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COMMENTARY | Black Lives Matter protests are not anti-American, but as American as one can get.
Racism is alive in our society. It lives in store aisles, discriminatory 911 calls, policing, the racial wealth gap, and asymmetrical government responses to communities afflicted by COVID-19. Through protest, diverse voices are boldly standing up to racial injustice. And they are expressing anger while doing it. This rage is not a distraction, nor is it destructive to American ideals. It is playing a crucial role, politically and morally, in helping us build a better country.
The purpose of rage is not to make white people feel guilty. Rather, it communicates the value of Black lives and egalitarian principles. Anger, in this way, is not antithetical to love. It expresses compassion for the downtrodden and the desire for a better world. Anger at racial injustice makes people eager to do something about it. We cannot suppress anger, nor should we dress it up in the garments of respectability politics.
The anger we are witnessing at Black Lives Matter protests is more than emotional identity politics. Protesters’ anger signals that Black folks have moral worth and should be respected. It says that while the system may not hold Black people in high regard, those risking psychological discomfort, infection, and arrest do. This anger dignifies Black children who might have begun to think that their skin tone was a death sentence. It proclaims that Black lives do, in fact, matter.
Anger further expresses how much the protesters treasure justice. In June, the author and activist Kimberly Jones argued for the necessity and power of Black Lives Matter protests, saying the nation is “lucky that what Black people are looking for is equality and not revenge.” It is easy to see this statement as a threat. But Jones is underscoring that Black people’s anger asserts the values we all claim to hold dear in a liberal democracy. Black people and their allies are simply striving, through their anger, to advertise these shared values of equality and the necessity of putting them into practice.
Outraged protesters uphold principles no different from those articulated in the founding documents. They just want them applied universally across the population. This makes their anger not anti-American, but as American as one can get. Anger not only demands that things change; it proclaims that change matters. And when change is absent, anger reminds us of its need to exist.
As the black feminist poet Audre Lorde stated, focused anger “can become a powerful source of energy serving progress.” Similarly, in her 2018 book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, columnist Rebecca Traister points to a range of women, including the abolitionist Maria Stewart and the activist Emma González, whose work for social change was sparked by righteous anger. In these instances and in today’s movement for racial justice, anger drives the conviction that a better future is possible.
Emotions tend to be accompanied by urges to act in some way. Fear, for example, motivates us to run away. Anger, however, motivates us to run toward a target. It makes us eager to approach and tackle the issue head-on. Perhaps without their anger, activists protesting police violence in Portland, Oregon, would have stayed home as soon as federal troops arrived. But they didn’t retreat, no matter how powerful or threatening the militarized resistance was. They persisted on behalf of Black lives.
Anger motivates us to fight against injustice and for those at the margins. In Portland, anger fuels the protesters’ willingness to stare injustice in the face. Rather than discounting their anger, we must hear the love and compassion they are expressing with it. By consistently showing up, building walls of protection, facing tear gas, and getting arrested, they are communicating concern, care, and respect for Black people.
When faced with something as persistent and destructive as racism, we might think that things will never change and that we cannot change them. But anger can make people optimistic about the future and increase their self-belief. A 2014 study found that angry people think they are going to prevail no matter the circumstances. Anger makes them believe that they are powerful and capable. This effect, in turn, makes angry people less risk-averse, which is evidenced in how protesters from around the world are fighting for change at the risk of police violence and illness.
When I originally saw the footage of George Floyd’s death, my heart was broken, not only because a Black man was dying before my eyes, but because I had seen so many of these videos before. So many cries like Floyd’s have been ignored. But my anger refused to allow me to despair. As much as anger is a response to past events, it is also forward-looking. Anger makes us believe that we can shape a new, more just world. It is a source of hope, one that propels the struggle against seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
For those skeptical of anger’s power and usefulness, it is important to note that anger at racial injustice does not cause poverty, inadequate housing, a police state, or dehumanizing practices. Anger responds to these atrocities. Many refuse to believe this, because to them, anger is always irrational, undemocratic, and synonymous with violence. So they fear it. However, anger is a legitimate response to wrongdoing. It challenges us to achieve political equality. And we can have anger without violence, and violence without anger.
Still, some people might prefer to remain afraid of rage, the racial bodies who express it, and the change it has the potential to bring about. But they should know that fearing anger will teach them nothing. Listening to it, seeking to understand it, and allowing oneself to be challenged by it will.
To those who continue to embrace and express anger, despite insincere attempts by others to control it, thank you for responding to racism with rage. This matters, particularly when so many find comfort in rationalizing, ignoring, or wishing away racism. Your fury is needed to awaken our consciousness, and to create a more perfect union.
Myisha Cherry is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside. She is the author of the forthcoming book The Case for Rage: On the Role of Anger in Anti-racist Struggle.