Trying to police a discussion of ‘White Rage’ is white rage itself

Rep. Ray Garofalo takes issue with a panel discussion at LSU

Members of the mob supporting Donald Trump destroy media equipment during an attack on the U.S. Capitol Wednesday (photo by Alex Kent)

After complaining that a proposed discussion about the history of the fight for voting rights wouldn’t give voice to “the other side,” most of the members of the Lafayette Parish Library Board decided last month to reject a grant that would have paid for copies of two books on that history and for a pair of panelists to discuss the topic.

This week, as LSU’s Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs prepared to host an online discussion of the book “The Religion of White Rage: White Workers, Religious Fervor, and the Myth of Black Racial Progress,” Rep. Ray Garofalo (R-Chalmette) told The Advocate,  “Are we presenting all sides, because I don’t know. If we are making these types of presentations on campus, are we presenting an alternative viewpoint as well as making sure we have balanced presentations?”

Tuesday’s discussion of “The Religion of White Rage,” co-edited by Stephen C. Finley and Lori Latrice Martin of LSU and Biko Mandela Gray of Syracuse, was part of a Reilly Center series called “Racism: Dismantling the System.”  (Full disclosure: I was paid to participate in “Black Representation in Mainstream Media Outlets,” the October installment in that series, and in May, spoke as a panelist in a separate Reilly center discussion series called “Communications & COVID-19.”)

Garofalo questioned the “White Rage” discussion in a letter to Louisiana Higher Education Commissioner Kim Hunter-Reed. He asks what system needs dismantling and if the panel and series reflect the university’s official position.

“‘Racism: Dismantling the System’ is about as clear as one can get about what systems should be dismantled and why,” Gray, the Syracuse professor, said during Tuesday’s panel, “but Rep. Garofalo’s lack of attention to detail exposes a critical dimension of the religion of white rage, namely that rage rarely engages rationally, carefully or deliberately.”

One might have assumed — as I did — that Tuesday’s discussion would focus on the overwhelming majority of white evangelicals who aligned themselves with Donald Trump.  However, Martin, who teaches sociology at LSU, broadly defined religion as the way people understand the world and their place in it.

It wasn’t White voters’ economic anxiety that caused them to vote for Trump, the book’s editors say, but their anxiety about where they fit in a changing country. If that is your worry, would you even have the capacity to engage in a thoughtful discussion about the history and ongoing opposition to voting rights?

In the time between the library board’s shameful refusal of that grant and Garofalo’s disturbingly  meddlesome letter, five of the six men who represent Louisiana in Washington used their social media platforms to eulogize Rush Limbaugh, the high priest of white rage.

It should be clear: The LSU series doesn’t need to be balanced by any other side. It should, instead, be seen as one small attempt to counterbalance a mindset — a religion, Tuesday’s panelists would call it — that leads public officials to describe voting rights activists as far-left radicals, claim ignorance of the existence of systemic racism and assert that Limbaugh’s noxious rhetoric was refreshing.

“Our country is a better place because of his profound voice,” Republican Whip Steve Scalise wrote of Limbaugh on Twitter. “He leaves behind an incredible legacy.” Everybody in the Congressional delegation but Rep. Garret Graves said something similarly positive.

No, not incredible. Detestable. The world needs none of what Limbaugh brought to the microphone. He served to strengthen White Americans’ belief that they alone have any right to be angry.

Our lawmakers in Washington have condemned the Jan. 6 invasion of the U.S. Capitol, but each of them has at some point validated or fueled the rage that preceded it. As recently as Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” Scalise declined ABC Chief Washington Correspondent Jonathan Karl’s invitation for him to say that November’s election wasn’t stolen from Trump.

Even on this side of Jan. 6, Scalise still won’t stop validating the anger.

Garofalo complained that Tuesday’s panel and the Reilly series as a whole ought to be balanced, but there aren’t nearly enough people or enough institutions calling out or challenging the rage that Garofalo himself tapped in his letter and in his interview with the press. 

“A man read a title and took it personally,” Gray said during Tuesday’s panel. “I just want us to think about that. We wrote a text to try to understand how to move forward, and a man read a title, took two words out and took it personally.”

That’s not the foaming-at-the-mouth rage that characterized the Jan. 6 mob, but because it questions the very legitimacy of questions about structural racism, it counts as rage, too.