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Lauded for book on "White Rage," Carol Anderson receives Scholar/Teacher Award

Emory Report

Carol Anderson was already an award-winning historian and teacher when she saw Ferguson burning. The incident sparked her book “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide," winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism. Emory Photo/Video

Carol Anderson was already an award-winning historian, with two books published and an honor for teaching excellence, when she saw Ferguson burning.

It was 2014. Protests were rocking the small city near St. Louis in the wake of the shooting death of Michael Brown, a young black man, by a white police officer. Anderson, Emory's Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor and chair of African American Studies, found herself shaking her head at news anchors referring to the “black rage” the cameras were capturing.

Her reaction and historical expertise came together in a Washington Post op-ed explaining Ferguson as the result of white backlash against gains by African Americans.

The piece went viral, drawing 5,000 comments on the newspaper’s site and the attention of a literary agent. Anderson worked quickly to expand the national conversation and published “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide”  last May.

The book, now in its ninth printing, went on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism and help Anderson earn Emory’s 2017 Scholar/Teacher Award, supported by the United Methodist Church's General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

“It was important for me to reframe the discussion,” Anderson says. “I wanted to put my expertise in the public domain so that there was more historical knowledge to understand what we see today and to be clear that it’s not black pathology that’s driving this.”

Anderson grew up in the era of white flight from many of the nation’s cities but saw a wider pattern to African American history. She spent the early part of her academic career specializing in Cold War policies and the 20th-century American history it dominated.

The blending of African American political and international history made her 2009 move to Emory seamless given the university’s strengths. “White Rage” was the culmination of her scholarly work as a historian, life experience as a black woman and even time as a professor who taught at the University of Missouri for 13 years.

“I wanted to tie all the strings together to show the depth of the horrific policies, operating under the cloak of democracy, that black Americans confront while doing all the right things to be part of our democracy,” Anderson says.

For instance, she explains the voting requirements that help keep even majority-black towns under white control, as was the case in Ferguson. Stripping party affiliation from the ballots and holding municipal elections in off months from all others help suppress turnout in local contests.

Similarly, Alabama shuttered driver’s license offices in several heavily black counties after it adopted stringent voter ID requirements. And Ferguson, Anderson’s research showed, was home to public schools that the state school board and governor let languish on probation, on the cusp of losing accreditation, for 15 years.

“You have a state deciding it was OK for a school system to not function for an entire generation of schoolchildren,” she says. “That’s rage. We’ve limited racism to being in the Klan. We’ve reduced our understanding of racial violence to cross burning. But white rage moves smoothly, coolly and methodically to pass legislation, draw district boundaries and rule on court cases that do more damage to African Americans, and this nation, than any burning cross.” 

Understanding our society's challenges

Anderson’s commitment to scholarship over polemic with the book, which has 60 pages of footnotes, continues in the epilogue for the paperback edition on the 2016 presidential election.

On campus, she is greeted with exclamations and sometimes shyness from students who meet her. One incoming student told her at an Essence of Emory event that her mother reads sections of “White Rage” to her every night so they can discuss it together.

"As a scholar, Carol Anderson has demonstrated the value of rigorous academic research to how we understand the challenges facing our society — and her integrity as a teacher and mentor cannot be surpassed,” says Michael A. Elliott, Interim Dean of Emory College of Arts and Sciences and the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of English.

“She demonstrates the highest ideals of academic leadership in everything that she does,” he adds.

That leadership has helped propel “White Rage” into powerful circles and in book clubs alike. Earlier this year, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-highest ranking Senate Democrat, read from the book during Sen. Jeff Sessions’ attorney general confirmation hearing. Durbin later gave Sessions a copy of the book.

That was before Anderson won the NBCC Award surrounded by literary rock stars such as Margaret Atwood. A photo of her shocked face when her name was called — “I believe the term is gobsmacked,” she says — pinged around social media, much the way her book climbed bestseller lists at the New York Times and elsewhere.

Winning, she says, was a testament to her parents. Her mother, Beth, was forced to move from Oklahoma because she wanted more than a sixth-grade education in Jim Crow America. Her father, George, was a Korean War veteran kept from moving his family into certain Columbus, Ohio, neighborhoods because of accepted “rules” of segregation.

The power of fact

Anderson points to an email from a man who described himself as a member of an “old white male book club here in Anchorage,” thanking her for connecting the dots of a history that includes his lifetime.

“I'm a strong believer in the power of fact and I do think that exposing all this the way you have will help us move forward,” he wrote.

Anderson’s aim to start a conversation appears to have worked. Her office in Candler Library is a hub of activity. And though she is already at work on a new, yet undisclosed book, she savors conversations about “White Rage” with colleagues and students, and those many emails from book and civic clubs.

“The reaction to this book is validation of my parents’ faith in America,” Anderson says. “The hunger for this history tells me a whole lot of people don’t want to do this dance anymore. That brings me an enormous amount of hope, because it’s when we give up hope that white rage wins.”

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