“White rage” and the cooptation of black identity
A critique of Carol Anderson’s White Rage
In today’s commentary, I critically review White Rage by Carol Anderson. The book reached The New York Times bestseller list, and it was listed as a notable book of 2016 by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and the Chicago Review of Books. It was recommended in a recent Twitter conversation on “whiteness.”
White rage at black advances, and the New Jim Crow
Following the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, the city went up in flames. Carol Anderson observes that the media framed the issue in terms of black rage, debating whether or not black rage was justified. However, Anderson maintains, what really was at work was white rage, which is expressed not through visible violence but through the courts, legislatures, and government bureaucracies.
The trigger for white rage is black advancement, Anderson maintains. The problem for whites is not the mere presence of black people, but blacks with drive, ambition, and aspirations. The problem is “a blackness that refuses to accept subjugation.”
White rage controls the narrative with discussion of “a culture of black poverty that devalues education, hard work, family, and ambition.” A false narrative supported by “studies” of black fathers abandoning children, of rampant drug use in black neighborhoods, of black youth who do not want to study because they conceive of education as acting white, all of which have been disproved. A narrative so powerful, Anderson maintains, that some African-Americans themselves believe it.
In contrast to the false narrative, Anderson maintains, blacks have worked hard but have encountered white opposition to advancement, in the North and in the South. Central to white opposition has been the diverting of money by white authorities away from public education into private coffers, ensuring that blacks did not advance. Following the 1954 Brown decision mandating desegregation, Southern state governments maneuvered to block or delay implementation, using the concept of state’s rights, or the deferral to the authority of the states those matters that were not included in the Federal Constitution.
Anderson observes that following the gains of 1964 and 1965, there was no longer outright opposition to the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and black citizenship rights, but Wallace, Nixon, and Reagan laid the foundations for a new Jim Crow: Wallace’s race-coded rhetoric in the 1968 elections, which presented black gains as an economic threat to whites; Nixon’s “Southern strategy” of talking about crime, welfare, neighborhood schools, and law and order; and Reagan’s discourse on black welfare and crime, combined with a false image of color-blind equal educational opportunity. In the new Jim Crow ideology, the Great Society and affirmative action were characterized as reverse discrimination, rather than as reasonable compensation for accumulated inequalities. In addition, by defining racism as KKK violence, racism was treated as an aberration, and not as systemic; the new ideology did not see racism as institutional and pervasive.
Anderson discusses the inequality in schools that is a consequence of the system of funding schools through local property taxes. She reviews a Mexican-American suit charging that the system promotes unequal educational opportunity, and thus violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The local federal court agreed, but the majority in the U.S. Supreme Court, including four Nixon appointees, maintained that “there is no fundamental right to education in the constitution.” What was at work here was class and not race, the Court majority declared, and class was not a suspect category. There was nothing, the Court maintained, preventing blacks from moving to districts with better schools.
After Obama’s election, Anderson maintains, the GOP turned to the suppression of black voting. New schemes to reduce the black vote emerged, based on a supposed need to stamp out voter fraud. There emerged new laws that require “particular types of voter identification that make it difficult for African Americans and others to vote.” The new laws were supposedly designed to prevent stealing someone’s identity or creating a fake persona, but this type of electoral fraud is very rare. Voting laws requiring government-issued photo IDs for voting are discriminatory, Anderson maintains, because 25% of black voters, 16% percent of Latino voters, and 8% of white voters do not have a current government-issued photo ID.
According to Carol Anderson, therefore, whites have developed structures of opposition to black advancement: ideologies that blame black culture for racial inequalities; structures of unequal funding in public schools; and new mechanisms of black voter suppression.
There are a number of problematic assertions in White Rage. First, although Anderson rejects what she considers to be a false narrative concerning lower-class black culture, she herself observes that in the mid-1980s, “as battles over lucrative drug turf escalated, black communities were besieged with rampant gang violence.” From 1984 to 1994, she notes, the homicide rate for young black males doubled; and life-expectancy rates declined, which had not even occurred in slavery or Jim Crow. She offers no commentary concerning any possible responsibility of black leaders with respect to these phenomena.
Secondly, although Anderson is correct in noting that the attack on public education in the wake of Brown was driven by white resistance to racial desegregation, she does not address the issue of the underfunding of public education as a society-wide social problem, which is a consequence of the lack of national commitment to affordable, high-quality education as a democratic right of all citizens. This failing adversely effects the working and lower classes, especially, regardless of race; in contrast, the upper and middle classes, regardless race, have more resources to find personal solutions.
