Three new books try to untangle the Gordian knot of white-trash identity.
From the cover of Hillbilly Elegy.
Scan the headlines and you’ll find that everyone’s talking about how the white trash have made their presence felt. The white trash support Trump; the white trash are losing ground; the white trash should be honored by the government for their hard work and sacrifices; the white trash are continuing to redirect their aggression at other racial minorities instead of the robber barons who exploit them.
But who exactly are these people, these trashy whites who have found themselves, in the words of sociologist C. Wright Mills, “without purpose in an epoch in which they are without power?”
Thanks to a spate of newly released books on the topic, we readers can begin fumbling towards some preliminary answers. For those interested in a first-person account of white-trash living, there’s J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, a spare and poignant look at impoverished rural Ohio and Kentucky. Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America offers a concise and highly readable overview of the subject beginning with colonization and concluding with the Clintons. Carol Anderson’s White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide examines a series of events, ranging from Reconstruction to the election of Barack Obama, after which seeming gains for African Americans were quickly met by massive resistance from whites.
Anderson’s book provides one important clue for why white-trash identity has so violently reasserted itself. All around the country, nonwhite minorities have begun to vocalize their discontent, in the process winning at least symbolic concessions from white authority figures. “The trigger for white rage,” Anderson writes, “is black advancement.” This explanation, while correct, offers only part of the answer. A white-trash reaction, insofar as it can be understood at all, requires some understanding of the various social, economic, and cultural factors that have intersected to create the white trash.
One source of information is from first-person accounts, usually authored by people who have since escaped the squalid conditions they are now endeavoring to document. J. D. Vance works in this venerable tradition, even as he now stands apart from it as a Yale Law School–educated winner of the class wars. Such contemporary navel-gazing assertions of white-trash identity, as by Vance when he discusses his ascent from southern Ohio misery in Hillbilly Elegy, may accomplish something rather pernicious: while ostensibly accurate—the poverty and privation Vance experienced and describes in precise lawyerly detail is real—such recognition elides the critical point that being white means not being black.
This core concept, explored years earlier in books such as Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom and David Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness, is deliberately omitted from Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, and it’s not emphasized in Isenberg’s White Trash. This is understandable from a narrative sense; the authors have specific ideas they wish to explore, and Isenberg’s account in particular would become muddied if every chapter concluded with some peroration about how, notwithstanding what she had just written, African Americans have had it worse.
Situating white trash in the racial hierarchy is one thing—many scholars have already done that, to great effect—and offering a provisional explanation of who they are is another. This is where Isenberg’s new book is particularly handy, since it offers such a firm rebuke to the foundational myth of America as a “classless” society. In an account spanning four centuries, Isenberg uses the writing of elites like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson to dispel the notion that ours was a society that refrained from drawing social distinctions (and while this notion has been dispelled many times before, it never hurts to say it again, in a different register).
Over and over, Isenberg explains, those seventeenth century “waste people” today labeled white trash were forced into defensive positions, driven to the poorest-performing farms on the most distant frontiers, away from interactions with social superiors who at times speculate they may be genetically distinct from these pitiful wretches. In the past two decades, many among the white trash—still on the defensive, as ever—have been motivated to support reactionary political causes. The writer Thomas Frank argues in What’s the Matter With Kansas? that these individuals are voting against their economic interests, but Isenberg provides compelling evidence that they might be attempting to preserve things more important to them: their reputations and their way of life, such as they are. (Elliott Gorn’s work on nineteenth century rough-and-tumble fighting among poor whites also noted that honor alone impelled these violent conflicts, which often ended only with the gouging of an eyeball from its socket.) Today, as some among the white trash throw their support behind Donald Trump’s wall-building, xenophobic presidential campaign, it remains an open question as to whether most of them fantasize about inflicting grievous hurt on others or if they merely wish to be heard.
It was against this backdrop of white-trash mobilization that I attended graduate school, my late-2000s Ph.D. cohort consisting mostly of white Americans and Europeans, as well as a few nonwhites whose quiet struggles bulk even larger in retrospect. Perhaps once upon a time, during my brief libertarian undergraduate phase, I might have characterized my upbringing as Vance does his: an unstinting immersion in rural benightedness, backwardness, domestic violence, and outright criminality that ceased only when I pulled up my pants, tucked in my shirt, and started making good grades.
Vance’s mother had repeated brushes with the law, leading to his placement with his grandparents; the same thing happened to me after a grand jury indicted one of my parents in an embarrassingly public trial. Pain is subjective and the psychic toll of abuse cannot be quantified, but going solely by Vance’s own disclosures, my brother and I endured far more controlled beatings and outright thrashings in a single week than he did over the course of an entire childhood—but what do such “who had it worse?” contests matter when that treatment had no discernible impact on my life save instilling a certain knee-jerk skittishness I’ve never been fully able to conceal?
And perhaps in graduate school I might have expressed confusion, even consternation, at the odd folkways and mores of the educated upper class, as Vance does regarding interactions with fellow students and potential employers while attending Yale Law School. I might have briefly thought, as Holly Genovese observes in her recent essay “Coding ‘White Trash’ in Academia,” that “my differences—in public education and cultural knowledge—couldn’t be undone,” with the result being “an in-betweenness, a lack of belonging.” Or, as California-born bumpkin turned Harvard philosopher Josiah Royce put it a century earlier, “I was never a person cultivated in any aesthetic sense, and I remain more barbarous as to such matters than can easily be suspected.”
