(What follows is an excerpt from the introduction to Carol Anderson’s White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide. Every white American who is uncertain as to the origins of the American racial divide owes it to him/herself to read this book. The remarkably detailed documentation of the facts therein provides no justification for the U.S. History that I, as an advantaged, white American, was taught during my early years of Growing Up Boomer.)
In August 2014, Ferguson, Missouri went up in flames, and commentators throughout the print and digital media served up variations of the same story: African Americans, angered by the police killing of an unarmed black teen, were taking out their frustration in unproductive and predictable ways—rampaging, burning, and looting. Framing the discussion—dominating it, in fact—was an overwhelming focus on black rage. Op-eds and news commentators debated whether Michael Brown was surrendering to or assaulting a police officer when six bullets took him down. They wrangled over whether Brown was really an innocent eighteen-year-old college student or a “thug” who had just committed a strong-arm robbery.
The operative question seemed to be whether African Americans were justified in their rage, even if that rage manifested itself in the most destructive, nonsensical ways. Again and again, across America’s ideological spectrum, from Fox News to MSNBC, the issue was framed in terms of black rage, which, it seemed to me, entirely missed the point.
I had previously lived in Missouri and had seen the subtle but powerful ways that public policy had systematically undercut democracy in the state. When, for example, the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision came down, the state immediately declared that all its schools would be integrated, only to announce that it would leave it up to the local districts to implement the Supreme Court decision. Movement was glacial. It took another generation of black parents fighting all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court in search of some relief.
In the final analysis, however, Missouri’s schools remained separate and unequal. Thus, in the twenty-first century, Michael Brown’s school district had been on probation for fifteen years, annually accruing only 10 out of 140 points on the state’s accreditation scale. It was the same with policing, housing, voting, and employment, all of which carried the undercurrents of racial inequality—even after the end of slavery, the triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement, and the election of Barack Obama to the presidency.
The policies in Missouri were articulated as coolly and analytically as were Giuliani’s in New York. That led to an epiphany: What was really at work here was white rage. With so much attention focused on the flames, everyone had ignored the logs, the kindling. In some ways, it is easy to see why. 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.
In my Washington Post op-ed, therefore, I set out to make white rage visible, to blow graphite onto that hidden fingerprint and trace its historic movements over the past 150 years. 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. It is blackness that refuses to accept subjugation, to give up.
A formidable array of policy assaults and legal contortions has consistently punished black resilience, black resolve. And all the while, white rage manages to maintain not only the upper hand but also, apparently, the moral high ground. It’s Giuliani chastising black people to fix the problems in their own neighborhoods instead of always scapegoating the police. It’s the endless narratives about a culture of black poverty that devalues education, hard work, family, and ambition. It’s a mantra told so often that some African Americans themselves have come to believe it.
Few even think anymore to question the stories, the “studies” of black fathers abandoning their children, of rampant drug use in black neighborhoods, of African American children hating education because school is “acting white”—all of which have been disproved but remain foundational in American lore.
The truth is that enslaved Africans plotted and worked—hard—with some even fighting in the Union army for their freedom and citizenship. After the Civil War, they took what little they had and built schools, worked the land to establish their economic independence, and searched desperately to bring their families, separated by slavery, back together. That drive, initiative, and resolve, however, was met with the Black Codes, with army troops throwing them off their promised forty acres, and then with a slew of Supreme Court decisions eviscerating the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments.
The truth is that when World War I provided the opportunity in the North for blacks to get jobs with unheard-of pay scales and, better yet, the chance for their children to finally have good schools, African Americans fled the oppressive conditions in the South. White authorities stopped the trains, arresting people whose only crime was leaving the state. They banned a nationally distributed newspaper, jailed people for carrying poetry, and instituted another form of slavery under the ruse of federal law. Not the First Amendment, the right to travel, nor even the basic laws of capitalism were any match.
The truth is that opposition to black advancement is not just a Southern phenomenon. In the North, it has been just as intense, just as determined, and in some ways just as destructive. When, during the Great Migration, African Americans moved into the cities, ready to work hard for decent housing and good schools, they were locked down in uninhabitable slums. To try to break out of that squalor with a college degree or in a highly respected profession only intensified the response: Perjured testimony was transmuted into truth; a future Nuremberg judge ran roughshod over state law; and even the bitterest newspaper rivals saw fit to join together when it came to upholding a lie.
The truth is that when the Brown v. Board of Education decision came down in 1954 and black children finally had a chance at a decent education, white authorities didn’t see children striving for quality schools and an opportunity to fully contribute to society; they saw only a threat and acted accordingly, shutting down schools, diverting public money into private coffers, leaving millions of citizens in educational rot, willing even to undermine national security in the midst of a major crisis—all to ensure that blacks did not advance.
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 that, despite all this, a black man was elected president of the United States: the ultimate advancement, and thus the ultimate affront. Perhaps not surprisingly, voting rights were severely curtailed, the federal government was shut down, and more than once the Office of the President was shockingly, openly, and publicly disrespected by other elected officials. And as the judicial system in state after state turned free those who had decided a neighborhood’s “safety” meant killing first and asking questions later, a very real warning was sent that black lives don’t matter.
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. Thus, these seemingly isolated episodes reaching back to the nineteenth century and carrying forward to the twenty-first, once fitted together like pieces in a mosaic, reveal a portrait of a nation: one that is the unspoken truth of our racial divide.
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