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The End of AngerRenewing America's Dream of Racial Equality
By Ellis Cose
EccoCopyright © 2011 Ellis Cose
All right reserved.
For centuries, black Americans lied to white Americans
It was a matter of simple survival. Slaves did not speak in
anger to their masters. Yes, America saw slave rebellionsthe most
famous was led by Nat Turner in Southampton, Virginia, in 1831.
But rage was generally held deep within. So most whites, during
the years of slavery and for decades thereafter, believed that blacks
were content. "They tell us in these eager days that life was joyous
to the black slave," wrote W. E. B. DuBois in The Souls of Black Folk,
published in 1903. But the truth, said DuBois, could be found in
the "Sorrow Songs," the Negro spirituals: "They are the music of
an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of
death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world."
Blacks could not forever hide their anger in spirituals and
whispered resentment. In 1940, as the war against fascism in
Europe threatened to engulf America, Richard Wright published
Native Son, the story of a black man, Bigger Thomas, who is filled
with rancor and rage. After World War II, as black Americans
increasingly equated Jim Crow with Nazism and black soldiers
who had fought for whites' freedom abroad were humiliated at
home, black anger spilled fully out into the open. Ever since
then, whenever African Americans have spoken in public about
our experience in this country, anger has been a recurrent and
"There are . . . as many ways of coping . . . as there are black men
in the world, but no black man can hope ever to be entirely liberated
from this internal warfarerage, dissembling, and contempt
having inevitably accompanied his first realization of the power of
white men," wrote James Baldwin in "Stranger in the Village" in
1953. He returned to the theme in 1955 in Notes of a Native Son.
"There is not a Negro alive who does not have this rage in his
bloodone has the choice, merely, of living with it consciously or
surrendering to it," he wrote.
Black Americans are no longer fumingor at least, not anything
like we once were. The angry black manBigger Thomas
and his ilkhas become marginalized, irrelevant, passé. In this era,
public anger (fringe kooks notwithstanding) rarely has an explicitly
racial edge. We are witnessing, in short, a fundamental shift in the
nature of the black-white relationship in America, under girded by
a major evolution in some core American assumptions. As white
racism has become unacceptable, unremitting black anger has
become inappropriatea huge change from where things stood
only a generation or two ago.
As psychologist Linda Anderson observed,
Fifteen or twenty years ago, I think our own ambivalence and
angerbuilt-up ragereally was more prominent than it is
now. I think we're at a place where those of us who are positioned
. . . to make change and acquire wealth, to a certain
extentthere's no time for it. We are working so hard to take
advantage of the window of opportunity [created by] being in
this culture where we have Obama in place.
In Black Rage (1968), psychiatrists William H. Grier and Price
M. Cobbs argued that anger was a natural and pervasive reaction to
the condition of blacks in America. "Aggression leaps from wounds
inflicted and ambitions spiked," they wrote in their book, published
just four months after Martin Luther King's assassination.
It grows out of oppression and capricious cruelty. . . . People
bear all they can and, if required, bear even more. But if they
are black in present-day American society they have been asked
to shoulder too much. They have had all they can stand. They
will be harried no more. Turning from their tormentors, they
are filled with rage. . . . We believe that the black masses will rise
with a simple and eloquent demand to which new leaders must
give tongue. They will say to America simply: GET OFF OUR
In December 1993, Colin Ferguson emptied two clips from
a semiautomatic pistol into commuters on a Long Island Railroad
killing six people and injuring nineteen others. Notes found in his pocket explained his action as a result of the rage he felt as a black man. A month or so later, I returned from an overseas trip to scores of phone calls from reporters seeking my comments
on the bloodbath. To my astonishment, they informed me that
Ferguson's attorney, William Kunstler, had cited me as an authority
on his "black rage defense" and urged them to call me. My
credential was having recently published The Rage of a Privileged
Class. The book had nothing to do with demented gunmen, but it
did speak to an angerrooted in racial slights, lack of respect, and
generally shabby treatmentthat was rarely voiced but often felt
by middle-class black Americans.
Vernon Baker was one such American, though I was not familiar
with him when I wrote Rage. At a White House ceremony in
January 1997, the former second lieutenant received the Medal
of Honor from President Bill Clinton. The award was for heroics
during World War II. During an epic battle on a hilltop in northern
Italy, Baker took out four nests of enemy soldiers. Of the 1.2 million
black soldiers who served in the military during World War II,
Baker was the only one to receive the medal while still alive. Six
others were honored posthumously at the same ceremony during
which Baker received his medal.
