Poor Whites and the European Peasant Diaspora

Capitalism and colonialism have cast a long shadow on the history of the globe for the last 500 years. European powers, and colonial states like the United States, have turned the globe into an economic playground for capitalists and left the rest of us with scraps, robbing whole continents of their resources, their culture, their land, and their ways of life. 

In the United States in particular, settler colonialism both sought to erase and destroy indigenous people, while bringing settlers from Europe to take over “empty land” that had been stolen through genocide. 

In most histories, liberal and conservative alike, white people are seen as a monolithic whole. White supremacy in all its forms claims that white people are superior and demands that white people stick together. 

This is one of the most useful lies in the capitalist arsenal. Today, 33% of whites are poor in the United States, a total of 66 million people. If that group can be convinced that they are white first, and that rich white people have their best interest at heart, then the system that has produced prodigious wealth for a few off the backs of millions of people, including poor white people, is safe. 

Like most white kids, I was raised on a history of Manifest Destiny. Europeans came to a “new world,” worked hard, built amazing technology, and fulfilled God’s plan for America to be the greatest nation in the world. I was descended from pioneers and cowboys whose self reliance made this country great. 

Except the reality is not so rosy. What actually happened was that my great grandfather died in a live-in motel in Los Angeles, after moving dozens of times as a child across the country after leaving the deep south during the Dust Bowl. Both my maternal grandparents died of medical neglect and no one has left inheritable wealth. My paternal great grandma lost seven children and another died in a homeless shelter in Hong Kong (I still do not know how she got there). My dad was partly raised by a great grandma who had raised three generations of children and nearly died of toxic waste spewed into her home by a factory next store. In my generation, my sisters and cousins have struggled our whole lives with bankruptcy, living with family, experiencing homelessness, and barely making ends meet. 

There is not much manifest destiny in these stories, although there is a great deal of courage and will to survive. While my family was maintaining railroads, working in grocery stores and hotels, butchering meat, working in warehouses and factories, driving long haul trucks, or drinking away their lives in a pay by the week motel, others were getting wealthy off our lives and labor. 

As I listened to stories and searched for genealogical clues in my own family history, I realized that our story is actually much different than the one we have been told. 

In 1455, the pope authorized the Portuguese seizure of West Africa and endorsed the enslavement of non Christian people. In 1493, the pope authorized the seizure of land and waterways of any non Christian land, something invoked in 1823 by the US Supreme Court, codifying the Doctrine of Discovery in US law. In 1492, not only did Columbus sail to the Caribbean, but Spain, as a newly formed nation state, expelled all Jews and Muslims from Spain and seized all their assets. In 1536, England seized all church land in their break up with Rome. 

These newfound sources of wealth by European powers would change the world forever, as capitalism was born– that is, a system where investors or capitalists would invest in enterprises on land recently stolen from indigenous people and worked by indigenous and African enslaved labor. It also changed the face of Europe. As in most parts of the world, the majority of the population were peasants, people who worked and lived on the land for generations. As empires fought over what king controlled what, the people themselves were mostly indigenous to the land, with their own lives, traditions, and ways of life. 

With a new system of economic exchange, European peasants were driven from their land in what historians call the fencing of the commons. That is, land was made a commodity and was divided up and given to kings and the nobility, who could use new found wealth to create various enterprises, from wool production to cotton to large factories. The merchant class arose, creating middlemen for a new business world.  Peasants, however, who had worked and lived on the land for centuries, became vagrants, driven from the land they called home. They filled jails, they roved through the country in groups, they rebelled and became prisoners of war, and they sold themselves as servants if they could. Some historians claim that Henry VIII executed up to 72,000 vagrants in England. Then, when ships started sailing to the American continents, they fled. Some as indentured servants, some imported as prisoners of war, and most simply refugees of Europe’s new economic system.

While some of those refugees did make it big in the new American capitalism, most descendants of European peasants did not. They usually squatted on land, driven further and further west into the Appalachian and Ozark mountains, where the remnants of their peasant heritage still exist in the music and art of those hills. Others, like my family, moved farther and farther west each generation, never stopping long enough to secure a sense of place or home, many too far removed from their own history to claim any ethnic identity. Still others came later, Irish refugees from British subjugation, and later Scandinavian and Eastern European people fleeing unrest and war. We ended up all over the United States, some in trailer parks on the edge of large cities, others on little bits of farmland in the middle of nowhere. 

Sometimes I hear white liberals say that white people need to claim their own ethnic identity. “Don’t call yourselves white, call yourselves German or Polish or Irish.” Besides the fact that most of us have no ties to any of those countries as they exist today, people like me are not even sure what our ethnic makeup is. One grandma said she was Spanish, I had a French speaking great grandma, and I know some great grandfather fled the Irish Potato Famine. 

White conservatives take a different tack, conveniently leaving out the stories of poor white people in the march westward, leaving out the actual history. For example, did you know that cowboys were not the good guys bringing cattlemen westward, but were actually gangs of poor men who stole cattle and ran them for a profit, and often got themselves killed or executed doing it? Or that most pioneer families nearly starved on little plots they could not afford to keep (or squatted illegally on) and were forced to keep looking for a place to live after the railroad men and entrepreneurs gobbled up their land? Or that, on many occasions, poor white people found common cause with poor black people and poor people of color and organized their labor in unions like the IWW?

The 66 million poor white people living in this country now have been sold a lie, a lie that keeps us complacent, a lie that robs us of our own history and culture, and a lie that has kept us divided from other colonized and subjugated people around the world. White supremacy is ingenious in its ability to tell poor white people both that they are superior because they are white, but also that they are failures because they are poor. 

We are not failures at all. We are descendants of a European peasant diaspora, when the land we belonged to was seized by wealthy men intent on profit over human life. We are descendants of refugees who fled to land stolen from its indigenous people, only to find ourselves pushed ever westward, “searching, but never finding, a secure life in a land of plenty” (Will Campbell). 

Perhaps, if we see our place in history more clearly, we can use it to change our future. Perhaps, if we find our place in humanity, we can see our culture and heritage, our mistakes and our courage, in a clearer light. Perhaps, if we reject the narrative we have been told, we can instead join with indigenous and oppressed people around the globe who seek to create a better world for our children and the land itself. Perhaps we can, together, end a system that values profit over human life. 

Note: The ideas in this piece come from many different sources. Some of the most important are: Resmaa Menakem who wrote My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathways to Mending our Hearts and Bodies, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz who wrote An Indigenous History of the United States, and Lyla June who wrote “Reclaiming our Indigenous European Roots.

Also useful have been Nancy Isenburg’s White Trash: The 400 year Untold History of Class in America and Keri Leigh Merritt’s Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antibellum South. 

2 Comments

  1. Thank you for this article. I can see so many ways that this knowledge can contribute to individuals’ self-understanding and self acceptance and create stronger minds and psyches to address the huge challenges of modern life. The truth empowers us. This information fills in empty spots in my understanding of the world and my place in it.

    Like

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