In 2016, Carol Anderson shocked readers with her book White Rage which revealed the insidious and often hidden racism underlying laws and institutions in the United States. Here, she and Tonya Bolden have adapted the book for a young adult audience. The well-written and engaging book begins in the aftermath of the Civil War and continues through the Obama Presidency and traces the lost opportunities for providing equality to all. Over and over again, the United States reaches a fulcrum, a moment in history, where inequities could be redressed: the Civil War, Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Era, the Obama Presidency. Rather than use those watershed moments to boldly and justly address past wrongs, the government, supported by a large swath of white citizens, undermines the gains to maintain the status quo of white supremacy.
For example, instead of holding Civil War rebels to account, the federal government under Lincoln and Johnson prioritized reunification. Oppressive Black Codes went unchallenged by the federal government. Johnson in particular stymied efforts of Congress to redress the evils from centuries of slavery. Though Congress overturned his vetoes of legislation of the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill and the Civil Rights Bill in 1866, Johnson’s pardon of Southern rebels meant that their elected representatives were leaders from the Confederacy. Poll taxes and unfavorable decisions by the Supreme Court undermined efforts to provide rights to blacks.
After reading this book, I feel completely and utterly gutted and outraged at the lack of justice and compassion reflected in the actions of the country’s leaders, lawmakers, and many citizens. Although there was a time that new racism was disguised by an ideology supporting color-blindness, under Trump, spewing hate based on race has become acceptable once more.
I learned so much. While I knew that Southern states were resistant to the Brown decision, I didn’t realize the lengths to which they went to prevent integration. Several students were without education for years while local and state governments delayed implementation. Though I was aware of the challenges to voting rights through voter ID laws, many of the specific examples presented here were new to me.
Sadly, I became disillusioned with Presidents Lincoln and Eisenhower, Lincoln for failing to name slavery as the cause of the Civil War and Eisenhower for failing to use the power of his office to enact the Brown decision. Nixon and Reagan’s racist policies disguised as tough-on-crime stances were not surprising. I also didn’t know the extent of the Supreme Court’s role in undermining progress. With some exceptions, like Brown, their rulings weakened protections of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, undercut the Voting Rights Act, and rang a death knell for affirmative action.
I regret not reading White Rage before We Are Not Yet Equal because I can’t compare them. I can attest that the latter is an important stepping-stone to dialogue on ways to halt this chain of oppression. Although written for a young adult audience (and seems appropriate for such an audience in terms of content and language), adults will find it enlightening as well. The material presented in the book is important and necessary.
Although I have few criticisms of the book, I did find the chapter on the Voting Rights Act more technical and less engaging than the other chapters, though the information was important. I thought the weakest chapter was on Obama’s administration. Though it related the rancor and disrespect Obama faced, it seemed to be less grounded in research than the rest of the book. Perhaps my biggest complaint though is that there is no guidance on where to go from here. The author ends with hope that knowing about white rage can lead to a challenge of its racist consequences, but offers nothing beyond that. Maybe it will be the subject of her next book–and I would definitely read it!
Thank you to Netgalley and Bloomsbury Publishing, Inc. for an advance reader’s copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.