This review originally appeared in Critics at Large and I am reproducing it on this site because of my interest how ideology in this case, white supremacy, is used to justify crossing a line to diminish or destroy another people's humanity. What makes this book so remarkable is how the author demonstrates how much of that process was done under the cover of the law.
- Barack Obama speaking in Selma on March, 7th 2015 at the fifth anniversary of the famous march
During the week of the Republican Convention when Donald Trump proclaimed himself as the candidate of law and order, and reading Carol Anderson’s historical catalogue of white resistance to black progress, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (Bloomsbury, 2016), two thoughts came to mind. Rightly denouncing the murder of police officers, he said nothing about the murder of black men by the police, even the murder on November 26, 2014 of twelve-year old Tamir Rice who was killed in Cleveland, the city where the convention was held. No charges were ever laid against the officer. Secondly, I wondered whether Trump was aware that he was retrieving Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy that pandered to racists during the 1968 presidential election. Nixon was another practitioner of dog-whistle politics: a coded message that appears innocuous to the general public, but has an additional interpretation meant to appeal to the target audience, for example, to racists. According to Anderson, one of Nixon’s most trusted aides, H.R. Haldeman, Nixon “emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.” Another Nixon aide, John Ehrlichman, noted after the candidate saw an ad that showed entire cities burning without ever mentioning blacks, Nixon chortled, “It’s about law and order and the damn Negro-Puerto Rican groups out there.” By not acknowledging the African-Americans killed, Trump expressed a similar contempt for African-Americans at the 2016 Republican Convention.
Anderson, a professor of African American studies at Emory University, first sketched out her argument in a 2014 op-ed Washington Post maintaining that the focus on “black rage” in the aftermath of rioting in Ferguson over the police killing of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was a distraction. As developed in her subsequent book, her thesis is quite clear. While not ignoring the “flames,” the most overt expressions of white rage – for example, in Texas from 1865 to 1868 almost one thousand African-American were lynched (I will avoid citing her most gruesome examples) – its more invisible forms smolder, thereby legitimatizing the violence, in the “kindling,” specifically the corridors of power from the White House to Congress, state governments and especially the Supreme Court. Instead of the white robes of the paramilitary Klan, white rage carries an aura of respectability in black robes worn by Supreme Court judges. Elected officials, the police and officials nestled inside the bureaucracy all work to rollback and dismantle African-American advances and in particular target blacks “with ambition, with drive, with purpose, with aspirations, and with demands for full and equal citizenship. It is blackness that refuses to accept subjugation, to give up.”
White rage took its most stark and violent form after the Civil War, but found more subtle yet still virulent ways to combat school desegregation, Civil Rights, and the two elections and presidency of the first African-American President. Its effect has been that every hard-earned African-American achievement has been undermined by an insidious backlash, often under the cover of law. Until the emergence of Trump, official expressions of racism have been cloaked in softer, ostensibly racially free language – political manoeuvering, avoiding voter fraud, the need for small governments – allowing all who are not “sheet-wearing goons” to keep their heads in “a cloud of racial innocence.” What makes White Rage so riveting is Anderson’s voluminous research, her wealth of detail in a relatively short book, and her ability to connect the dots between the historical eras so that by the time we reach the Obama Presidency, she has persuasively revealed a pattern that clarifies the dynamic of white rage and its variegated expressions.
During the era of Reconstruction, so-called Radical Republicans, over the strenuous objections of the President Andrew Johnson, were able to secure the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, the former conferring citizenship on all those born in the United States except Native Americans and the latter enabling citizens the right to vote. But the reality on the ground was vastly different because although the Thirteenth Amendment formally ended slavery, it did nothing to challenge the ideology of white supremacy. In violation of a federal promise that freedmen would acquire forty acres of land, lawmakers in southern states created the notorious Black Codes, which sanctioned forced labour and deprived freed slaves of the right to be self-sufficient, to move freely in pursuit of better opportunities and to own the land that federal troops had seized from Confederate traitors who had tried to destroy the United States of America. State governments were bolstered by the Supreme Court who, in a spate of decisions, emasculated the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments by allowing the states and not the federal government to decide how citizenship, due process and voting procedures should be determined. Poll taxes and literacy tests were instituted that ensured that few could vote. Anderson notes that as late as 1942, only three percent of the voting age population could cast a ballot in seven poll tax states. The Supreme Court colluded with state legislatures to return blacks to a state of quasi slavery. With the rule of law not available to the black population, “murder, rape, and robbery, in this Kafkaesque world, were not seen as crimes at all so long as whites were the perpetrators and blacks the victims.” If you think that this is just history and has little to say about our times read on.
As Anderson guides us through the twentieth century, she demonstrates the massive resistance to the 1954 Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education that overturned sixty years of Jim Crow segregation in the public schools, a practice that assured that black children received a grotesquely inferior education under deplorable conditions. The opposition started even before the decision was handed down when President Eisenhower, a strong advocate of states’ rights, hosted a dinner in which he told Chief Justice, Earl Warren, whom he had appointed, that Southerners “are not bad people. All they’re concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside big overgrown Negroes.” Undeterred, Warren was able to achieve a unanimous Court decision, one that the South and parts of the North responded to with in effect a declaration of war. Police were ordered to harass lawyers from the NAACP and the scholars that provided the evidence that black children were damaged by segregated schools. A US senator attempted to discredit the movement as Communists who were agents of a plot emanating from Moscow. The governor of Louisiana empowered the police to arrest any federal judge or U.S. marshal who attempted to implement Brown. Certain state governments provided funds for white parents to send their children to private academies, while the few integrated schools were starved of public funding. (Last summer I reviewed Jim Grimsley’s How I Shed my Skin and he pointed out that one of the few advantages of attending an integrated high school in the 1960s was that he learned to see black people as human beings, and that was the beginning of his real education.) Stall, defy and undermine integration continued for at least four decades causing black children to become discouraged and drop out of school with few skills to compete in the workplace. Anderson plausibly argues that this resistance explains why six decades later, black children largely remain trapped in unequal schools in the inner cities.