Anderson explores country's racial past, present in 'White Rage'

By Elaine Justice | Emory Report | May 31, 2016

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In "White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide," Emory historian Carol Anderson examines how racism and racial prejudice have been infused in public policy in the United States.

When Emory historian Carol Anderson wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post on protests and lootings in Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of the death of Michael Brown, she knew there would be a reaction.

In her op-ed she called Ferguson “the latest outbreak of white rage,” the result of white backlash against African American advancement.   

“When you say things of consequence, there are consequences,” says Anderson, who is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor and chair of African American Studies. What she did not anticipate was the op-ed going viral with more than 5,000 online comments on the Post’s website, becoming one of the most-read articles of the year.

The op-ed resulted in a literary agent seeking her out and publisher Bloomsbury offering a book contract. Anderson put her research and writing into high gear to get the manuscript into print — and into the national conversation — quickly.

“This is a book that could not have happened without Emory University’s incredible intellectual strengths, from students, to faculty, to resources,” says Anderson. She cites support from Emory College Dean Robin Forman, faculty colleagues who read and commented on drafts, Emory students who served as research assistants, and Woodruff Library, which had “every book I needed; every database was there.”

Below, Anderson talks about the ideas behind “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide.”

What was your motivation in writing the original Washington Post op-ed on which the book was based?

As a historian I understand the power of narratives and how they define and frame reality. In 2014, as I watched the news about Ferguson burning, reporters talked about black rage: Black people burning up where they lived and did they have a right to do so. Because I had lived in Missouri for 13 years or so, I knew that framing was incorrect. We were so busy looking at the flames that we missed the kindling.

We missed the public policies that have created an environment where the police are using African Americans as a revenue-generating source, where the school systems for over a decade have been on accreditation probation, and the policymakers seem alright with that. What does that mean in this society, in this democracy? I wanted to help reframe that narrative so we can begin to have a real conversation about the way the policy works and doesn’t work and the implications for American democracy.

How did reaction to your op-ed inspire the book?

The op-ed went viral in November 2015 when the grand juries in Missouri and in Staten Island concerning Eric Garner’s death came back with no indictments. You had a large number of people who were just trying to figure out — how did we get here? That is the work a historian can do, which is to map out [this process] systematically.

In “White Rage,” the vignettes are known and have been written about, but they haven’t been linked thematically so that you can see how over time, even as political structure changes, even as the [political] parties change, there is a consistent motif. At first, it looks like a jigsaw puzzle — the Great Migration, the Brown decision — but when you pull these events together, all of a sudden you’re saying, “Oh my God, that’s it; that’s white rage.” Think about it: How is it that we could be so viscerally opposed to children getting an education?

Since the historian’s task is to separate fact from myth, what are some of the widespread myths connected with the history of African Americans that you unpack in the book?

I think there are actually two major myths: The first is the role of Ronald Reagan as president. So even while the GOP right now is longing for a Ronald Reagan and in a recent Gallup Poll most Americans rate him as one of the greatest presidents ever, when you look at what he actually did, we’re still living with the devastation. We’re living with the myth of blacks as lacking initiative, drive and intelligence.  We’re living with funding initiatives that undercut the safety net.

One of the policies that floored me was how the Reagan administration tinkered with financial aid for college bound students. What we know in a knowledge-based economy is that the more educated the population, the better off you’re going to be, and the better off the nation is going to be. What does it say, though, when we get a funding frame saying we’re going to make it harder for those with the least amount of money to be able to access financial aid?

In the early 1980s, five times as many African American college students’ families earned less than $12,000 per year compared to white students’ families. So the Reagan administration’s policy of student aid cuts for those most in need of financial support doesn’t say we’re targeting blacks. Instead, the assertion is that this is only about economics. But because economics is so closely linked with race, unable to afford tuition, African American undergraduate enrollment dropped by 12 percent. You begin to understand what those policies really did. And while the target was African Americans, it took out so many other people: whites, Hispanics, Asians. It just was devastating when you look at Reagan’s policies.

Second, the war on drugs was one of the greatest lies perpetuated on the American people. When Reagan announced the war on drugs there was no major drug crisis. It was manufactured. John Ehrlichman (counsel and assistant to the president for domestic affairs under Richard Nixon) talked about that in a recently published interview. As I began to pour through the documents in the National Security Archives, which are housed at George Washington University, it was stunning. What we know now is that the Reagan administration had a deal with the Contras in Nicaragua; the Contras were able to fund their operations by trafficking cocaine into the United States while the NSC (National Security Council) and CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) looked the other way.

The result of the lie is a flood of drugs into the country, mass incarceration and the stripping of voting rights — because of a felony conviction — for almost eight percent of the black voting-age population. 

In the book, one of the “unspoken truths” you discuss is how racism and racial prejudice have been infused in public policy through the use of language that doesn’t refer directly to race, but serves as a signal that race is an issue. How does this exist today?

American society defines racism as the Klan, as cross-burning, as throwing the “N” word around. So if it’s not that, it can’t be racism. But white rage isn’t what we consistently and normally think of racism in the United States.

White rage is subtle as policy makers and a series of courts systematically undercut advancement of African Americans, and in doing so wreak major havoc on American democracy. A key example, of course, is after President Barack Obama’s election, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act and in trying to clamp down on the black vote, state legislatures – under the veneer of stopping voter fraud — issued a series of laws that also caught the elderly, the poor, Latino/as and students in the net.  In one statewide election in Texas, after the laws went into effect, only 1.48 percent of the electorate voted. That is not democracy.

It’s absolutely essential to understand, however, that white rage is not about casting this wide net that all whites are evil or bad or racist. Throughout the book, you see whites fighting hard, putting their lives, their reputations and their money on the line for a better democracy.

At the book’s conclusion, you mention that full voting rights, funding for quality schools and policing the court system “are well within our grasp.” Does this mean you’re optimistic about the country’s future, despite its past?

Yes, let me tell you why.

We came from a nation that valued chattel slavery, where 80 percent of the nation’s GNP was tied up in owning human beings. But because of the consistent struggle, we changed that norm. We know slavery is wrong. The same thing happened to take down Jim Crow. We knew we couldn't be in a democracy where racism and inherent inequality was the accepted way of life.

The idea of America is so powerful; it is so strong that you consistently have large numbers who are fighting to reach that goal [of equality]. That’s why white rage has to always morph into something else, because once it’s revealed, its policy antics are no longer tolerated or accepted. That’s why I’m hopeful.