White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide

The thesis to Carol Anderson’s book is late out in the prologue:

This led to an epiphany: what was really at work here [in responses to the Amadou Diallo and Michael Brown shootings and other incidents that tended to cast the incidents in terms of “black rage”] 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, certainly, for a nation consistently drawn to the spectacular — to what it can see…. The trigger for white rage, inevitably is black advancement.

The book lays out sketches of several key instances in American history wher black progress has been met by white rage. Our history as described by Anderson is gripping and grotesque. The stories told are personal and lurid: a pregnant woman beaten to death by a white mob, a black man and his family falsely accused of murder for trying to move in to a white neighborhood near Detroit, white leaders across the South coordinating to nullify the effects of the Brown ruling.

The portraits here narrate an American history very different from what you’d see in cable news or learn in high school U.S. history, with the white practice of “maiming, murdering, and terrorizing African americans and seizing the land” accurately described as ethnic cleansing and compared to Serbian atrocities in Bosnia. The clarity and rage coursing throughout the book is its greatest strength. For a book of less than 200 pages, it packs an enormous emotional punch in the language, and lays out the lurid history of American white supremacy in a form that is extremely easy to digest.

The book’s thesis regarding white supremacy being a core thread throughout American history is quite persuasive, but Anderson’s argument has a few flaws. First, different institutions take wildly different roles in different parts of the book with little explanation of what brought these changes about. For example, the Supreme Court acts as a major instrument of progress, requiring Brown implemented “with all deliberate speed” and pushing a strident enforcement of the voting rights act that moved black voter registration rates from under 10% in Southern states to over 50%. The book then discusses how Nixon and subsequent Republican presidents appointed justices who tended to erode these decisions. But there’s no effort made to understand what caused the progressivism of the Warren court (a period which is core to the argument and is perhaps with the benefit of hindsight the greater anamoly given the reactionary courts that preceded and suceeded it.

Anderson’s argument also elides the difference between white rage and white indifference. This is particularly evident in the chapter on Southern reactions to Reconstruction. The primary forces at play in Reconstruction were a constant torrent of hate from Southern white plantation owners toward blacks, with black southerners fighting for equal rights. Having just won a war to defeat slavery, the North was willing to bring a substantial degree of military might and coercion to bear on the South for its abhorrent behavior toward black Americans. But as time went on, white northerners were increasingly unhappy with the amount of political bandwidth occupied by protection of Southern blacks when they perceived other issues such as trade and currency circulation to be more important (you may draw some connections to the current state of the Democratic party). Ultimately, the political force behind Reconstruction waned, federal enforcement of civil rights laws was crippled by several Supreme Court decisions, with the whole trend culminated in the election of 1876 which was resolved through a compromise under which the occupation of the South ended. Southern whites then gleefully erected an apartheid state which would operate for the next 75+ years.

Reading Anderson’s account, your impression would be that the entirety of the end of federal reconstruction was brought about by the Cruikshank (which prohibited federal prosecution of private citizens for civil rights law violations) and Slaughterhouse (which prohibited lawsuits in federal courts for violations of mast constitutional rights) cases, which precede a lengthy discussion of Plessy v. Ferguson. These are terrible Supreme Court decisions which undoubtably hampered the ability of the feds to enforce civil rights laws. On the other hand, these are not nearly the most important factors in the end of Reconstruction, which was primarily because the protection of black southerners was no longer considered a political priority for northern whites. It is much easier to vent about really bad Supreme Court decisions than a drop in prominence of a morally imperative issue, but it’s pretty weak analysis to write anything about reconstruction without a single discussion of the Election of 1876.

When it comes to packing moral and emotional punch, this lack of comprehensiveness does not pose any issue. The book is lean and easy to read. It will make you realize how little we are separated in time and place from committing horrible crimes against our most vulnerable citizens. I would recommend this book highly, but this is really more of an argument than a history book, so do not expect to find anything particularly comprehensive.

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