Carol Anderson's White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide

ANTI-RACISM MUST-READS! Carol Anderson’s White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (2016)

For those still struggling to understand why thousands of armed insurrectionists would violently storm our nation’s Capitol on January 6th, Carol Anderson’s White Rage provides a compelling and enlightening historical context.  In a recent interview published in Vox, Professor Anderson explains why progress in America always comes at a price.  “When Black Americans in particular make strides toward equality, the determined hand of white supremacy pushes back,” a phenomenon Anderson calls “white rage.” 

While visible acts of violence may be more obvious than those enacted by our legislatures, courts, and government officials, “white rage is legitimized through the policies that make up the American political framework. It lives in voter ID laws and manifests in the Black votes that are never cast. It lives in criminal sentencing laws and plays out in a war on drugs that was waged against Black people.” At its core a fear of loss of rights and privileges, “White rage is the operational function of white supremacy. It is the fear of a multicultural democracy. It is predicated on a sense that only whites are legitimate Americans.”

In another recent interview with Marcy C. Curtis on the Equal Time podcast, Anderson counters the popular refrain in response to the events of January 6th that “This is not who we are.” “Oh, yes it is!” she retorts, arguing that instead we should be responding “This is not who we want to be.” 

“The trigger for white rage, inevitably, is black advancement. It is not the mere presence of black people that is the problem: rather, it is blackness with ambition, with drive, with purpose, with aspirations, and with demands for full and equal citizenship.  It is blackness that refuses to accept subjugation, to give up.  A formidable array of policy assaults and legal contortions has consistently punished black resilience, black resolve.  And all the while, white rage manages to maintain not only the upper hand, but also, apparently, the moral high ground.” (White Rage, pp. 3-4)

From the rolling back of Reconstruction era gains in the South, to the northern backlash against millions of black Americans who took part in The Great Migration, Anderson brilliantly argues that while white rage may have visibly manifested in epidemics of lynching and physical violence, its most insidious and sweeping impact has always taken place in halls of power cloaked by auras of legitimacy and respectability. 

Further illustrating how the phenomenon operated surreptitiously first in opposition to the Brown decision and later to the even broader gains of the civil rights movement, in her final chapter Anderson highlights the devastating backlash triggered by the election of America’s first black president, in particular, targeted efforts to suppress the vote unprecedented since the Jim Crow era. 

While predating the 2020 election by several years, Professor Anderson’s compelling historical analysis in White Rage lays the groundwork for understanding more recent events and along with Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, is another key title in our new “Anti-Racism Must Reads” series.  For an excellent overview of the themes from her book, replay Anderson’s 2018 lecture at Emory University (52 min).   

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