The tide of white racial resentment that has borne Donald Trump to the White House's front door is not an anomaly. In fact, according to Emory University professor Carol Anderson, it's just the latest manifestation of one of the most persistent patterns in American politics: whites responding to black advancement by trying to roll it back. In Anderson's recent book White Rage, she traces the history of this pattern, from Reconstruction through the present. I talked to Anderson about how the election of Obama led to the rise of Trump, how white rage has (and hasn't) changed the way it expresses itself, and how we can fight against it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Do you think that black people achieving concrete gains leads to white rage, or are symbolic gains enough to provoke it?
Anderson: That's a great question. I think symbolic gains are more than enough. The symbolism of black advancement, black aspiration, I think is more than enough to provoke white rage. We talk a lot in American society about equality. But for African-Americans, given hundreds of years of slavery, Jim Crow, and then post-racial racism, that equality has never been really achieved. But just the sheer movement of it, the sheer thought of it, leads to policies coming into place that are really designed to undercut and undermine the struggle for equality.
So the election of Obama provoked a backlash, not just because black people demonstrated their power at the voting booth, but because the president that they used their power to elect was black? If a white Democrat had gotten the same margin and percentage, would that have provoked a reaction?
Anderson: I'll come at that differently. Would we have had a birther movement for a white president?
Anderson: [laughs] The symbolism of a black man in the White House, regardless of what his policies are, is so threatening, so unpalatable, that you have a congress that says, "Our job is to see to it that he is a one-term president." Not "Our job is to figure out how to help an economy that is perched on the abyss."
When I say the birther movement — I mean really think about how absolutely, fundamentally racist that was. And how that drew on old slave tropes where a black person has to prove that they belong in a certain place, and they have to prove it to a white man by showing the proper papers. Obama's blackness as a symbol triggered white rage. The way it manifests through his presidency is that — you have millions upon millions of Americans who believe, fundamentally believe, that the president of the United States is illegitimate. And if you have large numbers of your population believing that the person that is the head of your nation is not legitimate, then the policies emanating from there are therefore also deemed illegitimate.
How does this work in concrete terms? For instance, in the Deep South — Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana — we have a healthcare crisis. The president crafts a policy based on work out of the conservative Heritage Foundation and based on what Mitt Romney did in Massachusetts. But what you have is [people] saying, "That's that Obamacare." And it's framed in ways so that we have the people who need healthcare insurance the most fighting the hardest against it. That's how it manifests itself.
I was thinking about how the people who opposed Reconstruction were very open about the fact that their opposition was based on their belief in black inferiority, but if you asked one of the modern-day Republicans who is trying to dismantle the Voting Rights Amendment, "Why are you doing this?" they would put it in partisan terms: "It's not because they're black, it's because they're voting for Democrats."
Anderson: That's a great point, because remember: One of the ways white rage works is that it uses cloaked language, particularly after the civil rights movement. Lee Atwater says "in '54, you can use the n-word, but by '68 you can't." So you start putting things in economic terms, you start talking about taxes, you start talking about busing — and all of these things mean that blacks get hurt more than whites. And it's much more subtle than saying the n-word.
So North Carolina's legislature, once the GOP comes to power, doesn't ask, "How do the Democrats vote?" They said, "We want racial data on how the vote went down." Then they looked at that racial data and said, "Oh, we see that we had a large number of blacks who used early voting, so we're going to cut that down tremendously. We see that blacks don't have a certain kind of ID, so that's the kind of ID we will require in order to vote." Eduardo Bonilla-Silva talks about "racism without racists." Saying "We're going after Democrats" is highly facetious. It's Atwater-esque.
So, the way that you understand it, intentions haven't changed, just the way they're talked about.
Anderson: Oh, absolutely. Let's take the War on Drugs, because there's been lots of talk about the War on Drugs lately, particularly with all of the shootings, and with Donald Trump talking about "law and order" and "stop-and-frisk." In terms of drug usage as well as selling drugs, African-Americans do not engage in either of those activities at any rate higher than other groups. That's documented. Yet African-Americans are overwhelmingly more likely to be arrested, charged, sentenced, and sentenced for longer periods of time than whites who do the same thing. So we end up with a War on Drugs that targets black people and Latinos.
We get a War on Drugs that looks like it's got that language about "keeping America safe," but the way that it's deployed is not based on actual criminal activity, it's based on race. And what that does, then, is that we have massive disenfranchisement of the black community based on those felony convictions: 2.2 million African-Americans are disenfranchised by those convictions. That's 7.7 percent of the African-American voting-age population. No other group has that large of a percentage.
So we hear the War on Drugs. They don't say "the War on Black People," they don't call them "the black codes." But the way that the criminal justice system has been deployed against the black community has systematically undermined the achievements of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Because felony convictions affect where you can live, where you can go to school, if you can go to school, whether you can get a student loan, those sorts of things.
How do we combat the problem of white rage?
