The Book Historian Carol Anderson Had to Write After Ferguson

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tags: racism, Police, Ferguson, Carol Anderson

Sharon Arana is an HNN intern. 

Carol Anderson is the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor and Chair in African American Studies at Emory University and the author of White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (Bloomsbury, 2016). This interview was conducted by email.

Why did you write your book?

In August 2014, Ferguson, MO had erupted in response to the police killing of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown. The “analysis” from newscasters and pundits was so ahistorical that they had put all their attention on the flames. In doing so, they missed the kindling. They were so focused on the moment – the QuikTrip ablaze, militarized police launching flash grenades, teargas and rubber bullets against demonstrators – that the histories that created that furor were all but lost. I, therefore, wrote an op-ed published in the Washington Post, to put Ferguson into historical context. The article became the most widely shared for the newspaper in 2014. But there’s only so much you can cover in just over 1,000 words. I, therefore, wrote the book, White Rage, to provide a more complete analytical narrative for the ways legislators, presidents, and judges have deployed policy – under the guise of protecting democracy – to actually undermine black aspirations, black achievement, and black access to citizenship rights and, although targeted at African Americans, have severely weakened the United States.

Throughout history, elected officials and other notable members of society (police, clerks) have been the ones to assert violence and prejudice against blacks. Today, many white people seem to believe that the Black Lives Matter movement is anti-police. How do you account for this? 

Black protest against injustice has historically been maligned. Ida B. Wells was run out of Memphis. The NAACP was banned from Alabama and Texas and hounded in Georgia. The FBI worked its magic to try to discredit Martin Luther King Jr. Even today, Colin Kaepernick’s silent protest over police brutality has led to a vitriolic backlash filled with invectives and epithets questioning his patriotism and his racial identity. Socialist, communist, Muslim, traitor have all, over time, been used by whites to discredit demands for black equality. The aspersions cast against Black Lives Matter need to be understood in this context.

More specifically, several forces are at work here. First, #BLM activists have specifically denounced the politics of respectability. Therefore, their insistence on directly challenging the policies that undermine the lives and human rights of black people allows their critics to not focus on the message but the dreadlocks, the sagging pants, and the tattoos of some of the activists and draw attention away from a brutal reality: There is no level of respectability that black people can have in America that can protect them from state-sponsored violence. The reality of Amadou Diallo, Kathryn Johnston, Aiyanna Stanley-Jones, Charles Kinsey, Jonathan Ferrell, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, et al, refutes former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s contention that African Americans just need to obey the law to avoid the wrong end of a police officer’s gun/chokehold/rough ride.

Second, despite the rhapsodic haze of the Civil Rights Movement, it is important to remember how contemporaries vilified and demeaned those activists in the 1950s and 1960s. There’s a reason why Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had to write a letter from the Birmingham jail. So to “compare” #BLM with the CRM and complain that today’s human rights activists are dishonoring or not doing the movement the way King did is to misunderstand and misrepresent how that story in the ’50s and ’60s played out in real time.

Third, by blasting #BLM as violent, although it has never shot, stabbed, beaten, lynched, or burned anyone, then requires us to examine the definition of “violent” that #BLM’s critics are deploying. Given that it has not engaged in armed struggle, what actually makes Black Lives Matter “violent”? Is it because it flat out refuses to accept the status quo and demands state accountability? Is it “violent” because it does not always politely ask why a man standing on a corner is choked to death and none of the officers involved, including the one who used an illegal chokehold, is even indicted? In short, it seems the descriptor “violent” is really about #BLM’s unwillingness to acquiesce quietly in the face of inequality and death.

Fourth, Black Lives Matter is not anti-police. It’s anti-police brutality. There’s a big difference. Let me use an analogy. Beginning in the 1980s, Dr. Michael Swango began killing his patients. By the time the physician was done, he had murdered sixty people who were under his care. Would any effort to remove this man from practicing medicine suggest that one is actually anti-doctor or anti-healthcare? Would any effort to reform the system that allowed his killing to go on undetected or, even worse, unreported indicate a hatred of medicine? Of course not. Similarly, in framing Black Lives Matter as being anti-police, it suggests that the only type of policing available to African American communities is either none at all or the kind that the U.S. Department of Justice cites as engaging in “routine violations” of civil rights, wanton disregard for citizens, and as being “thoroughly corrupt, and marked by the routine use of excessive force.”

