‘White Trash’ — The Original Underclass
msn.com/co-published with the Atlantic/By Alec McGillis
That flattering glow has faded away. Today, less privileged white Americans are considered to be in crisis, and the language of sociologists and pathologists predominates. Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010” was published in 2012, and Robert D. Putnam’s “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis” came out last year. From opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, they made the case that social breakdown among low-income whites was starting to mimic trends that had begun decades earlier among African Americans: Rates of out-of-wedlock births and male joblessness were rising sharply. Then came the stories about a surge in opiate addiction among white Americans, alongside shocking reports of rising mortality rates (including by suicide) among middle-aged whites. And then, of course, came the 2016 presidential campaign. The question was suddenly no longer why Democrats struggled to appeal to regular Americans. It was why so many regular Americans were drawn to a man like Donald Trump. Equally jarring has been the shift in tone. A barely suppressed contempt has characterized much of the commentary about white woe, on both the left and the right. Writing for National Review in March, the conservative provocateur Kevin Williamson shoveled scorn on the low-income white Republican voters who, as he saw it, were most responsible for the rise of Trump:
Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice — of poor white America. So the gypsum business in Garbutt ain’t what it used to be. There is more to life in the 21st century than wallboard and cheap sentimentality about how the Man closed the factories down.
The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs … The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin.
Analysis on the left has been less gratuitously nasty but similarly harsh in its insinuation. Several prominent liberals have theorized that what’s driving rising mortality and drug and alcohol abuse among white Americans is, quite simply, despair over the loss of their perch in the country’s pecking order. “So what is happening?” asked Josh Marshall on his “Talking Points Memo” blog in December. “Let’s put this clearly,” he said in wrapping up his analysis of the dismal health data. “The stressor at work here is the perceived and real loss of the social and economic advantages of being white.”
The barely veiled implication, whichever version you consider, is that the people undergoing these travails deserve relatively little sympathy — that they maybe, kinda had this reckoning coming. Either they are layabouts drenched in self-pity or they are sad cases consumed with racial status anxiety and animus toward the nonwhites passing them on the ladder. Both interpretations are, in their own ways, strikingly ungenerous toward a huge number of fellow Americans.
They are also unsatisfying as explanations for what is happening out there. Williamson, for one, mischaracterizes the typical Trump voter. As exit polls show, the candidate’s base is not the truly bereft white underclass Williamson derides. Those Americans are, by and large, not voting at all, as I’m often reminded when reporting in places like Appalachia, where turnout rates are the lowest in the country. People voting for Trump are mostly a notch higher on the economic ladder — in a position to feel exactly the resentment that Williamson himself feels toward the shiftless needy. As for liberals’ diagnosis that a major public-health crisis is rooted in racial envy, it fails to square with, among other things, the fact that blacks and Hispanics have hardly been flourishing themselves. Yes, there’s an African American president, but by many metrics the Great Recession was even worse for minorities than for whites.
Two new books — one a provocative, deeply researched history and the other an affecting memoir — are well timed to help make better sense of the plight of struggling whites in the United States. Both accounts converge on an important insight: The gloomy state of affairs in the lower reaches of white America should not have caught the rest of the country as off guard as it has — and mobilizing solutions for the crisis will depend partly on closing the gaps that allowed for such obliviousness.
“Welcome to America as it was,” Nancy Isenberg, a historian at Louisiana State University, writes near the outset of “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.” Her title might seem sensational were it not so well earned. As she makes plain, a white lower class not only figured more prominently in the development of the colonies and the young country than national lore suggests, but was spoken of from the start explicitly in terms of waste and refuse.
