A Review of White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, by Carol Anderson (Bloomsbury 2016).
As a teenager growing up in Southern California, I vaguely remember hearing about the Allan Bakke case on the news. Bakke was a white applicant to medical school at UC Davis, and he went to court — eventually to the Supreme Court in 1978 — arguing that he was denied admission to medical school while less qualified students of color were admitted, due to the UC Davis affirmative action quota of requiring at least 16 minority students to be part of each 100-person class. I remember one white adult I knew saying something to the effect of “I think black applicants should be judged the same way as white applicants, and no bias should be given either way.” This passed for progressive racial thinking by a white person at that time. The Supreme Court gave a mixed response, affirming that supporting racial diversity was a legitimate goal, but that specific numerical quotas were unacceptable. Bakke was admitted.
Since then, I have seen many studies which should educate all of us about the racial history of our country and its bearing on what is appropriate current policy. For instance, my eyes were really opened by a series of essays by Ta-Nehisi Coates, published in The Atlantic and available online. The first that I read was “The Case for Reparations” (June 2014), which discusses the logic by which America would consider making compensation to descendants of slaves or black people generally for how they were exploited and disadvantaged by slavery, Jim Crow, and even later discrimination. This essay greatly increased my knowledge of the extensive history of housing discrimination, loan redlining and etc., that was federally supported and seriously disadvantaged black families’ ability to build wealth and secure access to good schools. There followed “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” (October 2015), about how black families have been unequally attacked by our system of justice — also the subject of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness (2010) and Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (2014) by Bryan Stevenson. And Coates also wrote “The First White President” (October 2017), provocatively and controversially suggesting that Donald Trump was the first president elected exclusively because of his whiteness, as opposed to any actual qualifications for office.
I read Ron Chernow’s biography of Ulysses S. Grant (2017), which details the extraordinary white backlash against Reconstruction and equal rights for blacks in the South. And I read Chuck Collins’s Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good (2016), a book by a man who was born into wealth. Collins explains how structural advantages including the passing on of intergenerational wealth create a huge and unfair advantage for well-to-do people, and how creating a more equitable society with opportunity for those at the lower end is vital to the wellbeing of everyone in the society. All these writings deal with social justice and structural inequality in society, and for Christians who are seeking to follow the prominent biblical mandates to seek social justice, it can be very eye-opening and valuable to read up on the best contemporary writers in this area.
So where does White Rage fit into this landscape?
Anderson’s basic thesis is that while black rage is often discussed and framed as looting, rioting, or other forms of visible violent protest, “white rage” manifests itself differently, less obviously but more devastatingly, “through the courts, the legislatures, and a range of government bureaucracies” (3). “The trigger for white rage,” she continues, “inevitably is black advancement” (3). In the conclusion to her introduction, Anderson itemizes the damage she attributes to white rage: “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 uneducated, and left cities nothing less than decimated” (6). This is a heavy charge indeed, and in the rest of the book, Anderson lays out the evidence for her charge, in showing Southern white rebellion against reconstruction; how whites in the South caused and tried to prevent the great migration of Blacks from the South; how the white-dominated legal system did many things to undermine the implementation of Brown vs. Board of Education’s decision against the legality of racially segregated schools (and by extension, other public facilities); how whites fought tooth and nail against civil rights; and, finally, how whites — not all whites, but a significant number — tried to undermine the Obama presidency and responded to it by electing a president widely considered to be a racist who would roll back the Obama presidency. Over 80 pages of notes give sources for Anderson’s evidence in each of these cases.
My impression, as a white person reading this book, was that I was being buried under an avalanche of white misdeeds. But I must quickly add that this was happening to me psychologically, while for black Americans the suffering was and is literal. It is not Anderson’s purpose to give a balanced presentation in the sense of showing white allies risking their lives to help with the underground railroad or nobly marching alongside at Selma. Her focus is on white misdeeds, “white rage,” and what makes her indictment so powerful is that these misdeeds cannot be attributed to rogue actors, but rather to the entrenched executive, judicial, and legislative branches of federal and state governments.
I used to be somewhat sympathetic to the white plea “but I never enslaved anyone. I never denied someone the right to attend my school. I never threatened anyone for dating someone of another race. So why blame me?” The way I would answer this question now, after the reading I have done and after many interracial experiences in working with students, faculty, and administrators at Andrews University over the past 30 years, is that white people as a class have grown up with many intergenerational structural advantages over black people. Yes, there will be individual cases in which some black persons or families are better off financially or have better educations than white families. But as a whole, the social structures of this country have been designed to promote white advantage, and although the laws of the land have definitely moved in the direction of greater equality, whites are still unfairly benefitting from the system. Read the evidence and see what you think.
The next question is what to do about it. The actions Anderson suggests are not particularly surprising, but it’s amazing how hard it can be to implement them: providing access to good schools, including doing away with property taxes as the basis for local school funding, which inevitably perpetuates class and race division (175-176); bringing equity to the legal system, including cutting out racial profiling and reforming the criminal justice system (176); putting a higher investment priority on education, housing, and health care, and less investment on, for example, “the war on drugs” (177); taking measures to make voting more easily accessible to every citizen. White people will never, so far as I can see, be able to repay the debt they owe to black people for the way they have exploited and mistreated them in this country. But at least we can energetically join with our black brothers and sisters in working to create a more just society that especially looks out for the disadvantaged, and seeks to give them a good opportunity for the pursuit of a meaningful, dignified life. White Rage is an important educational resource to further this goal.
Scott Moncrieff is a professor of English at Andrews University.
Book cover image courtesy of Bloomsbury USA.
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