White rage is not about visible violence, but rather it works its way through the courts, the legislatures, and a range of government bureaucracies. It wreaks havoc subtly, almost imperceptibly, certainly, for a nation consistently drawn to the spectacular—to what it can see. It’s not the Klan. White rage doesn’t have to wear sheets, burn crosses, or take to the streets. Working the halls of power, it can achieve its ends far more effectively, far more destructively.
The book lays out the many ways this white rage used the system to tear down any instance of black advancement. She begins with the Reconstruction era, when southern whites reacted to emancipation of enslaved black people by enacting laws that limited their freedom and put them in a state of slavery in everything but name. When black Americans managed to acquire the means to move north to pursue something closer to freedom, the response was to stop the trains from moving at all. The response to desegregation of schools was to close the schools and, when that didn’t work, to winnow away at the law until it hardly had any effect. The Civil Rights movement led whites to posit a “color blind” society where wrongs didn’t need to be redressed because they no longer exist—if anything, they claimed, whites were the victims of efforts to redress past wrongs. And when a black man became president, the white power structure ramped up efforts to disenfranchise voters in non-white areas. Anderson addresses things like policing, the prison system, housing discrimination, and other ways that the system pushes back against black people’s advancement.
In short, this book is a history of systemic racism in the United States since the Civil War. And I haven’t been able to stop thinking and talking about it. (I read the final chapter, “How to Unelect a Black President” on January 20, and it was almost too much.)
There are several things I loved about this book. For one thing, it covers a lot of ground without being very long. The text is only about 166 pages. She also cites her sources, providing around 60 pages of notes. It is dense with information, as you might imagine, but it’s written in a very accessible style. It took me a while to read because I had to stop frequently to rage about something else. I also loved that she started after the Civil War. Although slavery was a grievous wrong from our history, Anderson doesn’t leave room for the argument that system racism ended with emancipation. This book is about everything that came after.
And, oh, how much came after. I grew up in Virginia in the 1970s and 80s, and I learned about racism, but the worst of it was treated as the violence of a few bad actors. And the rest, stuff like Jim Crow laws, was treated as a series of bumps along the way to progress. But there was little discussion of the arguments behind Jim Crow or of the deliberate attempts from within the system to keep black Americans from achieving equal access to good schools, good jobs, and good homes (and all of these elements are tied in together). In my adult life, I’ve picked up bits and pieces of information, particularly in the past few years, but this book did an excellent job showing how all those pieces work together. Many of the arguments used today to limit government benefits or privatize public schools, for example, are rooted in or are echoes of racist arguments from the past. It was startling!
I could fill this post with fact after fact, but what I really want is for more people to read this book and talk about it. It’s an important part of the conversation, especially given the new political world we Americans find ourselves in. So, to that end, I’m going to give away five copies of this book.
I only have two requests. If you get a copy, read it soon and tell someone about it, whether in conversation, on your blog or on social media. Share something you learned! I’d also like to limit the giveaway to U.S. readers. I love our international readers, but this book is very much centered on American racism, and, although I think readers outside the U.S. will find it interesting, the book does assume a basic familiarity with U.S. history and how our governing system operates. Many of you outside the U.S. have that knowledge, I know, but I also believe that because the specific examples of racism Anderson discusses is an American problem it’s up to us to do something about it. And getting educated in the history is an essential first step.
So, if you’d like a copy, let me know in the comments. If more than five people have expressed interest by Wednesday, I’ll throw the names into Random.org and select the first five names.
Edited on Thursday: I just did the drawing, and the winners are Elle, Florinda, Ann Marie, Jenny, and Jeanne!