Back in the 1960s, two leaders in the black civil rights movement emerged: Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. They were polar opposites.
Malcolm X, who was a Muslim, called for the complete separation of blacks and whites, declared that blacks should create their own separate country within America, and rejected nonviolence, saying blacks should seize power “by any means necessary.” King, on the other hand, was a Christian who became the leader of a nonviolent movement, preferring civil disobedience over violence.
Malcolm X, whose real name was Malcolm Little, was angry and proud of his reputation. “They called me ‘the angriest Negro in America,’” he once said. “I wouldn’t deny that charge. I spoke exactly as I felt. I believe in anger.” King, meanwhile, preached peace and love, always softly and eloquently, often with quotes from Scripture.
A fearful America, which the Census Bureau says was 88.6% white then, chose to elevate King and ostracize Malcolm X.
Skip ahead 40-plus years to America’s first black president.
President Obama, like King, sought to elevate the discourse, selling his “hope and change” campaign slogan. He didn’t dwell on racial divisions — at least not during his first campaign — and he was, at least according to his then opponent and soon-to-be running mate Joe Biden, “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean.”
One thing Obama knew wouldn’t sell was anger, which CNN pointed out in a 2010 article headlined, “Why Obama doesn’t dare become the ‘angry black man.’”
“It would have fed deeply into a preexisting set of narratives about the angry black man,” William Jelani Cobb, author of an Obama book, says in the piece. “The anger would have gotten in the way. He would have frightened off white voters who were interested in him because he seemed to be like the black guy they worked with or went to graduate school with — not a black guy who is threatening.”
Skip ahead again to 2019.
Sen. Kamala Harris of California, running for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president, is angry — and she wants everyone to know it.
Anger is, as you also know, the new way of politics. Everyone is angry — outraged — all the time. Lawmakers who once at least pretended to listen to those from the other side of the aisle now blast each other on Twitter, deliver ad hominem attacks in public hearings, and say much worse (no doubt) in private.
Harris is one such lawmaker. She’s angry at everyone who doesn’t think like her (and even a few, like Biden, who mostly do). During the first Democratic debates last week, she went after the former vice president, saying, “I don’t think you’re a racist” — before making a case for why she thinks he’s very racist indeed.
Getting into Biden’s face, Harris — whose mother is from India and whose father is Jamaican — said “it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country.”
Harris spoke of “a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.”
(Within days, her campaign was selling for $30 a T-shirt with the phrase and photo of her as a girl.)
Throughout the debate, Harris interrupted, lectured, talked over her opponents. And she was, throughout, downright angry.
Here’s one takeaway: The “angry” move that Obama so clearly rejected in 2008 has now been embraced by Harris, and to a lesser degree, by another black 2020 hopeful, Sen. Cory A. Booker of New Jersey. Not only are they not afraid to play the race card Obama so shunned, they’re flipping it out at every turn.
The tactic has not gone unnoticed. Even the liberal New York magazine called attention to Harris’s strategy.
“Going after the former vice-president was also a gamble on whether voters are willing to embrace a black candidate who so openly confronts her white opponents about their racist complicity. Obama’s success hinged on studiously avoiding this approach. Harris is banking on a more receptive electorate. Public sentiment seems poised to affirm her, at least in the primary: Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to believe America has not gone far enough to achieve racial equality, according to Pew. Live polling of Thursday’s debate showed black voters responding favorably to Harris’s busing remarks,” author Zak Cheney-Rice wrote.
America still has a massive amount of white guilt, and rightly so. Harris, clearly, is going to go there. And after her angry debate, she has soared in the polls.
So in this day and age of anger, all day every day, maybe Harris is in the right place at the right time — Angry America.
*Joseph Curl ran the Drudge Report from 2010 to 2014 and covered the White House for a dozen years. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter at @JosephCurl. A version of this article ran previously in The Washington Times.