For England, the New World beckoned as more than a vast store of natural resources, Isenberg argues. It was also a place to dispose of the dregs of its own society. In the late 16th century, the geographer Richard Hakluyt argued that America could serve as a giant workhouse where the “fry [young children] of wandering beggars that grow up idly and hurtfully and burdenous to the Realm, might be unladen and better bred up.” The exportable poor, he wrote, were the “offals of our people.” In 1619, King James I was so fed up with vagrant boys milling around his New-market palace that he asked the Virginia Company to ship them overseas. Three years later, John Donne — yes, that John Donne — wrote about the colony of Virginia as if it were England’s spleen and liver, Isenberg writes, draining the “ill humours of the body … to breed good bloud.” Thus it was, she goes on, that the early settlers included so many “roguish highwaymen, mean vagrants, Irish rebels, known whores, and an assortment of convicts,” including one Elizabeth “Little Bess” Armstrong, sent to Virginia for stealing two spoons.
One of America’s founding myths, of course, is that the simple act of leaving England and boldly starting new lives in the colonies had an equalizing effect on the colonists, swiftly narrowing the distance between indentured servant and merchant, landowner and clerk — all except the African slave. Nonsense, Isenberg says: “Independence did not magically erase the British class system.” A “ruthless class order” was enforced at Jamestown, where one woman returned from 10 months of Indian captivity to be told that she owed 150 pounds of tobacco to her dead husband’s former master and would have to work off the debt. The Puritans were likewise “obsessed with class rank” — membership in the Church and its core elect were elite privileges — not least because the early Massachusetts settlers included far more nonreligious riffraff than is generally realized. A version of the North Carolina constitution probably co-authored by John Locke was designed to “avoid erecting a numerous democracy.” It envisioned a nobility of landgraves and caciques (German for “princes” and Spanish for “chieftains”), along with a “court of heraldry” to oversee marriages and make sure they preserved pedigree.
Class distinctions were maintained above all in the apportionment of land. In Virginia in 1700, indentured servants had virtually no chance to own any, and by 1770, less than 10 percent of white Virginians had claim to more than half the land. In 1729 in North Carolina, a colony with 36,000 people, there were only 3,281 listed grants, and 309 grantees owned nearly half the land. “Land was the principal source of wealth, and those without any had little chance to escape servitude,” Isenberg writes. “It was the stigma of landlessness that would leave its mark on white trash from this day forward.” This was not just a Southern dynamic. The American usage of squatter traces to New England, where many of the nonelect — later called “swamp Yankees” — carved out homes on others’ land only to be chased off and have their houses burned.
The Founding Fathers were, as Isenberg sees it, complicit in perpetuating these stark class divides. George Washington believed that only the “lower class of people” should serve as foot soldiers in the Continental Army. Thomas Jefferson envisioned his public schools educating talented students “raked from the rubbish” of the lower class, and argued that ranking humans like animal breeds was perfectly natural. “The circumstance of superior beauty is thought worthy of attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs and other domestic animals,” he wrote. “Why not that of man?” John Adams believed the “passion for distinction” was a powerful human force: “There must be one, indeed, who is the last and lowest of the human species.”
By the time the nation gained independence, the white underclass — its future dependents — was fully entrenched. This underclass could be found just about every-where in the new country, but it was perhaps most conspicuous in North Carolina, where many whites who had been denied land in Virginia trickled into the area south of the Great Dismal Swamp, establishing what Isenberg calls “the first white trash colony.” William Byrd II, the Virginia planter, described these swamp denizens as suffering from “dis-tempers of laziness” and “slothful in everything but getting children.” North Carolina’s governor described his people as “the meanest, most rustic and squalid part of the species.”
Accounts of this underclass as “an anomalous new breed of human,” as Isenberg puts it, proliferated as poor whites without property spread west and south across the country. These “crackers” and “squatters” were “no better than savages,” with “children brought up in the Woods like brutes,” wrote a Swiss-born colonel in the colonial army in 1759. In 1810, the ornithologist Alexander Wilson described the “grotesque log cabins” where the lowly patriarch typically stood wearing a shirt “defiled and torn,” his “face inlaid with dirt and soot.” Thomas Jefferson’s granddaughter came back from an 1817 excursion with her grandfather telling of that “half civiliz’d race who lived beyond the ridge.” In 1830, the country even got its first “Cracker Dictionary” to document the slang of poor whites.
