The authors discuss white anxiety and rage in the era of Trump.
Authors and Educators Carol Anderson and Tim Wise
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, a conversation about white anxiety and white rage in the era of Donald Trump. Our guests , Carol Anderson, professor and author of the National Book Critics Award winner, “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of our Racial Divide”, and Tim Wise, activist and author of “White Like Me: Reflections on Race From a Privileged Son” and ” Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority”.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation about white rage in America in just a moment.
[Walmart Sponsor Ad]
Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.
Tavis: Tonight a conversation about white rage, white anxiety in the era of Trump. I am pleased to be joined tonight by Tim Wise, activist and author of the seminal text, “White Like Me: Reflections on Race From a Privileged Son”. His latest text is titled “Under the Affluence: Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich and Sacrificing the Future of America”.
Also honored tonight to be joined by Carol Anderson, professor at Emory University, and author of the National Book Critics Award winner, “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide”. A delight to have you both on this program.
Tim Wise: Thank you.
Carol Anderson: Thank you so much for having us.
Tavis: Carol, let me start with you. What is the unspoken truth of our racial divide?
Anderson: The unspoken truth is that we right now in America live in a space that has a narrative of Black pathology. If only Black folks would value school, if only Black folks would vote. But if only Black folks wouldn’t do drugs.
But what I found in doing this research is that, in fact, African Americans have valued education, have voted, do drugs the least or about the equal amount, and the response has been white rage. The response has been when African Americans achieve, when African Americans succeed, when African Americans refuse to accept their subjugation.
A range of policies come forth to undermine and undercut that advancement. I track it from the end of the Civil War all the way through the election of Barack Obama.
Tavis: And the source of their anger, the source of their angst or rage is what?
Anderson: Black achievement, and Black refusal to accept a subordinate place in American society, African Americans demanding their citizenship rights, and that quest for full citizenship and then achieving that creates this incredible response coming out of the courts, coming out of the White House, coming out of Congress, coming out of school boards to find ways to, in fact, undermine and undercut that, to move African Americans back in their place.
Tavis: To those white folk who are watching right now — we’re on PBS, so there are a whole bunch of them watching right now [laugh] — by the way, I appreciate it. Thanks to viewers like you, I’m still here every night.
But to those white persons who are watching right now who say, “I don’t connect to what Carol just said, I don’t begrudge Black folk achievement. I watch Tavis every night. I voted for Barack Obama. I’m a season ticket holder to the team that ain’t got nothing but Negroes on the team and they ain’t even winning this season and I’m still going to the games, so I love Oprah Winfrey.” So when you say they are enraged about Black achievement, unpack that for me.
Anderson: So to unpack it, it’s to understand that this isn’t about all white folk, but this is about a large swath of white Americans who are then in positions of power and are encouraged by those in the larger society who find that rights and access to resources, they treat it like a zero sum game. So that you see, for instance, in the discussions about affirmative action, right?
In those discussions, it’s always cast as some unqualified minority taking my slot, taking our slot so that what you get in that construction is that, one, there are only so many slots and, two, that they are inherently mine. So when some interloper, some unqualified minority, gets into that position, then it has to be only at my expense.
So what you’re seeing and you see politicians working through this, you see a wide swath of media working through this, to treat this as just mine. So when African Americans, for instance, are coming to the table, then it can only be at white expense.
One of the reasons why the civil rights movement worked at the time that it worked is right at that moment America’s economy was expanding. You know, coming out of the Second World War, the U.S. accounted for 45% of all industrial goods made globally.
So in that expanse, it gave whites a kind of sense that it’s not always at my expense. I can still have my house in the burbs. I can still have my school. I can still have my job. But when you begin to see the constriction is in the mid-60s and on and this is when the American economy began to contract in ways that went right after like the manufacturing sector.
Tavis: To quote Sam and Dave, Tim, “Hold on, I’m coming. Hold on, I’m coming” [laugh]. I want to do just one quick follow-up here. What would you expect from white folk other than rage if their mean incomes had not increased for 30 or 40 years? And the numbers pretty much bear that out.
