Candace Jordan is a graduate student at Princeton University, where she researches the civic uses of anger and resentment. Jordan holds a B.A. in religion and philosophy from Haverford College.
In 1961, when asked by a radio host about being black in America, novelist James Baldwin responded, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all of the time—and in one's work. And part of the rage is this: It isn't only what is happening to you. But it's what's happening all around you and all of the time in the face of the most extraordinary and criminal indifference, indifference of most white people in this country, and their ignorance.”
Demonstrations erupting in response to George Floyd’s murder have put anger and mourning on national display, grieving yet another life extinguished by police brutality and decrying the centuries of state-sanctioned violence upon which our nation was founded. Baldwin’s prescient social critique indicts that rage is a condition of black life in America. The murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor are inevitable rather than incidental in a society that maintains such deep contempt for black folk. And this is facilitated and continually endorsed, especially given that our nation has yet to confess and atone for its original sins of genocide, slavery, and domestic terrorism.
Protesters’ anger bears witness to relationships deformed by anti-blackness—between police and black civilians in particular, and in nearly every other domain, including employment, education, health care, and electoral politics. The anger of which Baldwin speaks is in part characterized by philosopher Amia Srinivasan as an appreciation of injustice. It is as apparent as ever that this moral capacity is not shared. Protesters’ rage has been met with the familiar hostility of folks who have a greater stake in maintaining civility rather than correcting injustice. Calls for civility, non-violence, forgiveness, and the supererogatory love manifest in the Civil Rights Movement seemingly stand in contrast to current protests. It is chilling that, to many, property destruction is more upsetting than broken bodies, families, and communities. “Why are people destroying their own neighborhoods?” “What good will that do?” “I agree with the protesting but not the looting.”
Concerns about the dangers of anger—to the person who angers and those to whom it is directed—has been fiercely debated by the Stoics (meditating on anger as temporary madness), Jesus’ contemporaries (parsing the proper balance of justice, love, and mercy since the Sermon on the Mount), and Black Lives Matter protesters (drawing inspiration in large part from the historic Civil Rights Movement). Srinivasan distills the tension as one of anger’s aptness and productivity. Sometimes anger is a fitting response to harm and wrongdoing, and sometimes anger’s fittingness ought to be regarded separately from its productivity or counterproductivity.
Black communities and their allies have a stake in crying out in response to injustice, in the potentially transformative outcomes that such demonstrations yield, and also in better calibrating affective responses in others, which may attune persons to recognizing injustice in the first place. While it is essential to consider the personal, interpersonal, and political consequences of unbridled anger, protesters’ demonstration of anger can allow injustice to be seen where it was not previously. Similar to the #MeToo Movement’s publicizing narratives of sexual abuse of women and girls within and outside Hollywood, the publicity of anger in response to anti-black racism has shone a light on injustice for folks who have had the privilege of not needing to see. The interlocking dominations of capitalism, patriarchy, anti-blackness, white supremacy, homophobia, and transphobia are among the systems that allow some to move through the world with relative ease while others are surveilled, killed, impoverished, and despised. Protest in part performs the collective action required in the face of systemic injustice.
Protesters’ rage not only properly registers anti-blackness as unjust and turns our attention toward that injustice, but also calls us to be moved by it in ways appropriate to the moral horrors at hand. Responding to black death with civility and cool remove is impossible for many and acceptable for few. Seemingly uncivil protest tactics suggest that persons care a great deal not only about productive outcomes but also the significance of affect, that the expressive nature of rage and grief is important to bearing witness to injustice and in being motivated to do something about it.
The image of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s hands resting coolly in his pockets are chilling especially for this reason. It evokes countless images of black folks lynched under Jim Crow, their bodies beaten and burned into a grotesque pulp, flanked on all sides by white men and boys appearing indifferent and bored. Rather than faces appearing victorious, vindicated, horrified, or otherwise aroused, too often one simply sees vacant stares returned. Mamie Till addressed precisely this indifference and ignorance when holding an open-casket funeral service for her lynched son Emmett, one of many important catalysts for the Civil Rights Movement. She aimed in part to stir a nation awake, calling people to be moved by horrific injustice.
The task ahead is great and dangers abound. Reactive attitudes such as anger do not always accurately pick out injustice, and not all claims of harm are of equal standing. How are aggrieved and reactionary white supremacists to be regarded? Though the historical record is often clear on racial injustice, victims and perpetrators are sometimes unwieldy distinctions. Who has been disenfranchised? Who takes responsibility? What, if anything, could restore? Protesters in support and celebration of black lives are responding to the criminal indifference and ignorance of which Baldwin speaks. They put themselves at risk (of disease, police retaliation, and social censure) out of an appreciation for injustice and, also, I think, hope that anger might motivate deformed relationships being set right.
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