Radical Potential in Every Community


Amy Sonnie and James Tracy.  Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power.  New York: Melville House Printing, 2011.  ix-201 pp.  $16.95 (paperback).

Most current academic discussion of radical movements populated by whites is devoted to understanding ultra-right movements based largely on demands for less government intervention and nostalgia for a lost time in the United States.  Amy Sonnie and James Tracy in Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power challenge this norm.  Surveying radical left-wing movements from the early 1960s to the late 1970s, the authors demonstrate the importance of multiracial activism and the role of poor and middle-class whites in it.  This vital text not only shakes up the academic prejudice that assumes poor whites to be racist, it also offers a wide range of examples of the movements’ successes and failures, equipping readers with a large body of information on how to do effective activism.

Telling the stories of whites (specifically the poor) involved in the struggle for equality (racial, gender, and economic justice) in the United States is a difficult and complex task.  It is not the case (as it is oftentimes assumed) that poor whites were simply not interested in racial equality; rather the benefits that the system of white privilege afforded them have historically created obstacles to winning lasting revolutionary gains.  By publicizing the stories of those whites who resisted the call to submit to racial politicking, this book makes visible what has long been invisible, in particular a strong current of white consciousness that developed in a similar fashion to the consciousness of nationalist movements of black, Puerto Rican, American Indian, and Asian communities in the 1960s (9).  The consciousness of those whites working for justice arose out of class consciousness, but not of a vulgar Marxist kind that simply identified the elites as the problem and advocated an impersonal class struggle.  Rather, this book chronicles how they went about building communities and developing links between minority power movements and the demands for recognition of working-class whites.

The book encourages its readers to realize the importance of the struggle for the heartland as integral to racial justice in the United States, as well as to recognize the struggle in the heartland as ongoing and powerful even if rarely noticed (172-3).  This struggle for change forcefully reminds us that movements who seek to radically change the status quo must start with their own communities, developing ties to broader groups as part of systematically connected demands for change.  That is also part of a larger task for movements to remain practical and develop real action.

One of the most poignant points of this book is the portrayal of the tension between the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and radical community movements.  Sonnie and Tracy depict the difficulty of middle-class SDS activists: merely discussing how radicalization might happen gained little traction (37).  Those interested in just talking about the theory of revolution were simply left behind as the needs of communities dictated the actions of movements.  Highlighting the importance of theory becoming action makes this book an essential reading not only for academics but also for activists looking to create change in the world around them.  In other words, this book is a clarion call to root movements in practice, rejecting both pontification about revolutionary theory and sporadic action without focus.

The book presents many examples of movements rooted in practice.  One of them is how a combination of Marxist theory and Panther anti-drug action created a framework for a white radical group called White Lightning to challenge heroin use in New York during the 70s (156).  Unification of theory and practice enabled the group to change the conditions surrounding drug in their local community.

Radical left-wing movements do not always strike the right balance between theorizing (which can provide a unifying message as well as intellectual sustenance) and actual doings.  Achieving the right balance, as the authors show, can link national and international issues (113), increase the chances for class solidarity to create change (80), and create a radical change by putting the power to make change in the hands of the people who need it the most (69).  By pushing readers to synthesize the power of movements’ doing and theorizing, the authors also create another challenge for them: to comprehend the power of diversity in the face of tensions between groups.  This is where the book really shines as one of the most important texts on radical politics today.

The authors elegantly demonstrate the ways that diversity actually became strength for movement participants, instead of assuming its importance as a theoretical premise.  Rather than inventing a new theory of race relations in the United States, the authors show that the movements connected and supported each other when they were most effective.

The sharing of power among many radical factions, however, was not a simple task.  As the Black Panthers moved toward “Black Power,” liberal whites were forced to take notice just as much as those on the right (53).  Moreover, Sonnie and Tracy do not shy away from confronting how the power of diversity rapidly declined as the movements fell into massive disarray due to infighting.  What also emerges from the text is a firsthand account of the power of institutions to use diversity as a divisive tool and a warning to future activists about the dangers of succumbing to paranoia, infighting, and institutional trickery.

For all the book’s accomplishments, it also has a few shortcomings.  First, there is little direct discussion about our current political situation.  This is not to say that the authors do not directly address the movements today at all, but the book’s “Epilogue” is unsatisfying in its brevity.  I say this knowing full well that this book was never meant to be a theoretical tome that would explicitly guide movements step-by-step toward revolution.  Still, I think the “Epilogue” could have been better developed with a view to offering a theoretical guide for activists in the future.  Second, the description of the infiltration of the movements, while vivid and gripping, does little to warn future activists of what to watch out for, facing those who would seek to disrupt our contemporary movements.  While records of the COINTELPRO operations are referenced and there is also a discussion of possible “rats,” there is little in the book for readers who want to learn how to resist attempts to destroy the movements today.

Despite the few shortcomings mentioned above, Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power overall provides a strong reading of the movements that have long been neglected.  It continues the important and truly radical archival and historical scholarship that has been uncovering movements of the “long sixties.”  This book is a must read for those who wish to develop radical politics with the benefit of the lessons of the past, which adds a greatly needed new understanding of diversity to debate among activists as well as scholars who have often overlooked the fact that radical potential exists in every community.

Brett Farmer is a master’s student in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Texas.  His research focuses on racial politics in the United States and the development of contemporary far-right movements.  He can be reached via email at <brettfarmer@gmail.com>.

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