These angry white men, I don’t like the way they’re going about it. I don’t like the way they’re point the finger and I know you’re gonna say that. But their incomes have been stagnant or decreasing for decades now. Did you expect something other than rage from them?
Anderson: Okay. So let me put it at you this way.
Anderson: It’s the study that found that African Americans would have to wait 228 years to equal the wealth of whites, so where would rage really become a drum [laugh], okay? So this, again, is an issue of perspective.
And it’s also to say, coming out of the civil rights movement, when you have the Civil Rights Act of ’64 and the Voting Rights Act of ’65, the response of white rage was the war on drugs, which led to mass incarceration which led to gutting the Voting Rights Act for convicted felons and which also led to stripping away a lot of the rights in the Civil Rights Act.
The United States spent $1 trillion dollars on a failed war on drugs, so this isn’t about resources. This is about priorities, so the rage that is being turned toward African Americans for refusing to accept that subjugation is rage misplaced.
Tavis: Let me paraphrase Bill Clinton. This may even, Tim, be a direct quote. Bill Clinton said famously when he was president when he established his race commission, you’ll recall, with John Hope Franklin at the head of it.
I recall President Clinton saying that racism may be Black America’s burden, but it’s white America’s problem. Black America’s burden, but white America’s problem. We accept that it’s our burden, but when, where, how will ever white people accept that it’s their problem?
Wise: Well, I think that we don’t because whiteness hasn’t really been racialized the way that Blackness has. So white folks have the ability to believe ourselves un-raced. We view ourselves as the neutral sort of floor model of an American, and that’s part of what whiteness does. It creates a mentality of entitlement.
So to connect that to what Carol’s talking about, if you are raised generation after generation to not only expect that if you work hard and play by the rules, it’ll work out for you, which is something no person of color can take for granted or has ever been able to take for granted, but white folks could, particularly white men, particularly straight white men, white men, middle class and above could sort of assume that.
Even working class white guys could assume horizontal mobility, right? As in my daddy worked at the plant, I’m working at the plant, my son’s gonna work at the plant or the coal mine or whatever. So if you’re led to believe that you are entitled to the best of everything, that meritocracy is real at least for you, if not for those people, and then all of a sudden, you find yourself in a system that seems as though it has limits.
And where that entitlement is challenged, if I’ve had 90% of the good stuff and you tell me I’m gonna have to make do with 75, equality begins to feel like oppression because what whiteness does is it sets up a mentality of expectation that people of color have never had.
They’ve always known they’re gonna have to grind to get to that 7, 8, 9 or 10 on the scale. But for white folks, 7 was promised, right? And even if you started at a 4, by God, if you just worked hard, you’ll get to the 7.
And I think we have to understand white folks if we’re ever gonna get to that place that your question suggests, where white folks understand it’s our problem, we’re gonna have to understand what that mentality of white supremacy and expectationalism, if I can make up a word, which as a white person, I think I have the privilege. They let me do that [laugh]. They actually let me do that.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah [laugh].
Wise: I need to trademark. As a white person, I can make stuff up…
Tavis: And you pay for it, yeah, yeah.
Wise: That white expectationalism actually comes at a great cost for us. Part of the psychic trauma that white folks are experiencing when they see Black folks succeeding or they see Latin folks succeeding, the reason they think that you’re taking my job is because we’ve been led to believe that all of this is ours and you all are just here at our pleasure.
And I think that’s not a healthy place because then if my life doesn’t work out, if all of a sudden I’m struggling and I can’t pay the healthcare bill and I can’t pay for my kids’ college, I got two choices in this society.
One is the one that the society teaches me, which is it’s your own fault. Wherever you end up is all about you. But then that makes me feel inadequate and ashamed, so now I have to psychologically project my pain onto somebody else and say, well, it’s those people, it’s those Mexicans.
You know, it’s fascinating to me because I’ll get emails from young white folks like the young white folks that paraded in Charlottesville with the Tiki torches threatening people of color.
And they’ll say things like, you know, “I can’t get a job because all the jobs are going to Black folks and Mexicans.” Really? All the jobs are going to — where are these jobs? Are they in second life? Because they’re not out there on the streets, right? The unemployment rate is always double for Black and Brown folks relative to whites.
