Intervention – “Race, Rurality, and Radical Geography in the US”

Levi Van Sant (Georgia Southern University) and

Kai Bosworth (University of Minnesota)

The election of Donald Trump, exacerbated by Brexit and the apparent growth of right wing populism around the globe, has spurred considerable reflection about the multiple divides that stratify the current US political spectrum, particularly the urban/rural and racial rifts. Rural and working-class whites have received special scrutiny for their higher-than-expected turnout,[1] and are often casually portrayed as the root cause of Trumpism.[2] These analyses are too often simplistic and reactionary, drawing from a deep well of assumptions about the city as the site of civilization and progress, and can actually reinforce rural and working-class white allegiance to the far right. In this intervention, we question whether these same assumptions also inform academia. We argue that radical geographers should re-examine the genealogy of our own field – particularly its urban bias – and engage more substantively with the politics of rural and working-class whiteness. Doing so offers new ways for radical geographers to challenge white supremacy and settler colonialism.

Rural and working-class US whites are frequently conservative, xenophobic, and reactionary, and should be held accountable for these politics. But they are not inherently bigoted, nor do they hold a monopoly on these destructive tendencies. Moralistic critique of rural and working-class whites for not adhering to the norms of liberal niceties, a common response from much of the US left, only feeds their sense of alienation and resentment. It is absolutely crucial to acknowledge the ways that much of the US left, and especially the Democratic Party, has effectively abandoned rural and working-class whites to the far right by stigmatizing them as backwards, as an obstacle and an aberration in progressive narratives of national self-making. We must instead work much harder to understand the political formation of rural whiteness, including its history, complexity, and dynamic fault lines. While other disciplines, particularly history and sociology, have initiated this task, geographers have yet to contribute much to the conversation.

Given that academics occupy a largely urban and professional social position, perhaps it is not surprising that we have also largely relinquished engagement with rural and working-class whites to the (far) right. Yet while the infatuation with cosmopolitan urban space engendering left politics is transdisciplinary, it also has a particular genealogy in radical geography. Many of the foundational debates in Antipode, for instance, centered on urban deindustrialization and gentrification – portraying cities as the sites where the socialist future would be born. Noting this trend, Doreen Massey (2005: 160) cautioned that “Western academics’ focus on Western world cities, the realms in which they tend to live, may be another form of inwardlookingness”. This urban infatuation, Massey suggests, “is perhaps part of what has tamed (indeed is dependent upon the taming of) our vision of the rural” (2005: 160).

Yet still, radical geography frequently imagines that radical politics and thought emerge largely from the city, a social and spatial imaginary – call it the “radical urban bias” – that can lead to partial analyses and ineffective politics. Although published over 15 years ago, Lucy Jarosz and Victoria Lawson’s (2002: 10) assessment holds true today: “little empirically-based research explores class conflict and definitions of racism among whites in rural settings or analyzes the geographic dimensions of whiteness and the place-specific constructions of class-based subjectivities”. Moralistic denunciation of rural spaces reinforces the portrayal of the rural US as “a site of horror and degradation in the urban imagination” (Halberstam 2005: 27; see also Stewart 1996).[3] Finally, the radical urban bias reproduces an odd division in geography wherein the politics of land, dispossession, class, and race are examined through entirely different and seemingly unrelated frameworks in the Global North and Global South (see McCarthy 2002). Altogether, we are often left with insufficient analysis at best and a haughty political moralism at worst.

When considered as part of the spatial politics of race and class, the radical urban bias can produce an homogenizing and nearly-teleological image of rural white supremacy. Rural queers, people of color, and indigenous people are either written out of the story altogether, positioned as uncomplicated heroes with no internal political struggles of their own, or imagined as helpless victims of bigoted rural men and thus ready to be rescued by urban leftists. This allows urban white folks to, as Thomas Biolsi (2007: xxii) argues, “savor their innocence” in relation to bigoted rural working-class whites without considering their own structural positions in reproducing racial stratification and settler colonialism. Of course the liberal “Everyone Is Welcome Here” signs seen on houses in rich, predominantly white neighborhoods in urban centers are an easy target. But so too, as Adam Barker and Jenny Pickerill (2012: 1717) argue, are the autonomous free spaces geographers offer as a radical alternative – which produce a “disjuncture in assumptions made by anarchists [and, we’d add, radical geographers in general] about urban spaces potentially offering more transformative possibilities, and the need to work with those who are located elsewhere, often in non-urban spaces”. Solidarity – especially class-based solidarity – seems to be immediately foreclosed from rural people and spaces.

In many parts of the United States, a plurality of university students we teach are from small towns and rural areas. These students are more likely to be from low-income families and the first of their generation to attend college. One of our major goals as geographers is to expose them to critical ways of understanding the global and structural determinants of their lives. Yet, since the broader discipline has lost interest in the subfield of rural geography, few departments teach courses or sections on rural North America, especially those that might offer radical politics for these places. Even fewer radical research projects in the United States speak to the rural politics of race and class in a sustained manner, and those that do tend to be critical and dismissive of the possibility of progressive or radical politics emerging from rural regions. There is little point further decrying a “university bubble” in general, and our goal is not to present an inflated view of the role of intellectuals in rural life. We do believe, however, that it is important to spur conversation about how our institutions, pedagogical practices, and research agendas fail to challenge, or perhaps even reproduce, what Katherine Cramer (2016) has succinctly labeled “the rural politics of resentment”.

