White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide
Carol Anderson Ph.D.
White rage is not about visible violence, but rather it works its way through the courts, the legislatures, and a range of government bureaucracies. It wreaks havoc subtly, almost imperceptibly. Too imperceptibly, certainly, for a nation consistently drawn to the spectacular—to what it can see. It’s not the Klan. White rage doesn’t have to wear sheets, burn crosses, or take to the streets. Working the halls of power, it can achieve its ends far more effectively, far more destructively.
The trigger for white rage, inevitably, is black advancement. It is not the mere presence of black people that is the problem; rather, it is blackness with ambition, with drive, with purpose, with aspirations, and with demands for full and equal citizenship.
And all the while, white rage manages to maintain not only the upper hand but also, apparently, the moral high ground.
The truth is that the hard-fought victories of the Civil Rights Movement caused a reaction that stripped Brown of its power, severed the jugular of the Voting Rights Act, closed off access to higher education, poured crack cocaine into the inner cities, and locked up more black men proportionally than even apartheid-era South Africa.
The truth is, white rage has undermined democracy, warped the Constitution, weakened the nation’s ability to compete economically, squandered billions of dollars on baseless incarceration, rendered an entire region sick, poor, and woefully undereducated, and left cities nothing less than decimated. All this havoc has been wreaked simply because African Americans wanted to work, get an education, live in decent communities, raise their families, and vote. Because they were unwilling to take no for an answer.
Lincoln soon laid out his own resettlement plans. He had selected Chiriquí, a resource-poor area in what is now Panama, to be the new home for millions of African Americans. Lincoln just had to convince them to leave. In August 1862, he lectured five black leaders whom he had summoned to the White House that it was their duty, given what their people had done to the United States, to accept the exodus to South America, telling them, “But for your race among us there could not be war.”
Eighty-one percent of South Carolina’s wealth was directly tied to owning human beings.16 It is no wonder, then, that South Carolina was willing to do whatever it took, including firing the first shot in the bloodiest war in U.S. history to be free from Washington,
When the Confederacy declared that the “first duty of the Southern states” was “self-preservation,” what it meant was the preservation of slavery.
“I am not,” Lincoln had said, “nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.”
The bottom line was that black economic independence was anathema to a power structure that depended on cheap, exploitable, rightless labor and required black subordination.
Indeed, such was Mississippi’s obstinacy that it delayed ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment until 2013.
As in most oppressive societies, those in power knew that an educated population would only upset the political and economic order.
The Supreme Court thus identified states as the ultimate defenders of rights, although Southern states had repeatedly proven themselves the ultimate violators of those rights.
Migration is the story of America. It is foundational. From Pilgrims fleeing oppression in Europe, to the millions who took advantage of the Homestead Act to “go West,” to the erection of the Statue of Liberty in New York’s harbor, all the way up to the U.S. Congress tying Most Favored Nation status to the human right of Soviet Jews to emigrate, the movement of people fleeing tyranny, violence, and withered opportunities is sacrosanct to Americans. In fact, “freedom of movement” is a treasured right in the nation’s political lexicon.
The point was to send a powerful signal to the larger African American community that speaking up for one’s rights and demanding appropriate compensation was a death sentence.
Chattel slavery had marked blacks at the bottom—economically, politically, socially, culturally, physically, and intellectually. The base. If blacks extricated themselves from the region, as they were clearly doing—and without the approval of whites—then the entire socioeconomic structure of the South dependent on the support of that base was in danger of collapsing. Thus, while African Americans understood the exodus as grabbing at a chance for freedom and equality, white Southerners saw black advancement and independence as a threat to their culture and, indeed, their economy.
The Defender’s stridency, its unrelenting embrace of blackness, and its open contempt for white racist regimes turned a simple newspaper into a symbol of African American pride and defiance.
The reason Southern officials rose up to try to stop the Great Migration of a people for whom they clearly had such contempt goes far beyond the easy default response of “labor.” Black flight threatened much more than the economic foundation of a feudal society; African Americans’ determination to achieve their full potential endangered the legalistic, biological, and philosophical tenets of a racially oppressive system. Black prosperity and success—indeed, black intelligence—were unimaginable and, thus, justified the disparate funding in education that had led to abysmal schools and made the brutality of the criminal justice system necessary. It propped up skewed, racially based pay scales. The whole culture of the white South was erected on the presumption of black inability.
Employees at Ford, with an industry-setting pay scale of five dollars a day, could make in a single week what it took a prosperous sharecropper some two months or more to earn.
Changing his tune, Eisenhower now asserted that the United States had to do everything it could to prevent “the loss of a student with real ability.”119 He “stressed” that it was vital that this generation of American youth get the education necessary to be “equipped to live in the age of intercontinental ballistic missiles.” Delay or failure to act, Eisenhower insisted, would leave the United States “irretrievably behind.”
