Summary: Colonial British class attitudes linger yet in the challenges facing rural and small town white poor. Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir of Appalachian poverty, reminds that the lot of poor white kids in school follows remarkably similar patterns to that of their similarly challenged poor black and brown brothers and sisters.
This voyage into the world of the white underclass begins with a challenge to American myth. The colonies did not simply, as the school books tell, embrace the new European immigrants all on equal terms. More correctly, contemporary with slavery the rigid class order of British culture was transported intact from the old country to the new, with consequences that speak yet to us from the seventeenth and eighteen centuries.
My debt first. In a recent Atlantic magazine journalist Alec MacGillis reviews two recent books on the white underclass, White Trash – The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg, an historian, and Hillbilly Elegy – A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance, a lawyer and investor who tells the story of his own tangled history in a white Appalachian family.
These writings give perspective to the deepening educational emergency among America’s low income kids. Certainly the crisis is about race and class in urban ghettos, but also about lower income whites, a legacy of centuries old class stratification in part lent us by the British. The weave of history thus begets us Donald Trump.
Isenberg quotes 18th century British voices who saw in the colonies a means to rid the home society of the “offals of our people.” The poet of the ages, John Donne himself, spoke for his social class in describing the colony of Virginia as England’s spleen and liver, “draining the ‘ill humors of the body … to breed good blood,’” presumably in the home country. Further, in Puritan Massachusetts “membership in the Church and its core elect were elite privileges” denied the significant number who were not of a religious bent.
This is the same England that shipped “criminals” to the prison of Australia, in order to siphon off a restless underclass, and to stabilize privilege.
The vastness of the New World would seem to provide the element of wealth – that is, land — for all. Not to be. In Virginia in 1770, “less than 10 percent of white Virginians had claim to more than half the land.” MacGillis citing Isenberg: “The American usage of “squatter” traces to New England, where many of the non-elect… carved out homes on others’ land only to be chased off and their houses burned.”
The lions of the Declaration of Independence espoused the same class attitude. To George Washington, only the “’lower class of people’ should serve as foot soldiers in the Continental Army.” Thomas Jefferson championed public schools for talented students “raked from the rubbish” of the lower class.
The landless of colonial Virginia migrated south into North Carolina, and eventually up and down the spine of Appalachia, where the multiple pestilences of poverty became the norm and chroniclers of life there saw them as “no better than savages,” and “sinking deeper and more hopelessly into barbarism with every succeeding generation.” From economic refugees, hillbillies as a culture and as a pejorative were born.
This dominance of the haves over the have nots has transmitted over centuries and been dressed in 21st century economic garb. The 1% controls a vastly disproportionate share of the wealth in America and there lurks yet in the culture a veiled prejudice that those with less are somehow defective and deserving of their fate, in part a legacy of British class society.
J.D. Vance’s memoir of his Appalachian hillbilly family picks up this historical thread in southeastern Kentucky coal country, perhaps a short century after the exodus of the poor whites of Isenberg’s history from eastern seaboard dominion.
In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, and with the rise of the industrial upper Midwest, hillbillies migrated in droves to work in factories and to earn a decent if modestly skilled wage. Among those seeking a better life were Vance’s own kin, most notably we are to learn, his maternal grandparents.
A parallel migration of Southern blacks to the industrial heartland was driven by the same economics.
By the turn of the 21st century, globalization and technological advance had eviscerated the industrial heartland, and poverty sank back into the fabric of many upper Midwestern towns that had become second homes to Appalachia; second homes literally in the person of the many migrants, and figuratively in the transfer of ingrained (often dysfunctional) ways of being poor.
Vance, the memoirist, without self-pity and with wonder at his own escape, reflects on his childhood poverty mostly in Ohio, of the drug abuse and serial men in his mother’s life, the disappearance of a biological father, the chaos of a broken family, the hopelessness and narrow horizons hosted in the community, the volatility of emotions and the pervasive conflict, anger and violence. Most damaging, the survival resort to a fight or flight state of being.
This is the short list, endemic in all poor communities, white, black, brown.
Vance escapes the poverty trap because his maternal grandparents are relatively stable folks who give him loving refuge and a steady psychological framework in which he is encouraged to achieve. All of this is textbook, but amid the anguish of real human beings.
His is a small town, rurally fragmented and mostly white America, but a group in aggregate that is numerically the largest of our nation’s poor. Yet so much of ferment in education seems to hover around the urban inner city and populations of poor African-Americans and Latinos, sometimes around Native Americans who themselves largely inhabit rural areas.
The cities are where opinion makers reside, where intellectual capital and progressive politics are concentrated, so perhaps it is no wonder that, as seems to me at any rate, the face of poor students tends to be of color. Certainly poor students are disproportionately of color, and subject to the elusive evils of institutionally bulwarked racism. Moreover, the black and Latino communities are more impressively organized politically and media vocal than the poor white community, whose once champions are a weakened union movement and an elite-preoccupied Democratic Party, a schism that Donald Trump has adroitly exploited.
This meditation represents my reminder to myself that poverty also means white kids scattered among depressed pockets throughout rural areas and small towns across America, as well as in cities, and whose pain and failure to thrive echoes exactly that of their similarly burdened black and brown brothers and sisters.
These are good insights, and a reminder that the weaknesses in our educational system are a reflection of larger societal trends, some of which are only now coming into view. From this post, I wasn’t sure if you’d had a chance to read “Hillbilly Elegy”, or just the Atlantic article. The book itself is worth a close reading. So, too is Nicholas Eberstadt’s new book “Men Without Work”, and then, to dive back into earlier history (re your comment on the replication of class divisions across the Atlantic) you might look at “Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America”, by David Fischer. The first of these is a quick read, notwithstanding density of tables and census data, whereas the latter is 900 pages long, so not an item for a weekend afternoon, but fascinating in its own right. There are four parts, as the title implies: “Borderlands to the Backcountry: the Flight from North Britain, 1717-1775” tells the story of the Scots-Irish and this connects to the narrative of your post.
Thanks for the thoughts. I did read and find pivotal “Hillbilly Elegy.” I gather the titles you mention deepen Vance’s insights. Which would you focus first? I gather “Men Without Work?”
“Men Without Work” is more current and more accessible. Eberstadt’s analysis is rightward-leaning (he focuses on supply-side (dis)incentives for adult males to work) but the facts are the facts, and I appreciated the fact that he included two spirited “dissents” from colleagues who draw different conclusions from the same data.