White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Race in America – Nancy Isenberg

Imagine standing in the supermarket. You’re grabbing apples, tomatoes, grapes and strawberries. As you drop them into your cart, you have no idea what the lady is doing next you. You have no idea what’s going on around you. You just keep walking, half in a daze, content by the monotony of your weekly shopping routine.

But then imagine that while you’re putting those strawberries into your cart and you hear shouting. Someone is on the ground. The sound of an ambulance is approaching. Suddenly you’re paying attention. Suddenly it matters.

That’s how this book felt to me. It wasn’t that someone showed me something new. It was more like someone was asking me to wake up. Someone was encouraging me to look at where I was and who I was with. This book asked me to pay attention to the history of America, where we all came from, and how it has shaped our current discourse.

The book begins in the colonies. It explores England’s desire for colonization, their tendency to drop their vagabonds, prostitutes, and criminals. It explores the growing social structure by looking at those who had money and status and those who became indentured servants. It explores the way the country divided itself, what its values were and how these values have carried forward.

What makes the book impactful, is not so much what it says, but what you can come to understand from reading it. Most Americans know a lot of the history in this book. We’ve taken American history courses before, and while this book takes a more detailed look at the generalized information you receive in high school, I think we recognize the historical narrative and facts presented.

What makes the book a good read, is how it makes the reader think about our present situation in new ways. As the narrative moves through history, we come to understand why we think the way we do. It makes us stop and consider that the arguments we’re currently having in today’s age are retellings of the arguments we’ve already had in the past.

Perhaps, as the book suggests, the argument that immigrants take jobs away from white Americans is akin to newly freed slaves taking away jobs and rights from poor whites. Perhaps our incessant desire for productivity isn’t an inherent quality we are born with, but an ideology built out of hating idleness and the perceived laziness of the poor. Do our contemporary views of bigotry and the fear of “the other” come from 1800s view of Social Darwinism and eugenics? It makes the joke, “we shouldn’t let stupid people breed” no longer funny, but a reminder of a dark and dirty truth of a past we would like to forget.

This book provides a good source and a strong overview of what race and class means in American Society. It allows us to as big questions. How can we change our views, when they’ve been so ingrained in us? How do we get jolted out of our complacency, our bigotry, our fear?

Maybe it is time to pay attention. Perhaps the 2016 election and these last 8 months under this Trump presidency will encourage us to stop throwing our strawberries mindlessly into the cart and. Maybe we will finally begin to pay attention to the seemingly mundane world we live in.