Sunday, December 30, 2012

Amy Sonnie and James Tracy: Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power

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The story of black nationalism and civil rights isn't usually the story of poor white people. Maybe better, the story of poor white people in the late '60s and early '70s isn't usually the story of civil rights, or even class struggle. Today the story of poor whites, especially in the South, and blacks is often told in the vein of racial resentment. Amy Sonnie and James Tracy problematize this relationship with their history of five community groups that organized poor whites alongside black nationalists for economic and social justice and would today be called anti-racist groups: JOIN Community Union, the Young Patriots, Rising Up Angry, October 4th Organization (O4O) and White Lightening. As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes in the forward, poor, especially rural, whites are a problem for the ruling class of America and easy for those of us in cities to ignore: "They are evidence of the failure of the 'American Dream.' The mythology that they have some rights, some prominence in the national story buys the population's loyalty to the state, even though they have no say in its affairs... All along, they have made up the majority of the military, still cannon fodder, but feeling righteous and 'patriotic.'" Harnessing this patriotism while keeping poor whites from feeling disenfranchised often requires emphasizing racial tensions and us/them mentalities.

Amy Sonnie and James Tracy revive the stories of people who struggled to overcome that mentality and situate poor whites in the struggle for a more just America. According to Sonnie and Tracy, the organizers of poor whites operated on two radical principles: first, that poor whites weren't necessarily any more racist than rich racists (those who tended to be the ones working alongside blacks in the civil rights movement) and second, that, since poor whites "experience the benefits of institutional racism differently," it was key to include class struggle and race in any organizing efforts. Sonnie and Tracy highlight both successes and failures along the way, which is one of the unique parts of "Hillbilly Nationalists," along with the early discussions of the pros and cons of organizing along with or separate from black groups. These poor white organizations recognized and grappled their privilege as whites, as well as their disadvantages as poor people when working with student groups, and negotiated with this identity as they navigated in their communities and work. They sought to work as partners "in class-based coalition with communities of color" without being leaders or agenda setters. Rather, they attempted to "address racism at its core," as the Black Panthers suggested to them. Although this book is case studies, its most powerful moments come with the potential for prescription or advice: how can organizers today think about race and class in their own movements, rather than paying lip service to it? What kind of organizing can be done in poor white communities that might mobilize them to think of the struggle as their own? Rather than talking about "them"- the poor, the obese, the veterans, the high school dropouts, etc- "Hillbilly Nationalists" provides examples of how groups generally thought of as unorganized and unorganizable and maybe even apathetic have actually done the hard work and succeeded.


Civil Defense Poetry said...

Hey thanks for the shout out!