A Whiter Shade of Hate

White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide BY Carol Anderson. Bloomsbury. . $26.

After the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, online activists produced a jarring Internet meme, juxtaposing photos of the Islamic State’s atrocities with historical images of those of the Ku Klux Klan. However strained this connection may be, its visual impact is undeniably arresting. On the KKK half of the screen, one sees the familiar, terrifying image of hooded Klansmen, crosses hoisted as they marshal together and ride, every bit as inhuman as the balaclava-clad Islamists we’ve grown accustomed to fearing in our own age of ethno-religious and racial confrontation.

But much more chilling, at least to me, are the pictures from this meme that widen the domestic frame of reference to capture the everyday social background that lay behind, and empowered, the Klan attacks in the first place. Here we see masses of ordinary white townsfolk, mostly southern Christian men and older boys but plenty of women and small children, too. These people are not only failing to register awareness of the extremist group in their midst; they’re in a mood of self-satisfied civic repose. In fact, many are smiling and even laughing, gleefully posing in front of African American bodies that have been charred and mutilated to the verge of abstraction. The most unnerving thing about these images is their matter-of-fact atmosphere—the way they show that white society had normalized these outbursts of collective, murderous rage.

I thought about these memes often as I made my way through Carol Anderson’s powerful new book, White Rage. Anderson, a professor of African American studies at Emory University, first sketched out her argument in a 2014 op-ed in the Washington Post maintaining that the focus on “black rage” in the aftermath of rioting in Ferguson over the police killing of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was a distraction. Early on in the book, she depicts a scene of orgiastic and appalling white-mob violence. In May 1918, after a black prisoner leased out in debt peonage shot and killed a particularly vicious Georgia planter, a white lynch mob embarked on a five-day rampage that left at least eleven black men and women dead. When Mary Turner, the young widow of one of the deceased, threatened to have members of the mob arrested, they came for her next.

They dragged Mary to a tree, stripped her, tied her ankles together, and strung her upside down. The men ran to their cars, brought back gasoline, and began “to roast her alive.” Then they saw her naked, eight-month-pregnant stomach convulsing. That only sent the mob . . . into a deeper frenzy, as one man took out his knife and sliced away at her charred flesh until the baby, now ripped out of the womb, fell to the ground and gave two cries. Someone in the lynch party then stepped forward and smashed the child’s head into the red Georgia dirt with the heel of his boot.

Such ISIS-worthy savagery, Anderson argues, is only the most shocking manifestation of an otherwise hidden constellation of social and political forces that have visited more casual and everyday forms of destruction on black lives in America. In fact, “white rage is not about visible violence,” she writes, “but rather it works its way through the courts, the legislatures, and a range of government bureaucracies.” Its more characteristic and mundane expression is a righteous and ambient sense of ownership (even, in some cases, an imaginary divine mandate) that rationalizes a visceral contempt for blacks and, to varying degrees, for other nonwhite immigrants and citizens. Perhaps nothing conveys the power of white-supremacist rule more chillingly than the system of leased-convict labor that led to the attack on the aforementioned Georgia planter in the first place: Black freedmen and their descendants in the postbellum South were at once forced to show proof of employment—often on the very same plantations they had previously worked as slaves—and forbidden to move freely in search of better opportunities elsewhere. If they attempted to escape exploitative conditions, they would be imprisoned on trumped-up vagrancy charges and leased back—again, to the very sameplantations they had been trying to flee—until their bail was repaid. This was simply the order of things in the former slave South: “Murder, rape, and robbery, in this Kafkaesque world, were not seen as crimes at all so long as whites were the perpetrators and blacks the victims,” Anderson writes.

Persecuted minorities in this sort of mortal peril understand that, barring a revolutionary seizure of power, their only real recourse is to appeal to the rule of law. But blacks in the post-Reconstruction South were out of luck there, too. “Suffrage was a glaring, fatal omission in [Lincoln’s] vision for Reconstruction,” Anderson writes, though it was anything but an innocent oversight. “I am not,” Lincoln famously said, “nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.”

Like a meticulous prosecutor assembling her case, Anderson lays out a profoundly upsetting vision of an America driven to waves of reactionary white anger whenever it’s confronted with black achievement. She organizes her brief into five swift sections—advancing chronologically from the Civil War through Reconstruction and Jim Crow to the civil-rights era and into the age of Obama, which saw the first black president of the United States sassed publicly by a southern white junior House member while addressing a joint session of Congress. “It is not the mere presence of black people that is the problem” for rageful white Americans, Anderson argues. “Rather, it is blackness with ambition, with drive, with purpose, with aspirations, and with demands for full and equal citizenship. It is blackness that refuses to accept subjugation, to give up.”

Anderson argues persuasively that we should tally the brutal record of white supremacy in its unvarnished totality, and she shows its persistence into present-day racial conflict. To take just one salient example, she highlights the surprisingly resilient Council of Conservative Citizens—an outgrowth of the civil-rights-era White Citizens’ Council whose “core values center on a Christianity that justifies slavery, embraces racially homogeneous societies, and emphasizes blacks as a ‘retrograde species of humanity.’” The CCC remains appallingly influential in the Republican Party, and allegedly inspired the mass murderer Dylann Roof, who killed eight worshippers and their minister at an African American church in Charleston, South Carolina, last summer.

However, Anderson is less compelling, and indeed less interested, when it comes to offering a vision of where we may be headed. The perennial challenge of realizing the country’s loftiest pluralistic ideals looks forbidding when the demagoguery of Donald Trump currently commands so much attention. But there remains much to be cautiously hopeful about, particularly the growing awareness of, and reforms to, racist law-enforcement practices and broader inequalities of education, income, and housing brought about by the Black Lives Matter movement and by many citizens on social media and in other public forums. Perhaps, then, ours is a time in which the sad fate of Michael Brown—and the understandable if amorphous rage that swept the nation in the wake of his death—is not the surest measure of what is to come.

