History Book Club
Wednesday, April 26, 2017
History of Class in America
Wednesday, April 26, 2017: History of Class in America We’ve often bragged that Americans started out resisting the class structure. Our Revolutionary War ancestors looked with disdain on King George III and the whole British system of landed gentry and the ponderous trappings of the aristocracy.
However-- our Founding Fathers included men like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, owners of much land and many slaves. Aristocrats in our new world.
Also, before and after we fought to separate ourselves from Great Britain, indentured servants were coming to young America, to fill the bottom rungs of society.
The campaign and election of Donald Trump made me take a hard look at the subject of “Class” in America.
Perhaps we have been able to shield ourselves from a lot of the hereditary system of Great Britain, but society has a natural selection process whereby some people migrate upward and voilà! — There they are at the top.
It may be their wealth, either personally acquired or inherited, it may be their brains, their musical or athletic ability, perhaps a record of solid achievements, or their natural human manipulation skills, including a clever tongue.
Of course, none of those qualities guarantees that a person will be accepted in the rarefied atmosphere at the top. Society has a rather brutal way of separating out newcomers, parvenus, social climbers and nouveau riche, and it’s not always what we might consider fair.
In America, many of us find we gravitate to the great middle class, and membership there is not so technical. It seems that if you feel you are “middle class”, there you are! You can fall on hard times, of course, lose your job, maybe fall into illness and drugs, and end up in the lowest reaches of society.
Below the “Middle Class” we have the “Working Class”. The dividing line between “Middle” and “Working” is not always clear. In my observation, many people make up their minds that they are in either one, and few will argue. There are gradations that help to give an indication of where one fits on the social ladder, like income, education, and work history.
The phenomenon of Trump’s election was that he recognized that there was a vast swath of America that felt “left out” by the events of the past decade. Mostly white working class, with high school education, or less, they felt that voters in selecting a black man for President, had ignored them. Perhaps they just sat out the elections of 2008 and 2012. Certainly many who had a record of voting Republican were turned off by the elitism of Mitt Romney.
These same working class whites felt that America had bypassed them with jobs. A president eager to cope with global warming and cleaning up the environment had waged a war on coal mining, and that deeply affected men in many states. That black president seemed to welcome all ethnic groups, and to them, that didn’t seem right. When Donald Trump told them he’d bring back coal mining jobs, they were listening. When he told them he’d build a wall to keep the Mexicans out, and start deporting all those who were here illegally, they listened.
When he said he’d keep out the Muslims. And destroy ISIS, they were on his side.
Many of these men have a feeling that “the government” is working to take away their guns, and this brings up the vague sense of suspicion of African Americans and Hispanics. “A black president wants to take away my gun?”
Donald Trump knew just what to do to win these men, and their women, to his side.
Nancy Isenberg WHITE TRASH, The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America; Illustrated. New York: Viking. 2016. $28. 460 pp.
The term “White Trash” is a turn-off to many. Few of us would like to be put in that category. However, Nancy Isenberg, a professor of American History at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, LA, set out to study what has happened to the bottom class of white Americans, from the days when British officials sent poor people to the New World simply to get rid of them.
Isenberg tells the history of the people who came to America as castoffs from Europe, sent to the New World because no one knew what else to do with them. Others came among the thousands of working class people looking for a fresh start. Thousands of poor Irish families came to escape starvation in the Irish potato famine of the middle 19th century. Poor German and eastern European Jews, came to escape the pogroms and terrible mistreatment in their native countries.
As time went on, most of these people migrated into the American Middle Class, and some made it to become part of a new American upper class, not by virtue of birth and parentage, but by hard work and brains.
Some of course migrated downward, part of the natural filtration, where some cannot hold a job, some lack intelligence or drive, or just bad luck, and there they are…. Like unpopped popcorn in the bottom of the bag.
In 17th-century Virginia, people denounced indentured servants as society’s “offscourings,” a term for fecal matter. A century later, the lowest class were called “useless lubbers” of “Poor Carolina,” a place the author calls the “first white trash colony.” In the early 19th century, landowners described the landless rural poor as foolish “crackers”, idle, vagabond “squatters”, “sandhillers”, “clay-eaters” or “mudsills”. The book includes photos of these people, some with pale faces, probably from eating clay and dirt, half the size of normal people from worms, other diseases and poor nutrition.
What to do about this “White Trash”? The latter part of the 19th century produced solutions that amounted to eugenics. Sterilization of people to prevent their breeding a “generation of imbeciles”. Race, as always is involved here, although Isenberg tries to focus her history of class to whites, there is often the suggestion of “contamination” by people of so-called “lesser races”, that is, not white.