At various junctures, politicians (think Davy Crockett and Andrew Jackson) turned humble roots into a mark of “backwoodsman” authenticity, but the pendulum always swung back. The term white trash made its first appearance in print as early as 1821. It gained currency three decades later, by which point observers were expressing horror over these people’s “tallow” skin and their habit of eating clay. As George Weston warned in his widely circulated 1856 pamphlet “The Poor Whites of the South,” they were “sinking deeper and more hopelessly into barbarism with every succeeding generation.” Speaking of this class as a separate breed — a species unto itself — was a way to skirt the challenge it presented to the nation’s vision of equality and inclusivity.
Isenberg points up the tension: “If whiteness was not an automatic badge of superiority, a guarantee of the homogeneous population of independent, educable freemen … then the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were unobtainable.”
With so much talk of breeds, it is no surprise that, in the early 20th century, the U.S. was gripped by a eugenics craze, which Isenberg sees as motivated by revulsion over the supposed degeneracy of poor whites, especially those in the South. State fairs held “fitter family” contests, Teddy Roosevelt fretted about Americans’ “germ protoplasm,” and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. issued a ruling upholding the forced sterilization of a poor Virginian named Carrie Buck, deemed a “moron.”
Isenberg, for all her efforts to clarify the role of class in the national culture, succumbs to a different kind of distortion herself. She is frustratingly hazy about regional distinctions within the white lower class, a blurriness that also skews some of the contemporary liberal theorizing about white despondency. As her account progresses, she focuses increasingly on the South, without squarely addressing that choice and its implications.
To zero in on the white underclass in or near slaveholding areas is, understandably, to dwell on the fraught dynamic between poor whites and enslaved African Americans and its role in the national debate leading up to the Civil War. On the one hand, opponents of slavery argued that the association of labor with servitude dulled the work ethic of poor whites. On the other, defenders of slavery claimed that being spared the lowliest toil kept poor Southern whites a step above their Northern counterparts.
But there were whole other swaths of the country where many poor whites lived without any blacks nearby to speak of — not least the broad expanse of Appalachia. Isenberg makes plain in a brief aside that she does not buy the idea, enshrined in so many books in recent years, of a separate cohort of “Scots-Irish” — hard-drinking, hard-scrapping brawlers from the “borderlands” of Scotland, northern Ireland, and northern England who, cherishing their freedom and wanting nothing to do with the coastal elites, settled up in the Appalachian hills in the mid–18th century. One such account, Grady McWhiney’s “Cracker Culture” (1988), earns Isenberg’s brisk dismissal as a “flawed historical study that turned poor whites into Celtic ethnics (Scots-Irish).”
Regardless of the merits in that dispute, Isenberg ought to have reckoned more fully with the distinctions between poor whites in the Deep South and those elsewhere. At points, she mentions “hillbilly” whites (AKA “mountaineers” and “briar hoppers”) as a subset of her white underclass. But at other points, she makes it sound as if all poor whites lived with blacks in their midst and, when the Civil War came, went off with varying degrees of enthusiasm to fight to maintain their superiority over those blacks. In reality, many poor whites in Appalachia avoided what they saw as the war of the slave-holding planters of the Deep South and the cavaliers of the Tide-water region of Virginia — and even created a new state, West Virginia, in their resistance. Whether or not one buys into the Scots-Irish version of events, the history of greater Appalachia is one of provincial upstarts asserting themselves against elites, not merely one of dispossessed victims.
To have become a memoirist when he’s barely cracked 30, J. D. Vance suggests at the outset of “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” is “somewhat absurd” — except that the result couldn’t be better-timed. Vance’s story amounts to a one-family composite of nearly all the worrisome trends affecting poor white Americans.
The cover image of a mountain cabin is slightly misleading. Vance’s family straddles “hillbillies” who have remained in Appalachia and those whose ancestors left for work in the Midwest and are now struggling across the postindustrial flatlands. He still has relatives in Breathitt County, Kentucky, and feels a strong bond with that place. But most of the book is set where his grandparents moved decades ago and he grew up, the small manufacturing city of Middletown, in distinctly un-hilly southwestern Ohio.
