Hot take: What happens when you leave poor Whites behind

Coal miners in Virginia, 1962. Photo by Jack Corn.

Not long before the worst presidential election in my lifetime, I attended Atlanta’s radical book fair and bought a paperback from Firestorm Books, a worker-owned cooperative from Asheville. It was a timely find. Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels and Black Power tells the little-known history of how, in the 1960s and 70s, poor Whites organized poor Whites in tandem with the Black Panthers and Young Lords. In Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, where a white, Southern diaspora laid down roots after coal jobs dried up in Appalachia, a group called JOIN Community Union mobilized their neighbors to take on welfare rights and police brutality alongside Black and Brown communities. Authors Amy Sonnie and James Tracy write that “These men and women understood that ending racism was not a threat or act of charity, but a part of gaining their own freedom.” The work of JOIN and other organizations like it, “contradicts biased notions about poor Whites as either hopelessly racist or reliant on the Left Intelligentsia for radical education.”

I want to underscore "hopelessly" in that last sentence, because there’s no doubt that racism elected the next president of the United States. But for too long the progressive discourse in this nation has been dominated by middle class and wealthy White liberals who define their supposed anti-racism in contrast to the racism of lower class Whites whom they disdain. There’s been hardly any investment from the Left in organizing poor and working class White folk, and that void has been justified by this notion that they are hopelessly racist and backward. That has turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ignoring the legitimate economic grievances of poor and working class Whites because they are entwined with racism, instead of doing the work to untwine the two and eliminate the latter, has led us to where we are today. JOIN and their peers showed us that this work is possible, but their stories are not well known. Now is the time for progressive and radical Whites to learn our history, get with the Whites we've cast off, and organize, organize, organize.