White Trash - The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America

White Trash is a highly readable work of social history. It delves into the worlds of history, politics, sociology, economics, and media studies with an eye toward class in America.

I’ve found myself in many discussions lately about the rise of populism in America, the continuing racism at the center of our politics and policies, the popularity of national candidates like Trump and Sanders, and the failures of democratic institutions to serve all citizens equitably. Invariably, during these discussions, the role of race and class is brought up. Isenberg, in this book, sets out with a singular focus - to tell the story of class in America, since its inception. This is a welcomed addition to other narratives about racism, economic inequality, the urban/rural split and so on. Although Isenberg’s addition is largely well constructed, she chooses - seemingly arbitrarily - to dive deep into certain episodes of American history while ignoring others. No one book can encompass the entirety of this argument, yes, and she is clear at the beginning what she is and is not going to discuss, but some explanation of why there is so little discussion of race, why the singular focus on Whites, why the lack of discussion of WWII for example, would’ve helped to bolster her case. At one point she describes a separation between race and class but spends very little time drawing out that argument. I would’ve loved more discussion about where racism loses explanatory power and where classism picks up.

In the end, this book provides great context to understand America as it exists today. To understand the plight of white Americans in rural areas like the South and Appalachia. To give a fuller picture of power dynamics in our country that depend on exploitation, hoarding of power in certain circles, while systematically keeping it from others. Recent socio-economic patterns, like those described by Case and Deaton in their study of drug abuse and mortality rates among poor whites, are only the latest canaries in century old coal mines. It is upon us to keep digging.