Rage has, no doubt, been a powerful political force in U.S. history.
Dr. Carolyn Anderson demonstrates this fact most fully and compellingly in her book White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, in which she analytically chronicles how white racist rage has implicitly informed social policy throughout U.S. history to disable African Americans, preventing them from achieving self-sufficiency and participating in the capitalist economy by restricting their labor mobility, criminalizing them, and enacting legislation that hobbled their participation in the free market and in democracy.
At one point, discussing white racist laws enacted in the South post-emancipation, she explains the policies enacted by the white elite when they realized suddenly that their economy would collapse if African Americans, as historical conditions dictated, were to flee to the North in large numbers. So they devised laws with fines, penalties, and prison sentences to sustain legally a kind of enslavement, and certainly a disempowerment, of African Americans. These moves were informed by economic anxiety and interest, to be sure, but they were also informed by a racist rage, as Anderson writes,
The legalistic language about fines and prison sentences masked a barely contained fury at the dawning realization that blacks believed they could leave the South or rural areas for decent wages, functioning schools, and more freedom.
This “white rage” has, historically, hobbled the U.S. collectively, preventing the growth and development of all.
It arguably helped elect Donald Trump, though.
We have heard a lot about the white working-class anger, for example, Trump plays upon to feed his base, as he stokes resentment against immigrants, people of color, the liberal “elite,” and so on, while nonetheless advocating for lower wages and implementing or pursuing policies that actually eliminate jobs, increase poverty, threaten people’s access to affordable health care, clean water and air, and more.
The media makes this resentful anger palpable, bringing it front and center, probably too much as this coverage tends to caricature and demonize this “white working class” the media has created as a distinct identity.
We see much less coverage of workers and unions directing their ire in strategic ways at Trump; it just doesn’t play as well, and it might unsettle the class prejudices Americans don’t like to acknowledge or talk about but which nonetheless are dominant in the nation’s cultural mentality.
And we see much less coverage of the way this anger resides in a white elite, which would enable us to understand the anger in class terms and see how white elite anger gets projected onto this “white working class,” blinding us to the grotesque racist anger fueling white upper-class dominance.
And our culture tends to figure anger and its expression in negative ways. Just think about Bob Woodward’s paired studies of Trump, Fear and Rage, which analyze Trump’s own motivating fear and rage and also the way he manipulates the fear and rage of the populous for nefarious political ends. The portraits are not flattering but rather pejorative.
We tend to dismiss people who speak angrily, as though they are irrational:
“Well, that person’s just angry.”
“You need to calm down. Settle down.”
This kind of dismissal is especially true with women and people of color.
But while anger might be often dismissed, we have seen also that it can be harnessed with political effectiveness.
Is there a positive way to harness anger for political purposes?
I am an older white male (53 years-old), probably considered middle-class, and I’m really angry.
I wake up every morning angry. I don’t see much conversation about my kind of anger.
I notice that progressives tend to intellectualize and rationalize. At least I think we do.
I say this because I’ve become aware of my own tendencies to engage in political discourse through reason and argument, taking on issues with facts and evidence. I see this same tendency in the many news shows I watch on MSNBC. If we just talk about the truth enough, if we just keep showing how grotesque, self-serving, careless, and cruel Trump is, the tide will turn. The next outrageous revelation of something he has said or done will be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back and will push his supporters away from him.
I realized recently, though, that I haven’t talked much just about my anger. Maybe if I did, if we all shared our anger, it would communicate a sense of solidarity with, rather than a dismissal of, this angry white working class.
I notice that when I am angry, if someone else gives expression to a similar anger, I tend to calm. I can then communicate and participate in whatever is going on more effectively. It’s a kind of homeostasis, as well as a feeling of being heard and of not being alone. It’s a solidarity rooted in empathy.
Why do I wake up every morning angry?
Well, I see the death count from the COVID-19 virus mounting along with the numbers of new cases. I see millions facing economic distress. I see a culture that devalues human life, in ways most evident in the devaluation of Black lives represented in murder after unpunished murder of Black people by the police.
Closer to home, or rather in my home, I see my two sons leading an incredibly circumscribed life, dealing with a make-shift and uncertain school life that deprives them of meaningful sociality and activity crucial to their development and, most basically, to their ability to enjoy the good life. I see my spouse negotiating an overburdened state employment system.
And much of this devastation is absolutely avoidable.
Every day I see Trump trying to subvert democracy and harm people.
I’m angry. We all need to talk about our anger.
I’m a white person with a rage that’s not directed at immigrants, people of color, or LGBTQ people.
It is especially urgent white people in America process this anger Anderson writes about and that whites of all classes channel that anger at the proper targets.
It is this “white rage” that is a site of struggle, that needs to be processed, understood, and strategically directed.
What if we were able to take this rage, especially this “white rage,” and in expressing and processing it, identified its real source and cause, which isn’t people of color?
First, we need to express and acknowledge it, to share it in the spirit of solidarity, seeking to craft an alliance through this common anger at the faltering of our nation, its unfairness and inhumanity.
Let’s own rather than intellectualize our anger and try to harness its political power.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.