In the midst of the 2020 presidential election campaign, social class and the growing wealth gap between the working class and the upper class have been the subject of much debate. This year, Boston University’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion (D&I), Find out more series, studies the role of social class in American society.
The first of the speakers in the series is a historian Nancy Isenberg, T. Harry Williams professor of history at Louisiana State University and author of White Trash: 400 Years of Unprecedented Classroom History in America (Penguin Books, 2016). Isenberg will speak on Class History in America on September 16, exploring what social class means in America and what has contributed to our understanding of the class system.
Last year’s Learn More series focused on racing in America, but the idea of focusing on class this year made sense. “I think last year’s series went really well as this was the first year we were doing this,” says Alana Anderson, Director of Programs at D&I. “I think the speakers we presented were dynamic and interesting and provided excellent thought and soul-searching to gain as complete an understanding as a participant could understand the different facets and components of the race.”
Anderson says this year’s speakers were chosen based on their experience in class discussion.
She looked at different thinkers and speakers across the United States who were discussing the class in interesting and innovative ways, seeking out prominent figures both locally and nationally. “I sometimes think social class isn’t something we talk about as much as we should,” she says. “So being able to directly analyze how we experience it in the world was really important… I think we have to talk about the class. “
From the earliest days of settlers in the United States to the present day, members of the lower social classes have played a major role in American culture and politics. In White trash can, Isenberg sheds light on the origins of the ever-present negative attitudes towards the working class and the myth of class mobility in American culture. How did the stereotypes of “white trash cans” come about? Why do we keep the concept of American class mobility?
BU today spoke with Isenberg ahead of his conference on September 16.
With Nancy Isenberg
BU today: Your book White trash can explores how social class has functioned throughout the history of the United States. How do you define social class and how has our understanding of it changed since the founding of America?
Isenberg: First of all, the poor have always been denigrated by the elites and accused by the middle class of being lazy and rude. In America’s past, the most important measure of class identity was land ownership; it was literally the measure of civic worth, of what it took to have an interest in society. But much of the American population was landless. Even today, homeownership is still the hallmark of middle class success. Yet class has never been all about income or financial worth. It is more about physical traits and bodily conditions, bad blood and temperamental reproduction. The poor, pre-war southern whites were described as sick, yellowish, a strange, unsuitable race. Having heirs and healthy children was another sign of class value: poor white children were associated with hookworms, pellagra, wrinkled, warped clay-eating bodies that looked old before their time. . Living in a filthy shack, a “slum”, a “shebang” or a trailer park is to live in a transitional space that never acquires the name of a house. For most of American history, therefore, poor rural whites were associated with rude dwellings, coarse habits, and degenerate herding patterns. They were seen as a “race” apart, unable to integrate into normal society, which meant that nothing could be done to improve their condition. They were also considered extrusions from the scrub, barren, or swampy lands they occupied. A British vocabulary of “wasteland” and “races” has continued to define them throughout American history.
How have the gaps between social classes evolved since the founding of America? Have they become wider, narrower, or largely the same?
Social mobility is one of the myths Americans tell about themselves: that America is a land of opportunity, that somehow we escaped the rigid class system that existed. in the Old World at the time of the American Revolution. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, two of the early proponents of America as an exceptional society, really only promised horizontal mobility. They argued that the United States was a vast continent where the poor could move west and start over. Franklin insisted that the continent would reduce excess great wealth at the top or extreme poverty at the bottom of the social hierarchy. He called for the creation of “happy mediocrity”. But what he failed to recognize was that as poor landless squatters heading west, they couldn’t compete on an equal footing because of the wealthy investors who monopolized them. better land. The West has never been an open space. Powerful land speculators have always had an advantage. Western land was not free and the poor rarely had the funds to buy the plots sold by the federal government. Even today, land ownership and land regulations are biased to favor the interests of the elite classes. In 1990, the richest 10 percent owned shares in 90 percent of the land.
Do you think social class played an important role in political and social justice movements during the Trump presidency?
Donald Trump’s success is rooted in raw, off-the-cuff speech, outright rudeness, and his ability to project anger unconstrained by the politician’s well-measured idiom. His campaign manager admits that he “projects an image”. Who is surprised? Our electoral politics have always encouraged crooks and respected identity politics. An Australian observer succinctly described the phenomenon as early as 1949, and it is true today: Americans have a taste for a “democracy of mores”, he insists, which is in fact different from real democracy. Voters accept huge disparities in wealth, he observed, while expecting their leaders to “cultivate the appearance of not being different from the rest of us.” Speaking loudly, boasting that he’d like to punch a protester or crush Michael Bloomberg, Trump claims he’s leaving his opulent Manhattan penthouse to mingle with the masses. Wearing his bright red Bubba cap and humming to a rally, “I love poorly educated people,” he took inspiration from a familiar strain of American populism. A dose of redneck bluster goes a long way. It helped Bill Clinton call himself Bubba and play the sax. It also helped that reporters nicknamed him “Arkansas Elvis”.
Class and race have always been linked. James Oglethorpe, the 18th century founder of the colony of Georgia, understood that slavery not only oppressed slaves, but reinforced a class hierarchy and prevented poor white men from being free workers and competing with the rich. planters. Abraham Lincoln’s party made the same argument in the 1850s and 1860s, and poor whites and poor blacks clashed in the days of Jim Crow. Martin Luther King [GRS’55, Hon.’59] understood that poverty was a tool of racists, hence his campaign for the poor of 1967-68. White Southern Democratic leaders have long fueled racial conflicts between blacks and poor whites in order to deflect the anger of the white lower classes of the white elite. Mississippi governors James Vardaman in the early 1900s and Orval Faubus in the 1950s exploited racial violence and white brutality to advance their careers. But it’s just as important for middle-class Americans to appreciate class on its own terms: white privilege should not be confused with class privilege. Not all white Americans are in the same boat, and not all white Americans have access to the same educational or employment opportunities, and not all white people live in the same neighborhoods. In fact, today we live in zoned class neighborhoods. Sociologists have found that in 2015, the best predictors of success are the privileges and wealth granted by parents and ancestors.
Nancy Isenberg’s lecture, History of Class in America, part of the Diversity & Inclusion Learn More series, will take place on Wednesday, September 16 at noon. Register now here virtually attend.
Explore related topics: