Shelby Steele
White Guilt: How Blacks & Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era
HarperCollins, 2006
181 pages, hardcover, $24.95
ISBN 978-0-06-057862-6
Reviewed by Gary McGath
Copyright 2006 by Gary McGath

The racial doctrines which dominate modern liberalism are beyond belief. The use of racial preferences allegedly to combat racism, the idea that genetic diversity is a prime requirement of education, the claim that racism is itself a racial characteristic -- these are such raving nonsense that no one should be able to get away with them for a moment. Yet they've lasted for decades, taking a heavy toll on whites and nonwhites alike.

What makes this possible? White Guilt helps us to understand, though I think its explanation is incomplete.

Steele writes from a background that provides many essential clues. He grew up as a black child in the last years of overt racial discrimination. He shows that in those years, blacks who achieved success were penalized for their achievement. His father "had to hide his home ownership -- managed on a subunion wage -- from his employer for fear that he would be fired for 'getting above himself.'" Blacks faced a "Sysiphean struggle with responsibility," facing injustice in proportion to the responsibility they took. The nature of segregation, Steele says, "made it easy for me to confuse responsibility itself with racial injustice, to experience them as one and the same. In his college years, he became a militant.

When the civil rights movement destroyed the moral authority of segregation, the result was two deadly legacies: the continued belief on the part of many blacks that taking responsibility was a trap, and the complementary belief on the part of many whites that it was unfair to expect blacks to take full responsibility unaided. There's something in Steele's account which is reminiscent of the strike of the productive in Atlas Shrugged; but what's happened since then is that the "strike" has gone on and on, outliving any reasonable purpose and sapping the lives of the strikers. They have ended up accepting the key premise of segregation: that "race is destiny."

"White guilt" is what Steele calls the white side of this legacy. American whites, in finally seeing the vast injustice of segregation, lost moral authority. This lured many blacks into a trap: they could advance "by pressuring the society that had wronged us into taking the lion's share of responsibility in resurrecting us." The consequences of this have been disastrous:

Black leader after black leader argued that we could not pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps, because we "don't have any bootstraps." But this humiliating plea for white intervention only projected whites as powerful and blacks as helpless. So, finally, we embraced a black militancy that argued nothing more strongly than our own perpetual weakness -- or, put another way, our inferiority.

White guilt, Steele tells us, sets up "dissociation" as a primary motive, the desire to position oneself as far away as possible from the old segregation. But this results in "white blindness," the failure to see black people as people: "Your color represents you in the mind of such people. They will have built a large part of their moral identity and, possibly, their politics around how they respond to your color." Dissociation, not principles or personal understanding, forms the basis of their actions.

But Steele stops short here, not identifying something worse: the use of white guilt by white liberals as a tool of manipulation. There is too much dishonesty in the politics of "affirmative action" and "diversity" to be explained by guilt alone. He gives several clear clues. He cites Maureen Dowd's denunciation of Clarence Thomas, which demanded that Thomas feel "gratitude" for affirmative action. He notes, correctly, that Dowd "is trying to 'annihilate' him, to put him in his place as an inferior who can advance only through the largesse of superious such as herself." But he excuses it as "white blindness." There is a more plausible explanation: that Dowd knew exactly what she was doing.

The same applies to the experience Steele describes when an academic colleague proposed a course in "ethnic literature." Steele saw this as implicitly endorsing a "literary ghetto" and was prepared to speak against it. But "Betty" (a pseudonym he gives her) tried to finesse Steele into not speaking, and then said, "Well, doesn't being black make you an automatic on this?" When Steele pointed out the racism in that remark, she went on, "Come on, Shelby. Don't give me a hard time. How in God's name are you going to be anything but in favor of an ethnic literature class?" He asked for an apology; "Betty" gave it, then immediately repeated the insult, telling him he was opposing "your own people."

Can that be explained as "blindness" rather than a deliberate attempt to turn Steele into an unwilling resource? Steele thinks so, and he knows the person in question. I find it hard to credit.

But now we come back to the question: How do they get away with it? How could an academic get away with delivering racist insults to a black colleague's face in front of witnesses? Steele doesn't offer a sufficient explanation, and I'm not sure I have one. But I think there are two pieces that go a long way to accounting for it.

First, the political left regards people in general as incapable of taking responsibility for themselves. Blacks aren't unique in this, even if they're given a special category of helplessness. The thinking which regards blacks as permanent victims owing gratitude also is responsible for seat belt laws, bans on transfats, social security, and the proliferation of mandatory warning labels. Liberals see themselves as great benefactors to the masses of fools. I don't think that most of them are cynically dishonest in the way that Maureen Dowd and "Betty" are, but they don't readily see the dishonesty of such people, because condescension comes naturally to them.

The other piece is the political right's failure, for all its talk about morality, to provide any plausible moral opposition. The conservative movement has been increasingly dominated by religion as the basis of morality -- which is to say, moral precepts by assertion. "God commands it" is an effective argument only if you believe in every commandment in the Bible; and if you do, then you have to accept the legitimacy of slavery. Conservatives talk of individual responsibility, but their rhetoric is contaminated by a basis which subordinates human reason to supernatural authority, and their motives are suspect because their religious teachings were used for many years to justify white supremacism.

The escape from the new racism has to come from a philosophy of individualism, based in the nature of human beings rather than divine revelation or social "justice." The odds of its success in the short run aren't good. But it's the only hope.

Last revised December 10, 2006

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