Wednesday, February 1, 2017


America likes to promote itself as a classless society but with upward mobility.  Nancy Isenberg paints a different picture. Her premise is that from the beginning Americans have had a class system and uses "white trash" to illustrate.

The English were pleased to have a place to send vagrants and others.  The poor were seen as lazy.  North America was conceived as a vast vacant land, overlooking the fact that there was a large indigenous population.  Pocohontas, by marrying an English noble was seen by many as granting land to Europeans.  Many of them were purged by unintentional diseases, but as time went on by violence.

Tobacco was a product that required a lot of labour and after trying to work with natives, the European investors felt that black slaves would be more profitable.  Benjamin Franklin felt that black slaves made the English more idle and impotent.  William Byrd by 1726 declared that the poor whites in the south despised labour.

Voting in the early days was restricted to property owners.  Many of the poor white might have been called squatters and of course were not qualified to vote, but perhaps more importantly were seen as lower class.

Jefferson, a slave holder was a key person in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  It seems likely that he fathered some children with a mulato servant, although it is conceded it might have been one of his male siblings.

Andrew Jackson, war hero, Indian fighter, slave holder was considered by many to be of a lower class because of his temper and habits.  As President he ignored the Supreme Court and pushed for a removal of Cherokees.

The Civil War had consequences for social classes.  Large slaveholders naturally looked down upon non slave holders, but needed to convince the poor to help fight their cause.  They lied about northern wages, suggested the way to move up in class was to save and buy a slave.  As long as the blacks were beneath them, the poor were not at the bottom.  Many poor non slave holders felt they were being asked to fight a rich man's war.  A slaveholder with 20 or more slaves could be draft exempt while wealthier officers were able to get furlongs more easily.  By 1864 the south faced a manpower shortage and some advocated putting slaves into uniform to fight, but others felt that would elevate blacks and would cause another set of problems.

After the Civil War, freed blacks were in an economic dilemma and many ended up working for their old masters.  Chain gangs were hired to do much work and blacks were easily imprisoned for this purpose.  Poor whites were able to feel superior (but also a bit threatened).

When integration started in earnest, it was the poor whites who resisted the most.  The author provides an example from Little Rock of a particular white woman who verbally lashed out at young black students entering a formerly all white school.

Hillbilly, redneck and cracker are terms used to insult people.  The movie "Deliverance" (which I remember as a very scary movie) depicted lower class whites that were physically repulsive and violent.

On the other hand Elvis Presley helped launch a cultural revolution.  He  came from a very poor Mississippi family.  He took a lot of black music and brought it to the white world where especially teens were very excited while their elders were bewildered.  One of the things Elvis did for his mother was to buy her a chicken coop at Graceland.  Obviously broke down barriers, but still many people looked down on him and where he came from.

Lyndon Johnson was the son of a sharecropper and became a teacher.  As President probably more responsible than any other politician for the legal advancement of civil rights since the Civil War.  "If you can convince the lowest of white men he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket."  He advocated for better education in the Appalachia region.  A smart man he used his background to gain votes and to understand the lower classes of the south.  Still many thought of him as crude.

Bill Clinton was yet another President from a poor southern background.  Raised by a single mother he overcame lots of obstacles to get an Oxford and Yale education that helped him to gain a political career.  He described himself as a Bubba, another derogatory southern term, but appealing to much of his audience.  He encountered lots of vile opposition often aimed at his mother who had several marriages and suffered addiction problems.

The author contends that politicians are able to convince large numbers of people to vote against their self interest by using class strategies.  Both parties carve the population into a wide range of classes and try to determine how best to build coalitions that will help them win an election.  The electoral college was designed to get acceptance of the smaller states.

The author points out that social mobility is greased by connections and class based knowledge.  The children of celebrities get a head start.  Another interesting observation is that dating services are designed to match compatible people which means to the author, class comfort.  Another ironic observation is that Europeans have more social mobility than Americans.  An eye-opening good read.

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