Carol Anderson’s book White Rage was discussed recently at the Albany Library by Alice Green, Director of the Center for Law and Justice and a longtime activist.
Anderson is a historian and her book takes a historical view. In Green’s telling, the basic theme is that whenever black Americans achieve some advancement, there’s white Pushback. And while “black rage” has been very visible, with obvious sources in what they’ve suffered (beginning with slavery, and subsequent discrimination; yet most blacks are patriotic), white Rage is a more elusive phenomenon, mostly hidden for a long time until recently.
The story begins with Reconstruction, after the Civil War. The federal government did much to assimilate the freed slaves as citizens, with the 14th Amendment enshrining equality before the law, and the 15th giving black men the vote. Really extraordinarily progressive (in the true sense). Not only did former slaves vote, many were elected to high office in the South (including two U.S. Senators).
But, as Green noted, slaves had been extremely valuable property, and taking it away left some angry people. When federal troops departed the South in 1877, the pushback came, with whites using violence to terrorize and subjugate blacks. Black voting largely ended.
And when the Supreme Court endorsed segregation in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, it put Jim Crow race-based oppression into high gear. While the Court okayed “separate but equal,” the reality was very unequal.
In 1954, Plessy was reversed in Brown v. Board of Education. A genuine advance, Green acknowledged. And of course there was pushback. Public school integration was violently resisted (Little Rock, etc.), and many Southern communities tried to evade it by recourse to non-public schooling. (Schools today continue very segregated.)
This febrile atmosphere engendered the 1960s civil rights movement, with some dramatic results, the passage of civil rights and voting rights legislation. There was again pushback; but enough acquiescence that the face of American society was altered. In particular, unfettered voting by Southern blacks empowered them and made a big difference.
In Green’s view, though, pushback now took the form of heightened emphasis on policing and criminal justice (Nixon’s “law and order” theme), with the war on drugs ramped up. In practice it was a war on black communities, disproportionally affected, and devastated by the mass incarceration of their inhabitants.
When a black man became president, many of us felt we’d finally overcome the demon of racism, entering a post-racial Eden. Of course, it turned out a lot of whites just couldn’t stand seeing a black man in the White House. Indeed, can’t stand whites on track to becoming a minority in America.
Electing Trump was certainly a manifestation of their pushback. His slogan really meant make America white again. He’s brought white rage out of the closet, legitimizing it. Meantime, Republicans have undertaken voter suppression efforts targeted particularly at blacks, to prevent another Obama being elected.
I used to reject claims that America is fundamentally racist, contending instead that while racism obviously persists, it is confined to dark corners of our society, and to benighted people who really don’t matter. Of course, being seen as people who don’t matter is part of their grievance, aggravating their white rage. And we’ve learned that it’s more intense and more widespread than it had seemed before Trump came along.
Last May I wrote a blog post, “Why so many blacks in ads?” (suggesting it’s because they convey a positive vibe of hipness). That post continues to attract a far higher rate of hits and comments than any other. Take a glance at those comments. I’ve frankly been shocked at the crude, unabashed racism most of them express. And a friend pointed me to this article, with a brutally candid portrayal of the mindset of white rural Christian Americans (no small part of the country) — which includes a big dose of racial attitude. The article’s author, coming from this community, thinks nothing can change their minds.
There is the idea that blacks are racially inferior, with a sense of grievance against them, that somehow their inferior character and behavior is being unjustly rewarded (a prominent theme in comments to my mentioned “blacks in ads” post). These ideas behind white rage are not reality-based — much unlike the all too factual sources of black rage. But that doesn’t seem to matter.
Yet my optimism endures. Green seemed to imply the historical trajectory is from bad to worse. But bad as things may seem now, we tend to forget how really awful they were in the past. And in the question period, I said, “If I were a Martian hearing your talk, I’d be very puzzled by something: the fact that Obama was elected, even though, as he himself said, he was actually black before the election.” (He was re-elected, too, while black.)
We’re still a very divided society, with most blacks experiencing life very differently from most whites. These divisions are very visible in the news and public discourse. And as noted, the Trump era has brought racism out of the closet and in our faces. But is America actually growing more racist? No. To the contrary, the trend of public attitudes over time is progressively ever less racist and more tolerant. And at the nitty gritty ground level of routine day-to-day social interaction, what strikes me is how well we actually get along with each other. This is still a very positive contrast against an awful lot of places in the world.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. Nor will a paradise of racial amity be built in a day, or even a century. But again: it is not getting worse. While the white Christian rural Americans in that cited article lash out against ethnic minorities as scapegoats for their own failing dysfunctionality, it will catch up with them. Racism is not winning, but inexorably losing. That’s why we see so much pushback; it is the desperation of losers. It can do much harm in the process, but won’t change the ultimate outcome.
Every day more racists die than are born.
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