Danville, Va., the gritty Southern mill town where my parents were born and raised, is a city born out of slavery. Before the Civil War, tobacco planters living upstream along the Dan River sent their field slaves on flatboats laden with freshly harvested tobacco to Danville where slaves from many plantations cleaned and dried the tobacco for shipment. After the war, the emancipated slaves and their descendants, excluded by law and custom from most other work, worked in Danville during tobacco season for the next 120 years, well into my own lifetime.
This naturally boosted the city’s black population, and in the early-1880s, Danville had a majority-black city council, along with black policemen and justices of the peace. Shortly before a bloody race riot in 1883, in which four black people were killed, put an end to this brief period of black rule, local white investors founded a cotton mill that, by adhering to a strict policy of hiring only white workers, made Danville once again a majority-white city government by often ruthless segregationists.
This history, and my own observation of its aftermath, is the lens through which I read Nancy Isenberg’s provocative new history White Trash, and it’s the reason I found Isenberg’s book by turns fascinating and exasperating. The Danville I knew as a child was really three cities. One, where my grandparents lived, was a Mayberry-like Southern town of tree-lined streets where children set up lemonade stands and frolicked in backyard swimming pools. A mile away was the old mill village where thousands of white mill workers lived in tiny whitewashed homes that had once been owned by the mill, which rented them at reduced rates to its workers. A mile or so from the mill village, across the tracks of the Southern Railroad, was black Danville, where the poorest of the migrant tobacco workers lived in mud-floored shacks standing in the flood plain of the Dan River.
Danville’s rigidly enforced social geography lasted into the late-1970s when globalization began eating into the profits of Dan River Mills, which at its height had employed some 14,000 people, the great majority of them white. From the time of its founding in the 1880s, Dan River Mills made an implicit deal with its white work force: work in its mills would be arduous, hot, and poorly paid, but white workers could count on having food for their families, a roof over their heads, and freedom from having to compete with black workers, who, quite obviously, would have worked the same job for less pay.
When this social compact crumbled, undone first by the Civil Rights Movement, which forced a greater integration of the work force, and later by the global economy, which bled the mill dry, it left thousands of white Danvillians, many of whose parents and grandparents had worked in the mill, without a way to make a living. A generation later, those white Danvillians, along with millions of other disaffected working-class white people across the South and the Rust Belt, are lining up for Donald Trump, who is running for president on a promise to bring back an America that existed before globalization, immigration, and racial integration destroyed the world I knew as a boy in Danville.
This was the history I was hoping to find explicated in Isenberg’s study of working-class white society, which appeared in bookstores last month eerily well-timed to help Americans understand the social and economic forces propelling Trump’s rise. What I found instead was half that story. In White Trash, Isenberg sets herself the task of puncturing the myth of American exceptionalism when it comes to social class. “Above all,” she writes, “we must stop declaring what is patently untrue, that Americans, through some rare good fortune, escaped the burden of class that prevailed in the mother country of England.”
This case Isenberg makes convincingly. The early — and best — chapters of White Trash detail how 17th-century British elites saw the American colonies as a vast dumping ground for England’s lower classes in order “to drayne away the filth” from the homeland. Each succeeding generation of colonial elite further distanced itself from these lower caste British settlers, many of whom arrived in America as indentured servants, until they formed an essentially permanent white underclass known variously as “squatters,” “crackers,” “clay-eaters,” “mudsills,” and more recently, “rednecks,” “hillbillies,” and “trailer trash.”
But even as Isenberg debunks one politically convenient fiction, she perpetuates an equally pernicious one, that of the special victimization of the white poor. Time and again, Isenberg soft-pedals the long and ugly history of white-on-black violence and minimizes the myriad ways — legal, economic, social, and cultural — the poorest of poor whites have been privileged over black and brown Americans.
Perhaps the most glaring example of this is Isenberg’s handling of the Civil Rights Era, which in White Trash all but boils down to a single, curiously framed discussion of the standoff between poor white Arkansans and black students trying to integrate Little Rock’s Central High in 1957. Isenberg builds this brief section around a famous news photo of a 15-year-old white Central High student named Hazel Bryan hurling epithets at Elizabeth Eckford, a black student making her way through an angry white crowd on the first day of school.
“Eckford looked calm, was dressed modestly, and appeared earnest,” Isenberg writes of the photo. “Her white adversary [Bryan] wore a dress that was too tight, and as she propelled herself forward, menacingly, mouth agape, she projected the crude callousness of the recognized white trash type. That contrast was precisely what the photographers intended to record.” In images sent out over the news wires, Isenberg writes, Bryan appeared as “the face of white trash. Ignorant. Unrepentant. Congenitally cruel. Only capable of replicating the pathetic life into which she was born.”
