Why Are They So Angry? Race 101

As we were dismissing school one day, a young white teacher walked up to me in the hallway, clearly frustrated, and asked, “Why are they so angry?”  She was referring to the black students at our rural Mississippi high school.  There was a specific context to her question, but I realized as we talked more that there was also a larger context of which she was either unaware or unaccepting.

 I can hear echoes of her question in the responses from many people, especially whites, to the verdict in the Trayvon Martin George Zimmerman trial. I’ve been married almost 30 years, and I’ve only seen my husband cry three times: 1) The first time we took our children through the National Civil Rights Museum, as he looked at the spot where Dr. King was shot; 2) after he had a heart attack; 3) when Zimmerman was pronounced not guilty. That announcement took me back to another school moment.

 On October 3, 1995, I was teaching English at another all-black Mississippi high school, when the verdict to the (first) O.J. Simpson trial was announced. The principal had it broadcast over the Channel One monitors in our classrooms, so everything stopped and the school went completely silent as the live report began. When Simpson was pronounced not guilty, students all over the building erupted in cheers. I was standing in the doorway, watching both the classroom and the hallway. As the students cheered and high-fived each other, one of my white co-workers, a history teacher, slammed open the door to his classroom, kicked a chair into the hall, and stormed over to where I stood. Flushed red from the neck up and breathing hard, he stopped five inches from my face and yelled: “Can you BELIEVE that?! Can you believe they let him go free?!”  Without changing my position or my demeanor, I replied, “Well, a few days ago, one of the men who killed Emmett Till died of old age[1]. What can I say, American justice.”  As my co-worker turned and sulked away, I wondered, “Why was he so angry?”

Our nation is having a much-needed, and long overdue discussion about racism. Some folk, bless their hearts, want us to believe that racism is no longer an issue in America, and that discussing it creates, rather than solves, problems.  However, one reason there is so much pent-up anger around this topic is that we keep trying to avoid it. Reminds me of a writing class I took at a small, Mississippi college. The white professor and white classmates rejected one of my personal narratives because I described racist incidents I had experienced on that very campus. They insisted those incidents could not have been racist because “there is no more racism at this institution…well, maybe some latent racism.”

For the record: Racism is not just part of our history or a figment of Black people’s imagination; it is very much alive and deeply woven into our society, including into our educational policies and practices.  Racism today affects our students in profound ways, and it affects the thinking and performance of teachers and administrators.

Educators, in particular, should take note of some recent studies about the effects of racism. NPR reported on one (“How to Fight Racial Bias When It’s Silent and Subtle”) in which researchers found:  “Teaching people about the injustice of discrimination or asking them to be empathetic toward others was ineffective. What worked, at least temporarily, Banaji [one of the researchers] said, was providing volunteers with ‘counter-stereotypical’ messages.”  These counter messages were often visual cues.  Another study, published by the American Psychological Association (APA) asserts that “Perceived racism may cause mental health symptoms similar to trauma and could lead to some physical health disparities between blacks and other populations in the United States.”

Such information should be taken seriously by teachers since we know that the population of American schools increasingly will be made up of students of color; the Census Bureau projects that by 2023, 50% of U.S. children will be from groups now considered racial minorities, yet 83% of our teaching force is white. Teachers will have to become increasingly equipped not only to understand students from diverse backgrounds, but also to recognize and control our own biases.


[1] Although identified by Black eyewitnesses in open court, the men were found not guilty after one hour of deliberation by an all-white jury.

  • JonHanbury

    walk in my shoes!


    your words resonate with me!  having begun my teaching career in virgnia beach public schools in an elementary school that was just integrated in 1972 — as well as being white — i can truly appreciate your perspective.  as a white women, i can never “understand” being black, but i can at least consider the life of an african american male in today’s world.  i live in the city of norfolk, va; i recall schooling my children on what to do in case they were confronted with an individual who wanted to steal their bikes.  we talked about safe houses in our neighborhood; we talked about how to relinquish the bike at the expense of being injured; we had experienced a robbery to our household while sleeping peacefully upstairs.  so unfortunately, the statistics play a role in our perceptions.  (our older son saw an african american riding his bicycle past his middle school the day after the robbery.)  perceptions are so hard to change!!!  

    i recall telling my father when i first started teaching that i wanted to change the world — change the mindset!  it’s over 40 years later and i still struggle with the same issues.  wish i knew how i could truly affect change!  

    jon………wanting to do more to educate our children and the pubilc

  • marsharatzel

    Thank you for your post

    Dear Renee,

    Thanks for writing this.  Honestly…it is thru my virtual PLN that I learn enough about the world to expand my views on many things….including race.  You know that I’ve learned much as you articulate what it means to live in the Mississippi Delta.  It’s somewhere I’ve never been and don’t know about.  I grow as my understanding of other places and people grow and feel like I’m very different for having had those exchanges.   Does that make any sense?

    I was very hesitant to post a response.  

    Not because I disagree…but because I wouldn’t have a clue what to offer as an antidote.  I feel so helpless in this discussion because, while I remain open to learning and changing anything within myself that I can, I wield little power.  

    Hopefully my biggest contribution to changing the world is raising my own 3 children differently….and with their generation, I have hope that they’ll do a better job than my generation.  I do hope my classroom is a place where we value every person for who they are….and to take the time to meet each person and get to know them personally.

    It’s not much to say in response (that I promise to keep listening and learning and changing what I can change….and that I hope my children can be change agents in bigger, better ways).  But I hear you and I stand ready to do what I can.

  • BillIvey

    it takes all of us

    One thing I’ve come to believe deeply – it takes all of us, every day, working to fight racism and make the world a better place. Depending on who we are, where we live, what we do, that fight might of necessity take on different forms. For those of us born into white privilege, listening and learning is a huge part of it, as is being willing to be completely honest with ourselves. José Vilson also writes beautifully and powerfully on this, among other themes. Jacqueline Woodson’s If You Come Softly brings up this theme as well.

    My school is built on feminist ideals and has come increasingly to view itself as a school charged to work for social justice. We’ve recently published three pieces which may interest some of you:

    … with liberty and justice for all” (written the day the jury began deliberations)

    Stop, Listen, and Learn… and Act!” (written soon after the verdict)

    In Visible” (written a week later)

    • Lowell

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      Hello there! This post could not be written any better!
      Reading through this post reminds me of my good old room mate!
      He always kept chatting about this. I will forward this post to him.
      Fairly certain he will have a good read. Many thanks for sharing!

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  • ReneeMoore

    Start With Honesty

    Thanks for your comments, Jon, and your honesty.

    I hope no one reading this piece thinks I’m trying to present all whites as racists, all blacks as noble, or that we can stop racism by holding hands and singing We Shall Overcome.  [Although historical footnote: Often when people of all races were seen holding hands and singing that song it was after they had been jailed, beaten, or taken great risks to defy unjust laws and practices].

    What stands out to me in the reaction to this verdict and the other examples I mention is how raw the racist nerve is, and how easily something that people keep wanting to claim is dead resurrects itself with even the slightest social pressure. So, I’m for having honest conversations. That report on the effects of racism matches what I’ve been taught and seen all my life: racism affects perpetrator and victim. It is a form of hatred that reproduces hatred and violence in others. Like all evils, it cannot be ignored; it must be exposed and resisted.