Fifth, the vilification of Black Lives Matter, even going so far as to equate it with terrorism on the scale of ISIS, is designed to divert attention away from the key message: structural racism. #BLM is pulling back the veil on the narrative of post-racial America. Its activists are calling into question systems that debase, degrade, devalue, and delegitimize African Americans. #BLM’s critique extends to nurturing alliances with others who are oppressed by these same judicial, economic, and political systems. A full-blown acknowledgement of structural racism, however, destabilizes the myth of meritocracy, and exposes the racially skewed algorithms and rationales for allocation of benefits and resources. That’s the real threat #BLM poses.

You mention in the book that Senator James O. Eastland vowed to "protect and maintain white supremacy throughout eternity." What role does white supremacy play in today's politics? 

The United States is wrestling with indisputable signs of entrenched overt white supremacy in a supposedly post-racial society. We are looking at a man, one opponent away from the White House, who has never held any elected office but became politically prominent by leading a racist conspiracy theory assault to delegitimize the first black president of the United States. In fact, no racist act that the Republican presidential nominee has done has disqualified him or caused his support to plummet to somewhere between negligible and less than zero.

For example, when Donald Trump insists that a judge is fundamentally unable, because of Mexican heritage, to be impartial, “that is the textbook definition of racism.” When he announces a policy to deport eleven million immigrants and defines those from Mexico as “rapists,” “criminals,” and drug mules, that is openly racist. When it came out that he has been sued by the Department of Justice for refusing to rent to African Americans, his support did not decline. Nor did it weaken when it was revealed that he took out a full-page ad in the New York Times demanding the state execute four African Americans and one Latino accused of raping a white woman in Central Park. Not only were the teens innocent, the death penalty had already been ruled unconstitutional because of its disproportionate, discriminatory use against blacks.

Trump is applauded and lauded by the KKK and white nationalists because his vision closely aligns with white supremacy. Trump added the CEO of Breitbart, the communications home for white supremacists, to his campaign leadership team. When the question is not whether racism undergirds and fuels Trump’s supporters but whether it’s actually 50 percent of his voters, there is no question that racism is one of the major tectonic plates moving this presidential election.

When we hear the slogan “Make America Great Again” and ask Trump supporters, who are overwhelmingly white, “when was America great?” the answers are telling. There was 1776, (when the U.S. enslaved most of its black population); there was 1913, (with Jim Crow, lynching, and massive racial discrimination); there were the mid-1940s to 1950s (with the systematic denial of the right to vote for African Americans, Massive Resistance and the shutting down of public schools); and there were the 1980s (with the War on Drugs, the mass disfranchisement of black voters through disparate sentencing and felony convictions, and an eruption of gang wars and skyrocketing murder rates of young black teens and men that actually led African American life expectancy rates to decline).

In short, the presidential nominee for one of the major parties is advocating a ‘great America’ where minorities are physically, legally, and/or economically excluded and where resources, jobs, quality housing, great schools, and access to college are designated “whites only.”

That is apartheid.

Do you agree that the modern GOP has been playing with racist tropes for years, as the party’s critics maintain?

Since the early 1950s, the GOP had been flirting with the Solid Democratic South and luring into the Republican Party a constituency which built its institutions and culture on slavery, racial inequality, and Jim Crow. Finally, in 1968 in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, the GOP’s efforts paid off. Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy did it by using “dog whistles,” words – coded language—that evoked a Pavlovian anti-black response, such as “welfare,” “law and order,” “forced busing,” etc., without having once to identify race. Nixon was proud of being able to link crime and other societal ills to those “damn Negro-Puerto Rican groups” and still feign racial innocence. Another way to fuel this racism was to treat resources as a zero-sum-game that pit racial and ethnic groups against each other. For example, the Nixon Supreme Court’s assault on affirmative action elevated alleged reverse discrimination against whites and made invisible centuries of public policy advantages they accrued. That framing of the issue – see Fisherresonates through its ahistorical logic to this very day.

Reagan, however, mastered the form. Launching his campaign in Neshoba County, Mississippi, the site of the triple murder of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman, which led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Reagan proclaimed his fidelity to states’ rights. He followed up throughout the campaign and his two-term presidency with allusions to, for example, a “welfare queen in Chicago” (note, not Butte, Montana or Smelterville, Idaho but Chicago – dog whistle) driving a Cadillac. He voiced disdain at a “strapping young buck” using federal food stamps for steaks and buying the ingredients for cocktails. He scoffed at programs that allowed urban “slum dwellers” to lounge about in posh apartments paid for by Section 8. These false and skewed scenarios of welfare queens, bucks (a term for a young, enslaved black men) and slum dwellers eating and living well off the federal dole were masterfully designed to continue to fuel the resentment of working class whites who, in the midst of yet another recession and continued deindustrialization, saw their hold on the economic and racial hierarchy ladder slipping. George H.W. Bush’s “Willie Horton” ad, devised by Lee Atwater, was vintage racism trawling under the banner of “tough on crime.” To be clear, Democrats hopped on this bandwagon, too. Bill Clinton’s, “don’t forget I’m tough on crime,” grandstanding break from the campaign trail to preside over the execution of a mentally ill black man, his lambasting of Sister Souljah, and his ruinous workfare bill were all nods to the Southern Strategy.