Shortly before accepting the honor, Baker, who was living in
Idaho, spoke with Washington Post columnist Milton Milloy and
confided that the white commander of his segregated unit had fled
from the battle, saying that he would return with reinforcements.
Instead, he abandoned the black battalion on the hill and told his
superiors that the men had been "wiped out." That commander,
reported Milloy, was recommended for the Medal of Honor, while
Baker's unit was written up as "sluggish."
"That was the story of our lives," said Baker. "We used to call
ourselves the 'promotion pool' for white officers."
"The main feeling I had during that time was anger. I was
an angry, angry young man," said Baker. He repeated the
sentiment in numerous interviews, including one with a New York
Times reporter: "We were all angry. But we had a job to do, and
we did it."
In his 1997 memoir, Lasting Valor, Baker writes scathingly of
the military's disdain for black soldiers, who were considered "too
worthless to lead ourselves. The Army decided we needed super-
vision from white Southerners, as if war was plantation work and
fighting Germans was picking cotton."
Elsewhere in the book he observes: "Our commanders made it
clear that they considered black soldiers failures, no matter what
we did, and that they would ensure history reflected that. It was
difficult to tell who the bigger racists werethe commanders
behind us or the Germans in front of us."
Baker describes a black sergeant, Napoleon Belk, who reminded
him of himself:
Under that dandy figure was an angry black man ready to raise
his fists at the smallest slight. Luther Hall, the company first
sergeant had joined me in pulling him aside soon after his arrival
and counseling him not to follow his fists to a dishonorable
"Maybe you don't get it," Belk had challenged me. "Maybe
a Wyoming nigger don't know what a Chicago nigger knows."
I got it. Maybe my introduction [to racism] came later in
life than his. Perhaps the sources were different. But still I was
a veteran of anger and outrage, and the Army had baptized me
like nothing else.
Because black soldiers were routinely denigrated by white
commanders, it took decades for them to receive their due. Only
in 1994, after a commission determined that blacks had been
systematically denied recognition, did the military initiate a process to
set things right. An Army board subsequently recommended Baker
and the others for the highest award a soldier can receive.
When Baker died in 2010 at the age of ninety, the Idaho Statesman
reported, "When he received a call telling him he was to
receive a Medal of Honor, at first he was astonished, then angry.
'It was something that I felt should have been done a long time
ago. . . . If I was worthy of receiving the Medal of Honor in 1945,
I should have received it then.' "
When Baker received the medal and when he died, the stories
did not focus much on his anger. Instead, they celebrated the fact
that he had finally been given his due and remarked on his grace,
dignity, and lack of bitterness. None speculated on the cost, to
Davis and his fellow soldiers, of carrying their largely silent anger
for so many years. But Davis's quiet secret was the norm for men
of his age, color, and accomplishments, as it was for many who
followed. And that silent anger stemmed almost totally from coming
up at a time in America when black people were routinely
subjected to the most humiliating forms of disrespect.
The inspiration for Rage came to me during a seminar I had
organized for a mixed-race group of newspaper managers.
During that session, when the conversation turned to career
opportunities, it became clear that the white and black managers had a
very different take: without exception, the blacks felt that the deck
was stacked against them and as a result they were frustrated and
angry. I discovered that what was true for those black managers in
the newspaper industry was true for blacks throughout corporate
Rage was a revelation to many readers. But its central message
should not have been a surprise to readers familiar with the thinking
of those who had chronicled the African American experience.
Writers from Baldwin to Richard Wright to Grier and Cobbs had
already laid the foundation for a work that made the point that
material comfort and status did not eliminate rage if one still felt
powerless in the face of discrimination and racist assumptions. And
until very recently, that sense of powerlessness was palpablean
inevitable consequence of the conviction, rooted in custom and
history, that America was a white man's country.
Stephen Douglas, who debated and beat Abraham Lincoln in
the Illinois Senate contest of 1858, spelled it out during those
debates: "This Government was made by our fathers on the white
basis . . . made by white men for the benefit of white men and
their posterity forever." The signers meant "white men, men of
European birth and European descent and had no reference either
to the Negro, the savage Indians, the Fejee, the Malay, or any other
inferior and degraded race."