But they’ll say that and then they’ll turn around in the next breath and say, “Oh, and by the way, Black and Brown folks are all lazy and don’t want to work.” Okay, which is it? Because you can’t be both. If you took all the jobs, you’re the opposite of lazy. If you’re lazy, you didn’t take one job, let alone all the jobs.
But this is a psychosis that allows us to blame others as a way to not deal with the sense of inadequacy rather than saying we need to be getting together with Black and Brown folks to figure out why the economic system is rigged against millions of people. Mexicans didn’t tank Wall Street.
There are 37 people in this country that have the same amount of wealth as the bottom 50% of the country. That’s our problem, but whiteness says we’ve got to protect ours. This is our silo. This is our fiefdom, and they are the threat rather than other rich white folks. And that’s the divide and conquer stuff that’s been going on for hundreds of years.
Tavis: So there are at least, Tim, two issues on the table here. One is the issue of equality and the other is equity. Even if you believe in equality, I get the sense that people don’t care much about equity. That is to say, giving people who don’t have an opportunity to get in the game. So talk to me about the difference between equality and equity in the white world.
Wise: Right. Well, I mean, I think the way that white folks think about this has been for many, many years this sort of colorblind racism has been here where the idea is let’s just treat everyone. And you’ll hear nice white liberal people say it. I treat everyone the same, you know. So that’s equality. I treat everyone equally.
And that sounds very, I guess, very nice in the eyes of some. They believe that that makes them very progressive and openminded. But if I treat people who are facing unequal and differential experiences the same, then by definition I do an injustice to those who need more.
So if we say we’re going to fund all the schools with exactly the same money, but some folks also got their parents kicking in and they can have the big PTA where they got a lot of rich folks that can put more money in, then equality won’t suffice. But I think when you’re the dominant group, there’s a real incentive to say, oh, let’s just treat everyone equally because it’s some level we know.
If I’ve already got the head start — I mean, if I’m two laps up on you in a five-lap race and then you say we’re all gonna run by the same rules, but folks are two laps back, then equality will end with a two-lap head start and me crossing the tape first.
Equity is something we haven’t really ever embraced because we’re so wrapped up in that sense of being colorblind, not noticing, not talking about this stuff as a way to really preserve the head start that we have, but don’t want to acknowledge.
Tavis: It’s pretty clear, I think, Carol, to most people who are honest about this that Donald Trump didn’t create this mess, but certainly his presence on the ballot and in the White House has certainly exacerbated it. But just talk to me about white rage, specifically white anxiety, specifically in the era of Trump.
Anderson: So what Trump tapped into was what the Republicans began to stir and play with with the Southern Strategy in 1968. And that was to get at disaffected whites, both in the south and in the northern and Midwest areas particularly, to say, look, you know, they’re giving all of these things to these Black people, whereas you have to work hard for it.
It is that line again where whites work hard and Black folks are given and particularly given by the government, dependent upon the government. So they began to play with that in ’68 particularly. It’s called the Southern Strategy and Lee Atwater, who was Ronald Reagan’s chief strategist, laid it out beautifully.
He said, “In 1954, you could say the “N” word. It wouldn’t hurt you, but by ’68, it hurt you. It backfires. So then you begin to start talking about economic things like cutting taxes, like busing, and all of those economic things, he says. And the point is that Blacks get hurt worse than whites.”
Now in that language there, notice it’s not just that Blacks get hurt with these policies, but that they get hurt worse than whites. What that does then is it creates both a kind of racial fig leaf to cover the racism that’s underneath that policy. Because if whites are getting hurt, then you can’t say that this is racially discriminatory policy because you’ve got white folks who are taking the brunt of it too.
Now that also begins the churn. It begins that sense of I’ve worked hard all of my life and this is what I’ve got? I can’t pay my bills? And this is what Trump tapped into. He tapped into what the GOP has been churning for a long time.
Tavis: But at least Lee Atwater, though — I remember this well, Tim. At least Lee Atwater, his blues guitar playing self, was smart enough, to Carol’s point, to at least codify the language that they used.