In chapter 3, you describe the effect of Jim Crow laws on schools. Is there an aspect to this that you think most educated readers don’t understand — or that you didn’t understand before undertaking your research?

I think that most people have compartmentalized the story – unequal schools; Massive Resistance; Brown – but it’s like having hold of only one piece of the elephant, which has allowed a false or incomplete narrative of Brown to dominate our understanding of failed schools. The story goes: The Supreme Court’s decision was instrumental in breaking Jim Crow, Eisenhower sent in the National Guard to Little Rock. Then we somehow get to busing in Boston almost two decades later but by then the urgency has really passed. So we begin to debate why a court would make children go all the way across town when there are neighborhood schools near their homes? Then we easily explain that whatever achievement gaps and ongoing disparities exist are the result of “a culture of poverty,” of black children balking at education for fear of “acting white,” of black parents not really caring about education, and of a lack of accountability for public school teachers and systems. The shift from structural to individual failings is brilliant – in an Ernst Stavros Blofeld Spectre mad scientist kind of way.

That’s why in White Rage I mapped out the legislative and legal maneuverings to illustrate how entrenched resistance was to black children getting an education. The first point was to understand that Plessy was never implemented. The schools were separate but never equal. In 1941 the federal government had determined that it would take $1.2 trillion (in 2014 dollars) to bring schools designated for black children up to the quality readily provided for white students. The South worked hard to maintain that disparity especially in the face of Brown’s challenge. (The North was just as determined but much subtler.) The methods Southern governments deployed were systematic and methodical. They tightened voting restrictions so that the black population would have even less say in selecting public officials, who could rig and gut the school system. They reworked funding schemes to shut down public schools and siphon tax dollars into all-white private academies to ensure that white children continued to receive an education while nothing would be available for African Americans. They banned and harassed the NAACP through bogus tax liens and barratry laws. They used legislative apportionment to over-represent rural, white supremacist districts in state legislatures. Governors and state lawmakers knowingly passed one unconstitutional law after the next to drag black plaintiffs through multiple rounds of litigation and appeals to slow down implementation of Brown until, a decade later, the schools remained almost completely racially segregated and still decidedly unequal. The strategy of defy and delay worked brilliantly. Indeed, after 15 years of foot dragging, stonewalling, obstruction, and resistance the composition of the Court had finally changed and led to two key decisions that would essentially gut Brown.

What one of those cases indicates is that, regardless of the myth, low-income minority parents’ property taxes were at the highest rate imaginable yet they still could not generate enough revenue to fund adequately their school districts. The property was just so devalued, due in large measure to racism and public policy that put or denied certain businesses and facilities in that neighborhood. Meanwhile, wealthier and generally virtually all-white districts taxed their property at a significantly (close to half) lower rate and still generated 975 percent more per student. The issue for minorities, therefore, was not commitment. The issue was not willingness to fund their children’s education. The issue was that a series of public policy decisions lowered the property value in poor neighborhoods and made financing education extremely difficult.

While perseverating on high-stakes testing and making public schools compete, we don’t understand that this deliberate discriminatory funding model is the legacy and the reality that our K-12 system faces.

Do you think affirmative action is still needed, or is it "out-dated" as Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts claims?

All of the studies on implicit bias and the demographic composition of corporate leadership, university faculty, etc. suggests that the only thing “out-dated” is the way that African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans, and women are consistently crammed up against artificial ceilings and barriers based on pre-conceived notions about their intelligence, abilities, and qualifications. Studies have demonstrated, for example, that even when all credentials are equal, if one of the applicants has a racially identifiable name, e.g., Jamal, he has to submit twice as many resumes as a white candidate. Another study shows that a white man with a college degree AND a felony conviction has a much better chance of getting a job than a black man with a college degree and no prison record.

Yet, one of the great myths woven into post-Civil Rights policy is that this is an equal opportunity society and any efforts to address structural racism are misplaced and reverse racism.

The insistence that racism is some ancient artifact also drove Roberts’s opinion in Shelby County v. Holder, the decision that eviscerated the Voting Rights Act. The slew of voter suppression laws that have targeted African Americans with “surgical precision,” ever since puts the lie to his assertion.

In chapter 4 you argue that in 1968 the GOP attempted to paint African Americans as the problem facing American society and the law-and-order Nixon as the cure. Was this the first time a presidential candidate tried this approach? 