Thirdly, a voting requirement for government-issued photo identification is not unreasonable in and of itself, in order to ensure the security of elections, in an age in which all forms of fraud are prevalent. The current divisive arguments about voter registration requirements may be more driven by the conflictive, no-holds-barred partisan politics of the nation, than the desire of one of the parties to restrict black voting rights. Rather than making accusations of racism in response to reasonable procedures, it would be more constructive to focus on the need for community organizations to work to ensure that all citizens carry proper identification, not only with respect to voting, but as a matter of protecting the security of all citizens.
Fourth, Anderson maintains that substituting the language of class for race is a maneuver to keep blacks disadvantaged. However, the objective reality is that the racial reforms of 1964 and 1965 created new conditions that call for a progressive reframing of issues of social inequality toward a focus on the protection of the social and economic rights of all, regardless of race, combined with an emphasis on establishing a stronger constitutional and legal foundation for the protection of social and economic rights, which are weak as a consequence of the historic limitations of American democracy. Such a movement not only could have ended racism once and for all, it also could have blocked the simultaneous transition to a neocolonial world order and the subsequent implementation of neoliberalism. The approach taken by the majority of black leaders and academics has been to keep alive the conflictive of race when that conflict had been in essence won, taking a historically dated and politically dysfunctional approach that nonetheless was beneficial to all those who had political and academic careers centered on race. Dr. King discerned that new objective conditions had emerged, and he called in 1967 and 1968 for a new stage of the Civil Rights Movement, based on common socioeconomic interests of the people of all racial and ethnic groups.
The reaction of white society to the African-American movement, 1948 to 1972
There are key components of the story of race in the United States that Anderson glosses over. Among them are the global political dynamics, and their national implications, that shaped the response of the white power structure to the African-American movement.
In 1949-1950, the Truman Administration had forged the Cold War ideology, which functioned as justification for a permanent war economy. The Cold War ideology was framed as a conflict between democracy and allegedly authoritarian communism, which was a false frame, but as Robert McNamara’s memoir makes clear, American political leaders themselves were taken in. In its ongoing efforts to disseminate the ideology, U.S. political leaders found that Jim Crow practices in the South were perceived in many regions of the world, especially Africa, as in basic contradiction with the U.S. pretension to democracy. During the colonial era, U.S. diplomatic efforts could live with the contradiction; but as the drive toward independence in Asia and Africa moved forward, it was becoming clear that accommodation to Jim Crow was no longer possible. U.S. foreign service officers on the ground in Africa were informing their superiors in Washington that the orientation of the emerging African anti-colonial leadership was to look toward economic relations with the Soviet Union, if the blatantly racist customs in the U.S. South were to continue. Jim Crow, therefore, was a threat to U.S. imperialist interests in Africa.
By the early 1950s, the U.S. government had determined that the Jim Crow laws and customs of the South constituted a serious threat to U.S. foreign policy goals. Accordingly, in 1953, Secretary of State Dean Acheson wrote to the Supreme Court in support of the NAACP petition in the Brown case, maintaining that “the continuation of racial discrimination in the United States remains a source of constant embarrassment to this government in the day-to-day conduct of its foreign relations; and it jeopardizes the effective maintenance of our moral leadership of the free and democratic nations of the world.” With the position of the executive branch on civil rights questions clear, the federal courts increasingly ruled in support of desegregation. Anderson reports on some of these, but she does not explore the emerging political conditions that gave rise to them.
The Kennedy Administration continued with the policy of support for black civil and political rights, as necessary for the credibility of U.S. leadership in an international arena shaped by the collapse of the European colonial empires. The Kennedy Administration could not politically ignore the fact that Southern white voters overwhelmingly were registered Democrat; nor could it be oblivious to the explosiveness of the issue, taking into account the values that had been disseminated in white society since the abolition of slavery. The Kennedy Administration therefore sought to make definitive reforms, but gradually. It believed that black voter registration was the key, envisioning a natural evolution forged by the growing presence of black elected officials. It mistakenly believed that black voter registration would not provoke the same hostile reaction among Southern whites as mass demonstrations against segregation. The administration, therefore, provided federal funding to civil rights organizations for voting registration campaigns in the South, concentrating on the notorious state of Mississippi. In fact, as events unfolded, the voting registration campaign provoked as much hostility as the mass demonstrations, as civil rights icon Ella Baker had predicted.