Unlike Isenberg, Vance subscribes fully to the notion of the Appalachian Scots-Irish as a distinct breed of low-income Americans who have brought their pugilistic ways with them wherever they have gone. His family fits the bill to the point of straining credulity. His beloved maternal grandmother, Mamaw, once nearly killed a man who stole the family’s cow. His great-uncle forced a man who made a leering comment about the young Mamaw to eat her panties at knifepoint. Later, when Mamaw got angry that her husband, Papaw, had come home drunk again, she set him on fire. (One of their daughters put out the flames.) Papaw was no slouch himself, having once apparently killed a neighbor’s dog by feeding it steak marinated in antifreeze after it nearly bit Vance’s mom.
But Vance, a self-described conservative who has contributed to National Review, is not offering another lurid saga of hillbilly exploits. He is trying to figure out how things went wrong for his people. “I am a hill person. So is much of America’s white working class,” he writes. “And we hill people aren’t doing very well.”
In Vance’s story, the troubles are embodied above all in one person: his mother. After graduating high school as the salutatorian, Bev became a teenage mother, as Mamaw had also been, and embarked on a string of marriages — five, at last count. She was bright — “the smartest person I knew” — and drilled the importance of reading and education into her son. She checked out library books on football strategy to get him to think more deeply about the game he loved, and revamped his third-grade science project the night before it was due, just like any suburban helicopter mom.
But her marriages were riven by fighting. She drank heavily, and became addicted to the painkillers she could pilfer in her job as a nurse, and later to heroin. Vance and his older sister were raised amid an extreme form of the instability and dysfunction that Charles Murray and Robert Putnam lament: He grew up with three stepfathers, and during one two-year stretch he lived in four houses. At one low point, when he was 12, his mother was taken away in handcuffs after he fled to a stranger’s house to escape a beating from her. At another point, she asked him to pee into a cup so she could use his urine to pass a drug test. “Chaos begets chaos,” he writes. “Welcome to family life for the American hillbilly.”
Vance survives this endless turbulence, thanks in large part to the tough love he receives from Mamaw, living nearby, who sees in him a chance to redeem her parenting failures with Bev. His grades are good enough to get him into the best state colleges in Ohio. But fearing that he isn’t ready for unstructured campus life, he enlists in the Marine Corps, and gets a stint in Iraq and a large helping of maturity and perspective. After finishing his tour, he excels at Ohio State and, to his joyful amazement, is admitted to Yale Law School.
With the same appealing guilelessness that he brings to the story of his youthful ordeals, Vance describes the culture shock he experiences in New Haven. He doesn’t know what to make of the endless “cocktail receptions and banquets” that combine networking and matchmaking. At the fancy restaurant where he’s attending a law firm’s recruitment dinner, he spits out sparkling water, having never drunk such a thing. He calls his girlfriend from the restroom to ask her, ‘What do I do with all these damned forks?’ ”
His estrangement often reflects poorly on the echelon he’s joined, whose members, he says with understatement, could do a better job of “opening their hearts and minds to” newcomers. He is taken aback when law-school friends leave a mess at a chicken joint, and stays behind with another student from a low-income background, Jamil, to clean it up. “People,” he writes, “would say with a straight face that a surgeon mother and engineer father were middle-class.” To his astonishment, he is regarded as an exotic figure by his professors and classmates, simply by virtue of having come from a small town in the middle of the country, gone to a mediocre public high school, and been born to parents who didn’t attend college.
He adapts to his new world well enough to land at a Washington, D.C., law firm and later in a court clerkship, and is today prospering as a principal at an investment firm in San Francisco. But the outsider feeling lingers — hearing someone use a big word like confabulate in conversation makes his blood rise. “Sometimes I view members of the elite with an almost primal scorn,” he admits. And questions nag at him: “Why has no else from my high school made it to the Ivy League? Why are people like me so poorly represented in America’s elite institutions?” He is acutely aware of how easily he could have been trapped, had it not been for the caring intervention he received at key moments from people like Mamaw and his sister. “Thinking about … how close I was to the abyss, gives me chills. I am one lucky son of a b****.” He asks: How much of our lives, good and bad, should we credit to our personal decisions, and how much is just the inheritance of our culture, our families, and our parents who have failed their children? How much is Mom’s life her own fault? Where does blame stop and sympathy begin?
