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The Founding Fathers’ History Of Trashing The Poor

Photo caption:

Photo by Arthur Rothstein/Library of Congress

An Alabama tenant farmer looks over his farm's erosion in 1936.

The Founding Fathers' History Of Trashing The Poor


Nancy Isenberg, author, "White Trash"


Photo caption:

Photo by Viking Books

A book cover for "White Trash"

If you read the Declaration of Independence this past Fourth of July weekend, you probably recognized one of the document’s most famous passages: “All men are created equal.”

But while slavery and racial prejudice were an obvious part of early American life, a new book argues that people who were poor and white were also seen as "subhuman" by some of the Founding Fathers.

Nancy Isenberg, a history professor at Louisiana State University, is the author of "White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America." The phrase “white trash” is just one of a series of derogatory terms that show the country’s disdain for poor whites, Isenberg said. She cites Thomas Jefferson’s use of “rubbish” to describe the rural poor.

“We like to believe that at the time of the American Revolution that we broke free from the British class system,” Isenberg said. “I’m trying to argue that we didn’t. We inherited lock, stock and barrel the ideology of England, particularly the way in which the poor were described as idle. The same thing we see today when the poor are dismissed as lazy.”

Isenberg joins KPBS Midday Edition on Tuesday with more on the way politicians continue to describe the working poor.

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