Indeed, confrontation in the streets was unavoidable, and it was precisely street confrontations that propelled black legal and political gains. Photos of street confrontations were widely disseminated by the international media, constituting a public relations disaster for U.S. foreign policy objectives. The U.S. government was compelled in this situation to act more decisively in defense of black rights, taking steps that it was initially reluctant to take. The Eisenhower administration sent troops to Little Rock, Arkansas to enforce federal court orders; the Kennedy Administration sent a comprehensive Civil Rights Act to Congress, which provided the legal foundation for equal treatment in public accommodations, employment, and voting; and the Johnson Administration sent a Voting Rights Act to Congress, which significantly increased black voter participation in the South. These decisive steps had the result that the Kennedy Administration feared: many white Southerners abandoned the Democratic Party.
It was understandable that youthful black activists on the ground had no patience with the gradualist line of the government, taking into account decades without progress following the dismantling of black reconstruction and the emergence of Jim Crow. However, in retrospect, we should not view the approach of the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations as a game intended to prevent black advances. The power elite had definitive interests in the elimination of Jim Crow, and the government had articulated those interests before the highest court in the land. The white power structure, by and large, understood that the Old South had to be left behind. At the same time, their concern for making change in an orderly way should not be seen as unreasonable. When, if ever, has a ruling party in a representative democracy been indifferent to maintaining its electoral majority? When has a governing class ever been unconcerned about potential unmanageable social conflicts?
Things had begun to fall apart for the civil rights coalition in 1964. The Johnson administration had continued with the same line of commitment to racial reform without provoking social conflict, and black civil rights workers on the ground were experiencing growing disappointment. FBI agents were told to observe and not interfere, and they therefore observed and reported on white violence against voter registration workers, but did not interfere. The situation provoked the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to recruit white students from the North in the Freedom Summer of 1964, believing that local white violence would now attract stronger response. When three workers (two white and one black) were murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964, the tragic event did indeed provoke a nationwide response of indignation.
At the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, the Democratic Party national leadership made a fateful decision that was too gradualist for the SNCC leadership to accept, breaking the tension-filled alliance. It was a matter of a decision to seat only two delegates of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which had been formed through alternative elections that did not discriminate on the basis of race. Fannie Lou Hamer famously declared, “I didn’t come all this way for no two seats.”
The fallout from Atlantic City was immeasurable. SNCC leaders began to debate internally the need to avoid reliance on undependable allies, and to develop black organizations under black control. They began to pay more attention to the powerful discourses of Malcolm X, who during the course of 1964 had been declaring the need for black control of the political, economic, and cultural institutions of the black community. These tendencies culminated in 1966, with the declaration of SNCC Chairman Stokely Carmichael of “Black Power.” It was a proclamation that shocked white America, but galvanized blacks.
Prior to that historic moment, the great majority of African-Americans had thought of themselves as Americans, and had focused on their right to be included in the American promise of democracy and equal rights for all. But the black power movement, without revoking rights of American citizenship, pointed in two alternative directions. The first was Malcolm’s vision of black control of the black community. This orientation was expressed in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville experiment in local community control of schools, which was supported by New York City Mayor John Lindsey (a white liberal Republican) but was opposed and eventually brought down by the New York City teachers union. The union objected above all to the authority of the local board to transfer teachers out of the district, and to use their own standards in hiring new teachers, who included whites with university degrees but without teaching certificates. The wide-spread orientation toward black community control culminated in the Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana in 1972, when the poet Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) proclaimed, “It’s nation time.”
Yet a second implication of the turn to black power was reformulation of the understanding of international relations, which was voiced by Malcolm in 1964 and by Dr. King in 1967 and 1968. It was a question of seeing blacks and other peoples of color as colonized through a world-wide process of European domination. This focus implied identification with and alliance with the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements of the Third World, which have been expressing themselves with more and more force from 1955 to the present. This proposed fundamental reorientation of U.S. foreign policy was picked up by Jesse Jackson in the 1980s, who advocate replacement of a foreign policy of East-West confrontation with a policy of North-South cooperation.
These important, indeed fundamental, elements of the story of race in America are glossed over in White Rage. Such oversight is not unique to White Rage; it has been a pervasive tendency in the discourse of leftist black intellectuals and activists since 2008. This is truly unfortunate for the nation, because the black power discourse of 1964 to 1988, although born in black rage, is the key to the reformulation of the American narrative in a form that envisions the appropriate place for America in the world as well as a place for all Americans, regardless of race, in the nation, on a foundation of post-neocolonial structures.
The cooptation of black identity by the white power structure
In spite of its support for civil and political rights, white society failed the African-American movement of during the period of 1954 to 1972. The support of the white power structure and white liberals, even though decisive for the attainment of important reforms in civil and political rights, was delayed and vacillating. Moreover, whites largely rejected the black power movement of the late 1960s.
