Read: Is this the beginning of the end of American racism?
Anger further expresses how much the protesters treasure justice. In June, the author and activist Kimberly Jones argued for the necessity and power of Black Lives Matter protests, saying the nation is “lucky that what Black people are looking for is equality and not revenge.” It is easy to see this statement as a threat. But Jones is underscoring that Black people’s anger asserts the values we all claim to hold dear in a liberal democracy. Black people and their allies are simply striving, through their anger, to advertise these shared values of equality and the necessity of putting them into practice.
Outraged protesters uphold principles no different from those articulated in the founding documents. They just want them applied universally across the population. This makes their anger not anti-American, but as American as one can get. Anger not only demands that things change; it proclaims that change matters. And when change is absent, anger reminds us of its need to exist.
As the Black feminist poet Audre Lorde stated, focused anger “can become a powerful source of energy serving progress.” Similarly, in her 2018 book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, columnist Rebecca Traister points to a range of women, including the abolitionist Maria Stewart and the activist Emma González, whose work for social change was sparked by righteous anger. In these instances and in today’s movement for racial justice, anger drives the conviction that a better future is possible.
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Emotions tend to be accompanied by urges to act in some way. Fear, for example, motivates us to run away. Anger, however, motivates us to run toward a target. It makes us eager to approach and tackle the issue head-on. Perhaps without their anger, activists protesting police violence in Portland, Oregon, would have stayed home as soon as federal troops arrived. But they didn’t retreat, no matter how powerful or threatening the militarized resistance was. They persisted on behalf of Black lives.
Anger motivates us to fight against injustice and for those at the margins. In Portland, anger fuels the protesters’ willingness to stare injustice in the face. Rather than discounting their anger, we must hear the love and compassion they are expressing with it. By consistently showing up, building walls of protection, facing tear gas, and getting arrested, they are communicating concern, care, and respect for Black people.
When faced with something as persistent and destructive as racism, we might think that things will never change and that we cannot change them. But anger can make people optimistic about the future and increase their self-belief. A 2014 study found that angry people think they are going to prevail no matter the circumstances. Anger makes them believe that they are powerful and capable. This effect, in turn, makes angry people less risk-averse, which is evidenced in how protesters from around the world are fighting for change at the risk of police violence and illness.