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Another book may help complete the picture. In The End of White Christian America, Robert P. Jones, founding CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute and a contributor to The Atlantic, delivers a detailed composite portrait of the people who have, across many generations, put the “white” in Anderson’s“white rage.” Jones defines “White Christian America” as related to but broader than the traditional category of WASP (“White Anglo-Saxon Protestant”). “Like WASP, White Christian America traces its roots to northern Europe, and its religious character is historically Protestant,” he writes. But the category transcends northern mainline Protestantism to also include southern evangelical denominations. “White Christian America,” that majoritarian portion of the country able to claim the mantle of the “mainstream,”writes Jones, himself the descendant of an old Georgia Protestant family, “is a more inclusive and neutral term than WASP, describing the view as it appears from within.” Since the Civil War, the two central branches of Christian worship in America—northern mainliners and southern evangelicals—have been marked by significant differences in social class and attitudes toward race relations, to say nothing of their disparate “accommodations to the modern world and science.” Up until very recently, White Christian America also shunned even loose ecumenical alliances with denominations and churches on its demographic fringe, such as Mormons (whom they regarded as a degenerate sect) and Catholics (whom, in the tradition of Martin Luther, they equated with the Antichrist).

This dominant northern version of white mainline Protestantism peaked in the 1950s and has been declining drastically ever since, as measured both in raw numbers and cultural influence. It’s only been over the past decade, meanwhile, that the ascendancy of the historically southern evangelical wing has begun to wane. As Jones observes, this development has left many white Christian Americans feeling “profoundly anxious,” to say the least. One key reflection of this fading influence has been the nation’s rapid about-face on the issue of same-sex marriage, a culture-war debacle for the religious right that Jones devotes a significant chunk of the book to examining.

The key question, Jones argues, is not why this or that wing of white Protestant worship is faring worse; it is, instead, why Protestantism itself, “arguably the most powerful cultural force in the history of our country—has faded.” Inevitably, this is a story not just of theology or culture but of race and dramatic shifts in the makeup of the US population. “The intensely negative reactions to [Barack Obama’s] presidency among some whites—in particular, a series of challenges to the authenticity of his citizenship and his faith—were certainly fueled by the fact that he does not come from the world of White Christian America,” Jones writes with rather epic understatement.

But perhaps an even more impressive indicator of Protestantism’s incredible decline is the faith’s loosened grip on the key institutions of American power—the historic stronghold of the Protestant establishment. The legal world showcases this shift most dramatically, Jones argues: “As of 2010—with the retirement of John Paul Stevens, a Protestant, and the . . . confirmation of Elena Kagan, a Jew—for the first time in its history, the U.S. Supreme Court has no Protestant justices.”

This institutional shake-up is but the reflection, in public life, of deeper, more enduring demographic changes that will permanently alter our national self-image. The US Census Bureau predicts that by 2042, the United States will no longer be a majority-white nation—and that by 2060, the white population will begin to decline, for the first time in American history. Meanwhile, the mixed-race community will nearly triple in number and Hispanics and Asians more than double. “No other country has experienced such rapid racial and ethnic change,” Jones concludes, quoting Mark Mather of the Population Reference Bureau, and it’s here that, without succumbing to a Panglossian brand of demographic determinism, we can discern some sound reasons to believe we might start, at last, to reverse the baleful historical legacy of white rage chronicled in Anderson’s book.

To be sure, a fading majority can still wield destructive power. As Anderson points out, this same non-Protestant Supreme Court has proved capable of gutting the central provisions of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. But there are nevertheless discernible and profound political consequences to the end of White Christian America. “For the first time in more than five decades,” Jones writes, “an appeal to a sentimental”—and in many instances flatly racist—“vision of midcentury heartland America is not a winning political strategy”: It died with Mitt Romney’s failed presidential run in 2012. The same attributes that have effectively secured Donald Trump’s nomination atop the Republican presidential ticket will all but doom Trump’s prospects in the general election. What Jones dubs the “White Christian Strategy,” a refinement of the infamous “southern strategy” implemented by Republicans in the 1960s to capitalize on widespread anti-civil-rights resentment among traditionally Democratic white voting blocs, lingers on today mainly via the faux-libertarian, white-victim sensibility of the Tea Party insurgency. And while that movement continues to inveigh against “shifting social norms, declining religious affiliation, changing demographics, and a struggling economy”—trends all embodied, in its view, by the bogeyman of a black president—Jones compellingly argues that this is not so much a political earthquake as a drawn-out aftershock. It is, he writes, a “late-stage expression of a White Christian America that is passing from the scene.”

For centuries, the forces that made up White Christian America composed the narrative the nation told itself about itself. Even in its finest moments, it tended to be a profoundly flawed and noninclusive story—as Lincoln’s full-throated repudiation of black equality grimly attests. Many Americans outside the once-charmed circle of white privilege have always known this, have always understood that, notwithstanding whatever good may have been accomplished under this dominant image of American racial and religious identity, White Christian America could be a force for genuine terror. The instigators of this terror—especially in the South, but far from exclusively so—had the luxury of systematically blocking their victims from any mode of political redress while garlanding the myth of their own divinely sanctioned virtue. But now, as Jones convincingly shows, the scaffolding beneath this mythmaking complex has irreparably crumbled. After all, today’s Klan-based social-media meme evokes a time that, while all too recognizable, is mercifully no longer our own.

Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of a memoir, Losing My Cool (Penguin Press, 2010). His next book will be a reckoning with how we define race in America.