Carol Anderson’s book White Rage is surprisingly brief — only about 165 pages — but it is as powerful as a vaccine. If you read it, you won’t be able to look at American history (or your own education) in the same way again.
The premise of Anderson’s work is that, ever since slavery ended. it has been the business of white Americans to keep the black population comfortably uneducated, ill-housed, un-or underpaid, and — if that fails — incarcerated. Each time African-Americans refuse to live in these conditions and push a step forward for equality and justice, for themselves and their children, there is a rage-filled backlash as white Americans use any means possible — the courts, personal resistance, riots and violence — to roll that progress backward.
Anderson discusses the Black Codes that came into existence during Reconstruction, codes that essentially rebuilt slavery. She demonstrates the shocking ways southern employers prevented black workers from migrating to the north in search of better jobs, even when that prevention meant slowing transportation in a nation at war. She shows the massive resistance to Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, and the way that decision was carefully, deliberately gutted and made meaningless. She shows a nation that would rather destroy its pride and glory — its free education — than give it to all its citizens. And is it surprising that the states that resisted Brown the longest and the hardest are now the lowest-ranking in public education?
Anderson traces the less-discussed part of the Iran-Contra affair, the part where Reagan and Oliver North flooded inner cities (which means black communities) with cocaine so they could secretly fund anti-Sandinista terrorists: the source and beginning of the “war on drugs.” (That sounds like such a conspiracy theory as I write it out, but it actually happened.) She touches on mass incarceration and housing discrimination. And she talks about the meaning of a black president, and the way voter disenfranchisement efforts ramped up when Obama was elected.
I will tell you right now that I am an educated person who reads the news and I did not know most of the information in this book. This was nothing I was ever taught or told. In school, we were given a narrative of progress, with Jim Crow being a speed bump on the way. Anderson’s history, which dives into white motivations not just for resistance but for rape, riot, and murder, was both far darker and far truer. Perhaps the hardest part for me (as when I read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow) was reading about Supreme Court cases that were obviously, egregiously unjust. I think I still have corners of naiveté that allow me to believe that the highest court of the land shouldn’t be made up of humans with the prejudices of their time.
Knowing this kind of history is so crucial. You hear people all the time talking about “the legacy of slavery” (or worse, “I didn’t own slaves,”) as if the last time some injustice was done was in 1864, so cheer up, guys! This is just not the case. Injustice has been happening all along and is happening right now.
It would be easy to become paralyzed or overwhelmed by this kind of a book. It took me much longer to read than a 165-page book usually would, both because it is very sad and because it is dense (Anderson is a historian at Emory and gives us another 30 pages of footnotes.) But I recommend it to every single American (and international readers too, but this is very much focused on US systemic racism.) It is an extremely powerful book, clearly written, forceful, and unblinking. I think it has huge value for every reader.