In "The American Dream and the American Negro," published
in the New York Times Magazine in 1965, Baldwin wrote,
it is a terrible thing for an entire people to surrender to the
notion that one-ninth of its population is beneath them. Until
the moment comes when we, the Americans, are able to accept
the fact that my ancestors are both black and white, that on that
continent we are trying to forge a new identity, that we need
each other, that I am not a ward of America, I am not an object
of missionary charity, I am one of the people who built the
countryuntil this moment comes there is scarcely any hope
for the American dream. If the people are denied participation
in it, by their very presence they will wreck it. And if that hap-
pens it is a very grave moment for the West.
Well, the people did not wreck the American Dream. Instead,
the civil rights movement picked up steam and forced America to
grapple with, and eventually embrace, the notion of real equality.
And now we have arrived at that moment when black hopes, once
held in check by the weight of prejudice and discrimination, have
begun to soar free and when black ragecorrosive, hidden, yet
omnipresentis ebbing. We have arrived, in short, at a pivotal and
defining moment in history, one that has far-ranging implications
for virtually every aspect of America's futureand particularly for
the dialogue about social mobility and equality.
In his acclaimed 1944 study The American Dilemma, Gunnar
Myrdal dwelt at length on America's founding contradiction:
though the "American Creed" embraced equality, America in reality
was a brutally segregated, unequal place. In Notes on the State of
Virginia, Thomas Jefferson alluded to that damning contradiction
and its inevitable (perhaps divine) reckoning:
And with what execration should the statesman be loaded, who
permitting one half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of
the other, transforms those into despots, and these into enemies,
destroys the morals of the one part, and the amor patriae of the
other. For if a slave can have a country in this world, it must be
any other in preference to that in which he is born to live and
labour for another. . . . Indeed I tremble for my country when I
reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever. . . .
The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in
such a contest.
So what happens when those contradictions get resolved? What
happens when the nation finally accepts the idea that blacks should
be as free as whites and that blacks, Latinos, and other people of
color can be as ambitious as whites? What happens when the energy
invested in justifying that founding contradiction is instead invested
in resolving it? America may well be on the verge of finding out.
I am not saying that America has become a racial paradise, but
it has become a country where skin color no longer automatically
bars one from even the most exalted positions. And people
of color with the proper credentials feel increasingly confident
that they will get a shot at those top slots. That confidence, of
course, is a direct result of the very visible successes of a handful
of highfliersnot just in the minority-friendly environs of sports
and entertainment but in the upper echelons of corporate America,
which, in some respects, is the last bastion of white privilege.
It stems also from a new generational sensibility. As John Lewis
pointed out, young blacks coming out of universities and business
schools now have simply not had the message pounded into their
souls, "You cannot do this. You cannot go there."
Excerpted from The End of Anger by Ellis Cose Copyright © 2011 by Ellis Cose. Excerpted by permission of Ecco. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: A New Age and a New Generation 1
1 Revising the Racial Contract 27
2 Children of the Dream 51
3 From the Hallowed Halls of Harvard 73
4 Fighters, Dreamers, and Believers 105
5 Hostiles, Neutrals, and Allies 137
6 Reaching Across the Generational Divide 159
7 A Place to Call Home 185
8 Jail, Jobs, School, and Hope 203
9 The End of Black Politics, Reconsidered 227
10 The Future of Civil Rights 251
11 Prejudice, Equality, and Our Capacity for Change 273
Appendix: Black Harvard MBAs Share Their Rules for Success 285
What People are Saying About This
“A masterpiece in illuminating one of the most significant issues in the history of our republic. . . . It is one of those books every American of conscience should read.”
“A tremendously important bookgracefully done, painfully perceptive, and, as always in Cose’s writing, fearless in its honesty about the ways that black and white Americans continue to be distanced from each other, even at the topmost levels of success.”
“The most authoritative accounting I’ve seen of where our country stands in its unending quest to resolve the racial dilemma on which it was founded. . . . [Cose’s] new book is a moving, sometimes startling, appraisal of this pivotal moment in our history.”
“The End of Anger may be the defining work on America’s new racial dynamics. Deeply researched, artfully reasoned, and beautifully written. . . . Cose deepens our understanding not just of race but of the power of generational transformation.”
“[Cose] illuminates the contemporary racial landscape while avoiding the illusion of a post-racial era and the romance of a static racial condition. This is engaged social history and critical analysis at its best!”