Today we are going to talk about the “angry black woman”.
This is not to say that black women are the only ones who get angry. Not by any stretch of the imagination. But the “angry black woman” is very much alive and well as a trope in our world, so that is what we are going to address.
I understand that a lot of you look at this and think to yourselves, and even out loud, “Why are they so angry? Didn’t we end slavery 150 years ago? Didn’t we have the Civil Rights Movement 60 years ago (almost)? Didn’t we outlaw racial discrimination? Didn’t we just elect a black president?”
Okay. The answer is “Yes” to all of the above. BUT:
After the Civil War was over and all the slaves were freed, some angry white people persisted in the belief that black people are less than human and should be treated accordingly. They figured out ways to leverage the legal framework (such as it was at whatever time they were living) to ensure that black people would continue to be treated as less than fully human, less than fully American. That is how it has been from the end of slavery up to now.
In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War and the end of slavery, 9 states passed anti-vagrancy laws. These laws basically made being unemployed a criminal offense, and were only applied against black men. 8 of these 9 states then allowed those who had been imprisoned under the anti-vagrancy laws to be leased out to plantation owners for next to nothing. This practice was known as “convict leasing”. Several states also imposed laws against “mischief” and “insulting gestures”. This added to the prison population and the convict leasing labor pool. The end result for blacks who got caught up in this was just like slavery but worse, because under this arrangement plantation owners had no long-term interest in their workers’ well-being.
By the turn of the 20th century, every Southern state had Jim Crow laws. The Supreme Court upheld these laws in 1896, stating that they “reflected customs and traditions” and “preserved public peace and good order”. The Jim Crow laws imposed segregation of the races in virtually every aspect of public life, and Southern states were all trying to one-up each other on how detailed they could be in excluding black people from various aspects of public life.
In 1954 the Supreme Court reversed field on their 1896 decision via Brown v Board of Education. But in 1956 the “Southern Manifesto” came out. This was a production of 101 out of 128 congresspeople from Southern states who vowed to maintain Jim Crow by any means necessary. 5 states passed new laws–50 of them in total. “Segregation academies” began to become a thing. These were private, white-only, “Christian” schools where segregation could continue unabated. (Think that Christian school you’re sending your kids to exists strictly for the purpose of equipping your kids with a strong faith-based education? There’s more to it than you think.)
This was followed by the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. This was accompanied by protests, some of which were violent. Vietnam was also happening, and public sentiment for that was very low. There were protests for Vietnam as well, and some of those were violent. In 1968 Richard Nixon ran for president on a predominantly law-and-order platform, the first president to do so. (Sound familiar?) 81 percent of Americans believed that law and order had broken down. (Sound familiar?) A majority of these blamed “Communists” and “Negroes who start riots”. (Sound familiar?)
Then came the War on Drugs.
To understand why this was a big deal, let’s walk it back to the 1930’s. The FHA, in order to reduce the risk of default (their stated rationale), refused to grant loans to buy homes in certain neighborhoods that were deemed to be at high risk of default. They would draw red lines around those areas on city maps, and for this reason the practice came to be known as “redlining”. At the same time the suburbs were booming, with the FHA underwriting the construction of new homes and subdivisions out there. Almost all of these communities were restricted by deed to whites only. Up until 1950, the Realtors’ Code of Ethics strictly forbade the selling of a home in a white neighborhood to a nonwhite family. The GI Bill came out in that era as well, giving millions of white veterans returning home after serving in World War II the opportunity to buy new homes out in the suburbs. Black veterans, while technically eligible, were almost always passed over.
The gap in wealth between whites and blacks was already very wide. The GI Bill dumped a truckload of nitroglycerine on that fire.
So then, factories began moving out to the white-only suburbs. Black workers found it increasingly difficult to get to these jobs, as very few had access to cars and moving to the communities where the factories where relocating was simply not an option. One black family in Chicago tried it and angry white people blew up the whole fucking neighborhood.
So unemployment rose in black communities. And with it, drug use and crime. You could have seen that shit coming from a mile away.
Our response as a society was to criminalize the problem. Drugs were the problem, and drug users and drug dealers, the enemy. So we criminalized drug use and militarized our response. The Reagan administration (another law-and-order administration) passed the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which imposed stiff criminal penalties and harsh mandatory sentences for many drug-related offenses. The Clinton administration (lest you think I’m only here to pick on Republicans) ratcheted this up several notches by cutting $17 billion from public housing and reallocating it (along with $2 billion in change) to prisons. The black prison population exploded during the 1980s and 1990s, with the overwhelming majority of arrests being for drug possession. We militarized the police, outfitting them with all the latest weapons and military technology. We changed policing tactics, creating the no-knock warrant (think: the scene towards the end of the movie ET where all the police come barging in from all directions looking for ET). Breonna Taylor was the victim of a no-knock warrant. We created financial incentives for drug arrests, and police departments responded accordingly. Blacks and whites use drugs at the same rate, yet blacks are 6 times more likely to go to prison for it. In what alternate universe is that right?
Overall, a newborn white boy has a 1 in 23 chance of going to prison at some point in his lifetime. For a newborn black boy, the chance is 1 in 4.
In what alternate universe is that right?
So, to the stereotype of the “angry black woman”: When your history contains three centuries of being owned by other human beings, followed by a century and a half of what I have outlined above, shit gets complicated real quick.
Wouldn’t you be angry too?
Lest you think I’m just pulling all this out of a place I could give you a tour of but you probably wouldn’t want to see, I direct your attention to this 20-ish minute video from Phil Vischer of VeggieTales fame on race in America. I also recommend The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.