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Maxine Waters and the trope of the “angry black woman”

Black women have always been accused of “incivility” when expressing political critique.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) speaks at a press conference on Capitol Hill January 31, 2017, in Washington, DC. Waters called for investigation into Trump administration ties to Russia.
Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

“Congratulations to Maxine Waters, whose crazy rants have made her, together with Nancy Pelosi, the unhinged FACE of the Democrat Party,” tweeted Trump yesterday. “Together, they will Make America Weak Again!”

This was Trump’s response to remarks the Congress member made about the president’s family separation policy at a rally last Saturday:

“Already, you have members of your Cabinet that have been booed out of restaurants, who have protesters taking up at their house who sang, ‘No peace, no sleep.’ … And guess what, we’re going to win this battle. ... Let’s make sure we show up wherever we have to show up. And if you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them and you tell them they’re not welcome.”

Right-wing pundits have accused Waters of instigating violence and called for her formal censure. Rep. Anthony Biggs of Arizona insists that she resign and issue a public apology to White House officials for “endangering their lives and sowing seeds of discord.” Even some Democrats directly or indirectly criticized their colleague. House minority leader Chuck Schumer said that Waters’s words were “not American” and Nancy Pelosi suggested that “we must conduct elections in a way that achieves unity from sea to shining sea.” Waters has already canceled two speaking events due to threats.

Republicans’ efforts to demonize Waters and mischaracterize her statement as a form of violence are not surprising. These are blatant attempts to divert attention from the administration’s persecution of migrant families. Republicans have been exploiting the episode to raise campaign donations over the last week. But why did high-profile Democrats decide that civility is a more pressing matter than speaking up against the traumatic and possibly irreparable separation of children from their parents?

Depicting a 79-year-old black Congress member as a threatening figure is also a way of delegitimizing her with the “angry black woman” trope. These efforts to police and sanction Waters for boldly challenging the most overtly white nationalist administration since the civil rights movement illustrate the peculiar intersections of racism and sexism for black women in the United States.

Unlike Rep. Waters, who has a long history of opposing violence, including her opposition to the Iraq War, Donald Trump and his supporters have a long and ignominious history of explicitly encouraging violence. We have a sitting president who trivializes the prospects of nuclear war, issues direct and veiled threats to world leaders and political opponents alike, and then plays the victim card while attempting to demonize and intimidate critics like Maxine Waters.

But in our racist and sexist society, a white man like Donald Trump can openly incite and even celebrate physical violence and be rewarded with the presidency, while a black representative is subject to calumny, slurs, and even death threats for promoting non-violent protest.

To be clear, Waters called for opponents of the administration’s cruel and unjust child separation policy to push back on Cabinet officials — with words. Contrary to Republicans’ absurd accusations, she did not advocate physical assault of Trump supporters.

Turning reality on its head to suggest that a champion of non-violent protest is actually a clear and present danger is a form of gaslighting, an abuse tactic used by the powerful to manipulate those they wish to silence or dominate. I and many others who speak up against and challenge oppression know exactly how it feels to be attacked as “divisive” for acknowledging the social and political divisions that are already present in our society.

There is nothing new about white Americans portraying anti-racists as violent. Slandering black activists and human rights advocates as menacing threats allows those who wish to defend the status quo to play the victim. Research on white racial attitudes and collective memory shows that white Southerners who lived through the civil rights movement viewed themselves, not people of color, as victimized.

Moreover, Black activists have traditionally been subject to respectability politics, or the attempt to prove their moral upstanding and worth through a respectable presentation of self. But choosing their words and even their clothes carefully never protected black activists from being viewed as a menace to (white) society.

Ida B. Wells, the iconic black feminist and anti-lynching crusader, was threatened and attacked by white racists and even some fellow African Americans for her human rights advocacy and provocative language. Detractors accused peace-loving Martin Luther King Jr. himself of inciting hatred and violence. More recently, national anthem protests led by Colin Kaepernick and other athletes have been framed by critics as divisive and unpatriotic. Stigmatizing black protest in this way deflects attention from the pressing civil rights and social justice issues at hand.

Public demonstrations are an appropriate and, one might argue, exceedingly civil response to state-sponsored child abuse, human rights violations, and torture. When an administration openly advocates discrimination and harm targeting a wide variety of vulnerable populations — from undocumented migrants to African Americans, to poor or LGBTQ individuals — refusing to serve those officials is a legally protected act of moral courage and conscientious objection. People on the wrong side of history frequently chide human rights advocates as being “uncivil” for speaking out against grotesque forms of violence.

In recent weeks, political protest, investigative journalism, and organizing around migrants’ rights have been highly effective in raising consciousness and building a moral consensus against child separation. Unbowed and unapologetic, Waters threatens the racial and gendered status quo precisely because she highlights this administration’s extreme and heartless brutality.

By now, it should be obvious to people of conscience that children’s lives and well-being matter considerably more than civility and politesse.

Crystal Marie Fleming, PhD, is an associate professor of sociology and Africana studies at Stony Brook University. She is the author of the forthcoming book How to Be Less Stupid about Race: On Racism, White Supremacy and the Racial Divide, coming in September from Beacon Press. Find her on Twitter @alwaystheself.

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