Vance’s answers read like works in progress: His passages of general social commentary could have benefited from longer gestation, and are strongest when grounded in his biography. He is well aware of the larger forces driving the cultural decline he deplores. He knows how much of the deterioration in Middletown can be traced to the shrinkage of the big Armco steel-rolling mill that, during World War II, drew so many Appalachians — including Papaw — to the town. His tales of the increasingly rarefied world of elite education offer good evidence for why “many people in my community began to believe that the modern American meritocracy was not built for them.”
But he also sees the social decline in personal terms, as a weakening of moral fiber and work ethic. He describes, for instance, working at a local grocery store, where he “learned how people gamed the welfare system”:
They’d buy two dozen-packs of soda with food stamps and then sell them at a discount for cash. They’d ring up their orders separately, buying food with food stamps, and beer, wine, and cigarettes with cash … Most of us were struggling to get by, but we made do, worked hard, and hoped for a better life. But a large minority was content to live off the dole. Every two weeks, I’d get a small paycheck and notice the line where federal and state income taxes were deducted from my wages. At least as often, our drug-addict neighbor would buy T-bone steaks, which I was too poor to buy for myself but was forced by Uncle Sam to buy for someone else.
As Vance notes, resentment of this sort — which surfaces again and again in his book — helps explain why voters in the world he came from have largely abandoned the Democrats, the party of the social safety net.
Nor is the animus new: Isenberg traces it back to the days when poor Southerners were scorned for availing themselves of the aid extended to freed slaves — and joined in the scorn as soon as they escaped the dole. “The same self-made man who looked down on white trash others had conveniently chosen to forget that his own parents escaped the tar-paper shack only with the help of the federal government,” she writes. “ ‘Upscale rednecks’ had no trouble spotting those below them in their rearview mirrors.” In Vance’s book, those “below” are mostly fellow whites and the resentment is not primarily racially motivated, as many liberals would have one believe of all anti-welfare sentiment.
Vance does not pivot from such observations to a full-blown indictment of social-welfare programs. He isn’t ready to join the Republican chorus that blames the government (and specifically the black president who now heads it) for all ills. But he zealously subscribes to its corollary: The government, in his view, can’t possibly cure those ills. In a summary that borders on the polemical, he exhorts the “broad community of hillbillies” to “wake the hell up” and seize control of its fate.
Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us … Mamaw refused to purchase bicycles for her grandchildren because they kept disappearing — even when locked up — from her front porch. She feared answering her door toward the end of her life because an able-bodied woman who lived next door would not stop bothering her for cash — money, we later learned, for drugs. These problems were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them.
Vance’s intentions here are sincere and understandable. He’s tired of folks back home talking big about hard work when they are collecting checks just like the people they denigrate — tired of “the lies we tell ourselves.” He’s fed up with the quick resort to political blame, like the acquaintance in Middletown who told him that he had quit work because he was sick of waking up early but then declared on Facebook that it was the “Obama economy” that had set him back. “Whenever people ask me what I’d most like to change about the white working class,” writes Vance, “I say, ‘The feeling that our choices don’t matter.’ ”
He is wrong, though, that the burden of fixing things falls entirely on his people. The problems he describes — the reasons life in Middletown got tougher for his mom’s generation than it was for Mamaw and Papaw when they came north for work — have plenty to do with decisions by “governments or corporations.” The government and corporations have presided over the rise of new monopolies, the effect of which has been to concentrate wealth in a handful of companies and regions. The government and corporations welcomed China into the World Trade Organization; more and more economists now believe that move hastened the erosion of American manufacturing, by encouraging U.S. companies to shift operations offshore. The government and corporations each did their part to weaken organized labor, which once boosted wages and strengthened the social fabric in places like Middletown. More recently, the government has accelerated the decline of the coal industry, on environmentally defensible grounds but with awfully little in the way of remedies for those affected.
