As the Obama presidency drew to a close, it became clear that the post-racial democracy it was supposed to inaugurate did not materialize. But during the last eight years something very important emerged in the way race is discussed in America: the foregrounding of whiteness. From discussions of diversity on campus and white appropriation of black culture to #OscarsSoWhite, “whiteness” as a cultural and social category has become a subject for scrutiny and criticism in ways that “blackness” was in years past.
Unfortunately, this reversal of perspective has tended to seize on the shallower ways in which whiteness functions in American life. To see the full picture, whiteness must be understood in light of our national history, specifically the use of state power to engineer preferential treatment for whites and deliberately impose cumulative disadvantage on blacks. Carol Anderson’s new book, “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide,” brings such a historical context sharply back into focus. This book is an extraordinarily timely and urgent call to confront the legacy of structural racism bequeathed by white anger and resentment, and to show its continuing threat to the promise of American democracy.
In August 2014, as the headlines from Ferguson focused on the eruption of black rage, Anderson, a professor of African-American studies at Emory University, wrote a dissenting op-ed in The Washington Post arguing that the events were better understood as white backlash at a moment of black progress, a social and political pattern that she reminded readers was as old as the nation itself. Her essay became the kernel for this book, which expands and illustrates her thesis. “I set out to make white rage visible,” Anderson writes in her introduction, “to blow graphite onto that hidden fingerprint and trace its historic movements over the past 150 years.”
This time frame takes us back to Reconstruction, that tragic decade in the wake of the Civil War, which is where Anderson picks up her narrative. “America was at the crossroads,” she writes, “between its slaveholding past and the possibility of a truly inclusive, vibrant democracy.” She chooses to highlight President Andrew Johnson’s aggressive opposition to the enfranchisement of black Americans. She also details the horrors of paramilitary terrorism waged by the Klan and its affiliates. But we get only sketches here of the wide and brutal conflict in which Reconstruction “was overthrown, with impunity and audacity, in one of the bloodiest, darkest and still least-known chapters in American history,” which is how Stephen Budiansky put it in “The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox” (2008). With the Hayes-Tilden Compromise of 1877, Southern Democrats agreed to support Rutherford B. Hayes’s claim to the presidency in exchange for an end to Reconstruction — a collusion that plunged the South back into white supremacy.
Against these depredations blacks sought the protection of the Constitution. Anderson’s book is particularly acute in recalling the Supreme Court’s shameful role in repeatedly denying that relief, and in securing and ratifying the legal apartheid we know as Jim Crow.
Like a series of tableaus by Jacob Lawrence, Anderson’s survey links scenes that should be familiar to us, yet somehow keep falling by the wayside in the story of America we tell: There are the boxcars full of sharecroppers fleeing the South; the bellowing declarations of massive resistance to school integration after Brown v. Board of Education; the “Southern strategy,” Nixon’s playbook for using white anger over the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, enshrining race-baiting as a political maneuver; the Reagan administration’s machinations in the so-called War on Drugs; the vitriolic hatred directed at Barack Obama.
Why has white rage been such a feature of American life? Anderson doesn’t offer an answer; her book is a historical catalog of white backlash — not a theory about its origins. In a move that seems at once tactful and tactical, she sidesteps the wearying debate among progressives over the competing priorities of class and identity politics, preferring to highlight the danger posed by a force that erupts at moments of progress to thwart the advance of democracy and racial equality.