Geography needs much more analysis of white supremacy and settler colonialism as structural forces, as Anne Bonds and Joshua Inwood (2016) have recently argued. Yet we worry that conceptualizations of white supremacy and settler colonialism that deconstruct how they aim to achieve permanence and naturalization can at times instead be read as presenting the pessimistic thesis that they are permanent.[4] Although every week seems to present a depressing amount of new evidence for the strength of white supremacy in the present, conceptualizing white supremacy without attention to its anxieties, fractures, contradictions, and spatial variability papers over the points that could be leveraged in its abolition. The fissures and fault lines that historically constitute racialization are written out of existence if white supremacy and settler colonialism are understood as inevitable, and something like anti-racist or decolonial working-class solidarity becomes unimaginable if these structures are seen to wholly determine individual subject positions.

The various standoffs involving the Bundy family over the past few years, alluded to by Bonds and Inwood (2016), perfectly illustrate the entitlements of whiteness and a tight linkage between white supremacy and settler colonialism.[5] Yet they could also easily reaffirm the belief that a “particular racial worldview that is remarkably common in the rural American West” (Bonds and Inwood 2016: 725) both arises from and characterizes the rural itself. Reactionary politics is common to rural, working-class white America, but we should be careful that we don’t allow that reality to determine our conception of rural political geographies. It is arguable, in fact, that the maintenance of white supremacy and settler colonialism currently depend, in part, on the left’s impoverished imagination of rural politics; that, to borrow Massey’s (2005) language again, our “tamed” vision of the rural is part of the problem.

Radical geographic analyses of white supremacy and settler colonialism must move beyond condemnation, towards active contestation and abolition. There are many ways to do this, of course. We emphasize here that rural whites are capable of solidarity with people of color and suggest that geographers could be more involved on the ground in understanding and supporting these struggles. Many analyses of the efforts against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) have rightfully centered Native Nations and contextualized it in their 500 year struggle against settler colonialism. As the geographer Zoltan Grossman (2017) has recently argued, this struggle isn’t alone in also mobilizing rural white people from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean against extractive industries and in defense of land, water, and the treaty rights of Native Nations. His book, Unlikely Alliances, highlights instances of collaboration among Native Nations and non-Native farmers, ranchers, and rural white people, many of whom are quite clearly libertarian populists. No shortage of instances of racist and white supremacist abuse are documented within, often (but not only) from the far more likely alliance of the state, corporations, and other rural white folks. But he also shows how the actions of rural white folks (not altogether dissimilar from the Bundys) can be redirected, “disengaging from the ongoing project of colonization and engaging them in solidarity with decolonization” (Grossman 2017: 30). This also includes redirecting the gaze of non-Native research projects from Native peoples as objects of research. Undoubtedly, many of the unlikely white “allies” still make questionable assessments of history and power. Yet some of these same people made their way to blockades, protests, and gatherings, like the 11,000-strong 1980 anti-nuke “Survival Gathering” in South Dakota, or the current struggles against pipelines across the continent.

The direct action and community self-defense work of Redneck Revolt is another example of evolving rural white solidarity with people of color. Growing out of a rural Kansas mutual aid project called the John Brown Gun Club, one of their main goals is to recruit away from white supremacist organizations. Thus much of their strategy is built around working in the kinds of spaces that radical geographers have written very little about: rodeos, NASCAR rallies, and country music concerts. In the early 2000s, for instance, they set up booths at gun shows across Kansas, offering anti-capitalist, anti-racist pamphlets, and a stark alternative to white supremacist recruiters. As Redneck Revolt put it in their Standing Rock recruitment pamphlet addressed to Bundy supporters, there is no necessary reason that “the white working-class … [should] find solidarity with rich white ranchowners against the government, but not working-class people of color defending their own land and community”.[6] They also worked closely with people of color and other counter-protesters at the recent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville to defend folks from violent white supremacists.[7]

Although solidarity efforts of this kind in the rural US face steep challenges, their existence means that radical scholars could engage more: to understand and support them, to identify the limits of current politics, and to think through strategies for divesting rural and working-class whites from reactionary politics. This kind of radical geography holds the potential to identify and pry open some of the existing cracks in the structures of white supremacy and settler colonialism.


[1] See, for example, (last accessed 12 September 2017).

[2] While obviously an important part of Trump’s electorate, rural and working-class whites were not as crucial as many assume. In fact, the core of Trump’s support seems to be middle and upper class suburban whites (Kotkin and Cox 2016). Barbara Ellen Smith and Jamie Winders (2017) also draw attention to the simplistic blaming of rural and working-class voters; our analysis complements and extends theirs.

[3] Jack Halberstam’s analysis of the murder of Brandon Teena deconstructs a similar discourse that rehashes historic images of both rural and small-town spaces and lower-class people as developmentally backward Others. To view the modern march of progress and liberation of queers and gender non-conforming people as primarily an urban affair, Halberstam further argues, neglects “the desire shared by many midwestern queers for a way of staying rather than leaving” (2005: 27). The murder of Teena and two of their friends, one of whom was African American, at the hands of a member of organized white supremacist groups is rarely brought up in its memorialization; Halberstam is only suggestive in reflecting on how the interplay between blackness and queerness function as urban afflictions in the white racist imaginary.

[4] As Bonds and Inwood write, citing the work of Patrick Wolfe (2006): “Because of the permanence of settler societies, settler colonization is theorized not as an event or moment in history, but as an enduring structure requiring constant maintenance in an effort to disappear indigenous populations” (2016: 716).

[5] The Bundy family has gained popularity among right-wing libertarian and populist movements in the US for their multiple armed efforts to claim public land for white settlers.

[6] See (last accessed 13 September 2017).

[7] See (last accessed 13 September 2017).


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