Thus, while bills for the National Defense Education Act bounced through Congress, seeking ways to provide unprecedented federal financial support to schools and universities, Elliott, along with his fellow Alabamian senator Lister Hill, both of whom had signed the Southern Manifesto, were insistent that any movement on education funding, even if for national security, could not, in any way, dismantle Jim Crow or penalize Southern schools and universities for refusing to integrate.
Both the Nixon and Reagan administrations, with the support of the Burger and Rehnquist Supreme Courts, executed two significant tasks to crush the promise embedded in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The first was to redefine what the movement was really “about,” with centuries of oppression and brutality suddenly reduced to the harmless symbolism of a bus seat and a water fountain. Thus, when the COLORED ONLY signs went down, inequality had supposedly disappeared.
The focus on the Klan also helped to designate racism as an individual aberration rather than something systemic, institutional, and pervasive.
Nor had the initial Southern focus of the movement addressed the discrimination that millions of African Americans faced in the urban North, Midwest, and West. Thus, nonviolence gave way to an ethos of self-defense, best articulated by the Black Panther Party, a group founded in 1966 which openly brandished guns and challenged the police. The goal of integration, so fundamental to the SCLC and the NAACP, was now forced to openly compete with the more sharply articulated demands of Black Nationalism and Black Power.
The point, longtime aide John Ehrlichman explained, was to present a position on crime, education, or public housing in such a way that a voter could “avoid admitting to himself that he was attracted by a racist appeal.”
Indeed, the impact of the Voting Rights Act was profound. Just prior to its passage, only 6.7 percent of black adults were registered to vote in Mississippi. Three years later, with federal oversight and Section 5 preclearance that required the Department of Justice or district court in Washington, D.C., to approve any changes to the state’s election laws, the number of black registered voters had skyrocketed to 59.4 percent.
The fact that most minorities—after centuries of government-enforced racism in education and employment—simply did not have the economic wherewithal to move was overlooked.
And so, even in the waning days of the Civil Rights Movement, entrenched, constitutionally unequal education was once again an important part of the nation’s way of life. “The Equal Protection Clause does not require absolute equality,” Powell declared in a powerfully worded edict, “or precisely equal advantages.”
It was a role tailor-made for the former Hollywood actor. Reagan cast himself as a traditional conservative, but his disdain for supposed big government was geared not so much toward New Deal programs that had provided paid employment to millions of out-of-work Americans like his father; or social security, which had overwhelmingly benefited whites during the Great Depression. What President Reagan loathed was the Great Society that, despite its dispersal of benefits to middle-class whites and its measurable effectiveness in lifting the elderly out of poverty, he succeeded in coding as a giveaway program for blacks.79 His budget priorities reflected that contempt, as he ordered a scorched-earth policy through the Great Society from education, to housing, to employment.
With the rollback now in full force, the “civil rights gains of the past,” as National Urban League president Vernon Jordan remarked, were “now under attack and in danger.”97 The median family income for African Americans had been higher in the 1970s than it was under Reagan, even as the white median income, despite the economic downturn, continued to grow.
The problem had been U.S. law enforcement guarding key entry points into a lucrative market. But with the CIA and the National Security Council now ready to run interference and keep the FBI, the U.S. Customs Service, and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in check, the once formidable line of defense had dwindled to a porous nuisance. Reagan’s “moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers” was now ready to saturate the United States with cocaine.
Initially, Nicaraguan exiles Oscar Danilo Blandón and Norwin Meneses, whose nickname was El Rey de las Drogas (the King of Drugs), set up their wholesale operations in San Francisco. But although they had the product, they didn’t yet have the distribution network to move the initial shipment of cocaine into the retail markets. That came only when they managed to link up with Rick Ross, an illiterate yet entrepreneurial black man who became the conduit between the Contra drug runners and the Crips and Bloods gangs in L.A.109 The result was nothing less than explosive. From the Contra wholesalers, top-quality cocaine was then packaged and sold in little rocks of crack that reaped more than $230,000 per kilo in retail profit. Now, drug money, and all its attendant violence, pounded on a population with double-digit unemployment and declining real wages. The logistical strength of the Bloods and Crips, with an estimated fifty thousand gang members, spread the pain as they set up drug franchises throughout the United States to sell crack like it was on the dollar menu.110 Soon crack was everywhere, kicking the legs out from under black neighborhoods.
Thus, although Reagan bragged to the American public about using U.S. military resources “to cut off drugs before they left other countries’ borders,” his staff’s shielding of Noriega and the Colombian traffickers in fact actively allowed cocaine imports to the United States to skyrocket by 50 percent within three years.