My father, whose Job-like childhood hardships amid the West Virginia coalfields somehow beggared mine or Vance’s, would have laughed at such navel-gazing. Having first escaped from poverty on a college football scholarship and later become the owner of a franchise car dealership, he was fond of remarking how “anything is possible in this country for a white man.” He said this because he was an unrepentant if unmindful racist, like many other whites of his generation who hailed from rural Appalachia, but the point stands. Anything is indeed at least theoretically possible in the United States for a white man.
This is not meant to diminish the stories of Vance, Genovese, or myself. However, once our accents flattened and we learned which forks to use at the dinner table, our odds of total assimilation increased dramatically. That is David Roediger’s central assertion in The Wages of Whiteness: during the course of our existence as American whites, a category created as the ancestral habits and languages of our immigrant forebears fell away and left behind only a white skin, we could avail ourselves of certain inherent ideological advantages even if we lacked pecuniary ones.
Instead of grappling with the complexities of this realization, Vance instead uses the latter half of Hillbilly Elegy to retrace the steps he took, beginning with enlistment in the Marine Corps after a turbulent high school experience, to escape the doomed area where so many of his unfortunate acquaintances still reside. This comes as a disappointment, given the skillful way he sketches his “hillbilly royalty” relatives (some of his ancestors participated in the legendary backwoods Hatfield-McCoy feud) and their dysfunctional yet strangely admirable existences. His Ohio is a world I knew all too well but lacked the confidence to ever consider exploring, because what would such an exploration even look like? Vance, I hoped, might have what it takes to untangle this Gordian knot of identity.
But this was not to be. Instead of ambivalence and ambiguity, we are eventually treated to some garden-variety libertarian moralizing, with Vance positing that merit—and merit alone!—as the way out of the morass of poverty and indolence that characterizes white -rash life. For a lawyer with a thorough grounding in argumentation, perhaps this path was unavoidable: the simplest answer, whether presented to a jury or judge, is typically the winning one. But in a vast postindustrial society where every participant in the market-capitalist marathon is given a staggered start based on his or her race, gender identity, sexual identity, or economic class, advancement by merit is not so much an answer as a beguiling illusion to those who commence the race in more advantaged positions. Some start on third base and proceed blithely through life convinced they hit a triple, while others, Vance among them, advance from first to second on a throwing error yet believe effort alone helped them swat a ground-rule double.
From there, it is an easy enough thing to blame those who lag behind, as Vance does when urging that poor whites must change their ways if they wish to attend Yale Law School, hang out with Peter Thiel, and write think pieces for the National Review. There is something gratifying, I suppose, about identifying the “white trash” and then sharing with others how you worked overtime to distance yourself from their scummy world. “Pity no more would be / If we did not make somebody Poor,” observed the poet and social radical William Blake, “And mercy no more could be / If all were as happy as we.” The real benefit of urging less fortunate peers to pull up their pants and tuck in their shirts has more to do with rationalizing one’s own success in an unequal society than with genuinely uplifting the multitudes. After all, without constantly reminding yourself that you got wherever you are by dint of your own exertions, how could you sleep at night?
And many us can’t sleep at night, my late father included. He died two years ago, at the age of seventy-four, but had a nervous breakdown at an automobile-dealers’ convention two decades prior to that. He described the experience as a religious vision, an encounter in his hotel room with a calming “white light” that explained to him he would never have to work again—and he never did. I hated him for this decision to abandon his businesses, because it bankrupted our family and destroyed my very high quality of living, and it was only in recent years, over the course of thousands of e-mails sent to me while I was in graduate school, that he bothered to explain why.
Apparently, after thirty years spent “chasing a buck” while pretending to be something he wasn’t, he was emotionally exhausted. He had done many of the things that J. D. Vance recommended, from changing the way he dressed to curing himself of his many harmful drug addictions, but at heart he remained a “scumbag” who wanted to relocate to Glacier National Park and live out his final years completely hidden from view. For years he had woken up to night terrors of being abused by his “whoreo of an old man,” a sociopathic ex-submariner who brutalized him and his sister but took special pleasure in torturing the stray dogs and cats my father would secretly adopt as pets. Even as he succeeded at sports and business, my father could never shake these early childhood associations. He was prone to reckless and at times criminal behavior, behavior he admitted he greatly preferred to “doing the right thing.”
Once upon a time, if you had called my father white trash, or a more region-specific insult like “hunky,” his thirty-year-old self would have retaliated by administering the beating of a lifetime. He was no “dumb coal patch hunky”—far from it. Like Vance, he was on a fast track to joining the elite, or at least whatever vision of the elite he entertained at the time. He owned a bar, two airplanes, and several car lots; he was a businessman, someone who acted like a “white man” instead of “white trash.” But by the end of his life, he had embraced his origins and admitted without shame that “you can’t change who you are” and that the truly rich, whom he had come to detest, had no use for try-hard parvenus.
That was far too pat; it seemed to me that he was simply a man who had never sorted out his complex identities, in part because he never had a forum for discussing them in a serious way. The question, as yet unaddressed by Vance or anybody else, hangs in the air: if the white trash cannot speak candidly of themselves—if they are only ever spoken of by elites, as Isenberg recounts—how might they hope to speak truth to power?
In a world that increasingly comprises plutocrats and proles, the classes and the masses, the 1 percent and the rest, the need for yet another multifaceted critique from below remains urgent.
Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist who lives in Pittsburgh.
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