This review originally appeared in Critics at Large August 21/16|
Anderson is perhaps even more unsparing in her criticism of Ronald Reagan for presiding over the rollback of the gains blacks achieved during the civil rights movement through massive cuts in federal programs and jobs. The genial President might have “positively oozed racial innocence,” but in reality his policies showed utter contempt for blacks whom he unfairly targeted as unworthy beneficiaries of Johnson’s Great Society giveaway program – remember Reagan’s disparaging remarks about “welfare queens” – and he was determined to scuttle much of it. Anderson outlines the dog whistle politics deployed by both the Nixon and Reagan administrations. She quotes Reagan’s strategist, Lee Atwater, who explained the political strategy that explicitly outlines the electoral strategy and policy initiatives. “You start out in 1954 by saying nigger, nigger, nigger. By 1968 you can’t say nigger – that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff. And you’re getting so abstract now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.” The ideological motivation behind reducing taxes and the size of government resulted in the decline of black public employees, the decimation of antipoverty and social welfare programs. Black unemployment rose to his highest percent since the Great Depression. Supposedly, blacks lacked initiative, drive and intelligence. Among the programs targeted were those that assisted college-bound African Americans, precipitating their enrollment to tumble. The dream of black Americans for economic stability crumbled to dust.
The black community also became the collateral damage of a Reagan covert foreign policy. At a time when the consumption of drugs was declining or leveling off, Reagan’s National Security Council and CIA “manufactured and facilitated” a drug crisis and were complicit in flooding African American communities with crack. Some readers may recall that during the 1980s that one of the flashpoints of the later Cold War was in Nicaragua. The brutal quasi-fascist regime was ousted by the Marxist Sandinistas, and Reagan was determined to support the Contras, supporters of the fallen dictator, Antonio Somoza. What may be new to some readers is Anderson’s provocative argument, that to finance the Contras, the administration allowed Colombian drug traffickers to ship cocaine into the United States while the security agencies looked the other way. A crack epidemic ravaged the inner cities “kicking the legs out from under black neighborhoods” while the administration funneled drug money to anti-Sandinista guerrillas in Nicaragua. To makes matters worse, the Reagan administration protected the drug traffickers and targeted the victims. Draconian legislation mandated minimum sentencing, even for first offenders, and disproportionately criminalized African Americans, Latinos and the poor. Those with a felony conviction – almost eight percent of the black voting-age population – were stripped of voting rights. Because of Reagan’s speeches, and press reports, the public associated blacks with criminal activities. In a series of legal decisions, the Supreme Court complimented the Reagan agenda by upholding racial profiling, mandatory sentences for drug offences and tossed out the argument of racial bias in sentencing even when defence lawyers could present unimpeachable evidence. What was visited upon the African-American community during the Reagan years was unconscionable. Admirers of the President may be tempted to dismiss Anderson as a polemicist. I think this would be a mistake because it is important to carefully examine her evidence and check her sources. Yes there is a vast array of secondary sources that include scholarly journals, but I was more impressed by the extent and quality of her archival research and immersion in Supreme Court documents. Several of her endnotes contain multiple sources. Anderson is animated by her anger at the injustice and indignities experienced by African Americans but she is foremost a scholar who needs to be taken seriously.
The “ultimate affront” to African-American empowerment occurred during the 2008 election of Barack Obama. Republicans blamed the debacle on the black voter turnout rate which nearly equaled that of whites and the turnout of voters of all races making less than $15,000 nearly doubled. Two million more African Americans, two million additional Hispanics, and 600,000 more Asians cast their ballots in 2008. The GOP who controlled state governments retrieved a weapon from the past: curtail access to the ballot box. Despite the rarity of voter fraud, states used this pretext requiring voters to have documents such as bank statements, utility bills, a birth certificate or a passport which African Americans, Latinos, the young and other economically disadvantaged people were less likely than others to possess. Again in 2013 the Supreme Court voted 5 to 4 to strike down a key part of the Voting Rights Act – it ensured federal oversight to any changes in state voting procedures – that for decades had protected African Americans from blatant disfranchisement. Since the ruling, twenty-two states have passed voter-restriction statutes. While writing this review, I was most encouraged by a recent federal appeals court decision that decisively struck down North Carolina’s voter identification law, saying its provisions deliberately “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision” in an effort to reduce black turnout at the polls.
For millions of America, President Obama is a symbol for the demographic changes they fear. No wonder he has faced a recalcitrant and obstructionist Congress determined to deny him any legislative victories, and has been subjected to unprecedented ad hominem insults from members of Congress and from those who maliciously challenge his citizenship, faith and patriotism. He has received more death threats than any previous President. Whenever he has attempted to address racial tensions, he has been accused of playing “the racial card.” And yet despite the avalanche of vituperation that might have defeated a lesser human being, after Obama’s incandescent valedictory address at the Democratic convention, a New York Times editorial celebrated him as “an exceptional man and president who will be remembered for eloquently defending the founding precepts of the country – even as he used those precepts to expand the mandate of inclusiveness and broaden the definition of what it means to be an American. From that standpoint, the Obama presidency has been transformative – perhaps even miraculous.”
White Rage is a compelling antidote to those who fallaciously argue that Obama is responsible for the deterioration of race relations. Consider, for example, the white-supremacist group, the Council of Conservative Citizens – an outgrowth of the civil-rights era that fought against desegregation – that vilifies blacks as a “retrograde species of humanity.” It still exercises influence over members of the Republican Party and allegedly inspired the mass murderer, Dylann Roof, to kill in 2015 eight worshippers and their minister at an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina. More unsettling is the demagogic power of Trump, (because he can reach and manipulate larger numbers) who traffics in the language of white supremacy with a wink, a nod and instead of offering apologies, he doubles down. In his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, Trump traded on the racism, xenophobia and religious bigotry that encourage exclusivity and for some, the hint of future oppression. Anderson’s timely historical overview should be read by all people who normally do not read history or who do not see connections between the benighted past, teeming with white-sheeted terrorists branding torches and rope, and the darker currents of racism that are alive and thriving (in some circles) today by those who continue to devaluate black lives.