“White Rage” by Carol Anderson Summary
Anderson writes that although the civil demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, in reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown are likely to be remembered as expressions of Black outrage against another unjust police killing, they should actually be considered a manifestation of “white rage . . . cloaked in the niceties of law and order.” White rage doesn’t capture the same media attention as the Ferguson protesters facing down riot police, because it doesn’t need to take its message to the streets. White rage “smolders” in the political, judicial, and legislative authority used to redistrict traditionally Black voting precincts or eliminate federal jobs traditionally filled by middle-class African Americans.
White rage is a recurrent feature of American history and always appears wreathed in an “aura of respectability,” as it is institutionalized in systems of power; for every advance in Black achievement in the history of the United States, there has been a reactionary backlash seeking to undo those gains. After the brief period of Reconstruction, Southern lawmakers sought to undo the project, and when the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision desegregated the national public school system, Black students faced vicious resistance by mobs of white families and had to be escorted by federal troops. Barack Obama’s two-term presidency has also witnessed a racist institutional reaction that is consistent with the historical trend.
When the Civil War ended, there was still a lingering resentment in the South that manifested itself in legislative attempts to continue the subjugation of Black people and institutionalize conditions of white supremacy in the absence of the slavery system. The resulting Black Codes “neutralized” the terms of the thirteenth and fifteenth amendments to the Constitution, despite ardent opposition in Congress by figures like Republican representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania and Republican senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. An 1876 Supreme Court decision, United States v. Cruikshank, prevented legal efforts to thwart the Ku Klux Klan, which signaled the end of Reconstruction in the South.
Nearly eighty years later, Black schoolchildren who were hopeful and empowered by the Brown v. Board of Education decision, and “hungry for quality education,” encountered the full force of white rage. Southern governors threatened to withhold funding for schools that accommodated the decision, shutting down school systems and diverting tax dollars to create white-only private schools.
The achievements and possibilities represented by the Obama presidency were likewise countered by a surge in anti-Black fear and anxiety. This surge of white rage was reflected in widespread efforts at voter suppression laws, Supreme Court decisions that curtailed civil liberties, the rise of “stand your ground” laws, and a rash of brutal police killings of unarmed Black men.
Organized forms of voter suppression, such as the policy of requiring photo identification—which a quarter of African Americans don’t have—are much more subtle than the overtly racist politics of previous eras. But for conservative politicians like former presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Regan, the language of white rage and anti-Black anxiety is most effective as a political strategy when couched in increasingly “abstract” policy language, from “states’ rights” to “tax cuts.”
Another effect of this institutionalized anti-Black sentiment is the disproportionate vulnerability of Black wealth and property to the forces of economic recession, such as the Great Recession of 2008. One report shows that half of all the collective wealth of Black families was lost in this recession, which increased the wealth gap between white and Black families enough to leave white families with six times as much wealth as Black families, compared to the four times as much they’d had before the recession hit. A...
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