By Carol Anderson. Bloomsbury, 2016. 256 pages. $26/hardcover; $17/paperback; $18.99/eBook.
A lot of attention has been given to black rage, which we have seen most recently in street demonstrations following police shootings of unarmed black men. Historian Carol Anderson suggests that these demonstrations are the fire, while acts coming from white rage are the kindling that feeds the fire. White rage gets little public attention.
Anderson put the final touches on White Rage in July 2015, just after Donald Trump announced his candidacy for President. He called for “law and order,” referring to incidents when a few individuals taking part in peaceful demonstrations got out of hand. Meanwhile, he gave no credence to the causes of their rage. Given the anger toward minorities that his message tapped among many whites, it is critical that we understand how white rage has operated over 150 years in America.
Anderson’s thesis is that every advance made by African Americans since the end of slavery has been followed by white pushback aimed at regaining control. A chapter is given to each of five movements.
After the Reconstruction period that followed the Civil War, whites reversed freedmen’s gains by legislating Jim Crow laws segregating the races and virtually ending voting by African Americans throughout the South with poll taxes, ridiculous “literacy tests,” and violence, both real and threatened. The federal government did nothing to challenge this disenfranchisement, in contradiction to the Fifteenth Amendment.
As the Great Migration to the north escalated (a total of six million people sought a better life), southerners saw their cheap labor disappear and often resorted to violence to stop the exodus. Meanwhile, northern cities erupted in race riots as white mobs terrorized the migrants if they attempted to live outside very overcrowded ghettos.
Many readers are old enough to remember how the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka 1954 Supreme Court decision was met with stalling tactics. In Prince Edward County, Va., to give just one example, all public schools were closed and public money paid tuition for white children to attend private schools, where they were taught by many of their former public school teachers. Black children were left without any education for five years, a deficit most were never able to overcome.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s brought real progress for many African Americans. No longer were lynching and overt racism acceptable. So racism was carefully defined by whites as being only about things like bus seats, water fountains, and the KKK; lost wages, stolen land, and educational inequity were ignored; and programs to right those wrongs became viewed as “reverse discrimination.” If some blacks didn’t thrive in the new “colorblind” society, they were labeled as “lazy slum dwellers.” Any attempt to help poor blacks raised resentment in white working class people who themselves had difficult lives; they were unable to see that, despite their hardships, their whiteness was one advantage they had over people of color. Race-neutral “dog whistle” language came to express racial resentment without ever referring to race. Yet the racial message was easily recognizable.
In the 1970s and 1980s, drug use was declining overall compared with the 1960s. Nevertheless, the War on Drugs characterized drugs as a major national problem and the prison population tripled within a few years. Far more people of color than whites went to prison on drug charges in spite of the fact that drugs were equally prevalent in black and white communities. Meanwhile, Supreme Court decisions removed many protections for those accused of criminal activity with very narrow interpretations of the Bill of Rights.
Finally, Anderson shows how the election of an African American President was met with resistance. After Barack Obama’s election, many states took major initiatives to suppress the black vote with redistricting; limiting early voting; and passing voter ID laws, supposedly to counter the problem of voting fraud, which is in reality extremely rare. Some Congressional leaders openly stated a goal of making Obama a one-term President. The President was plagued with death threats from his first campaign throughout his presidency.
Now, we need to be on guard against new attempts to reverse progress for people of color and other minorities. We must be ready to stand up, to have the backs of people targeted by intolerance. But we also must look inward. In retrospect, we are all appalled by the reversal of Reconstruction and the violence used to terrify and control African Americans for many decades. Yet I confess to having been disturbed, perhaps, but not outraged by the examples of pushback to black progress within my lifetime. Even Michelle Alexander, who is African American, admits in The New Jim Crow to not really seeing the systemic injustice in the War on Drugs for a long time. So we must be watchful and learn to question continually not only public policy and political action, but our own perceptions. This book can give us a historical perspective that will help us be alert to racial injustice.