While there was inordinate concern about avoiding prison sentences and the legal consequences for those who poured tons of cocaine into the United States, there was an equal determination to lock up and imprison the communities bearing the brunt of the White House’s narco-funding scheme.124 Unlike in 1981, when Reagan had indicated that treatment for addicts was the route he would take, his speeches and policies now became focused on enforcement, criminals, and harsh, no-mercy punishment.125 With the onset of the epidemic of crack, a drug that had become thoroughly associated with African Americans, notions of treatment went out the window, despite numerous studies proving that treatment was not only more effective but also more fiscally sound and prudent. And, as one DEA agent remarked, “no one has yet demonstrated that enforcement will ever win the war on drugs.”126 Nonetheless, Reagan dragged America down the road of mass incarceration.
As the horrific toll crack cocaine caused in the inner city became more and more obvious, the administration’s response was not to fund a series of treatment facilities but to demonize and criminalize blacks and provide the federal resources to make incarceration, rather than education, normative.
In this important speech, the president not only laid out an epic tale of good, freedom-loving Americans locked in a mortal battle for the nation’s soul against crack addicts and drug dealers, but in doing so, he also defined the racial contours of this war.
Between 1986 and 1987, 76 percent of the articles in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times dealing with crack referenced African Americans either directly or through code words—urban, inner city, etc. Whites were mentioned only one third of the time.131 The message was clear: the black “plague” was coming.
There had been minor use of crack in the 1970s, but it began to visibly show up in 1984 and exploded in 1985 and 1986—just as Congress cut off funding to the Contras, leaving the administration desperate to finance the war against the Sandinistas.
“Between 1984 and 1994, the homicide rate for Black males aged 14–17 more than doubled and homicide rates for Black males aged 18–24 increased almost as much.”
The divergence, however, was about to get exponentially worse. In 1986, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which stipulated mandatory sentencing, emphasized punishment over treatment, and created the 100-to-1 disparity in sentencing between crack and cocaine based on the myth that the cheap narcotic rock was more addictive than its powder form.
As the NAACP explained the law’s 100-to-1 formulation, “a person must possess 500 grams of powder cocaine before they are subject to the same mandatory prison sentence (5 years) as an individual who is convicted of possessing just 5 grams of crack cocaine (despite the fact that pharmacologically, these two drugs are identical).”
What was discovered, however, was judicial misconduct running rampant in the war on drugs in Tulia, Texas, with a clear racial bias.
But this wasn’t 1930. It was the beginning of the twenty-first century, and a powerful Civil Rights Movement had bridged those two eras. Yet now, felony convictions, chiefly via the war on drugs, replaced the explicit use of race as the mechanism to deny black Americans their rights as citizens.
Disfranchisement, permanent bans on jury service, and legal discrimination in employment, housing, and education—despite the civil rights legislation of the 1960s—are now all burdens carried by those who have been incarcerated. That burden has been disproportionately shouldered by the black community, which, although only 13 percent of the nation’s population, makes up 45 percent of those incarcerated.
Despite all the economic and social pressures they confront, blacks have shown an amazing resilience in the face of drugs; indeed, they are among the least likely drug users of all racial and ethnic groups in the United States.
“United States did not face a crime problem that was racialized; it faced a race problem that was criminalized.”166
Republican South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, taking stock of the nearly inevitable demographic apocalypse, put it best: “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”
While that reality could have—or more to the point should have—signaled an opportunity for the GOP to reexamine its platform, the sclerotic hardening of the “conservative” notions that moved the Republican Party from centrist right to right-wing made it increasingly difficult if not impossible to adapt the GOP’s policies to address the overriding concerns of this wave of newly engaged voters.
Paul Weyrich, a conservative activist and the founder of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), was explicit early on: “I don’t want everybody to vote,” he said, noting that the GOP’s “leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
Protecting the integrity of the ballot box, however, is not nor has it ever been the issue. Rather, the goal has been to intimidate and harass key populations to keep them away from the polls. It is a bit more sophisticated than in the days of Mississippi senator Theodore Bilbo’s 1946 call to arms to get a rope and a match to keep blacks away from the voting booth, but the intent is the same.
Barack Obama’s election was a catalyst for a level of voter suppression activities that had not been seen so clearly or disturbingly in decades.
In addition to blocking access to the polls, the GOP’s strategy is to make the very function of government so distasteful and haphazard that only the most diehard idealists or craven partisans would even bother to vote.
As public approval of Congress plummeted to the single digits—indeed, one survey found that “Congress is less popular than hemorrhoids, jury duty and toenail fungus”—the result was that in the 2014 midterm elections, the United States had the lowest voter turnout since 1942.64 So many of those who had been mobilized and energized in 2008 were now disillusioned, demoralized, and, in many cases, disfranchised, and most simply stayed home.
Jelani Cobb wrote poignantly about the “paradox of progress.”85 Sadly, the ascent of a black man to the presidency of the United States did not, despite all the talk of hope and a post-racial society, signal progress. Instead, it has led to a situation, not so unlike the era of Jim Crow, where a sense of physical vulnerability is shared across classes in the black community.
Black respectability or “appropriate” behavior doesn’t seem to matter. If anything, black achievement, black aspirations, and black success are construed as direct threats. Obama’s presidency made that clear. Aspirations and the achievement of these aspirations provide no protection. Not even to the God-fearing.
Aleksandr Dugin, ideological mentor to Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, seemed clear as he exclaimed “Washington is ours!”2 Indeed, the mood in Moscow was “ebullient.”
If the scheme worked, the bedrock of U.S. national security policy would lay in shambles. Breaking apart NATO and causing massive rifts between the United States and its European allies would, as South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham intoned, advance Putin’s overarching goal to “destroy democracy around the world.”
Donald Trump thanked African Americans for not showing up at the polls to vote, which he knew had helped secure his victory, but the real assist came from the Republican Party.
McCarthy then alerted the group that the links between the GOP frontrunner and the nation’s adversary were clear. “Putin pays … Trump … Swear to God.” And Ryan responded not with alarm about a foreign menace tampering with U.S. national security but with a Godfather-like warning that it was important to keep that bit of information “in the family.” “No Leaks.”
As much as Trump voters valued finally having access to health care to deal with chronic illnesses like diabetes, to get screenings for cancer, and to make possible a liver transplant, those benefits came with a bitter and unforgivable downside. ACA was Obamacare, which was bad enough in itself.51 But there was also the “anger … that other people were getting even better, even cheaper benefits—and those other people did not deserve the help.”52 In vintage dog-whistle language, Trump supporters explained that Obamacare was proof that “Americans have grown too lazy and entitled,” that these “other people are getting health care for free,” and that “the economy is rigged for people who receive government assistance.”
Trump’s win exposed in frightening ways the “ethno-nationalist rage centered around a black president” and the fear that all of the resources and wealth accumulated through centuries of public policy would be subject to “redistribution from older, white America to its younger, more diverse” population.
Hillary Clinton, for all of her skills and all of her whiteness, offered a different vision and simply could not resonate with a large body of American voters. She spoke forcefully and often about economic anxiety, education, and creating living-wage jobs for a nonindustrial economy. But she spoke of a society where all would benefit and have access, not just whites.59 Trump, on the other hand, dangled a vision before his constituency where the vast resources of the nation would flow to whites, who in a few years would be a numerical minority, but whose comfortable lifestyle would be supported by a large but virtually rightless body of workers, cowed by threats of deportation and virtually unchecked police power in black and brown neighborhoods.
Visions of dismantling laws to curb the fevered excesses of capitalism while drastically reducing federal support for education, Medicare, and Medicaid had long danced like sugar plum fairies on the GOP’s congressional agenda.
But as sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom observed, “Whiteness defends itself. Against change, against progress, against hope, against black dignity, against black lives, against reason, against truth, against facts, against native claims, and against its own laws and customs.”
The Russian roulette Trump supporters played with their own economic and political viability was due, as well, to a bad case of historical amnesia, which erased the role government played in lifting their own standard of living while leaving intact pleasing fables of rugged individualism and bootstrap grit. In this fairy tale, government only fostered dependency and helped those who were lazy and undeserving.
Yet, as Obama noted, “if somebody didn’t have a problem with their daddy being employed by the federal government, and didn’t have a problem with the Tennessee Valley Authority electrifying certain communities, and didn’t have a problem with the interstate highway system being built, and didn’t have a problem with the [Federal Housing Administration] subsidizing the suburbanization of America, and that all helped you build wealth and create a middle class—and then suddenly as soon as African Americans or Latinos are interested in availing themselves of the same mechanisms as ladders into the middle class, you now have a violent opposition to them—then I think you at least have to ask yourself the question of how consistent you are, and what’s different, and what’s changed.”
Americans, shaken out of their complacency that democracy will just run on its very own, are now taking ownership of this nation, of what it means—inclusively—to be in the United States.
Why use property taxes as the basis for funding schools when that method rewards discriminatory public policy and perpetuates the inequalities that undermine our society?
The costs of the continued misuse of the criminal justice system are more than the United States can bear—morally, politically, and financially. It is time to rethink America.
Imagine if Reconstruction had actually honored the citizenship of four million freed people—provided the education, political autonomy, and economic wherewithal warranted by their and
What if all the billions of dollars that have been diverted into militarizing police for a phony war and building prison after prison had been devoted instead to education, to housing, to health care?
Visionaries, activists, judges, and politicians before us saw what America could be and fought hard for that kind of nation. This is the moment now when all of us—black, white, Latino, Native American, Asian American—must step out of the shadow of white rage, deny its power, understand its unseemly goals, and refuse to be seduced by its buzzwords, dog whistles, and sophistry. This is when we choose a different future.