However, the failure of white society should be understood in context. White society had been subjected to decades of white supremacist ideology; and when white supremacy began to be delegitimated, there emerged the Cold War ideology to justify the labelling and repression of black activists. As a result of these ideological dynamics, white society was completely unprepared to understand the call for black power.
But in spite of the perverse ideological situation, there was an element of hope in the white student anti-war movement of the late 1960s, which included educational “teach-ins” at many universities. The movement included anti-imperialist currents, and it sometimes was expressed as an integrated movement against racism, poverty, and war. In some cases, white student activist organizations formed coalitions with black nationalist organizations. However, the Left failed to seize these ideological openings to develop a long-term project of popular education, educating the people toward historical and global consciousness and toward unity. In the 1970s, with the war in Vietnam ending, the popular movements dissipated in the midst of their contradictions and the confusions of the people.
Subsequently, in the 1980s, white society rejected the proposals of Jesse Jackson, who had correctly discerned that the domestic retreat from the New Deal and the international turn to the new forms of economic and militarist imperialism would ultimately hasten the nation’s economic and moral decline. Jackson’s concepts of a Rainbow Coalition at home and a foreign policy of North-South cooperation were formulated from the African-American experience, but they sought the forward advance of all Americans, regardless of race, class or gender; and they envisioned the protection of the fundamental human needs of all humanity. Again, the incapacity of white society to support the Jackson agenda should not be simplistically reduced to white racism. It ought to be seen in the context of the fundamental limitations of American democracy, in which public debate is eliminated in favor of manipulative slogans created by the paid agents of particular interests. These structures ensured that the Jackson program was never heard by the people.
Meanwhile, middle-class black society in the 1980s was failing in its own right. Forgetting the reiterated call of Malcolm for black control of the black community, the black middle class seized opportunity created by the reduction in racial housing restrictions to move out of the traditional zones to which the black population had been confined in the large urban areas of the North and Midwest. There emerged what the African-American sociologist William J. Wilson called the outmigration of the black middle class, which converted the traditional black zone into lower-class black neighborhoods, lacking role models for education and employment and lacking economic resources. Combined with the turn of the nation to neoliberalism, the outmigration of the black middle class constituted the abandonment of the black poor.
The black political establishment gave priority to affirmative action in support of the interests of the black middle class over the social and economic development of poor black neighborhoods. The limited number of government programs were more effective in providing employment for the black middle class than they were in economically uplifting the black poor. Most black leaders blamed the consequent persistent racial inequity on the racism of whites, thus deflecting blame to white society for their own de facto abandonment of the black poor. In fact, racism among whites, which should be understood as residual rather than systemic, was declining. Some whites, respectful of black insistence on self-determination, were expecting the black community to assume responsibility for its own development, and to put forth demands to the larger society on this basis.
Many black leaders since the 1990s appear to not know the call of Malcolm X for black control of the black community; the call of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Jesse Jackson for an anti-imperialist foreign policy; and the work of King and Jackson in forging of multi-racial popular coalitions. Many black academics appear to have forgotten the support of whites, sometimes at cost to themselves, in various aspects of the unfolding African-American project. Many therefore are unable to see the possibilities for a long-term project dedicated to raising the global, historical, and social consciousness of the people, in which all races and ethnic groups participate, with the long-term goal of placing control of the state in the hands of the delegates of the people.
Meanwhile, identity politics has emerged, subverting such possibilities. Whereas black identity was born in the context of a potentially revolutionary insurgence in the 1960s, it today has become an obstacle to these possibilities. Today, an exaggerated emphasis on black identity is convenient for the white power structure, for it provokes divisions among the people, blocking the people from uniting to attain political power in defense of themselves, in a context defined by the collapse of the world economic and social order. Today, black identity, once the source of insights from below, has been coopted by the white power structure, itself in decadence.
There are some who say that the truth must be told with respect to slavery and racism in the USA. Indeed so. But the whole truth, which sees white resistance to black advances in the larger historical and social context of which it is a part.
In the final analysis, it is not a question of identifying white individuals, past and present, who are racist. It is a question of understanding the structures of domination that were developed during the colonial era and the adjustments that were made to preserve colonial structures in the neocolonial era. It is a question of transforming neocolonial structures in the construction of a more just, democratic, and sustainable world. The history of triumphant revolutions in the Third World during the last one hundred years teaches us that such a better world can only be built by a united people, united within each nation.
A free subscription option is available, with capacity to read, send, and share all posts. A paid subscription ($5 per month or $40 per year) enables you to make comments and to support the costs of the column; full subscribers ($40 per year) also receive a free PDF copy of my book on Cuba and the world-system.
Follow me on Twitter: Charles McKelvey@CharlesMcKelv14