Wednesday, May 22, 2024

It's no wonder "white trash" is so prominent in America. That's who founded it

Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election because, like so many politicians before him, such as Bill Clinton, he refused to be the usual scripted politician and embraced “the common man, the working stiff, the forgotten rural American,” according to Nancy Isenberg in White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.

Turns out, sound deliberation and calm problem solving have never been the reality of the U.S. political landscape, which jibes with my master’s thesis, which concluded that personal foibles tend to help presidential candidates win office. 

The scumbag family that accuses a Black man of rape in To Kill a Mockingbird, disgraced chef Paula Deen, and the Duke boys of Dukes of Hazzard are all popular examples of white trash - “marginalized Americans stigmatized for their inability to be productive, to own property, or to produce healthy and upwardly mobile children.” These examples of “human waste” were known as “waste people” as early as colonial times in the 1500s.

British colonizers saw the New World as the perfect place to ship its most unproductive and idle people. One reason we don’t see it this way any long, Isenberg writes, is that our elementary-school history lessons tend to become pretty much the extent of what we still know years later as adults, which, essentially equates to a series of vague myths about American exceptionalism, our uniqueness, and that there is an absence of class in our country. “Americans do not like to talk about class. It is not supposed to be important in our history. It is not who we are.”

We celebrate the Pilgrims only because Thanksgiving was invented to boost the struggling poultry (turkey) industry during the Civil War. And earlier, just because the country had won its independence from England, it doesn’t mean the British class system suddenly went away. “Long-entrenched beliefs about poverty and the willful exploitation of human labor … [meant that some humans have] remained disposable well into modern times.” 

In the time of Shakespeare, French and English intellectuals became fascinated with the idea of sending Sir Walter Raleigh and other like-minded “men of action endowed with larger-than-life egos, heroism, and ill-tempered public behavior” overseas to the “almost inconceivable” wilderness of America, which they imagined to be filled with cannibals that could be tamed and subordinated and helpful in gathering natural resources for "the greater good."

But it wasn’t just the wealthy and educated who thought the artisans, the poor, and the homeless should be the ones put to better use in America. "This view of poverty was widely shared." Most of the settlers of the early 1600s to Jamestown died off quickly and a good portion of the rest “dreamt of finding gold, which did little to inspire hard work.” Gold didn’t pan out but some success started to happen with the “filthy weed” tobacco. The land was still barren by the late 1600s but the process for distributing land ownership and the creation of a white slave class ensured an already deeply entrenched division of classes. 

The 700 or so who landed on the Mayflower and other ships in Massachusetts were considered slightly less scum-of-the-Earth. They were, like the Jamestown arrivals, big on land ownership, but unlike those in Jamestown they were religion crazy. When two Quaker women tried to escape the church community, they were charged with contempt and hung. Pretty standard stuff. Class rank was becoming even more embedded in Puritan America, with “age, reputation, marriage, estate, number of sons all properly calculated before a church seat was assigned.”

Bacon’s Rebellion is an example of a defining event of the era. Sir Francis Bacon originated from wealth but decided to fight for the lower class. Part of what he was rebelling against was the “the most promising land was never equally available for all.” The game was rigged against many people, something that should sound similar to all of us today - no matter whether we’re on the rich or poor side of the divide.

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