Carol Anderson’s White Rage ought not to exist: it’s a straightforward, brisk telling that would serve little purpose if Americans were better informed about their history. That is, of course, the point. Anderson traces the repeated push and pull of black advancement and the white response that sought to defeat it, from Reconstruction through Jim Crow, mass incarceration, and the dismantling of the Voting Rights Act. The book’s power lies in it’s efficiency: Anderson wastes no space in connecting each step forward with the fierce and violent step back. As useful for understanding the past as for planning the days ahead.
In an essay titled, “Know Your Whites,” Tressie McMillan Cottom writes about her initial skepticism that Obama could win (tempered when she attended a fundraising house party hosted by enthusasitic white people), and—later—her confidence that Trump would, of course, prevail. Between these moments, she makes a very important connection:
The Obama-Trump dialectic is not progress-backlash but do-si-do; one dance, the same steps, mirroring each other, and each existing only in tandem.McMillan Cottom, Thick, page 112
There are echoes here of Carol Anderson’s excellent White Rage, but McMillan Cottom’s “dance” metaphor feels like an especially useful framing. She continues:
[I] have come to believe that it did not matter that Obama had faith in white people. They needed only to have faith in him: in his willingness to reflect their ideal selves back at them, to change the world without changing them, to change blackness for them without being black to them.McMillan Cottom, Thick, page 114
McMillan Cottom doesn’t use the word ego here, but it seems close by: Obama made white people feel good about themselves, exactly as they were.
Building outward from this, she adds:
Political theorist Corey Robin understands the history of the conservative right in the United States as a search for a fight, because the act of being conservative necessitates an undesirable progress against which it can rebel. In a sort of manifestation politics, the “right” co-creates or at least abets social progress against which it can be juxtaposed. Staid conservatism is far from seeking stasis. It is provoking and reactive because without progress there is no reason to prefer the lack of progress. Similarly, what is a white republic for white citizens in defense of white property if there is not a dark threat? To the extent that white racial identity matters at all to how white voters vote, white Obama voters and white Trump voters are not necessarily expressing different views of whiteness. They are expressing the same one, each necessary for the other and both required for white identity politics to exist at all.McMillan Cottom, Thick, page 125
The question we have to answer, then, is: what does progress look like without whiteness? Without this endless, violent dance?