Black Rage: What is it?

August, 1996

Addendum: April 1999

Rage cannot be hidden, it can only be dissembled. This dissembling deludes the thoughtless, and strengthens rage and adds, to rage, contempt.

-- James Baldwin

black rage is not a theory.

i'm not sure that it makes so much sense to explain it in any other terms than malcolm x's. 'whatever you will do to me, just know that i will do the same to you'. considering what happens to black americans ever day *not in theory* but in reality, it's a mutha to face. most white folks who have lookedmask.jpg (22395 bytes) closely at the situations many blacks find themselves often recoiled in shock. to a person, in my experience, it comes out like 'man if they did shit like that to me...'. in the end, there is a profound respect for the many black strategies used to displace or redirect that rage.

coming from that perspective, i respect that many folks are likely to respect the words and deeds of mlk. but that is rarely the case. there is often a sense of resignation americans feel in confronting the facts that justice is so often an impossibility - that oj will be virtually barbecued forever, yet the korean shopkeeper videotaped shooting a black teenaged girl in cold blood received a suspended sentence and is forgotten by the nation. white folks and blacks alike come to agree that black rage, given american society, is inevitable. that is why white people live in white neighborhoods, stay away from downtown at night, understand the fear of bernard goetz, get the message of willie horton and respond in all sorts of ways in every aspect of american society in a predictable fashion to the images of danger associated with black rage.

black rage becomes not only a self-fulfilling prophesy but a necessary component of american politics. white folks accept their guilt and fear, as they realize their collective historical incompetence as the political majority in addressing the injustices faced by blacks. they bow out. they accept the destruction of cities and the perpetuation of tragedy. black folks do the same thing in their relationships to each other. we abandon our brothers at the first sign of trouble despite what we know, better than anyone, about the content of their individual characters, and we use our own successes and absence of (external) rage, as a justification of our own evasions of responsibility. thus the enraged black man or woman has become a staple symbol in everyone's rhetoric. but few of us are serious or busy addressing the fundamental injustice.

rage is not hate.

rage is visceral reaction to a severe victimization when all else seems hopeless. rage is the explosive last lashing out of a man facing death with his back to the wall. it is not sustained or calculated like hate. one speaks of acts of rage, not strategies of rage or ideologies of rage. you rage to get shit out of your system and scare folks into not pushing you any more. it's a natural thang.

what's unnatural is that there is black rage. that a society is so predisposed to pushing black folks to the limit that their rage is almost predictable.

although i never do, well - i haven't in memory - i know very well what this rage looks like and how to use it. the expression of black rage as a dramatic device is (over)used by black and white artists alike. it's part of the american lexicon. but that is very distinct from the real thing, as different as individual rap artists are in rhyme character in a recording studio are from real killers behind bars. the expression is romanticized in typical american fashion (i can think of no better example than the western movie, and in particular the role of the writer in clint eastwood's 'unforgiven').

also, black folks front. that's not rage, that's frontin'. and i know one of you stupid punk ass white boys is going to want me to please explain frontin'. don't even try it. you know what i'm sayin? just be glad i didn't straight wax your sorry ass from the jump. cause you wouldn't be standing there with that stupid look on your face gettin all huffy. you'd be pickin your ass up off the floor. oh oh oh now you know what i'm saying. damn skippy. if your shit was correct i wouldn't have to go there. lame ass mu'fukas.

(i need to invent a new smiley to cap off that last paragraph. it is the following expression: i am tilting my head to the side, rolling my eyes up and smacking my teeth and straight walking away - kind of like what dennis johnson did to chris collingsworth last night)

i think there is a real recognition, despite the rages we witness, that 'the fire next time' will be put out next wednesday. yet in that light, i'm not sure that people want to temper enduring desires for vengeance. if you subscribe to the idea that no matter *what* black people do in this country, white people will always have all the power, then it is not temperance so much as an instinct for survival that keeps rage in check. the only people willing to risk that intemperance that are people who shoot back at cops. that would include the most violent of gangs, militias and separatists. (same difference).