Even at the edges, solutions lie within the purview of the powers that be — such as allowing Medicaid expansion to proceed in the South and expanding access to medication-assisted treatment to help people like Vance’s mother get off heroin. Yes, aid should be tailored to avoid the sort of resentment that Vance felt at the grocery store. At moments, he seems to acknowledge a role for taxpayer-funded compassion. “The best way to look at this might be to recognize that you probably can’t fix these things,” a friend who worked at the White House once told him. “They’ll always be around. But maybe you can put your thumb on the scale a little for the people at the margins.”
Perhaps you can even put your whole hand on the scale. One of the most compelling parts of Isenberg’s history is her account of the help delivered to struggling rural whites as part of the New Deal. Projects like the Resettlement Administration, led by Rexford Tugwell, which moved tenants to better land and provided loans for farm improvements, brought real progress. So did the Tennessee Valley Authority, which not only spurred development of much of the South but created training centers and entire planned towns — towns where hill children went to school with engineers’ kids. The New Deal had its flops. But men like Tugwell recognized that citizens in some places were slipping badly behind, and that their plight represented a powerful threat to the country’s founding ideals of individual self-determination and advancement.
A case can be made that the time has arrived for a major undertaking in, say, the devastated coal country of central Appalachia. How much to invest in struggling regions themselves, as opposed to making it easier for those who live in them to seek a livelihood elsewhere, is a debate that needs to happen. But the obligation is there, as it was 80 years ago. “We think of the left-behind groups as extinct,” Isenberg writes, “and the present as a time of advanced thought and sensibility. But today’s trailer trash are merely yesterday’s vagrants on wheels, an updated version of Okies in jalopies and Florida crackers in their carts. They are renamed often, but they do not disappear.”
Except they are now further out of sight than ever. As Isenberg documents, the lower classes have been disregarded and shunted off for as long as the United States has existed. But the separation has grown considerably in recent years. The elite economy is more concentrated than ever in a handful of winner-take-all cities — as Phillip Longman recently noted in the Washington Monthly, the per capita income of Washington, D.C., in 1980 was 29 percent above the average for Americans as a whole; in 2013, that figure was 68 percent. In the Bay Area, per capita income jumped from 50 percent to 88 percent above average over that period; in New York, from 80 percent to 172 percent. As these gaps have grown, the highly educated have become far more likely than those lower down the ladder to move in search of better-paying jobs.
The clustering is intensifying within regions, too. Since 1980, the share of upper-income households living in census tracts that are majority upper-income, rather than scattered throughout more mixed-income neighborhoods, has doubled. The upper echelon has increasingly sought comfort in prosperous insularity, withdrawing its abundant social capital from communities that relied on that capital’s overflow, and consolidating it in oversaturated enclaves.
So why are white Americans in downwardly mobile areas feeling a despair that appears to be driving stark increases in substance abuse and suicide? In my own reporting in Vance’s home ground of southwestern Ohio and ancestral territory of eastern Kentucky, I have encountered racial anxiety and antagonism, for sure. But far more striking is the general aura of decline that hangs over towns in which medical-supply stores and pawn shops dominate decrepit main streets, and Victorians stand crumbling, unoccupied. Talk with those still sticking it out, the body-shop worker and the dollar-store clerk and the unemployed miner, and the fatalism is clear: Things were much better in an earlier time, and no future awaits in places that have been left behind by polished people in gleaming cities. The most painful comparison is not with supposedly ascendant minorities — it’s with the fortunes of one’s own parents or, by now, grandparents. The demoralizing effect of decay enveloping the place you live cannot be underestimated. And the bitterness — the “primal scorn” — that Donald Trump has tapped into among white Americans in struggling areas is aimed not just at those of foreign extraction. It is directed toward fellow countrymen who have become foreigners of a different sort, looking down on the natives, if they bother to look at all.
SATURDAY, AUGUST 06, 2016. 12:45 a.m. [GMT]