Isenberg, a professor at a leading southern university, seems to find that the majority of the lowest rung of whites live in the South. As a native of Texas, I’ve seen this before. There seems to be a feeling that the south retains the poor sharecropper and the descendants of the indentured servants and prisoners brought to America from Europe.
Reconstruction, in the decades following the Civil War, saw the freed slaves pitted against poor whites by demagogues who sought to stir up trouble. Just a casual suggestion that the newly freed blacks were going to murder whites and rape their women was enough to fill the Ku Klux Klan with angry, ignorant whites, ready to lynch Negroes.
There were not a few subtle suggestions floated in the air in the 2016 election season, aimed at creating suspicion about our black President, and his supporters seeking to take guns away, and aiming to flood the country with welfare cases and Muslims, and giving sanctuary to undocumented aliens.
What to do about the “White Trash”? For starters, it may be time to quit separating people by skin color, and calling any group “Trash” is not helpful to resolving anything.
Now, let us look at “Class” from the inside.
J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis; New York: HarperCollins, 2016.
This best-seller is a fascinating memoir about hillbillies living in Kentucky, then migrating to find factory jobs in Ohio, but always coming back to the hills for family celebrations.
J.D. Vance tells about his family: his Mother, who started with prescription drugs and went downhill on opiates. Working in a hospital, she was stealing drugs from patients, and one day in her mixed-up world she thought it would be good to go rollerblading through the emergency room. She had a continual stream of boyfriends, and a daughter, and J.D. Critical to this family were her parents, Mamaw and Papaw, who lived nearby. But not in the same house. These two were elaborate cussers, but god fearing and hardworking, and provided young J.D. and his sister the only stability they knew.
J.D. is one who manages to get away from the grinding poverty of his childhood. He joins the Marines, and then goes to college and on to Yale Law School. Still, he has the bad dreams and can never escape the scars of his early life.
The Rust Belt town to which his family escaped is Middletown, Ohio, where Obama is viewed with suspicion, Reagan just a memory. People love the military, but cannot name a single military leader, like they once could of George S. Patton. The space age is old news, and no one knows any astronauts any more. Recessions have hastened the downward trajectory of Middletown.
Vance doesn’t mention his name, but it is clear to see that this city is just waiting for Donald Trump to show up with his promises and message of hope.
HISTORY BOOK CLUB TOPICS FOR 2017
Wednesday, May 31, 2017: Famines in the World. Famines have killed millions over the centuries. In modern times there have been disastrous famines in Somalia, Congo, South Sudan, all over West Africa. The Irish Potato Famine of 1845-49 killed over a million and sent many to America. Famines in Russia, Korea, China, Japan, Poland, England, Iceland, France, Italy, Sweden, Finland and India all have legends attached to them. [Suggested by Linda Burkell and Walt Frederick]
Wednesday, June 28, 2017: History of English/British Colonialism It started in the latter part of the 15th Century with plantations in Ireland. Read how the United Kingdom grew to become the greatest Empire in the history of the world. If you wish, home in on British slave trade, and how the U.K. colonized the New World, bringing slaves to grow sugar and cotton. Then Napoleonic Wars and Britain’s seizure of French Colonies. America and Canada. Colonization of Asia in Hong Kong, Malaya, Australia, New Zealand, India, Burma. Africa, and more for you to discover. [Suggested by Richard Heuser]
Wednesday, July 26, 2017:euser]
Treasure Hunts in History. This is your opportunity to find a treasure and discover the hunt for it, whether it is the quest for gold in California, diamonds in Africa, the hunt for the pharaohs buried in the pyramids, the hunt to discover a cure for polio or yellow fever, the terracotta army buried with Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China, the search for the source of the Nile, the discovery of Neanderthal man… This topic is for you to imagine! [Suggested by Walt Frederick]
Wednesday, August 31, 2017: Gloucester and the Sea. euser]Gloucester has throughout four centuries cast its lot with the North Atlantic, remaining a maritime port for better or worse. The maritime culture of Cape Ann is the mix of a noble maritime heritage; ubiquitous sea influences that reach as far as the quarries behind Rockport and into the haunted tracks of Dogtown Common; seductive but capricious natural splendors; and untidy independence that repels some but converts other visitors into lifetime devotees. We plan to invite Chester Brigham, author of Gloucester’s Bargain with the Sea, to join us. Read this or any other book about the maritime history of Gloucester. [Suggested by Richard Ver