenberg’s views on popular culture and White Trash regularly channel leftish historian Howard Zinn. She even takes to task Disney’s classic 1995 animated children’s film Pocahontas for whitewashing the ugly truth about class conditions in pre-Pilgrim Jamestown, where the white poor first arrived on American soil: “There is no rancid swamp, no foul diseases and starvation in this Jamestown re-creation,” she complains—and no critique of the indentured servitude of the colonial children. (C’mon kids! Let’s go watch Pocahontas commune with nature in a rancid, disease-ridden swamp! Most kids died!) It’s so weird that Disney chose to downplay that reality.
She is equally blinkered when it comes to discussing the 1960s television series The Beverly Hillbillies, one of the most watched comedies in broadcast history. For Isenberg, Americans loved the show because of its sneering mockery of White Trash hillbillies, and because it let viewers focus their class hatred on the hapless, newly oil-rich Clampett family. “Hollywood hillbillies,” she writes, “could only be crude objects of audience laughter—mockery, not admiration. They conjured none of the frontier fantasy of the rugged individualist Crockett (or Fess Parker’s TV Daniel Boone). Nothing could redeem them.” But has she ever watched the show? The Clampetts’ basic sense of right and wrong and country pride were often used to mock the pretensions of the rich and powerful, including the scheming, greedy banker Milburn Drysdale. And it was a comedy, something the pedantic Isenberg clearly has difficulty appreciating.
In fact, Isenberg only seems to like her benighted White Trash folks when they can serve as justification for her calls for massive expansions of government welfare programs. By arguing that White Trash people have no free will or responsibility for their circumstances and that everything they do and are reflects the oppressive injustice of America’s capitalist economy, Isenberg robs poor whites of their human dignity far more than did the creators of The Beverly Hillbillies. In White Trash, the White Trash are puppets of forces they can never see, let alone control. As for Isenberg’s call for a (much) bigger Nanny State, she ignores the fact that Americans have spent more than $20 trillion on welfare programs since LBJ launched the War on Poverty—and the poor of all colors are still there. What she fails to see is that it isn’t class or too-low minimum wages that hold people back in the U.S. economy, which, for all its imperfections, remains open to mobility and advancement. It’s more often than not poor life choices, above all having kids without getting (and staying) married. This is as true of white Americans as it is of blacks, as Charles Murray’s Coming Apart documents.
Isenberg’s effort to make class the dirty little secret of American society is ultimately misguided. Class has always been fuzzy and permeable in this country. If you scratch the surface of most American families, you’ll find a little White Trash somewhere—and not just in the potato salad.