During a recent, and now somewhat notorious, House Armed Services Committee hearing to discuss the 2022 Defense Department Budget, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley responded to Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Florida) interrogating him on the teaching of critical race theory in the military by referencing the January 6 assault on the Capitol and excoriating Gatez’s seemingly anti-intellectual stance:
I do think it’s important, actually, for those of us in uniform to be open-minded and be widely read. And it is important that we train and we understand. I want to understand white rage, and I’m white… What is it that caused thousands of people to assault this building and try to overturn the Constitution of the United States of America?
Milley here, of course, is talking about the urgency of understanding the force of white supremacist rage that threatens U.S. democracy.
Gaetz simply shook his head disapprovingly at Milley’s response, a gesture symptomatic of the GOP’s collective refusal to in any way acknowledge the severity and prevalence of white supremacist rage and the threat it poses to the nation. We all saw this collective refusal on display when all but six Senate Republicans voted against even holding a debate on the formation of a committee to investigate the January 6 insurrection.
And yet what Milley was trying to explain to Gaetz is that it is in the self-interest of the vast majority of white people to understand and defuse this white rage.
And it isn’t just about salvaging our fragile political and social democracy but also, relatedly, about creating a democratic economy that works optimally to meet the needs of all Americans.
Understanding the role white rage has played historically in undermining the economic well-being of people of color as well as white Americans is crucial to overcoming racism to create an economy that serves the needs of all.
To understand the importance of comprehending American history in this way, let’s counterpoint Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton’s proposed legislation from summer 2020 and the understanding of history he forwards with the historical analysis of white rage Dr. Carolyn Anderson, Emory University Professor, presents in her 2016 book White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide.
Last summer, Cotton proposed legislation that would have denied federal funding to schools that in any way used the The New York Times controversial 1619 project in its curriculum. This series in The New York Times, of course, explored the history of the United States through the lens of slavery, premised on the fact that accounts of slavery have not been expansively, roundly, and fully incorporated into accounts of U.S. history, particularly in its earliest stages.
Cotton defended his position arguing the need to understand slavery in the United States as a “necessary evil.” He told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, “As the Founding Fathers said, it was the necessary evil upon which the union was built, but the union was built in a way, as Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction.”
Cotton articulates the all-too-common view that creating a successful economy necessitates the brutal and dehumanizing exploitation of some people as a necessary evil.
Anderson’s work, however, highlights how damaging and erroneous this distorted historical understanding is—demonstrating how it is precisely white rage that engenders this distorted worldview.
Take her analysis, for example, of the way Southern lawmakers, politicians, and business interests, in particular, sought to thwart African Americans’ achievement of self-sufficiency in post-Emancipation 19th-century and earlier 20th-century America. She highlights how white Southerners worked to exclude African Americans from participating in a capitalist economy as self-sufficient citizens, wanting to hobble them into dependence to maintain their own economic standing. She writes, for example,
When five hundred thousand moved above the Mason-Dixon Line between 1917 and 1918, the South became alarmed. As more and more fled, the Georgia Bankers Association, citing a figure of more than twenty-seven million dollars in losses, described “the exodus as comparable only to Sherman’s march to the sea inn its damage to agriculture in the state.” It’s easy to see why. Black labor was the foundation to the region’s economy . . .
Thus, while African Americans understood the exodus as grabbing at a chance for freedom and equality, white Southerners saw black advancement and independence as a threat to their culture and, indeed, their economy.
Anderson relates how the South escalated its reign of terror against African Americans and also sought through the forces of police and legislation to thwart Northern labor recruiters who, “in a capitalist economy, offered African Americans a better employment opportunity.” She argues that the legal language in the legislation “masked a barely contained fury,” what she analyzes as the white rage informing much of the cold, neutral-seeming, or matter-of-fact language we see in racist policy and legislation organizing the nation’s social, political, and economic structures.
The recently memorialized Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 exemplifies Anderson’s point. White Oklahomans systematically planned the genocide of a thriving Black neighborhood with successful Black businesses.
Grasping the historical reality of Black self-sufficiency and white attempts to undermine it offers a history that debunks the myths of racial inferiority that enable violence and policies and practices that enforce racial inequality in ways that hobble the economy for all.
Obviously, as Heather McGhee has so compellingly argued in her recent book The Sum of Us: How Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, the more all of us can become self-sufficient and be enabled to contribute our energies, talents, and abilities to the economy, the more productive and effective our economy will be for all.
In short, exploitation and oppression—forcefully and legally degrading people into dependence—are not elements of sound economic policy.
While they serve the will to political and economic dominance of the few, they work counter to the mission of unleashing our productive and creative potential to best serve the economic interests of all.
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.
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