Saturday, July 16, 2016

Biopower: poor whites in the US and eugenics

From Thomas Sugrue's review (NYT, June 26, 2016) of Nancy Isenberg's White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.



She argues that British colonizers saw their North American empire as a place to dump their human waste: the idle, indigent and criminal...

In the book’s most ingenious passages, Isenberg offers a catalog of the insulting terms well-off Americans used to denigrate their economic inferiors. In 17th-century Virginia, critics of rebellious indentured servants denounced them as society’s “offscourings,” a term for fecal matter. A hundred years later, elites railed against the “useless lubbers” of “Poor Carolina,” a place she calls the “first white trash colony.” In the early 19th century, landowners described the landless rural poor as boisterous, foolish “crackers” and idle, vagabond “squatters”...

By the second half of the 19th century and into the 20th, Isenberg shows, crude caricatures gave way to seemingly scientific explanations of lower-class status. “Class was congenital,” she writes, summarizing a mid-19th-century view of poor whites. One writer highlighted the “runtish forefathers” and “consumptive parents” who birthed a “notorious race” of inferior white people. Essayists described human differences by borrowing terminology from specialists in animal husbandry. Just as dogs could be distinguished by their breeds and horses distinguished from mules, so could people be characterized as superior or inferior based on their physical traits.

By the late 19th century, some writers used family genealogies to trace the roots of criminality, illness and insanity, and warn of the dangers of “degeneration.” By the early 20th century, armed with increasingly sophisticated statistical tools and new understandings of genetics, eugenicists offered the most chilling of responses to poor whites: They argued that the state should use its power to keep them from reproducing. Those arguments shaped one of the Supreme Court’s most notorious decisions, Buck v. Bell (1927), in which the court, with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes writing for the majority, upheld a Virginia sterilization program to prevent “generations of imbeciles” from proliferating and thus to keep the nation from being “swamped with incompetence.”

The story of eugenics offers an example of the ways that, throughout the American past, questions of class status have been entangled with notions of racial inferiority. Isenberg makes a strong case that one of the most common ways of stigmatizing poor people was to question their racial identity. Backcountry vagabonds were often compared unfavorably with the “savage,” nomadic Indian. Sun-browned tenant farmers faced derision for their less-than-white appearance. After the emancipation of slaves, politicians warned of the rise of a “mongrel” nation, fearful that white bloodlines would be contaminated by blacks, a process that might expand the ranks of “trash” people.

(Sugrue also makes this critique of the book: "a history of class in America that assumes its whiteness and relegates the nonwhite poor to the backstage is one that misses the fundamental reality of economic inequality in American history, that race and class were — and are — fundamentally entwined.")

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