Summary: The recounting of five White backlashes to Black gains in the country.
White Rage is not particularly long. It does not talk about everything, but instead gives an overview of five historical movements. We all know the history of the the events before these movements of White Rage, but the importance of Carol Anderson’s book is the framing of the story as Black gains then White rage.
The five movements pairs are, 1) end of slavery and reconstruction with the backlash to reconstruction and ‘redemption’. 2) The great migration pairs with the (White) race riots of the late 1910s and early 1920s. 3) Brown v Board with the anti-integration movement. 4) Affirmative action and the anti-affirmative action policies. 5) Obama’s election and the movement toward voting restrictions. These are not definitive for all of the examples of White Rage in US history but emblematic. And like what Jemar Tisby pointed out in Color of Compromise, each one was less overt and more subtle than the last, but still rooted in racism.
One of the aspect that keeps coming up in histories of reconstruction and the Jim Crow era is the relationship of arguments around states rights and racism. I know many people that are ideologically oriented toward Libertarianism at some level. I am unaware of any of these people adopting these political ideologies because of racism. But I also do not think that many Libertarians or small government advocates understand the racial history of Libertarianism or small government policies. Obviously, there has been plenty of racist results from national government policy as well. But part of grappling with history, has to be grappling with how different policy orientations have been misused to oppress. And while that does not mean that Libertarianism or small government, pro-business political orientations cannot be advocated, it does mean that there needs to be particular attention paid to how those political orientations and specific polities can uphold racism.
As is detailed throughout the book, even when the federal government was interested in protecting Black civil rights (which it often was not) courts or local government officials often actively worked against the federal government. In the Reconstruction era, the courts routinely ruled that the 13-15th Amendments could not be applied to the state or local government, or if they were, the federal government did not have the authority to intervene. In other words, if a local or state government violated a Black person’s right to vote, the federal government, even in a federal election, could not act to protect that right to vote. The person who’s rights were violated could only appeal to the very same government that had violate his rights (this was before women’s right to vote, so it was always his rights being violated.) It wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act, which has been significantly restricted in recent court rulings, that federal law was applied to enforce not just the right to vote, but the action of voting.
Already by the mid 1870s, charges of what is now commonly referred to as ‘reverse racism’ started to sweep through the courts. From the 1877 Hall v DeCuir which ruled that states could not prohibit racial segregation, then a series of cases in 1880 that allowed for constitutional exclusion of Blacks from juries to the final nail of Plessy v Ferguson in 1896, which effectively eliminated 14th Amendment protections, the roll back of Black rights happened because of either courts, or the unwillingness of federal government to actually enforce rights in the face of White backlash.
Later rulings allowed for open discrimination against not just Blacks, but poor Whites as well. As had been common throughout the Jim Crow era, in 1942, in the seven states that had poll tax requirements, only 3 percent of the potential electorate voted in federal Senate or House elections.
The Jim Crow era of the south gave rise to the great migration where huge numbers of Black southerners moved north, often secretly, and abandoning property because of laws preventing people from moving, taking new jobs, or trumped up ‘debts’ from sharecropping. Jobs in the north paid much better. Blacks working in auto plants of Detroit could make $5 an hour, meaning workers in Detroit could make as much in a day as sharecroppers often made in two months.
But the large numbers of Black migrants gave rise to another episode of White Rage, the race riots of the late 1910s and early 1920s. These were not Black riots or protests, but riots, often with police support, or at least no police opposition, where Whites were attempting to push Blacks out of an area. There are multiple examples, both North and South where there was complete exile of all Black residents from a particular areas. Other examples did not push Black residents out of a community, but did commit wide spread destruction of black owned property and businesses.
The rage was far from just the south. Detroit had an estimated 35,000 members of the KKK in 1925 when Dr Ossian Sweet bought a home in a White neighborhood and a mob of about 1000 people confronted the well armed Black men that were there to protect the Sweet family. One White neighbor died and Dr Sweet, his wife Gladys, and 9 other Black men were charged with premeditated murder. In a rare case, the first trial resulted in in a hung jury. A second trial, of just Dr Sweet, had a clear not guilty verdict. But Gladys and their two year old daughter died a few months later from Tuberculosis contracted while in jail and Dr Sweet committed suicide years later after a difficult life. (Oregon had the largest KKK organization in the 1920s west of the Mississippi, which included Walter Pierce, the government of Oregon, who was a US Representative for 10 years following his term as governor.)