Wise: Right, right.
Tavis: That’s not what’s happening now.
Wise: And there are two ways to interpret that, right? That you have what Ian Haney Lopez calls dog whistle politics, which is what Atwater was talking about. And for years, that was the strategy. That’s what Reagan does when he talks about welfare queens and Cadillacs. That’s what, you know, politicians did with Willy Horton. I mean, that’s what we’re used to.
The two ways of interpreting Trump and his way of doing is, number one, not being a politician. He didn’t get the memo that you’re supposed to cover up your stuff, right? That somebody forgot to remind him that, hey, we play a game and you don’t really know the game, but here’s the game, maybe.
The other possibility — and this is more frightening — is that we’re at a place right now in this country where one doesn’t need to dog whistle, where you can use the bullhorn and not lose support.
And that goes to Carol’s point about the gains of Black and Brown folks relative to white folks. We’re at a time — and I wrote about this in “Dear White America” five years ago — that you had four things happen at once, any one of which could have sparked white anxiety, but all four of which were guaranteed.
Number one, the election of Barack Obama, right? Which challenges white folks’ notion of who the leader should be. And not just a Black guy, but a Black guy with an exotic name who’s from Hawaii or Kenya or wherever we think he’s from, right? So that’s number one.
The second thing is the economic meltdown, which is confronting white people with a level of insecurity that we had not seen since the Great Depression. Double digit unemployment wasn’t new for Black and Brown folks, but for white folks, that was like your great-grandparents’ problem.
Third thing, cultural shift, the popular culture, thoroughly multiracial and multicultural now from music to fashion to food, everything interconnected in a way that means the pop culture icons are not the ones that you grew up with. So now the culture’s shifting.
And then fourth was the demographic shift where we know in 30 years half the country will be people of color, half will be white. You get all those four things coming together in the mid-2000s, first decade of the century, they are going to — that’s tailor-made for white anxiety and resentment.
Tavis: So I’ve said many times that — and we see this playing itself out now, I think — when you can’t change the game, you change the rules.
Tavis: Can’t change the game, you change the rules. So I think that’s true, but what that means ultimately, Carol, I think, is that if you wait this out long enough, the numbers are gonna shift in your favor in such a way where they can’t exert the kind of power, the kind of influence, they can’t inflict the kind of pain and suffering. So for those who believe that, disabuse us of that notion.
Anderson: Yeah, I’m getting ready to disabuse it [laugh].
Tavis: Bring it on, bring it on [laugh].
Anderson: And that is actually in the afterword in the new piece because this is why voter suppression is so important right now.
Because what you’ve seen is like what we saw in North Carolina where the Fourth Circuit said that the North Carolina legislature targeted African Americans with nearly surgical precision where you have the Republicans applauding because the early voting percentage of African Americans had dropped by about 8% because of the way that they had cut the early voting hours and because of what they had also done with voter ID.
Because they had looked at — they didn’t just say, oh, you need an ID to vote. What they did was they figured out the kinds of IDs that Black people didn’t have. And what Texas is doing is figuring out what Black people and Latinos don’t have, and then saying, okay, those are the kinds you need in order to vote.
What they’re trying to replicate is what we had in the mid-20th century. In 1942 in the midterm election in the poll tax state, a combination of the poll tax and the literacy test, only 3% of voting age eligible adults voted in the poll tax states in 1942.
In 1944 in the presidential election — and this is landmarked — Roosevelt’s going for his fourth term. 14% in those poll tax states. They’re trying to replicate that because if all you have to do as a politician is be responsive to a very narrow band of your population because you have used the law to systematically disenfranchise the bulk of your population, you rein in power.
That’s what they’re trying to recreate via the legalism, via the white rage of the law. So this is why we see the election integrity commission where they’re using the myth of voter fraud to try to drum up this sense, and it’s working.
Of the public, that massive voter fraud actually happens when in fact it doesn’t. A law professor out of California found that there were 31 cases out of one billion votes and this is what you now have states who are in deficits using millions of dollars for voter ID in order to begin to make sure that their Black and Brown populations cannot vote.