more moderate and sensible folks angle towards the political symbols of rage *with* temperance. in other words, i think the aspect of christian charity and forgiveness is overstated. although there is some revenge in living well, most folks just don't have the power to attain justice (or payback as the case may be). if you look at the black community in crown heights, i don't believe the death of gavin cato will every be forgiven or forgotten. but the fact is, they will never be able to make their enemies pay. that's why the next 'black vs. jewish' incident in new york city will echo back to cato/rosenbaum.

again, new incidents of rage will have political echoes into essentially powerless communities. both sides will evade acting on deeper issues of social justice (with greater responsibility held by the side with more political power) and the symbolic raging of spokesmen will run the day.

i do think there is a kind of self-righteous posturing that takes place in defense of this type of political intransigence. but it goes right back to the symbols of rage which is just like my fronting in the previous post. to wit: you ought to be glad that we didn't do what we *felt* like doing - maybe somebody else would be dead.

in the end, the political group who owns the police follow up on that threat. that's called law and order, but it has nothing to do with justice.

i live in a country with pockets of civilization. today, i am not afraid to go into the occupied territories, because i grew up in a ghetto. i believe that those in the territories are willing to hear me out, but i was in no way prepared for the fact that america was so willing to abandon those places.

i fear that appropriate power to bring infrastructure and hope to those abandoned places is not forthcoming - that in every way the gap is widening.

articulation of rage is a valuable skill.

so often black folks feel it, but don't know exactly where it is coming from or what to do about it. they equate that existential anger, confusion and the resulting frustration as an essential characteristic of being black. but it is not. while it is certainly part of the black experience, the permanency of which white supremacy replicates generation after generation, it is not the defining core of who we are.

every generation (and ethnicity) of african americans finds different ways to articulate and diffuse or redirect this rage.

one answer to black rage is afrocentrism, which has little to do with welfare. conservatives strike the wrong chord, but one or two notes are right: liberal paternalism sucks. and part of the 'liberal' agenda is legislation. the problem is that you cannot legislate peace into raging minds. by the same token you cannot deregulate peace into raging minds, so conservatives are no closer to the solution. yet the only way (or so it seems to me) that those people overcome with rage (which is probably a poor way to address a class of black folks) are going to achieve is under the direction of black folks who have achieved. yet those of us who have achieved are only marginally powerful.

if i had the 12 billion dollar multinational 'africa inc.' under my direction, i could fix a half dozen communities lickety-split, extend my influence and make a major difference. such is our amenability to corporate power.

another response to black rage is the black church.

i am reading derrick bell's latest book 'gospel choirs'. he is about to do an end around the system, and i am curious to see how it pans out. in his previous book of this sort, 'faces at the bottom of the well', he argued that racism is a permanent part of america and that we are all best off recognizing that fact. although the expression of racism changes (in 1940 blacks were considered inferior because we didn't drive cars as much as white people - therefore a racialized statistical category of 'automotive ability' was often used by negro scholars as a benchmark of equality) racism itself does not. bell, would have us abandon such standards, it appears, as he - a harvard professor of law - turns to the tradition of black spirituality in search of lessons.

the articulation of black rage or any other black sentiment or thought serves as a critical discourse on american society.

however, as hall exemplifies in his admittedly undernourished comprehension of articulate black voices, most of america does not pay attention. there are certainly *reasons* behind white fear, defensiveness and reactions to perceived threats posed by blacks. but they are not good reasons, and they must be challenged. 'consistent patterns of thought' within black communities are either well articulated or they are not. those which are well articulated have names as do those who represent them. if there are issues to be discussed and contention about the validity of claims, then there are real ways to deal with them which are not grounded in fear, defensiveness and reactionary rhetoric. to direct such discussions are the reasons black thinkers of all types write histories, teach classes, create novels, compose music, sculpt, rhyme, dance, preach, witness and otherwise work to expose their thoughts.

yet despite this fact, americans continue to believe in or be unduly influenced by the racist hype, often believing themselves to be as well-informed as anyone. because of this there is practically an industry dedicated to knocking ignorant people upside the head. i take up the cudgel of the race man from time to time, but this time i'll defer to farai:

certainly ms. chideya is not the first, nor will she be the last to bring clarity to issues of racial prejudice, oppression and injustice. there are today and have been so many who have directly transformed rage into productive lessons without pandering themselves as victims. they don't expect nor ask for pity; these are teachers. and their lessons stand in defiance of fear. too often we extract soundbites out of these lessons believing there are golden platitudes that stand for all time in any variety of circumstances. but how many times have americans consoled themselves with the pathetic plea of a brain damaged man beaten into submission by brutal police officers? (if there was ever any question of whether or not rodney g. king was willing to surrender, consider those words). there is no excuse for americans to pretend to understand the lessons of the past without any consistent discipline and evaluation. racism invariably leads to injustice.

like disease, racism needs to be fought with thoroughness and vigor every generation. yet unlike disease, if you harbor racist ideas wittingly or not, it *is* your fault and your responsibility. whether or not we live in a democracy, everyone's attitude should bear scrutiny on the issues.

there are white folks who dance to hiphop in public at centennial olympic village, and there are white folks who make it their business to read franz fanon.

at some level, most conflict between blacks and whites is political. if you are a political enemy, then be a good enemy. if you are a political ally, then do it up right. but if you are unable to bring the potential conflict into political terms, then you are just like the korean in spike lee's film 'do the right thing' who says *after* real conflict has begun 'we're all on the same side'. HA. a bit late. (then again everybody except smiley in that film was light on articulation).

the point is that everyone is capable of perceiving the reality of racial injustice in america equally well. some people take the task more seriously than others. one way or another there will be a reckoning. it would be a shame if the color of your skin speaks louder than your thinking on the matter.

that means sooner or later everybody is going to have to put aside the penny ante bs and deal with the question of the health of communities. i suspect people who are counting the color of noses in photographs are way deep in left field without a clue. but that could just be frontin - an angle to provoke the question what's your bottom line? you have got to be able to respond to the question, what's the bottom line. are you down with the struggle or not? you have to be prepared to ask the question too. of course that implies that you can come correct, which implies further that you are familiar with the political territory. which means rodney kingisms are out of the question.

but that's hard work.

maybe white people *cannot* "conceive of the level of penetration of racial injustice into American society" and that is part and parcel of their white identity and racial self-interest. but the euro-american citizen must divest himself of that white identity.

thus on that principle the phrase 'it's a black thang you can't understand' is directed at *white* people and a significant number of americans who are not black needn't concern themsleves. but the difference between whiteness and a non-racial euro-american identity is a complicated test. in the end, however white people are all in denial and it is that naivete which makes them 'innocent victims' of black rage.

sometimes it is black rage that provokes white folks out of their complacency. how many times have i heard the phrase, 'but nobody in my family ever owned any slaves..'? unfortunately their introspection ends at the point at which they have convinced themselves that they are relatively non-guilty of what they percieve as the main thrust of white supremacy.

in the end however, such excuse making falls flat. that's why white folks need sophisticated 'answer it all' books like 'the bell curve', or jared taylor's 'paved with good intentions' or d'souza's 'end of racism'. yet still uncertainty persists and so these same white folks must face black rage yet again... in fact, they seek it out. hmmm...

black rage must be very comforting for white folks against whom it is not directed.

it's a black political thing that history shows, the majority of americans refuse to grapple with.

show me the anti-racist plank in the republican party convention coming up.

nobody here can say, "i'm not white, i'm a socialist, and the socialist party of america refuses that racial definition. one cannot be a socialist and be white because the socialist party recognizes how anti-democratic race is. we never make racial appeals in any of our campaigns, we always involve ourselves with racial justice as a priority."

nobody can say that because no political party in america is so constituted. and the white people who control the majority parties in the united states of america have dictated that reason why white folks everywhere have that vague sympathetic personal reaction to the issues of racial justice. it is because there is no political program. and as long as white identity has any political power it is because it lies in the political interests of the major parties to leave it as it stands.