The third major backlash came about after the desegregation of schools. I had not realized how early the court cases that lead up to Brown v Board started (1935). The backlash was significant. Not mentioned in White Rage, but Randall Balmer suggests that desegregation was the real cause that started the religious right. I have not read Balmer’s longer version of the argument, but he certainly has a point that it was a contributing factor. Multiple states had not integrated a single school 10 years after Brown v Board. And there were districts into the 1970s that were still dragging their feet to comply with the initial court order. The rise of segregation academies and the withdrawal of educational opportunities from black students completely (Prince George County completely shut down their school system for 5 years, providing alternate education opportunities to White, but not Black students.)
One parent quoted in White Rage suggested that he would rather is children die than attend an integrated school. This is certainly an extreme, but it does show that the rage was real. And the state of school integration today shows that still, most White parents continue to work to keep their students in predominately White schools. Anderson rightly notes that the lack of investment in education for Black and other minority students harms the US economy. Even in the 1950s there were signs of the need for increasing education and the eventual decline of good paying jobs for low skill workers (especially factory jobs.) By the 1970s when legal resistance to integration was fading, the decline in factory jobs was significant. But students like those in Prince George County had had their education significantly impacted and likely had life long impact from the backlash to courts upholding the right to a good education.
I was completely unaware of the campaign to shut down the NAACP because of their work on Brown v Board. Several states passed laws requiring the NAACP to publicly disclose membership lists, Georgia inappropriately refused to recognize their non-profit status and demanded back taxes and arrested leadership, and others state went on a propaganda campaign asserting that Brown was the result of communist legal or social science thinking and their resistance to Brown was part of a patriotic fight against communism, using rhetoric of conspiracy theories built on previous red scare hearings at the federal level. Many of the local or state chapters of the NAACP were unable to operate throughout the Civil Rights era in southern states because of ideological targeting by southern government officials or community leaders, unconstitutionally restricting their freedom to speech and rights to organize.
The reaction against school segregation and the rise of Affirmative Action cannot really be separated from the Reagan revolution and the later Gingrich and then Teaparty movements. A feature of the these later movements is the ‘color blind’ approach that disproportionally impacted minority communities. Reagan slashed social programs and government employment in the name of financial responsibility, but minority citizens relied on those social safety net programs at higher rates because of historic discrimination and federal employments disproportionately employed minorities because of stronger civil rights rules for hiring. Also cuts to education funding and direct funding to colleges and student funding also reduced Black college enrollment at a time when college enrollment was increasingly important to long term job security. In relation to White wealth and income, there was a significant increase of both Black wealth and income in the 1960s, with a peak in the 1970s, but by the 1980s the wealth, income, and employments gaps between Whites and Blacks was roughly back to the 1950s levels and with some movement, have not really significantly improved since that point.
But there are also specifically policies like, the Iran Contra connections to encouraging the drug trade into Black communities and then the corresponding criminal justice disparities that really have significantly impacted not only the Black community over the past 40 years, but also impacted the immigration debate over the same period because of the US involvement in destabilizing Central and South American countries which has impacted the drug trade, immigration, violence and the government corruption. Within three year of the start of the project that came to be known as Iran Contra, the flow of illegal drugs into the US had grown 50%, US weapons flowed into rebel or governmental groups (depending on the country) and drug cartels. And Whites largely blamed Black and Hispanic communities for increases in drugs, gangs, violence, and turned their backs on those fleeing the violence of Central and South America, instead of blaming federal policy.
The last movement, the attempts to restrict voting access after the election of Obama is continuing today. Courts have repeatedly revoked voting restrictions, in part because of evidence of overt targeting of minority access as in the North Carolina. The language of the voting restrictions never mentions race, but only ‘voting integrity’ or safety. The laws target a particularly type of voting safety, which has almost no real world examples, while ignoring areas of actual voting safety, like voting machine irregularity or mail in ballots that, again in North Carolina, resulted in election irregularities.
The framing of White Rage, focusing not on the Black gains, but the White resistance to Black political gains, matters to how we think about racial issues in politics. Ta’Nehisi Coates framing of Trump as the first ‘White President’ in his last major Atlantic article uses similar framing to think about Trump as an explicit response to Obama’s previous election.
There are places to argue with Anderson about individual interpretations of events. But I do think that the overall message is hard to argue with.
White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook