Back in 1999, Carol Anderson was watching the aftermath of the shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant in New York City, who was gunned down by police as he reached for his wallet.
While she grieved for Diallo, she was struck by then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s insistence that policing policies were working.
“And I’m thinking if we have a police force that’s gunning down innocent people, the policy isn’t working,” said Anderson, now a professor at Emory University and chair of the African American Studies Department.
Fast-forward 15 years and she’s watching parts of Ferguson, Mo., go up in flames after the police killing of Michael Brown. To her, the rage and movement Brown’s death spawned was not an example of black rage, but an example of blacks reacting to policies they believed stunted their access to enfranchisement. Those policies, whether aggressive policing or voter ID laws, were enacted as black and brown populations began to grow, threatening to make the U.S. a majority minority nation in the next 30 years. They are examples of a phenomenon she examines in her new book, “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide” (Bloomsbury, $26).
Anderson will speak at the AJC Decatur Book Festival on Sept. 3. We spoke with her about this election season, the roots of rage and what can be done to turn the tide.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Bentley: Let’s talk about the genesis of the book.
Anderson: The first part of being able to address an issue is being able to name it, to identify it so that you can figure out how to short-circuit it. There are so many of us who really want this nation to be better and we can’t keep doing what we’re doing.
Bentley: So is this the way people act out when they are afraid of losing what they once had?
Anderson: It’s a very narrowly framed fear of loss of status. If you only define status as, “I got mine,” and you define what this nation has to offer as a zero-sum game — meaning you can only get something at my expense — then there’s fear. Exclusivity is shortsighted and it will destroy this nation.
Bentley: There are people who’ll say, “Baloney. This isn’t white rage. This is people who don’t want to play by the rules or who want to talk about race when it has no basis on the current state of affairs.”
Anderson: Then why are we coming up with all these restrictions on the vote, on people who want to participate in democracy? Why have we set up barrier after barrier? One of the ways white rage works is it cloaks itself in this beautiful, rhapsodic language of democracy. “We are protecting the integrity of the ballot box. We are providing law and order.” But when you strip back those slogans, what you see is the way the policy is designed to undercut (minority enfranchisement).
Bentley: Last week, we saw the nominees for the two major political parties hurling charges of racism and bigotry at each other. When was the last time you saw issues of race in a presidential campaign discussed so baldly?
Anderson: This has been quite a year, hasn’t it? In 1968, George Wallace ran on the platform of white resentment, that black people were coming into our schools, our neighborhoods, taking our jobs. Now stop me if you haven’t heard that refrain in 2016. What we’re seeing is a battle for a definition for what is America. We’re seeing this battle between the two over what is America going to be?
Bentley: What about people who say all this talk about race is just stoking the flames?
Anderson: We know that racism is alive and well. We know this from the data. We know this from the research. And to say there’s racism doesn’t not mean you’re racist. It means you’re shining the light on it so we can move forward, so we can fix this and begin to invest in all of our people.
Bentley: How are we to do that?
Anderson: We’re going to have to root it out systemically. This isn’t just a 2016 issue. What we need to be is not afraid of the future.
Carol Anderson will read from and discuss her book “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide” at 1:45 p.m. Sept. 3 at Decatur Presbyterian Church Sanctuary, 205 Sycamore St., Decatur.