race is a social construct, it is not an essential part one's biology. so when i say all white people are in denial i am saying it because i believe that euroamericans choose to be white. if i say america is racist it is because that white identity is the default for euroamericans. when i say that american politics bear the responsibilty for the racism in america i say so because these politics do not allow euroamericans to be anything but white - it doesn't force them to deal with that racial question. so it pushes the discussion off and re-frames it in terms of class to the exclusion of race or race to the exclusion of class which ever way suits the comfort zone of white people.

this is tangential to the subject of black rage, but of course we have to stuff it in here because this particular forum is one of the only places in america where a good mix of people discuss the issue day in and day out. but i don't see any party leaders lurking - do you?

black grass roots political efforts are largely ignored in american politics because when it comes to black political demands, the focus is placed on personalities rather than on issues.

so long as african americans remain largely segregated by the legacy of racial discrimination in housing, grass roots political organizations will always reflect such efforts at self-determination on a separate and unequal basis. it is the absolute foreclosure of the possibility of local political clout which has necessitated that blacks seek political power at the federal level in the first place. the gerrymandering of black political districts has always been a strategy to get political power because in every way, black ghettoes have always been neglected by municipalities. and the current decentralization of political power, coupled with disaggregation of federal minority districts points more and more back to the old school of political marginalization.

in 40 years, i can tell you that south atlanta is still black and north atlanta is still white. and i bet you a nickel that wherever you live, the black ghettoes are still in the exact same places they were before brown vs. board of education. now find me, for example, a multiscreen theatre complex in any of those neighborhoods. now tell me that black people don't watch enough movies to justify the investment. HA. what is the difference, people? what is the difference in the economic infrastructure of black ghettoes in 1996 and 1956? half the suburbs where utne readers live *didn't even exist* in 1956! so what did anybody do to deserve the economic investment that their community got, while the black communities got zilch? that's *your* politicians, people.

while politicians in white communities were busy lobbying and getting commercial zoning for new malls, politicians in black communities were busy trying to insure white cops didn't shoot black people down in the streets. while politicians for the suburbs were insuring there were public parks for little league, politicians in the barrio were trying to get money into the public schools or get children bussed out.

americans bear responisiblity for these politics. only you can tell what kind of politician you are putting in power. now if you call yourself white, and you elect your politician without some mandate for racial justice, then yes it's going to come back to you, sooner or later. becuase when it mattered, you didn't act. and it's not because of the color of your skin, it's because of the political road you chose.

i don't know how people reconcile 'underclass nihilism' with afrocentrism. it seems to me that one is largely a myth and the other is a real constructive program that people are using not only to redirect rage, but to improve the quality of their lives. who is afrocentric? who is nihilistic?

and since when was mlk gelded? and when did the congressional black caucus lead to destroyed lives?

consider bob dole's candidacy, there seems no question that he is lacking 'passion'. but what is passion but redirected rage? since rage is the reaction to injustice, the passion it generates should serve the cause of justice. so where is dole's passion? nowhere. now reflect on the conditions of black ghettoes and the leadership position resolved in post 104. i think one could expect some passion from those quarters. yet there were no extraordinarily popular 'black leaders' which drafted up that resolution, just people with the motivation to put in words what common sense dictates should be said and done about ugly circumstances. so the question: is 104 a 'positive' message. if so, how is it ignored by the mainstream?

what i'm saying is that resolution and dozens like them i have seen in my experience with black community politics are very common. that this hype about a lack of 'black leaders who act like mlk (gelded)' are a fetish of the white political majority. when faced with the real considered demands of thoughtful elected black leaders, such as those represented by the congressional black caucus, we witness things like a 'sea change'.

so america has an overabundance of political activists who are intimately familiar with, and passionately dedicated to the improvement of conditions in black ghettoes. their accumulated wisdom is dismissed by political hacks like clint bolick who is able to manipulate white opinion with phrases like 'quota queen'.

black rage is a self-perpetuating phenomenon.