Wise: And we need to be willing to call what they’re doing white nationalism because, see, it isn’t just white rage or white anxiety. We use the term white nationalist to refer to Nazis. So we call David Duke a white nationalist because he is. He’s a white supremacist, a neo Nazi, whatever terminology we prefer.
But we don’t want to call these very mainstream erudite folks at the Heritage Foundation. We don’t want to call these folks in the Trump administration white nationalists because that conjures images of skinheads.
But if I am trying to suppress the vote of Black and Brown peoples to limit their access to the franchise, to limit their ability to participate in democracy in this nation so as to maintain a white majority, not just numerically, but in terms of power, what is that if not white nationalism?
So we’ve got to understand white supremacy, white nationalism, are not problems up here. They’re problems out here in the world of policy and systems.
Tavis: We’ve had any number of references in this conversation tonight and I see the clock tick-ticking way too fast for me. We’ve had any number of references tonight to history and my read of history, Tim, suggests to me that history is not unlike our lives, that the darkest moments are just before dawn. So if the moment is really dark right now, and clearly it is, what’s America on the precipice of?
Wise: Well, that’s our decision and we have to make that call. But here’s the thing I think is so important for us to remember. People are trying to make it seem as if Donald Trump is the new monster and this is some new unique thing. But this is the monster that’s always been under the bed. This is a monster that’s been with us for hundreds of years.
On the one hand, it’s terrible that it’s been there that long and we haven’t vanquished it, but here’s the thing. If it’s the same monster that folks fought 50 years ago and 100 years ago and 200 years ago, when things looked far worse than they do now and when access for Black and Brown folks was far worse, then we can do the same thing.
We need to take heart from those struggles because those struggles — I’m telling you, if Bull Connor didn’t stop Black and Brown folks, if Jim Clark didn’t stop Black and Brown folks, Donald Trump is not going to stop Black and Brown folks. That’s our call.
Tavis: And yet there are a lot of people, Carol, who are having a difficulty in this moment to sustain their hope.
Anderson: And I know because it looks so dark. It really does, but where the hope is is that when you begin to see, for instance, after Charlottesville, over 700 cities had mass anti-white supremacy marches, where you’re seeing with the Muslim ban, right? You saw lawyers flying into those airports, sitting on those airport floors, writing writs of habeas corpus.
I mean, you saw this kind of there is a sense in the larger American system and we must not forget that the bulk of the people who voted did not vote for Donald Trump. There is a sense that this Trumpian world is not the world that we want to raise our children in. That’s where the hope is. The fight is still there.
Tavis: 30 seconds apiece. What is the ultimate message, if we can be so bold, to white America about how we get a handle on this white anxiety?
Anderson: I would say that it’s to reframe things. This is not a zero sum game. When you think about the one trillion we wasted on the war on drugs and what that could have meant for lowering college tuition and making college affordable, what it meant for making our schools better, what it would have meant for healthcare for all, then we have the ability to do this. It requires the will.
Tavis: I didn’t plan it this way, but the white man gets the last word [laugh].
Wise: I planned it that way [laugh]. I’m teasing. I would say white folks have a choice. They can look backwards or they look forwards. When you put on a hat that says, “Make America Great Again”, you tell me that you’re looking backwards to some fictive time. I’m saying to white folks, we got a choice to make.
We’re going to make America great again or we’re going to make it great for the first time. Because if we say that, that doesn’t fit on a hat or on a bumper sticker, but it’s a far more empowering slogan. That is the kind of slogan you can raise your children with and that we can raise a country with.
Tavis: Tim Wise’s most recent text is called “Under the Affluence: Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich, and Sacrificing the Future of America”. And Carol Anderson. Her text is called “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide”. It is the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Honored to have you both on this program. This is a conversation that we could do for hours and days. Indeed, we probably should, but thank you for coming on.
Anderson: Thank you so much for having us.
Wise: You bet. Thank you.
Tavis: My good honor to have you here.
Anderson: Thank you.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
[Walmart Sponsor Ad]
Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.