Released before “economic anxiety” and the “politics of resentment” defined our narrative about the outcome of that November’s election, the thesis of Carol Anderson’s 2016 “White Rage” comes early in the prologue titled “Kindling”:
“What was really at work here was white rage. With so much attention focused on the flames, everyone had ignored the logs, the kindling. In some ways, it is easy to see why. 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. Too 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.” (p. 3)
“The trigger for white rage, inevitably”, writes Anderson, “is black advancement”, and Anderson follows both black advancement and white rage through the most explosive periods in America’s racial history, which the reader comes to understand through the brutal clarity and consistent facts of the historical narrative to be the story of an entitled white supremacy:
- The outright violence in the form of mass murder, lynching, and the “crypto-slavery” of the Black Codes, granted authority through the Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which characterized Reconstruction in the period following the Civil War as white America resisted the citizenship rights and equal protections provided to African Americans in the 14th amendment.
- The law continuously wielded as a weapon of white supremacy against African American bodies which enforced every aspect of geographical, social, economic, and cultural segregation and the mass obliteration of constitutional protections in response to the Great Migration of the post-WW1 period.
- The decline of overall American educational attainment as collective punishment following the opportunity for historical course-correction provided by Brown v. Brown, for which white America instead blamed “black parents…for the interruption of their children’s education, since blacks had chosen integration over education” and portrayed “the federal courts and the NAACP as the aggressors.” (p. 87).
- The “rollback” of Civil Rights-era gains throughout the 1970s and 80s as the Burger and Rehnquist Courts delivered rulings directly challenging the mandates of Brown and the Voting Rights Act, brought “reverse discrimination” into the national conversation about race, while Nixon and Reagan presided successfully over a Southern Strategy to broaden their political appeal to working-class Northern whites to secure a political majority while giving plausible deniability to white supremacist policies and a new War on Drugs, as Anderson quotes Nixon Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, “[Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognized this while not appearing to.” (p. 104).
- The othering of America’s first black president as a “Muslim, black nationalist, socialist, foreign, Arab, Kenyan, un-American immigrant monstrosity” (p. 156) in the wake of the 2008 election and later the mainstreaming of organized hate groups who had otherwise operated at the fringes of society. Accompanying this othering was a fraudulent state-level legislative purging of voter rolls and mass disenfranchisement as protection against supposed “voter fraud” (or alternatively, the demographic transformation of political coalitions) which culminated in the 2013 death blow to the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder. In this same period Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Rekia Boyd, and Eric Garner became headlines and household names as victims of unpunished police violence (which led white America to conclude that “All Lives Matter”). And in June 2015, a 21-year old white man radicalized by resurgent and emboldened online hate groups hoped to start a race war when he entered the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and murdered nine black worshipers. (Incidentally, the suspect, boasting a Confederate States of America license plate on his car, was arrested without violence. Police later bought him Burger King and described him as “quiet”, “calm”, and “not problematic”.)
So why, as educators, should we particularly care about this history lesson, why should we care about “White Rage”?
What Anderson makes so apparent in her narrative is our inheritance of America’s supposed racial “past” is really our present mythologized through the lens of national progress as a form of self-preservation — white self-preservation — to erase our contemporary connections even to recent history:
“Confronted with civil rights headlines depicting unflattering portrayals of KKK rallies and jackbooted sheriffs, white authority transformed those damning images of white supremacy into the sole definition of racism. This simple but wickedly brilliant conceptual and linguistic shift served multiple purposes. First and foremost, it was conscience soothing. The whittling down of racism to sheet-wearing goons allowed a cloud of racial innocence to cover many whites who, although ‘resentful of black progress’ and determined to ensure that racial inequality remained untouched, could see and project themselves as the ‘kind of upstanding white citizen[s]’ who were ‘positively outraged at the tactics of the Ku Klux Klan.’ The focus on the Klan also helped to designate racism as an individual aberration rather than something systemic, institutional, and pervasive. Moreover, isolating racism to only its most virulent and visible form allowed respectable politicians and judges to push for policies that ostensibly met the standard of America’s new civil rights norms while at the same time crafting the implementation of policies to undermine and destabilize these norms, all too often leaving black communities ravaged.” (p. 100–101) (bold mine)
This is the historical and contemporary context in which our communities, and the laws and means of policing them, exist; the ecosystem out of which our school systems, policies, and curriculum are staffed, developed, and implemented; and of course the everyday environment in which our students, their families, and we ourselves live, work, learn, and teach. What and how we teach are not and cannot be separated from this context and the past events that inform it, neither in the way that it shapes our environment nor our perception of our place and our role in and apart from it; however, in understanding and recognizing our connection to this not-past, we can be prepared to call-out and resist the shifting language of white supremacy in our systems and institutions whose contemporary manifestations continue to haunt us through:
- Inadequate and inequitable school funding formulas which ultimately drive inadequate and inequitable educational outcomes.
- De facto segregation of America’s public schools.
- Voucher schemes and so-called “school choice” legislation that seek to funnel public money into private institutions where there is fertile ground for discrimination.
- “Zero tolerance” and discriminatory disciplinary policies that isolate, suspend, and expel students of color at a higher rate than white students.
- Ability-grouping, tracking and limiting curriculum opportunities for students with low test scores, low grades, inconsistent attendance and absenteeism, etc.
- The consequences of white rage manifested as economic and social impoverishment for entire regions of the country: “The states of the Deep South, which fought Brown tooth and nail, today all fall in the bottom quartile of state rankings for educational attainment, per capita income, and quality of health.” (p. 96)
- A generational wealth gap, which prompted Ta-Nehesi Coates to remark that, “Perhaps no statistic better illustrates the enduring legacy of our country’s shameful history of treating black people as sub-citizens, sub-Americans, and sub-humans than the wealth gap.”