Anderson: We have to vote, regardless of what kind of barriers are put in front of us. And where we're voting, we have to challenge the political system to create policies that benefit Americans, that are not skewed toward stopping people from exercising their rights as citizens or stopping people from being able to get a decent education. Because right now, that's what we have. And it's always cloaked language, so we have to be really good about deciphering the language and really diligent about interrogating these policies when we hear them.
It is us being vigilant, it is us being engaged, it is us asking the questions, it is us holding our policymakers and elected officials accountable. And it is us realizing that this is not just a black issue or just a brown issue. All of us take a hit because of white rage.
Could you talk more about that? The reason I ask is because one way that people talk about why racism still exists is in the framework of a zero-sum game, where white people use the system to confiscate wealth and power from black people. What you seem to be saying is that this might be happening on one level, but on another, white rage hurts everyone.
Anderson: I'll go back to the War on Drugs. On the surface it looks like the black community took a hit, and it really has. But it hasn't been an isolated hit. Tax dollars have had to be used to fund a massive carceral state to deal with the consequences of having millions and millions of people incarcerated, and then out on what they call "on paper." A recent study came out with the figure of $1 trillion. And for what?
Look at what has happened to state budgets — let's take California, for instance. California has built this vast prison system, which has so destabilized the budget that California couldn't afford many of its basic services So it's cutting back on higher education, it's cutting back on K–12, it's cutting back on healthcare. So those things that are investments in people, those things that make society stronger, those things that give Californians the ability to stay healthy, to get an education, to find gainful, living-wage employment — all of that is undercut because so much money has had to be deployed in the state budget just to pay to lock people up. That's what I mean. That's a problem, and we need to recognize it as a problem.
During this election, we've had the rise of an unabashed, louder, and more explicit version of white rage expressed through Donald Trump. How do you think the next few years are going to go? Do you think that's going to become a new permanent feature of the political landscape, or is this a onetime thing that will fade back into the more sublimated version of white rage that we're used to?
Anderson: What Trump has done is to play on many of the economic and racial weaknesses in the GOP, in the GOP strategy that came out of the Southern Strategy (bringing in the solid Democratic South and disaffected white ethnics in the North into the Republican party). By playing to resentment, he's moved the party further and further to the right.
As for what's going to happen next — I wrote this piece that said the reason the GOP is really mad at Donald Trump is that he's pulled the mask off of white rage. They were used to the subtlety, they were used to the coded language, they knew how to dog-whistle. Trump didn't dog-whistle; he barked. And I can see that part of the strategy will try to go back to the dog-whistle. I think that there needs to be enough mobilization in American society to say that we don't need another dog-whistle, we need to deal with the issues that create white rage. We need to create a nation, system, policies, that really embrace what we say we are, not who we have been.
The way that you described it, a bit earlier, was that part of the challenge is to recognize and vote against white rage, in spite of voter suppression. But the bigger the black turnout, the bigger the backlash in this country. Since blacks are a minority, we can always be outvoted, so how do you see this strategy working?
Anderson: The backlash to blacks voting has been there for so long.
Anderson: [laughs] Yeah, it's one of the themes throughout the book. And we're going to vote. After the 2008 election, voter suppression laws began to rise up, and black people came out in an even greater percentage than in 2008. That's not going to go away. And the moment that Shelby County v. Holder went down and the Voting Rights Act was gutted, you saw incredible mobilization to get rid of these voter suppression laws that popped up all over the nation. That battle is still going on. The fight is something that is consistent, and I love that. I love that black folks don't accept subjugation. That is beautiful.
What also has to happen — and this is important to understand — these battles for equality, these battles for the United States to be what it says it is, require more than just black people agitating and fighting for human dignity and basic civil and human rights. This struggle requires, and it has always required, for whites and Latinos and Native Americans to also fight. When you look at struggles along the way, that's what you see — John Brown, Mickey Schwerner and Jim Peck, Grace Lee Boggs — you see these folks from all walks of life knowing that this struggle for equality is a struggle for all of us.
Related to that: One thing people have written about is that maybe white people who are acting out can be placated if we address their economic concerns. Is there anything to that? Could that be an antidote to the backlash?
Anderson: Economic resentment can be a cover for racism, and we need to acknowledge that. There are those who have taken a huge economic hit, brought about by deindustrialization, where the good union factory jobs have gone. ... But for the whites who are feeling that kind of economic dislocation, in those deindustrialized areas — the answers is not to double down. The answer is really to think through what their real interests are. And when their real interests are defined racially, then they systematically undercut their own well-being.
Anything else that you'd like to say that I didn't give you an opportunity to?
Anderson: I would like to take the opportunity to say: Please take this election very seriously. We are at a crossroads. Make sure you're registered to vote. If you're in one of these states that has voter suppression laws, make sure you know what the requirements are to vote, know what your polling hours are, know where your polling places are. And get out there in droves because what white rage requires, what racism requires, is that most people are silent and complicit in it. But it cannot withstand a fully engaged citizenry.