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Scrutinizing Whiteness

Two authors explore different ways race and class have shaped U.S. history

Matt Wasserman Oct 21

Issue 218

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
Nancy Isenberg
Viking, 2016

White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide
Carol Anderson
Bloomsbury, 2016

It is hard to explain Donald Trump’s rise to Republican presidential nominee without making reference to white trash. We use euphemisms, of course, because we’re aware that the term is impolite. Hillary Clinton refers to Trump supporters as a racist “basket of deplorables.” Journalists from the coasts profile formerly Democratic-voting, downwardly mobile whites in the Trump Country of Appalachia and the Rust Belt without ever using that term. But we all know who they’re talking about, even if the words “redneck,” “hillbilly” or “cracker” never cross their lips. And we agree that they’re one of the few groups that are an appropriate target of derision, whether in the form of the Beverly Hillbillies or Honey Boo Boo.

In White Trash, Nancy Isenberg paints a picture of poor whites that I found surprisingly sympathetic, ranging from the Jamestown colony to TV depictions of poor whites. In her telling, a strata of despised poor whites has existed in this country from the very earliest European settlements. In fact, that was one of the function of the colonies: to absorb the so-called scum of England. Isenberg compellingly argues that this permanent underclass of poor whites shows the hollowness of the American mantra of meritocracy and the lie of the American claim to being a classless society.

However, I couldn’t help feeling that there is a hole in the center of this book: Isenberg is immensely attuned to how class works, but devotes scant discussion to how it interacts with race. She shows only in passing how poor whites have interacted with non-whites. But while other white people may mock them or repress them, the identity of poor whites is built around being white, not black.

Nonetheless, White Trash is an important contribution to understanding how class works in the United States—and the rot at the heart of our polity. And it is also a good read. Despite displaying the chops of an academic historian, Isenberg is an engaging writer.

Hand-in-hand with society’s trashing of poor whites is the demonization of blacks -— a topic heavily discussed in Carol Anderson’s White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide. Black men, in the American collective unconscious, are deeply intertwined with violence and criminality. We saw this when Dylann Roof told the parishioners at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, before opening fire: “you rape our women and are killing our country.” When Jesse Jackson expressed his fear of black men walking behind him late at night. And every time Donald Trump lays out a vision of black communities as battlefields that seems drawn from repeat viewings of New Jack City rather than trips uptown.

This racialized presumption of violence and inherent danger is so strong, it is difficult for many to see the countless black men killed by police officers as victims. Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Alton Sterling and so on: With each death, there was a rush to paint the fallen as thugs, or to suggest the deceased had just committed a crime or to claim he was resisting. For one reason or another, they always had it coming.

When people react to these tragedies with indignation or protest, others take it as a symptom of irrational black rage. But, as Anderson, a professor at Emory University, argued in a Washington Post op-ed that was the precursor to this current book, media coverage focused of black rage in the wake of Ferguson ignored the far more potent white rage that shapes where we live, where we go to school, and where we work.

It was white rage that ended Reconstruction and enforced racial domination under Jim Crow. It was white rage that kept African-Americans from reaping the full benefits of the New Deal and limited them to a few red-lined neighborhoods. And it was white backlash against the civil rights movement that led to the on-the-ground nullification of court-ordered school desegregation — in the South and the North — as well as the rise of mass incarceration.

White rage — or opposition to black advancement — is not limited to spectacular acts like lynchings, of course. In Anderson’s words, “White rage is not about visible violence, but rather it works its way through the courts, the legislatures, and a range of government bureaucracies.”  This enforcement of racial hierarchies works under cover of law: it manifests itself in underfunded urban schools, criminal courtrooms full of black men in shackles, and citizens not allowed to vote. 

Much of Anderson’s survey of how white rage has shaped the United States since the Civil War will likely be already familiar to readers of The Indypendent. If you know of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ work on racist housing policy, Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative’s efforts to commemorate the victims of lynchings or Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, you’ll recognize many of the signposts on the road Anderson travels. What is most novel here is her claim that white rage is not just a leitmotif of American history since the Civil War, but a central explanatory variable. She links disparate moments and issues to demonstrate how white rage has shaped — and continues to shape — every facet of our lives.

If we believe that black lives should matter, understanding the ways they currently do not seems like an essential first step. Anderson’s compact book serves this purpose well. But her target audience is unclear to me. Those who agree with her central thesis may find that she offers little new; those who do not know this history may be put off her polemic tone.

What I most missed in Anderson’s account was some explanation for the force and tenacity of white rage. Is it simply a matter of racial animus and prejudice? Of trying to hold on to the unearned privileges and perquisites of white skin? Something else entirely? If we are to dismantle racial hierarchy, we need a theory of the material and psychic benefits it provides to the white masses, including those poor whites chronicled by Isenberg — and, thus, how they can be won to true racial equality.