Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
KPBS Midday Edition

The Founding Fathers' History Of Trashing The Poor

An Alabama tenant farmer looks over his farm's erosion in 1936.
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
The Founding Fathers' History Of Trashing The Poor GUEST: Nancy Isenberg, author, "White Trash"

All men are created equal is one of the most famous passages from the Declaration of Independence. To America's shame in the 18th century that phrase did not apply to black Americans or two women and a new book argues that poor whites were also ignored by some of America's founders. Tom Koch spoke with Louisiana state history professor Nancy Isenberg the author of White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. . ________________________________________ Nancy why did you call your book about class in America white trash? ________________________________________ Most scholars say the first time the term white trash appears in print is in the 1820s. I realized that the ideas embedded in white trash have a much older history. This became perfectly clear when I began to look at how the British thought about the columnists that they were going to literally jump into the New World. One of the most important Elizabethan promoters of North America describes the idle poor that he would be -- New World as waste people. I also discovered that this continues to be a recurrent theme. Well into the 18th century both Thomas Jefferson rural poor as rubbish. ________________________________________ This is the way that people in England saw people in the American colonies. ________________________________________ We like to believe that at the time of the American Revolution we broke free from the class system. I am trying to argue that we did not. We inherited lock stock and barrel ideology of England and is particularly the way in which the poor were described as a vital. The same thing that we see today when the poor are dismissed as lazy but on top of that the reason that they refer to the poor is that the people that were sent over to the New World. It was children abettors and until -- adults in debts and indentured servants. The largest group of exploited laborers sent to the New World were children. America's the fabled city upon the help. For the British it was a way to get rid of their excess population to literally dumped them into the New World and also when they thought about the New World itself they viewed it as a wasteland. That's the other thing that I highlight. The importance of thinking about class being defined by land and property. This is a central theme not only British law but it's a central theme of how the British and the Americans defined landowner as a valued citizen. ________________________________________ What we use today such as redneck and hillbilly that's part of the same thing. ________________________________________ That is what is so interesting. We all know hillbilly. That's associated with the appellation poor lands that are considered down to have a great deal of value for farming. The word redneck in 1904 was used to describe poor white Southerners associated with swamps. That is also something that's important. North Carolina was conceived as the first white trash colony because of the important role of the dismal Swamp and the way in which swamps were advanced -- the only way to make them valuable was to train them and turn them into fields. This is the other points that I try to highlight. Not only is it land and value but it's the environment the weather prediction early Americans really believed that the kind of land you lived on people were human stocks like animal stocks that determined your health and your value and whether you are going to be an energetic and intellectually competent human being. ________________________________________ One of the criticisms I've seen of your book is that in discussing classy focus on whites and don't spend much time on racial differences. Is racial discrimination somehow separate from class discrimination? ________________________________________ Unfortunately that is incorrect. Ideal extensively with race as I say right in the preface I would've seen that race and class have a intimate relationship. I talk about slavery one of the other things that focus on is the importance of breeding and population as I mentioned one of the importance of child labor in the 1600s and your mother passed on that inheritance to the child and that made you a slave. It talks about Texas and California and pushing Native Americans and this was a larger debate about race and class. Why I wrote this book was that in academia we have lost sight of the importance of class. We ignore class. ________________________________________ You quote LBJ in the book about the way poor whites were taught to treat minorities. What did he say and why do you think that's important? ________________________________________ This is something that Bill Moyer recorded Lisa poor whites protesting over civil rights. Lyndon Johnson basically said if you can convince the lowest white man that is better than the best colored man he won't notice that your giving -- picking his pocket. Give him something to look down on and he will empty his pockets for you. That sounds pretty much like the way LBJ spoke. What I highlight is the way that John Adams and other president in 1797 almost the same thing. He spoke about how Americans were scrambling to get ahead but they always needed somebody to disparage. He wrote there must be one indeed who was the last and lowest of the human species. Then he went on to joke that even that person at the very bottom of a hierarchy needed a dog so he would have someone to look down on. ________________________________________ He describes those on welfare as takers. He said I should not castigate a large group of Americans to make a point. Is that a sign of progress in your view? ________________________________________ I hope so. What we also tend to forget is that our government has given extensive privileges to corporations and extensive privileges to the middle class and we think about the rise of suburbia and why do we disparage those on welfare. We forget that a very large Americans below the poverty line are white. A large portion of them are also in rural areas. We have to embrace the area that we live in a society that supports people to improve their conditions. I to call them names we all start at the same place. If you are the child the sociologist have shown that the most important predictor of whether you will submit -- be successful wills passed down from your parents. ________________________________________ Nancy Isenberg's book is White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. . Be sure to watch KVS evening edition at 5:00 and again at 6:30 tonight on K PBS television. Join us again tomorrow for K PBS midday edition at noon and if you ever miss a show check out the podcast at I'm Maureen Cavanaugh thank you for listening

A book cover for "White Trash"
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.