(Editor’s Note: Carol Anderson is the Charles Howard Candler Professor and Chair of African American Studies at Emory University. Her latest book is White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of our Racial Divide, the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Ward.)
Jennifer Berkshire: You’re the author of the book White Rage—but I thought of another title for your book: White Spite. The history you recount is basically about how as a country we’ve systematically denied opportunity to kids of color, even if everyone else gets screwed in the process.
Carol Anderson: That’s it. It’s amazing to watch, and it’s horrifying to watch. Think about Sputnik, for example, or the threat that the Soviets were going to hit the U.S. with intercontinental ballistic missiles. You’d expect that a massive national security threat would be enough to shake even the most hardened white supremacist, hardened segregationist, or hardened Jim Crow lover, out of the commitment to systematically denying millions of black children access to quality education.
In a way, we saw pieces of this with the desegregation of the military. Truman did it in ‘48. The army dug in its heels and it wasn’t until Korea when the U.S. was initially getting its ass whooped when the reality sunk in and the army finally relented. They understood that you couldn’t fight this kind of war and protect America’s national security interests based on Jim Crow. Just a few years later, in 1957, we’ve got Sputnik. We’ve got a call to use the brainpower of the U.S. in order to meet this challenge. And the response was: “OK, but we’re not implementing Brown vs. Board.”
This is beyond cutting off your nose to spite your face. This is more like cutting off your head to spite your body. We’ve got the headless horseman running around.
JB: You had an op-ed this summer in the New York Times where you called attention to just how many of the Trump administration’s policies of white resentment, as you put it, are focused on education. Why do you think that is?
CA: There’s a myth that the largest share of Trump supporters are uneducated, unskilled, in rural areas and just frightened of change. But the bulk of his supporters were suburban, college educated and making over $70,000 a year. As I’m looking at this, I’m seeing this fear that when privilege and unequal access has been the rule, then equality looks like oppression. When you have a vision of rights and resources in the U.S. being a zero sum game, that means that when African Americans and Hispanics and Asians and Native Americans are working hard to make the 14th Amendment real, where there is equality before the law, the only way that those groups can “get” is at my white expense—my white suburban comfortable life expense. And it also means that it’s going to be at my children’s expense.
Take the language of an Abigail Fisher, for example. She comes out of Sugarland, Texas where the median income is well over $100,000. Sugarland, Texas has resources, but Abigail Fisher was complaining that she didn’t get into the University of Texas where her father went. The fact that she didn’t meet the standards—she wasn’t in the top 10% of her graduating class—didn’t register. She thought it was because ‘I’m white. That’s why they turned me down.’ She didn’t look at the black and Latinos who had higher scores than her but didn’t get in. She looked at a handful of blacks and Latinos who got in and said ‘they took my spot.’ That’s the resentment right there.
JB: White Rage singles out two particularly devastating policy paths America has taken. One is the failure to implement Brown vs. Board, and the other is the war on drugs. In many ways it’s the intersection of these two that put us on the path to where we are today.
CA: Just think about it. Think about what happened in California, for example, and what happened to the budget there. You had an almost dollar for dollar movement from the higher education budget to the prison budget. It was the same thing in Missouri where I taught, and watching this happen was just infuriating. When you think about the amount of money that the U.S. has spent on the war on drugs, $1 trillion, this isn’t an issue of resources, it’s an issue of priorities.
When you have a thriving economy, then tax dollars and resources are used to keep that economy thriving. When you ex out millions of your own people, then you’re paying heightened costs for security: more police, more armament, more jails. That’s not an investment. Even now when we’re hollering broke, we have the resources to make smarter, better, more inclusive choices.
JB: Speaking of choice, I have a feeling that the more inclusive choices you’re talking about are not the same as the version of school choice that is so beloved by our Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.
CA: The kind of school choice that Betsy DeVos is talking about? The privatization that she’s talking about isn’t about educating children, it’s about making schools a profit center. One of the most destabilizing ideas in American society right now is that the market can solve everything. It cannot. I agree with the NAACP on this one. This massive move to privatize education is actually going to be even more destructive. You’re not going to have any kind of oversight. You’re not going to be able to intervene in that process. It is the ceding of the public domain to the market and we are absolutely undermining the idea of a quality public education.
But what you see is that that zero sum game mentality and the false narrative of affirmative action intersect in really destructive ways. If children in the Chicago Public Schools start to excel at the level of, say, the Naperville Public Schools, which is a well-to-do suburb of Chicago, does that mean that the Naperville kid loses out? Is that kid from the Chicago Public Schools going to take my kid’s slot at Northwestern? Will that kid get my kid’s slot working at Intel? It’s destructive, it’s unhealthy, and it’s based on a whole series of false rationales.And I know that folks have thrown up their hands, but they’ve thrown up their hands because we know what works but we’ve chosen not to do it. What works is not private schools. What works are schools that are well-funded and have fully engaged teachers; that look at students in terms of what they can bring; that frame those students not as inmates in the making or in terms of some kind of deficit model, but instead in terms of the strengths and the abilities that those children have to learn and excel. We know that when that happens, children fly.
JB: The history you recount in White Rage, about the resistance to school desegregation across the country, should be required reading. At the risk of causing your head to explode, I want to refer you back to the first days of Betsy DeVos’ term in office when, after she was met with protests in Washington DC, a conservative cartoonist likened her to six-year-old Ruby Bridges, who navigated an angry mob and a phalanx of National Guardsmen en route to attending a formerly all-white New Orleans school.
CA: Oh my gosh. That’s all I can really say to that. Oh my gosh. White resentment requires a sense of its own victimhood. Woe is me, everyone is picking on me, I’m under siege. You look at corporate boards, you look at who the CEOs are, You look at university and college presidents. You look at the Senate. This sense of loss is amazing. Looking at multi-gazillionaire Betsy DeVos, who is surrounded by privilege on all sides, being compared to Ruby Bridges—a six-year-old girl who just wanted to get a decent education and has angry whites threatening to kill her. She had to pass by epithets on the walls to get into that building, which was surrounded by the National Guard. The lack of comparability between a privileged billionaire who feels under siege because people are asking questions about her capability to do the job and a little girl whose life was threatened to me points to the same Abigail Fisher syndrome we talked about earlier. I have everything and I still am not getting the free ride that I thought I should get.
JB: White Rage concludes with your challenge for us to “rethink America,” and you conjure up a different vision of how things might look today were we not “continually refighting the Civil War.” Since you wrote that, the refighting has only intensified. This isn’t really a question. I just want to give you the opportunity to reissue your challenge, that we rethink America.
CA: By rethinking America I’m talking about how different things would have looked had we, say, rebuilt a strong, viable South, where poor whites who had also been left out could get a proper education. Instead of refighting the Civil War over and over, we’d moved on. Or think about the educational prowess the entire population might have now had we actually implemented Brown. What if all of the money for science education after Sputnik had gone to kids hungry to learn, regardless of their race or ethnicity or income? What if the all the billions of dollars that have been diverted into militarizing police for a phony war and building prison after prison had been devoted to education instead? We’d be having a very different national conversation right now—that’s for sure.