- A carceral state that boasts the highest prison population in the world and simultaneously imprisons five times as many black Americans as whites.
- The restriction and abridgment of voting rights in poor communities, which are traditionally and often deliberately communities of color, and limiting the restoration of voting rights for felons.
- Immigration policies that target marginalized and vulnerable communities and separate families and children from their parents and caretakers.
Reflecting on the national impact of Brown in the face of declared “massive resistance” from the Jim Crow South prompted Alabama congressman Carl Elliot to wonder aloud, “Whatever happens in America’s classrooms during the next fifty years will eventually happen to America.” (p. 91)
As we shift our understanding from racism and white supremacy as an “individual aberration” expressed through outright violence and open discrimination — viral videos of police shootings or Civil Rights-era images of dogs used against nonviolent protesters — to something “systemic, institutional, and pervasive” — say, that black students are three times more likely to be suspended from school than white students — , it is so vitally important for us as teachers to understand our individual and collective complicity, how our supposed “colorblindness” fails us and the children we teach, as well as our individual and collective power to resist these structures in our classrooms.
In their 2017 article, The “New Racism” of K-12 Schools: Centering Critical Research on Racism, Kohli, Pizarro, and Nevárez summarize their analysis of over 4,000 articles focused on racial inequity in education research as they relate to the structural analysis of racial oppression in schools. They describe “colorblind ideology” as a form of racism that “erases the contemporary, lived, and systemic oppression of communities of Color” and argue that silence “maintains and legitimates racism” and constructs hostile environments for students of color:
Another prominent theme to emerge from the literature was the manifestation of colorblind racism in schools. Despite attempts to equate colorblindness to equity, qualitative and conceptual studies demonstrate how silence around race maintains and legitimates racism, thus constructing hostile racial climates for students of Color (Castagno, 2008; Chapman, 2013; Love, 2014) and teachers of Color (Amos, 2016; Kohli, 2016; Souto-Manning & Cheruvu, 2016). Steeped in deficit thinking, colorblindness reduces any visible racism to the actions of a few ignorant individuals (Hardie & Tyson, 2013). This allows systemic mechanisms of racism (e.g., tracking, curriculum, student surveillance) to be ignored as explanations for racial inequality and replaced by individual-based rationales (i.e., students of Color are lazy, behaviorally challenged, intellectually deficient; Donna Y. Ford, 2014; Rozansky-Lloyd, 2005; Tarca, 2005). (Kohli et al.: The “New Racism” of K–12 Schools, 2017, p. 189)
While teachers and schools who see themselves as well-intentioned might view “colorblindness” as expressing a safe neutrality, it is a snake-oil salve whose true intent is to prevent us from seeing and addressing the way that systems center and privilege a particular type of identity, often specifically white but also blended with other narratives about race, gender, and class. A more inclusive and equitable — a more humane classroom — is the opposite of “colorblind”. Inclusive, equitable practice works consciously to see these barriers to success and attempts to remove them at the level most in our control: the classroom.
The authors (Kohli et al.) discern the “importance of racial literacy for both students and teachers, shifting their understanding from an individualized to an institutional analysis of racism”. In their analysis from the section titled “Confronting Racism”, the authors identify components in teacher practice from the literature that support the shift to inclusive practice:
- Teacher ability to understand and discuss racism. Teachers with high racial literacy supported students’ recognition of institutionalized racism (Kohli et al., p. 194).
- Racial literacy and anti-racist pedagogy improve student ability to process and confront racism (ibid).
- Critical pedagogy is specifically identified as “a prominent mechanism for developing students’ ability to navigate and deflect racism” (ibid).
These practices that facilitate students’ ability to navigate and process racism also contribute to positive racial identity and positive self-concept which correlate positively with academic achievement (ibid).
“We can’t take on the world’s challenges without first acknowledging the structural boogeymen that live in our own classrooms. This work is not easy, but it is necessary.” (Minor, We Got This, p. 37)
In his book, We Got This: Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be (2019), educator Cornelius Minor provides a template to help us inventory the ways in which we can work to identify and resist oppressive narratives and structures in our classrooms and work to make our schools more equitable from the inside-out: “They are not just character traits. Racism, sexism, ableism, and classism are systems. They are the rules, policies, procedures, practices, and customs that govern a place and lead to consistently unequal outcomes for specific subsets of people.” (We Got This, p. 31)
Which groups in your classroom or school consistently benefit more or less from the way things are? How can you change your classroom or the way your system does school so that the groups who benefit less from the way things are have more opportunities to succeed?
Minor challenges teachers to make a list of the kids that we worry about and sort them into groups, identifying similar characteristics and trends of each group. As Minor prompts in the text, “Depending on where you work, you will notice that your groups may even have a specific ability, class, gender, or race dynamic…Do not ignore this…we cannot ignore the reality that for many, school does not work because its mechanisms do not take into account the aspects of their identity that are not white, male, middle-class, or able-bodied” (We Got This, p. 37). He then asks teachers to identify the things students have to do to be successful in class, describe classroom or teacher factors that might be getting in the way of their success, and finally list actions or strategies you can do to remove the barriers of success for each group of students (We Got This, p. 39–40)
As Minor reminds us, it is a choice to engage in this work, but understanding our long history of “white rage”, its place at the center of our immediate context, and the cost of “colorblindness” for every student but especially for students of color, maintaining systems of oppression is a choice, too:
“The hard part of knowing that oppression lives in systems too is understanding that systems don’t change just because we identify them; they change because we disrupt them. This is a choice. Change is intentional. Allowing the system to run as it always has it also a choice — one that denies many students access to the opportunities that we have pledged our careers to creating.” (We Got This, p. 31)