Joe Bageant: On the White Underclass

I highly recommend reading Joe Bageant. I’m reading my second book by him, Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir, and I’m impressed by his insight.

He grew up in a poor white family living in rural Appalachia. His family and neighbors made their livings through subsistence farming. In the early to mid 20th century, most of these people moved to the cities where they became the poverty-stricken working class, that is when they could find work.

This is the white underclass that are rarely discussed by either liberals or conservatives, although the latter loves to rile up this demographic for political gain. This white underclass has little money, education, or opportunity. The only way they can experience the larger world is by enlisting in the military.


This interests me personally because this is where my mom’s family is from. Bageant’s description of his own family more or less describes my family on that side. The main difference is that my mom’s family moved to the cities a generation before Bageant’s family. Also, my mom’s family moved into more Northern Indiana and so was able to escape the much worse poverty of Appalachia.

The first book I read by Joe Bageant was Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches From America’s Class War. I happened upon it by accident. From what I understand, Bageant may be more popular abroad than in his home country. Certainly, he is speaking a truth that the American MSM has little interest in.
The book Deer Hunting With Jesus woke my mind up like few books ever do. The topic wasn’t dissimilar to what Thomas Frank Tackled in What’s the Matter with Kansas?, but there is a big difference between the two books. Bageant isn’t looking in as an outsider, isn’t studying the Appalachian people as a journalist or academic or economist. Bageant was able to portray these people, his people, as genuine human beings. They weren’t strange characters or mysteries to be dissected. They are just people struggling to get by, people trapped in their circumstances.
In reading that book, I immediately recognized my own family. I never before quite grasped who were my mom’s family or where they came from. I regularly visited Indiana as a kid, but I never lived there. Plus, my maternal grandparents were already a generation removed from the rural Hoosier communities of Southern Indiana and several generations removed from the Appalachia of Kentucky. Still, the Appalachian culture and dialect clung to them, even though it had lost its regional context.
I only knew them as working class whites, and the bias of my middle class Midwestern upbringing disconnected me from the Appalachian culture. But as Bageant makes clear, there is a lot more going on with working class whites than would first be apparent. Like most things in life, there is a long and complex history behind it.

I recommend Bageant’s writings to others because he offers a unique glimpse into the dark heart of America as well as offering a remembrance of what came before. In my endless readings, I’ve never come across any other author who quite as fully sheds light on this particular issue.

I would add that this isn’t just about America for this country is representative of the larger shifts that have happened all over the world. All countries have similar underclasses. And most of these countries have a history of subsistence farming that was common just a few generations ago.

Joe Bageant isn’t just a voice for an often unheard sector of society. He speaks as one who personally knows about this world hidden out in the open. He speaks as a member of this culture for this underclass has had a hard enough time understanding themselves much less explaining how they came to be that way.

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