African American studies scholar Carol Anderson on the policies that legitimize white rage.
For some, Joe Biden entering the White House has felt like a sigh of relief: The president who unabashedly led the country with hate and helped orchestrate the deaths of more than 410,000 Americans in a pandemic is finally gone. Biden signed 17 executive actions on his first day as the country’s chief executive, and has signed about another dozen since. He has made it his priority to reverse and reject much of Trump’s agenda.
While his gestures so far spell hope, other Americans are holding their breath, familiar with how 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. Emory African American studies professor Carol Anderson calls this phenomenon “white rage.”
According to Anderson, white rage is legitimatized 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. It is the rage that fueled the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol on January 6 in an attempt to dismantle America’s multicultural democracy — and it hasn’t gone away.
“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,” Anderson told me.
I talked to Anderson, who wrote an entire book about white rage, about its meaning and how it has historically operated in America. Our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, also addresses how to put an end to it.
What is white rage and how does it apply to this moment?
I think a lot of folks get white rage wrong. When I talk about white rage, I’m talking about the policies that undermine African American achievement and advancement. These policies sanction the violence that accompanies white rage to make that environment look legitimate. White rage is about policy, and one of the big policies driving this thing right now is voter suppression.
Since white rage is a response to African Americans’ political advancement, we saw them rise up in mass after the election of Barack Obama, for example. He pulled through millions of new voters with his ground game that were overwhelmingly African American, Hispanic, Asian American, the young, and the poor. When you look at voter suppression policies, that’s the hit list. And when you think about Trump’s big lie — that these elections were stolen — and you see where he identified these so-called stolen elections, he didn’t point to Salt Lake City, Utah. He didn’t point to Paducah, Kentucky. He pointed to Philadelphia, Detroit, Milwaukee, Atlanta. In many ways, these are the same cities that the manufactured lie of massive rampant voter fraud came out of after the 2000 election. These are cities that have sizable or majority Black or minority populations. How many times have we heard about fraud or how we have to purge all of these votes because we’ve got dead people voting?
Can you say more about how the voter fraud lies coming out of the 2000 election illustrate white rage?
In 2000 in St. Louis, almost 50,000 voters were purged from the rolls. When they went to go vote, their names weren’t there and the poll workers had no indication, no evidence, no poll books about who these folks were. So they sent them downtown to the Board of Elections. It was a hot mess. People were down there for hours trying to get back on the rolls so they could vote. The polls were getting ready to close, but Democrats sued to keep the polls open, saying this wasn’t their fault, that they were illegally purged. They were able to keep the polls open for three more hours.
But the Republicans came in with a higher court and said this is illegal, it’s voter fraud, and that they’re trying to steal the election. A judge shut down the polls after 45 minutes. It was eventually proven that there wasn’t any massive rampant voter fraud, except they had a huge PR campaign that kept pumping this idea of “voter fraud, voter fraud, we’ve got to protect the integrity of our elections. We got to save democracy from these people who are stealing our elections.” So we’ve been here before, and it’s the lie of voter fraud that then created the policies of voter suppression.
What are these voter suppression policies that are apparently so central to white rage?
Voter ID laws. It sounds race neutral and it sounds like it’s in support of strengthening democracy. But voter ID laws are based on the lie of voter fraud. We have to have people be themselves to make sure they’re not stealing the election. So you create the lie, then you create the obstacle of IDs. We’ve got evidence of this. It’s like what happened in North Carolina — they requested data by race on the types of IDs people held, and then wrote the law to privilege the IDs that whites had and to disqualify the IDs that African Americans had.
Why does white rage have to manifest in this way? Or rather, why does it manifest in this way?
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. So when I heard that language of “If you only count the legal votes and not the illegal votes coming out of Philadelphia and Detroit,” that was the signal that those votes coming out of the cities, which becomes like a synonym for where Black people live, are illegal by the very function that those voters are in the city. And so it is a way of crafting Americanness as white-only, like hanging a Jim Crow sign on it. And that, therefore, the rights of American citizenship are white-only.
What are some other examples of how white rage has worked historically?
We saw it after the Brown decision to integrate the schools. Over 100 Congressmen signed what was called the Southern Manifesto, saying they would use every lever of power that they had to defy the US Supreme Court. You saw then states crafting policies to figure out how to get around integrating public schools. They were crafting policies such that they would shut down entire public school systems and then provide state-funded tuition for white children to go to all-white private academies. That’s white rage policy.
Meanwhile, there was no funding whatsoever for Black children to continue their education. In Prince Edward County, Virginia, those public schools were shut down for five years. Imagine you’re in the fifth grade and your school shuts down and opens up again when you’re in the 10th grade. What have you missed? So much.
One of the big white rage policies was the “war on drugs” coming out of the civil rights movement, where you get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The war on drugs was racialized. African Americans used drugs the least except for marijuana, where their usage is on par with other racial and ethnic groups. But they were disproportionately incarcerated — incarcerated at a much higher rate. What a felony conviction does is it allows you to short-circuit the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. So those who were incarcerated didn’t have access to education. They could be denied housing with a felony conviction. With the Voting Rights Act, you have felony disenfranchisement, which means you can deny those who have been convicted of a felony their right to vote. In the US, about 6.1 million people were denied the right to vote because of a felony conviction in 2016. In Florida, with Amendment 4, which restored voting rights to some people with felony convictions, we found out that 1.7 million of them were in Florida alone. Florida had permanent felony disenfranchisement.
