The Current

'White Trash' history reveals why class is crucial in U.S. election

Author Nancy Isenberg on her new book, class privilege and why she believes social status is something that needs to be addressed on a regular basis.
Author Nancy Isenberg on her new book, class privilege and why she believes social status is something that needs to be addressed on a regular basis. (Penguin Random House/Mindy Stricke)

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Nancy Isenberg, an American history professor at Lousiana State University, has studied the role of class in the United States and her new book, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, unpacks the country's relationship with the matter.

Part of the problem is Americans in general don't like to talk about class.- Nancy  Isenberg , author of  White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America

According to Isenberg, there is a myth that the British class system is one America escaped, but she says that at pivotal moments of the country's history, "class is moved front and centre." In fact, Isenberg says playing on class — like referring to one's self as an average Joe, common man, or even redneck — is a common tactic for public figures to tap into the powerful emotions behind one's roots.

What's interesting about "white trash" as a term is its unfavourable history and the attempts to reappropriate its meaning in modern times, which Isenberg refers to as "identity politics." This move to subvert negative connotations is something Isenberg says has been exploited by politicians, even before Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Isenberg points to early examples of politicians who claimed to support or represent "poor whites" while invoking an us-versus-them mentality.

This idea of exploiting racial tension has been a way to divide poor whites and poor blacks, and it only bodes well for the elite, as a way for the elite to stay in power.- Nancy  Isenberg , author of  White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America

So how does one discuss class in a productive manner? Isenberg says the focus has to be on class privilege and it's something that "needs to be addressed on a regular basis." Ideally, Isenberg says, a politician would campaign on the stark facts and real conditions of class by proposing policies that would reduce the divide and could be implemented in actuality.

However, Isenberg admits she isn't optimistic. 

"Campaigns and elections are more about entertainment, they're more about making people feel good. They're more about manipulating people so that they want to believe in some promise that a candidate makes, but if it's not backed up by something real ... things don't really change."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Howard Goldenthal. 

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