When I was 10, I was afraid of the kids that moved in next door. The children in the house across the alley were younger and smaller than me, but they were a noisy bunch and they always seemed to be spoiling for a fight. Whenever I went outdoors, they were there, in their yard, calling me fatty, and offering me a knuckle sandwich. One day, my mother entered the fray, screamed back at the kids and hauled me into the house. “Keep away from those kids,” she said, even though this was a needless directive. I wasn’t going near any kid that picked on my size. “I don’t want you playing with them, they are nothing but P.W.T.” PWT meant Poor White Trash, the group of people my mother hated most.
I thought a lot about those kids while I was reading Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America. Ms. Isenberg’s central argument of the story is, despite statements to the contrary, America never has been a classless system. Instead, we segregate ourselves into cliques characterized by income, education, address and antecedents and, where I grew up, the condition of one’s lawn. Where I lived, the homes of the influential and affluent were recognizable by the lush, verdant landscapes that surrounded their houses, perfectly trimmed to crew-cut height. The working class didn’t have the resources to maintain this plush, even cover but we managed to minimize the bald spots on our lawns and mow the crab-grass regularly. The renters, whose yards contained only dirt and discards, were considered “trash.”
When did we start classifying people as garbage? Ms. Isenberg traces this idea to European businessmen/philosophers who saw undeveloped land as a wasted resource and impoverished people as refuse. Colonization, to these leaders, was a way to make money by solving two problems. Send the poorest people away to develop this useless land and then profit from the goods they produce. These “wretched refuse” (to quote Emma Lazarus) became Britain’s debt slaves for generations, paying off their cost of transportation through lifetimes of labor producing goods for their European debt-owners. These businessmen didn’t foresee the colonists’ resentment and isolation would eventually result in a revolution. Nor did they predict their attitudes on class discrimination would transfer along with the colonists. But they did.
As America grew, so grew the group of poverty-stricken, rural, whites and the resentment-filled class war where, as one Southern lady described it to me, one bunch is always looking down on or mad at another. Yes, American mythology has tales of poor, enterprising youths creating fortunes and a few scions of the moneyed and powerful families behaving shamefully but both stories carry the unspoken element of class distinction. A desire to climb the social ladder underscores the poor boy’s drive to succeed, and the wealthy child’s sense of entitlement created the self-belief he/she can avoid the penalty of criminal action. And, despite their individual acts, each character is also judged by his/her background. And most folks resent being judged.
The rural poor, also known as clay-eaters, crackers, hillbillies, rednecks and trash remain a recognizable group today. At times, they’ve even become fashionable. Like every other community in this country, they’ve produced bad and good people, geniuses and criminals. And like everyone else with a long history of being disparaged and exploited, this community has developed a hard-won sense of identity and pride. They’re a political force to be counted and used. And each time they are mocked or underestimated by someone else, the resentments and class divisions grow.
So, will the class war ever end? Not as long as individuals are exploited and minimized because of factors beyond their control. In other words, as long as one group of people treats another like “trash,” they’ll have trouble taking out all the garbage.