Blacks have been politically scapegoated well before 1968. Indeed, in Souls of Black Folks, W.E.B. Du Bois asked in 1903, “how does it feel to be a problem? The Negro problem.”

Shortly before his inauguration, James Buchanan worked out an arrangement with Chief Justice Roger B. Taney on the Dred Scott (1857) decision. The incoming president was certain, by denying blacks had any rights whatsoever, that that erasure would keep the United States from ripping apart over the issue of slavery.

The Compromise of 1877, which ended Reconstruction, defined the protection of African Americans and their rights as the source of ongoing friction years after the Civil War.

The rise of Jim Crow in the 1890s was all about defining African Americans’ right to vote as destabilizing the South, sullying the electoral process, and pitting whites against whites. Disfranchisement would make America whole again.

Woodrow Wilson segregated DC and endorsed the pro-Klan film, Birth of a Nation, which asserted that “black rule” during Reconstruction had wreaked havoc in the South.

That sentiment was also carried through in local and state elections that broke apart the Farmers’ Alliance, fueled the campaign of Tom Watson, and helped set off the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906. Theodore Bilbo, Cotton “Ed” Smith, and Eugene Talmadge all made their political careers demanding that the only way white America could be protected was to cordon off blacks from political and economic resources and power.

Strom Thurmond became the presidential nominee of the Dixiecrats.

Eisenhower was infinitely subtler but his embrace of states’ rights, with Brown looming overhead, led four states of the Solid Democratic South to vote Republican in the 1952 election!

Nineteen sixty-eight is not sui generis. What makes it different was the use of dog whistles to pretend the nation was moving to a colorblind society. All the while it was winking at, embracing, and playing to aggrieved whites who resented, as early as 1966, the pace of civil rights and African Americans’ citizenship.

Has Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016 reminded you of Nixon’s?

Not quite. Trump is Nixon without any of the finesse. Trump is actually more like George Wallace but not nearly as nuanced.

Trump stands out because he has taken the dog whistles away.

Recently, a new website was created to allow white people to give "reparations" directly to African Americans. Do you think this is a useful approach?  Do you think blacks are owed reparations?

Not sure what website you’re referring to. I saw the one where a young black man – I think it was a GoFundMe site – said that if whites wanted him to leave the United States, then they needed to finance his emigration. While supposedly catchy, innovative, and avant garde, whites paying to uproot and colonize African Americans somewhere else is not new. There’s the American Colonization Society that moved U.S. blacks to Liberia; there’s Lincoln’s attempt to deport four million freed people (only managed a handful after the barbarity and costs became apparent) to Panama; and then there’s Bilbo’s multiple “Back-to-Africa” bills before Congress. Not new.

Reparations, while also not new for the United States – it paid for the internment of the Japanese, as well as and indemnity for Italian sailors who were lynched in Louisiana, for example – is unheard of for African Americans. Even in cases where the perpetrator is clearly defined, the plaintiff identified, and the crime more than apparent, like Tulsa, the response is legalistic and negative.

Operationally and philosophically reparations require three things. 1) An acknowledgement of wrongdoing; 2) closure; and 3) compensation. America is not even on the first rung toward reparations – acknowledgement. When Michelle Obama asserted that her daughters wake up in a home built by slaves, the pundits and blogosphere went ballistic. Irish built the White House some claimed. Bill O’Reilly simply asserted that yes, slaves did build the White House but they were well-fed and had decent lodgings. No acknowledgement.

It took the slaughter during Bible study of nine African Americans, who were the epitome of respectability, by an openly white supremacist killer, coupled with their families forgiving him, to get South Carolina to take down “with dignity” the Confederate Flag flying over the statehouse. And still, universities, legislatures, and cities are layered with memorials to the Confederate States of America. Those who fought to maintain slavery are honored with their names on colleges. Texas has a Confederate Memorial Day.

We are not on the first rung.

So does the United States need to address the up to $24 trillion in unpaid labor, lost wealth, etc. that African Americans have endured. Yes.

Does the current state of race relations leave you optimistic or pessimistic? 

Oddly enough, optimistic. There is a fighting spirit in this nation. A coalition of African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans and whites refuse to accept racism as the operating principle in the United States. As I described in White Rage, there are those who imagine a nation where quality schools are not governed by zip code, where American citizens’ votes are not fettered by racial and political chicanery, and where the criminal justice system actually is about justice. That fight is essential. It says that there are people who are willing to protest, write, speak, publish, march, demonstrate, knock on doors, and vote. That is the fight that delegitimized chattel slavery; it is the fight that led to the destruction of Jim Crow; and it is the fight that will to ensure that we defuse the power of white rage.

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