Lucy Nicholson / Reuters Hard times: a man in front of his motor home outside Los Angeles, October 2015.

The Great White Nope

Poor, Working Class, and Left Behind in America

In This Review

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
by Nancy Isenberg
Viking, 2016
480 pp.
Purchase

Most Americans are optimistic about their futures—but poor and working-class whites are not. According to a recent analysis published by the Brookings Institution, poor Hispanics are almost a third more likely than their white counterparts to imagine a better future. And poor African Americans—who face far higher rates of incarceration and unemployment and who fall victim far more frequently to both violent crime and police brutality—are nearly three times as optimistic as poor whites. Carol Graham, the economist who oversaw the analysis, concluded that poor whites suffer less from direct material deprivation than from the intangible but profound problems of “unhappiness, stress, and lack of hope.” That might explain why the slogan of the Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump—“Make America Great Again!”—sounds so good to so many of them.

A stunning U-turn in the fortunes of poor and working-class whites began in the 1970s, as deindustrialization, automation, globalization, and the growth of the high-technology and service sectors transformed the U.S. economy. In the decades since, many blue-collar jobs have vanished, wages have stagnated for less educated Americans, wealth has accumulated at the top of the economic food chain, and social mobility has become vastly harder to achieve. Technological and financial innovations have fostered economic and social vitality in urban centers on the coasts. But those changes have brought far fewer benefits to the formerly industrial South and Midwest. As economic decline has hollowed out civic life and the national political conversation has focused on other issues, many people in “flyover country” have sought solace in opioids and methamphetamine; some have lashed out by embracing white nationalist rage. As whites come closer to becoming a plurality in the United States (or a “white minority,” in more paranoid terms), many have become receptive to nativist or bigoted appeals and thinly veiled promises to protect their endangered racial privilege: think of Trump’s promise to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border and his invocation of