Pamela Newkirk is a professor of journalism at New York University and the author of “Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga.”
The virulent backlash against President Obama’s 2008 election set the stage for this year’s presidential campaign, in which Muslims, Mexicans and other marginalized groups have been explicitly maligned.
While Obama’s historic two-term presidency has inspired the “birther” movement, an unprecedented spike in death threats, and wanton disrespect by members of Congress and other prominent officials, until now, many observers had been hard-pressed to attribute the hostility to race.
In “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide,” Carol Anderson compellingly does just that. In this slim but persuasive volume, she catalogues white Americans’ centuries-long efforts to derail African American progress. She cites the venomous response to Obama alongside a litany of setbacks that have followed African American strides stretching back to the Civil War and emancipation.
Anderson, a professor of African American history at Emory University, traces the thread of white rebellion from anti-emancipation revolts through post-Reconstruction racial terror and the enactment of Black Codes and peonage, to the extraordinary legal and extralegal efforts by Southern officials to block African Americans from fleeing repression during the Great Migration. She continues connecting the dots to contemporary legislative and judicial actions across the country that have disproportionately criminalized blacks and suppressed their voting rights.
Anderson argues that this pattern of advancement followed by retreat has effectively eroded, if not scuttled, every modicum of progress made by African Americans since the Emancipation Proclamation.
Anderson’s book, which began as a 2014 opinion article in The Washington Post, recounts numerous instances when hard-won gains by African Americans have been reversed. For example, in 2008, for the first time in history, the black voter turnout rate nearly equaled that of whites, and the turnout of voters of all races making less than $15,000 nearly doubled. “While the number of whites who voted remained roughly the same as it had been in the 2004 election,” she says, “two million more African Americans, two million additional Hispanics, and 600,000 more Asians cast their ballots in 2008.”
The GOP, “trapped between a demographically declining support base and an ideological straitjacket . . . reached for a tried and true weapon: disfranchisement.” Anderson notes that despite the rarity of voter fraud, state after state began requiring voters to have documents such as bank statements, utility bills and W-2 forms, which African Americans, Latinos, the young and other economically disadvantaged people are less likely than others to possess.
Then, in 2013 the Supreme Court voted 5 to 4 to strike down a key part of the Voting Rights Act that for decades had protected African Americans from blatant disfranchisement. Since the ruling, 22 states have passed voter-restriction statutes. Anderson also argues that white resistance to the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision explains why, six decades later, black children largely remain trapped in segregated and unequal schools.
Anderson singles out President Ronald Reagan for presiding over the rollback of many of the gains blacks made during the civil rights movement. She says that while Reagan “positively oozed racial innocence,” his policies showed a contempt for blacks.
Black unemployment had declined sharply during the ’60s and ’70s, actually closing the racial gap, and the number of blacks enrolled in college had doubled between 1970 and 1978. But Reagan erased those gains through massive cuts in federal programs and jobs. Black unemployment rose to 15.5 percent — the highest it had been since the Great Depression — and black youth employment to a staggering 45.7 percent. “At this point,” Anderson writes, “Reagan chose to slash the training, employment and labor services budget by 70 percent — a cut of $3.805 billion.”
Among the programs targeted were those that assisted college-bound African Americans, causing their college enrollment to tumble from 34 to 26 percent. “Thus, just at the moment when the post-industrial economy made an undergraduate degree more important than ever, 15,000 fewer African Americans were in college during the early 1980s than had been the case in the mid 1970s,” Anderson writes.
Her most explosive allegation is that at a time when marijuana use was down, and cocaine, heroin and hallucinogen use was declining or leveling off, Reagan’s National Security Council and CIA “manufactured and facilitated” a drug crisis and were complicit in flooding African American communities with crack. She says the administration’s shielding of Colombian drug traffickers “actively allowed cocaine imports to the United States to skyrocket 50 percent within three years. . . . Soon crack was everywhere, kicking the legs out from under black neighborhoods,” she writes.
“The Reagan administration’s protection of drug traffickers escalated further when the CIA received approval from the Department of Justice in 1982 to remain silent about any key agency ‘assets’ that were involved in the manufacturing, transportation, or sale of narcotics,” she adds.
Anderson cites research showing that between 1984 and 1994, the homicide rate of black males ages 14 to 17 more than doubled, while life expectancy rates among African Americans declined — “something that not even slavery or Jim Crow had been able to accomplish,” she notes.
And as crack ravaged black communities, Anderson argues, the Reagan administration targeted the victims, rather than the drug-smuggling villains. In 1986 Reagan signed into law the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which mandated minimum sentencing, emphasized punishment over treatment, and disproportionately criminalized African Americans, Latinos and the poor. Two years later, Congress enacted mandatory sentencing for first-time offenders. The war on drugs, Anderson says, “replaced the explicit use of race as the mechanism to deny black Americans their rights as citizens.”
Meanwhile the Supreme Court, in a series of cases, upheld racial profiling by police and mandatory sentencing for drug offenses, and made it more difficult to prove racial bias in a variety of circumstances, including jury selection and arrests. And while African Americans are the least likely to use or sell drugs, Anderson writes, “law enforcement has continued to focus its efforts on the black population.” As a result, she writes, blacks, while 13 percent of the national population, make up 45 percent of those incarcerated.
Anderson convincingly shows that African Americans’ economic and social progress has historically, and sometimes ferociously, been reversed. Less persuasive is her contention that rage, rather than a cool and calculated effort to retain economic and social primacy, is behind the destructive policies she cites. Moreover, Anderson makes little effort to explore how African Americans might ultimately overcome the kinds of willful and anti-democratic machinations she describes. For example, could the Brown ruling have been more effective if it had emphasized racial equality over integration? Also, are African Americans’ efforts to overcome discrimination inevitably doomed to fail, or have some strategies prevailed?
Still, Anderson deftly draws a straight line from post-Reconstruction setbacks to contemporary measures that follow a discernible, if often overlooked, pattern of one step forward and two steps back. While short on solutions, “White Rage” is a sobering primer on the myriad ways African American resilience and triumph over enslavement, Jim Crow and intolerance have been relentlessly defied by the very institutions entrusted to uphold our democracy.
By Carol Anderson
Bloomsbury. 246 pp. $26