This framing is just plain odd. In her discussion of Civil Rights Era, surely a crucial period in any account of the role of poor white people in American history, Isenberg says nothing of the lynching of Emmett Till, the vicious mob attacks on the Freedom Riders in 1961, Bull Connor’s dogs, or the four little girls blown up in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963. The Ku Klux Klan, that 150-year-old force of white violence and intimidation, rates just four glancing mentions in the entire book, most noting in passing that this or that historical figure had once been a member or said something nice about the organization. Instead, Isenberg’s lone substantive discussion of the Civil Rights Era focuses on how one white teenager was stereotyped as “the face of white trash,” effectively turning the aggressor into a victim, a mere pawn of a manipulative national media eager dismiss poor whites as somehow less than human.
Of course, in an important way, the Hazel Bryans of the world were pawns of a white Southern elite that happily left to poor whites the dirty work of enforcing segregation. As Isenberg notes, Bryan’s school, Central High, the students of which were poor and white, was scheduled for integration, while another high school on the city’s tonier west side was to remain all-white. And Bryan needed, desperately, the advantages that Central High offered. Bryan’s parents were high school dropouts who had moved the family from rural Arkansas where their home had no indoor plumbing. Her father, a disabled veteran, didn’t work, and her mother worked at a Westinghouse plant in Little Rock. “Permeable racial boundaries would pull down people like her even further,” Isenberg writes of Bryan.
Still, Bryan was hardly a victim. Isenberg doesn’t record it, but as the famous photograph was being shot, Bryan was shouting, “Go home, nigger! Go back to Africa!” Around her, other white Central High students were shouting at Eckford, who had mistakenly arrived at school alone that day, “Lynch her! Lynch her! No nigger bitch is going to get into our school!” Will Counts, the photographer who caught Hazel Bryan on film, took an equally famous picture that same day of a black reporter being kicked and beaten by the angry mob.
But it’s just as important to understand why those white kids outside Central High were calling for the lynching of a defenseless black girl and beating a black newsman bloody in front of the national press corps. They were defending a centuries-old system of laws and cultural practices that privileged poor white people over black Americans of all social classes. If the Westinghouse plant where Bryan’s mother worked was anything like most factories in the South, it was every bit as segregated as the local schools, and if the loan on her family’s home in Little Rock was anything like those on most homes in America at the time, it was guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration, which systematically discriminated against black homeowners for decades.
This is the half of the story White Trash leaves out. In the Danville I knew as a child, and in the America one finds in pioneering works of history like C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow and W.J. Cash’s The Mind of the South, white elites rigged the system so poor whites got slightly better schools, slightly better jobs, and slightly better homes, and then were expected to defend those privileges against people of color, often violently. Poor whites ended up with the short end of the stick, but they fought in the knowledge that they were at least better off than their black counterparts who got nothing.
Isenberg occasionally says things in White Trash that are simply untrue, such as this head-scratcher regarding race and law enforcement: “Poor whites were inexpensive and expendable, and found their lot comparable to suffering African Americans when it came to the justice system.” Far more often, she is merely selective in her facts, playing up the suffering of the white working class while skirting history that might paint them in a bad light. Thus, in her chapter on the Reconstruction Era, Isenberg spends several pages on “scalawags,” the poor white dissenters from white supremacist ideology who tried to build a more racially equitable South after the Civil War, while never mentioning the Klan and its infamous night riders. In a similar vein, in her discussion of the 20th-century pseudo-science of eugenics, Isenberg focuses on the forced sterilization of poor white women judged “feebleminded” while downplaying the fact that much of eugenic theory was openly racist (see “Nazi Germany, influence on”) and that many forced sterilization programs targeted black women.
This all matters because perhaps more than at any time in recent memory, we are in desperate need of a fair-minded accounting of the history of white America. The 2016 presidential campaign is about many things, but one of its running themes is white America and its opposite, be it Mexican immigrants, Muslim militants, or black Americans. Are the working-class white voters at Trump rallies right that political correctness has gone too far and the liberal elite’s coddling of minorities and immigrants has left hard-working white Americans vulnerable? Is the recent spate of shootings of black motorists by white police officers a tragic aberration or the latest twist in a long history of white police brutality toward black men? Is it racist to say “All Lives Matter”? If so, why?
Americans searching for answers to these questions are thrown headlong into a clangorous scrum of cable-news shouters, hashtag revolutionaries, and online conspiracy theorists. Nancy Isenberg is none of these things. She is a tenured professor of history at Louisiana State University and the author of Fallen Founder, a respected biography of Aaron Burr, our third vice president. So it is profoundly dispiriting to find her history of poor white America leaving out such a crucial thread of the story.
This strikes me less a failure of scholarship than a failure of imagination. Isenberg appears to have decided to write a history of poor white America and then persuaded herself that poor black America was only tangential to her story. This frightens me almost as much as news that Trump ranks within the margin of error in national polls. If America’s historians, who have dedicated their lives to understanding our past, who have spent years digging through the archives, can be so blind to the meaning of their own history, what hope is there for the rest of us to confront this very real and present crisis we are facing?