there is a vested interest in american politics to use black rage. white political majorities are particularly attuned to black rage, whether that is constructive or raw rage. in short, black rage is a legitimated form of political protest. a lot of blacks recognize this and make use of it. if i sit here in this forum and complain that black folks get harrassed unnecesarily by the same police that should be protecting them, that does not carry the same weight in american society as the artist ice cube writing the rap 'fuck the police' and having 17 year olds pump the beat in the car next to you with an evil stare on their face. when black representation on the city council of los angeles is resisted for decades, and there is no forum given for the tyrrany of the darryl gates administration, that doesn't get the same attention as video of blacks burning police cars. often enough, there are no acceptable political compromises offered by a polity which ignores the facts of black life. consider how it is that 'law and order' has become a 'white man's burden' in our society. such political intransigence is often enough reasonable provocation for black folks to take rage to the streets. the spirit of compromise - cant we all just get along - is not proactive. it comes after the violent fact. clinton has demonstrated this in his dismissal of sista souljah, for example.

the example with r.g. king is perfect. the christopher commission had special investigative powers that many black community activists had long sought and never received. the findings of the committee were largely taken with a grain of salt. as it turns out, mark fuhrman was one of the cops the commission cited as a bad apple. but he retained his job as did the majority of the officers the commission singled out.

in the effort to get rid of darryl gates, there literally was NO legal recourse left. no citizens could force him out of office. the mayor had no power, the city council had no power. gates position was established in the first place by his, and political conservatives' opportunism in various wars on gangs, illegal immigrants and drug offenders. all significantly racial issues.

i was in los angeles for the original beating, though by that time it was merely the latest in a series of outrages i and my colleagues gnashed over. people tend to forget the dismissed life story of black police officer don jackson who was hustled out of the hawthorne police department (on permanent leave or some such) after revealing klan-like activities. he became more widely known as the man involved in several self-styled 'sting' operations in which he demonstrated police abuse of blacks, his most famous being the videotape of him being shoved through a plate glass window by long beach police officers. he had also schooled young black men on their rights regarding probable cause and took a group of them to westwood where they were predictably harassed by officers there. that too was videotaped.

eventually his crusade was twisted against him and he became a pariah. he did make a rather goofy point of trying to get into the members' only los angeles country club - i believe he handcuffed himself to the gates. but his courageous example was not lost on the black and latino communities of los angeles county.

as well, outspoken activist micheal zinzun won a civil suit against the police (defended by johnny cochran) in the amount of 6 milliondollars. he lost the use of one eye. the hanging death of ron settles in a signal hill jail was never far from anyone's mind, another cochran victory. 'gang sweeps' which netted about 3% criminal bookings but added massive amounts of data on black youth into the lapd arrest records system was a big issue long before the simi verdict. the recent videotaped shooting death of latasha harlins and subsequent wrist slap given her korean killer reverbrated injustice.

by the time of the r.g. king beating (and subsequent harrassment while he was in the hospital), most of the major media and especially npr and pacifica radio were all over the issue and beginning to take sides against gates. but their propensity to put typical victim spin on everything got under my skin. and you know how pacifica jumps from conspiracy to conspiracy. at least daniel schorr maintained a level head.

mike woo was losing ground in local politics, pete wilson was attacking gays in the uc system and clarence was tomming his way to the top court. i was following cops around with my video camera and looking to get on public access cable. by the time operation desert sheild went ballistic, just around mlk's birthday in 1991, i had my fill of los angeles. getting into some very ugly arguments out at ucla at the federal building protests against the gulf posturing with some screeching asian neocons from orange county had pushed me over the edge. i was just about ready to start knocking heads.

so i was very fortunate to be living in brooklyn when the verdict of vindication for briseneo, koon, powell and wind came down. i know i would have been scheming some very devious raging were i home in los angeles. i had often considered kidnapping a police officer and removing his trigger finger as the ultimate expression of the rage i felt at the time. i cannot imagine how i could have resisted the temptation to organize a posse to carry out such a deed during those days. my distance allowed me to save my life, such as it is. all of my posts would be prison notes.

much of what i witnessed at that time between 1989 and 1991 in los angeles fuels my exposition in cyberspace though there was much before it and after it. it made it clear to me how important it is for public debate to be informed by personal experience which is driven by the quest for justice. as well it made it clear to me how life and death issues are manipulated in politicized and half understood versions of fact.

..i can't think straight right now...