After Amendment 4 passed, there was a commission where you could petition to get your voting rights back. But former Gov. Rick Scott had rigged it so that only a trickle got through. And then there was a piece in the Palm Beach Post that showed that the way he had that thing rigged is that if you were a Republican, you got your voting rights back.
Yeah. [Laughs] Yeah. I love the work that local journalism does! In Florida, 40 percent of Black men could not vote because of a felony conviction. That’s white rage, and that’s the power of the war on drugs.
You also argue that when there’s Black advancement, white rage is activated. What do you mean by that? And in thinking about January 6, what kind of Black advancement have we been seeing in the past couple of months or years to activate what happened?
Think about the incredible mobilization of Black voters, Latino voters, Indigenous voters, Asian Americans, that flipped Georgia blue to Biden and to Kamala Harris — that organizing, that mobilizing. And Stacey Abrams’s group Fair Fight was in Wisconsin too, working with WisDems, and flipped Wisconsin — that kind of engagement. The refusal to bow down to voter suppression and to a pandemic that disproportionately kills Black people. People here in Georgia were like, “I will stand in line for 11 hours if I have to” — that kind of determination. Black achievement, Black advancement, the refusal to accept subjugation, the demand for citizenship rights — all of that was front and center in this 2020 election. Black resilience and Black resolve are punished.
And you saw it here in Georgia with the Senate runoff where, again, Black voter turnout was just record-breaking. They elected Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossof to the Senate. They dislodged two incumbents who ran on a white supremacist platform. They couldn’t talk about what they had accomplished; what they ran on was fear. David Purdue issued an ad where he had lengthened Jon Ossoff’s nose. Kelly Loeffler ran on an ad where she had darkened Raphael Warnock’s face, kind of like that Time O.J. Simpson cover. Be afraid. Be afraid. Be afraid.
We voted them out of office and, in response, the Republicans in the legislature here in Georgia are figuring out how to make absentee ballots much more difficult to use in the middle of a pandemic. We’ve had no-excuse absentee ballots for 15 years, and they’ve overwhelmingly been used by white Republicans. In the midst of this pandemic, African Americans used them heavily. And so now, instead of embracing this growth in democracy and this high voter turnout, the Georgia legislature is figuring out how to make it harder to use absentee ballots by maybe getting rid of this no-excuse provision. They’re saying maybe we need to add a photo ID requirement. So if you’re in your home and you want to use an absentee ballot, how many people have copiers in their homes to make a copy of their ID? This is how you can bureaucratically and race-neutrally begin to carve out your own electorate to block voters that will not vote for you, or that you suspect will not vote for you. That is the white rage backlash.
So when does the backlash end? As things stand, when there’s a moment of Black advancement, white rage comes to try to steal it away. It feels like a pendulum swinging. Will this motion ever stop?
It will stop when whites and when politicians stop thinking in terms of the zero sum game — that the only way that African Americans can advance will be at whites’ expense. The zero sum game is an old tried-and-true playbook. Think about it this way: The US has spent about a trillion dollars on the war on drugs to lock up those who do and sell drugs the least. What could we have done with a trillion dollars? What would that have meant in terms of being able to keep college affordable? In terms of the kinds of tuition support that could come from state dollars? What could we have done in terms of access to affordable health care with a trillion dollars? Breaking the frame of the zero sum game is going to be so important for the pendulum of white rage to stop swinging. It’s going to require dismantling white supremacy as an operating code.
I’d like to end by talking about the phrase “white rage” itself. In our society, white people are rarely described as angry by those in power, no matter the amount of crimes they commit, no matter the amount of genocide that’s taken place at their hands. It’s Black people and other people of color who are the angry and vengeful ones. What’s the purpose of merging these two words together, two words that, based on what we’re taught in American society, don’t go together?
The phrase came to me when Ferguson was on fire. I was watching television, and it didn’t matter whether it was CNN, MSNBC, or Fox, they were all talking about all of this Black rage. “Look at Black people burning up where they live.” I was sitting there shaking my head, saying, “That’s white rage.” And I went, “Oh my gosh, this is white rage.”
I lived in Missouri for 13 years. I saw how policy worked there to undermine African Americans’ access to their citizenship rights. In America, we are so focused on the flames that we miss the kindling. The kindling — those are the policies.
In Ferguson, for instance, there was a police force that basically harassed the Black community and saw them as a revenue-generating force. So 25 percent of the city’s budget was extracted from the Black community via fines and fees: “Looks like you’re doing 26 in a 25 mph zone.” We had an education system there in Missouri that measured schools on a 140-point scale for graduation rates, matriculation rates, test scores, etc. In Michael Brown’s school system, they got 10 points out of 140 for 15 years. And there were policies of disenfranchisement there. Some 60 percent of Ferguson is Black, but in the municipal elections in 2013, there was a Black voter turnout of only 6 percent. That’s what happened in Ferguson. These are white rage policies.
I’ve had people say to me, “Why don’t you call it white angst?” Well, what do you call it when you systematically deny children the right to education because they’re Black? That’s rage. What do you call it when Black people come out and vote and your response is not, “Yes, democracy!” Your response is, “That’s illegal. That’s fraudulent. We’ve got to shut it down. We’ve got to strip them of their citizenship rights.” That’s rage.
Author: Fabiola Cineas