A particular kind of anger at racial injustice is necessary in anti-racist struggle—but that does not mean anger cannot go wrong.
April 22, 2020
With Responses From
Apr 22, 2020
6 Min read time
We should ask questions that address the causes of anger instead of symptoms.
In the spring of 1961, Princeton University historian Eric Goldman hosted James Baldwin, C. Eric Lincoln, George Schuyler, and Malcolm X on an episode of NBC’s public affairs show The Open Mind. Although the topic was civil rights more generally, the panelists focused on the Nation of Islam. As Nicholas Buccola’s new book The Fire Upon Us (2019) highlights, Goldman appeared to frustrate and exasperate Baldwin, as he sought “to find out . . . whether the Muslim movement does hate me or not, and whether it proposes to use force to satisfy that hatred.” While he expressed some criticism of the Nation of Islam’s approach to resistance, Baldwin thought these were the wrong questions.
Rather than evaluating black folks’ emotions and attitudes, Baldwin believed it was more important to examine the context that gave birth to them.
Instead, Baldwin asked whether whites were ready to face up to “the crimes for which they are responsible.” Rather than evaluating black folks’ emotions and attitudes, Baldwin believed it was more important to examine the context that gave birth to them. He continued this same line of reasoning throughout his writings. When civil rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated, for example, Baldwin was not interested in examining the evils in the heart of the killer; instead, in Nothing Personal (1964), Baldwin asked how the United States had, as Buccola puts it, “created a virulent atmosphere of hatred.”
The same Baldwinian criticism might be leveled at the inquiry underlying the debate about anger and rationality. Consider this way of formulating the questions Callard begins with:
After becoming a victim of racial discrimination, could it be rational for you to be just as angry on Thursday as you were on Tuesday, for my denying you a job on Monday based on your race? Moreover, could it be rational for you to conceive of a plan to ensure that I lose my job? And what if you don’t stop at me losing my current job: could it be rational for you to go on to make sure that I never work for a public service organization again?
These are interesting philosophical questions, but are they the most important ones? Should they come at the expense of asking other questions, like: Are whites willing to own up to the fact that they have created an environment in which racial minorities are discriminated against? Baldwin would probably say no—these questions should not be sidelined.
This is not to say that certain questions about the logical structure of the ethics of anger cannot be asked. Nonetheless, if we start and end there—as if they are the most important—we fail to ask more relevant ones, ones that address causes instead of mere symptoms. And it is the relevant questions that help us resist the alluring tendency to promote racial mythologies, to pathologize and victim-blame, and to allow the racial sources of anger remain hidden and go unchallenged.
Some philosophers who follow this Baldwinian reasoning hail from the feminist tradition. Their method of inquiry focuses on an analysis of the social context from which anger arises, although they do not omit questions concerning the rationality of anger. Making sense of the context was, perhaps, the most important step to correcting or curing the social problem—for how could one come up with effective tools to combat injustice without a proper diagnosis of the injustice in the first place?
For example, poet and essayist Audre Lorde proudly claimed anger as an appropriate response to racism: “We operate in the teeth of a system for whom racism and sexism are primary, established, and necessary props of profit.” And to those who thought her anger was too harsh, Lorde responded, “is it my manner that keeps her from hearing, or the message that her life may change?” The work of Marilyn Frye offers another example. Rather than just defend the rationality of anger of black women to others, Frye also gives an account of what limits a white man’s capacity to comprehend and give uptake to a black woman’s anger.
After these philosophers raise the relevant questions, they undergo a project to reclaim anger—an emotion they believe could combat the racist and sexist context that gave rise to it. Macalester Bell, for example, writes that while we tend to center anger’s instrumental uses, anger at racial injustice also has intrinsic value: it shows a love for virtue and hatred for vice. Alison Jagger claims that in a capitalist, white-supremacist, and patriarchal society, minorities will be expected to express emotions such as joy rather than blameworthy, “outlaw” emotions such as anger that transgress affective norms. And Amia Srinivasan argues that even if anger at racial injustice is counterproductive, it is still appropriate.
We miss the point of anger at racial injustice if we think innocence has a certain moral and political weight.
Are these anger reclaimers—like the Stoic and Aristotelian camps—guilty of what Callard calls the desire to “segregate ‘the moral side’ of anger . . . from the ‘dark side’”? I do not think they are. For example, while Lisa Tessman admits that “unrelenting anger or rage . . . may help the politically resistant self-pursue liberatory aims,” she adds that this may come at the price of “being corrosive to the self ” and having to “maintain painful, corrosive, extremely taxing, or self-sacrificial character traits.” A particular kind of anger at racial injustice is necessary in anti-racist struggle—I refer to it as Lordean rage—but that does not mean anger cannot go wrong. Even though its target, action tendency, and aims are quite different from those of more destructive kinds of anger (e.g., narcissistic and white rage), Lordean rage is not by definition virtuous. These examples show that it is possible to defend anger by highlighting both its moral and dark side.
Callard concludes that “victims of injustice are not as innocent as we would like to believe.” But, again, I do not think innocence is the right thing to be concerned with here. Neither do I think that those outraged at racial injustice are as concerned with innocence as some might think.
First, members of the dominant group are often thought to be innocent in their anger, but racial minorities are not. For example, Baldwin’s Cambridge debate foe, William Buckley, had empathy and compassion for the rage of racist white southerners, but described Baldwin as a “tormented Negro writer . . . who celebrates his bitterness against the white community.”
Second, we miss the point of anger at racial injustice if we think innocence has a certain moral and political weight. Being angry at injustice is about coming to grips with our past and our future. The anger is used to ensure we pursue and prevent racial injustice, express the value of victims of oppression, challenge a racialized system, and demand a better way. This anger is not about innocence, nor does its success depend on it.
As Buccola notes, the virtues that Baldwin considered essential to freedom include charity, intelligence, resilience, and spiritual force. Innocence does not make the cut. I concede that those who are angry at racial injustice are both corrupt and wounded. I am not surprised by this, though. Instead I am grateful that there exist corrupt and wounded folk who are willing to use their anger at racial injustice to make the world better—not in the absence of these traits, but in spite of them.
This gives me less reason to think that judging their rationality is such an important endeavor. And it gives me more reason to think that I am not worthy to rub accusations of non-innocence in their faces on Tuesday, Thursday, or any day of the week.
While we have you...
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
April 22, 2020
6 Min read time