When America’s top military leader used the term “white rage” to describe a crisis facing the country, it was as if he grabbed all of America by the shoulders and shook so we would pay attention.
“I want to understand white rage, and I am white,” Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee. “What is it that caused thousands of people to assault this building and try to overturn the Constitution of the United States? I want to find out?”
The Army general was responding to Republican complaints that military education and training is too “woke” to diversity and therefore weak. But he also reinforced the need for a national focus on growing discontent among white Americans.
The Republican Party has spent decades manipulating poor and working-class whites to vote against their own interests in order to protect the rich and keep the shrinking party’s hold on power. Just as the Democratic Party once did throughout the South, the GOP has used race, religion and social issues to keep these voters resistant to change and hostile to others.
That sense of victimhood now stews in a broth of conspiracy theories, embrace of violence and a hostility toward government and democracy in general.
The Biden administration should declare this a clear and present danger. Bring together experts in sociology, psychology, religion and economics to address root causes, determine strategies for outreach or, at least, find ways to insulate those more open to living in a multicultural democracy. This exploration would be separate from both congressional investigation into responsibility for the Jan. 6 insurrection and federal prosecution of the participants and other domestic terrorism.
This type of study is nothing new. Black Americans have routinely been dissected and analyzed. After urban riots, the Johnson administration did something similar with the 1968 National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission after chairman Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner Jr.
Certainly, the current growth of racist militias, even middle-class whites seeking to overthrow elections, and mass shootings and random attacks on minorities would qualify as “civil disorders.” America is about two decades away from whites becoming less than half of the nation’s population. What other violence and disruption should we expect when demographics further undermine the theory of white supremacy?
Some researchers have explored the rise in white self-destructiveness, including opioid and meth addiction and suicides with guns. Court filings and interviews with some insurrectionists indicate they feel besieged and powerless in a changing nation. All relevant findings should be pulled together to determine the right responses.
Others may argue that this strategy is unnecessary, that discontent will subside with new policies that elevate all working-class people. In polls, President Joe Biden’s ideas do win majority support from Republicans. Yet, two out of three also agree with former President Donald Trump — the avatar of their resentment — that Biden was illegally elected.
So, the insurrection continues. In less than six months, 14 states have passed laws to help suppress voter turnout and nullify election results. Belief in the QAnon conspiracy about elite, cannibalistic pedophiles has taken over many evangelical churches. Nazis are gaining traction on right-wing social media, and traditional conservative media have committed to enflaming grievances. Too many GOP lawmakers are either auditioning to replace Trump or are just trying to hang on until the party implodes.
Considering the country’s unfinished business on racial equity, why should we give more attention to white people with unhinged actions and beliefs? Because they are wreaking havoc. We are preoccupied now with refighting old battles, such as voting rights, while being distracted from urgent challenges like climate change. Also, by responding with more than politics and prosecutions, we just might learn something.
With the Kerner Commission, Johnson had hoped to find communist agitation behind the rioting. Yet, after research and on-the-ground interviews, the commission declared the real problem was “white racism” in areas including housing, employment and criminal justice. Lawmakers rejected that conclusion and soon launched the “tough on crime” era, creating volatile consequences we still face.
Consider how less fraught and divided our nation would be if we had heeded the Kerner findings and tried to solve some of those problems then. We can’t afford to repeat the mistake of ignoring mounting crises that are unraveling the country.
Vanessa Gallman is the former editor of the Herald Leader editorial department.