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Publisher's Summary

The wretched and landless poor have existed from the time of the earliest British colonial settlement. They were alternately known as "waste people", "offals", "rubbish", "lazy lubbers", and "crackers". By the 1850s the downtrodden included so-called "clay eaters" and "sandhillers", known for prematurely aged children distinguished by their yellowish skin, ragged clothing, and listless minds.
In White Trash, Nancy Isenberg upends assumptions about America's supposedly class-free society. Poor whites were central to the rise of the Republican Party in the early 19th century, and the Civil War itself was fought over class issues nearly as much as it was fought over slavery. Reconstruction pitted poor white trash against newly freed slaves, which factored in the rise of eugenics. These poor were at the heart of New Deal reforms and LBJ's Great Society; they haunt us in reality TV shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty.
We acknowledge racial injustice as an ugly stain on our nation's history. With Isenberg's landmark book, we will have to face the truth about the enduring, malevolent nature of class as well.
©2016 Nancy Isenberg (P)2016 Tantor
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Critic Reviews

"This is breathtaking social history and dazzling cultural analysis at its best." (Michael Eric Dyson, author of Holler If You Hear Me)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful
2 out of 5 stars
By Buretto on 02-23-18

Nothing Exposed Here, There's Better Elsewhere

What disappointed you about White Trash?

I guess I expected it to be a more informative account of the history and evolution of class structure in the country. But, full disclosure... it sat in my wish list for several months, languishing as I chose more interesting titles. So deep down, I probably did know better.

The problem is, who is this book for? Progressives or liberals (as I would identify) already know, or should already know, ALL of this. There is literally nothing "untold" being told in this book. Moderates, I expect, would be turned off by the contemptuous tone of the book, and look for some middle ground. And conservatives would never even read/listen to it, dismissing it as liberal propaganda. It just fails to fulfil its promise all around the course.

What could Nancy Isenberg have done to make this a more enjoyable book for you?

She could have followed through on the promise of actually exposing myths and laying bare the intrinsic hypocrisy of America. To be fair this has been done in many other, far better books. Charles C. Mann's 1491/1493 touches on some of the earlier elements of this. Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen also gives a much richer account. Even The Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, not a great read by any measure, gives better information. I'd thought this book could be a good companion to those, but was disappointed.

Furthermore, the author uses some terms, like Anglo-Saxon, over and over again... sometimes correctly, mostly not. The problem is, it's hard to tell if she is reflecting the racists' appropriation of the term, or she herself misunderstands it. Similar sketchy passages referring to Darwinism, survival of the fittest, and eugenics don't fill the listener with confidence that the author is completely conversant in these fields.

Similarly, it's hard to follow if the author is condemning the systems which created the waste people, or in fact condemning the waste people themselves. In some cases, each may be warranted, but where I think she really lost me was when she utterly fails to recognize the difference between Lonesome Rhodes (a fictional white trash character in A Face In the Crowd) and the actor portraying him, Andy Griffith. She also gives similar shoddy treatment to Dolly Parton, ignoring the difference between the stage persona with the artistry (She does later call Dolly "talented", but only to distinguish her from the likes of Sarah Palin and Tammy Faye Bakker... faint praise at best).

But most odd is the adoration for LBJ. Not even his closest contemporary allies could possibly be as sycophantic. I had to replay some of those parts.

What three words best describe Kirsten Potter’s voice?

Sufficiently condescending snark. I think it accurately portrayed the author's contempt.

One particularly interesting point in the reading though, was the pronunciation of the South Carolina town of Beaufort. Knowing the theme of the book, it would have seemed significant for the narrator to recognize, or in fact the author to point out in the text, that the name does not have a French pronunciation, as the same named town in North Carolina has, and how this town was pronounced in the book. The South Carolina town is pronounced like "Buford", befitting the theme of the book.

You didn’t love this book... but did it have any redeeming qualities?

It's mostly all true. I agree with virtually all the assessments of historical machinations to perpetuate a class system. A lot of it is well documented, and as stated previously, presented much better in other, more entertaining books. But some of it is speculative, retrofitting the author's notion into places it really has no business.

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36 of 37 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars
By Virgil on 10-11-16

400 Year Head Start Squandered

As a person of color and first generation college during the age of affirmative action debates, I am shocked to silence. During these debates I often wondered out loud how my white peers could be first generation college. My grandparents were brutally opressed and enslaved for 400 years, what did their grandparents do with a 400 year head start, that was my question to my peers. In truth I never received an adequate answer. Thanks to White Trash I am in a better position to understand their struggles to rise in the face of class warfare. Now I understand the visceral response to Clinton and Sarah Palin. Now i understand why so many whites hate affirmative action, becuase it tries to remedy the effects of slavery and oppression for ex-slaves while confining the mobility of poor whites, or so it would appear.

This is a must read book for all humanity, especially for those who are the offspring of former slaves. Having an understanding of class in America will help you understand that we have more in common with our poor white brothers than we would like to admit, mainly the reality that we have all been mislead.

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348 of 378 people found this review helpful

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