The worst guilt is to accept an undeserved guilt—and that is what you have been doing all your life. (Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged)
In the aftermath of the worst natural disaster in American history, we have seen a spectacular resurgence of the indictment against white America that has been an organizing theme of our national discourse since the 1960s. Starting from the liberal assumption that any undesirable outcome for black people is the result of white racism, black leaders and spokesmen—supported, according to one poll, by 66 percent of all blacks—have charged in the most virulent terms that white indifference towards or outright hostility to blacks slowed the response to the disaster, leaving tens of thousands of poor blacks to suffer needlessly. As Rabbi Aryeh Spero writes, even as white men in helicopters were risking their lives to save black people stranded on rooftops, and even as whites were navigating their small, private boats in swirling, toxic floodwaters to rescue their black fellow citizens trapped in their houses, black leaders were crying white racism.
The accusation of racism is so transparently false in this case that conservatives (and even some liberals, such as the editors of the New York Daily News) have been far more willing than usual to refute it. For the most part, however, the attitude of whites and responsible mainstream opinion makers has not been to condemn the racism charge as the corrosive lie that it is, but simply to ignore it or point out that it’s not helpful in the midst of this crisis. As a result, even as many blacks and liberal whites were outrageously charging racism, other whites were uncomplainingly organizing the biggest disaster relief in American history, including bringing hundreds of thousands of black evacuees into their communities all across America.
To the extent that most whites think about the issue at all, they seem to imagine that acting decently is a sufficient response to being called a racist. But if past experience is any guide, such a passive and uncomplaining attitude on the part of whites, far from clearing them of the racism charge in the eyes of blacks, leaves them looking guiltier than ever. Why else—as blacks see it—would whites not defend themselves against such a damning accusation? Why else—unless whites really are racists—would they not indignantly strike back at people who are saying such terrible things about them? Thus whites’ unprecedented outpouring of generosity, far from acquitting them of racism, merely continues the familiar psychodrama of white liberal guilt, in which whites are forever trying through conspicuous demonstrations of compassion and good will to shield themselves from a racism charge against which they appear to have no real defense.
The charge of white racism remains, as it has been for the past 40 years, a sword hanging over our society, paralyzing rational discourse and obstructing sensible action in areas ranging from crime prevention to education to anti-terrorism measures to immigration control. For example, the Center for Immigration Studies, a very moderate immigration reform organization that takes no interest in the cultural or ethnic aspects of immigration, has been smeared as “repugnant” by the Wall Street Journal, based on the conventional belief—conventional even among many mainstream conservatives—that any serious concern about the scale and social effects of immigration is motivated by racial bigotry and must be avoided. Similarly, despite Islam’s manifest nature as a warrior religion devoted to the spread of totalitarian sharia over the whole earth, respectable society shies away from frank discussion of this extremely important fact, out of fear of being called racist.
However, of all the factors that serve as a pretext for the racism charge and make intelligent discussion of race—and culture-related problems impossible, the most important is the black differential in academic achievement and socioeconomic outcomes. While the liberal media have routinely published articles since the early 1990s showing that black students score below whites on basic skills tests, and that even upper middle class black students score lower than poor white students, the explanations offered for this phenomenon always come down to some sin or failure on the part of whites. Thus in a September 28 New York Times story about the black achievement gap among middle-class black students at Princeton High School in Princeton, New Jersey, a gap that has caused the elite school to be declared as “failing” under the No Child Left Behind Act, Times reporter Samuel G. Freedman presents the following theories to account for the problem: Princeton schools were segregated until 1947; teachers have “low expectations” of black pupils; and there are unspecified “inadequacies in the system.” This is a completely typical treatment by the Times. Any suggestion that the causes of blacks’ low scores lie in blacks themselves is never considered, and anyone who raises that possibility is attacked as a racist. If rational discussion of the possible causes of the problem is forbidden, how can rational responses be found?
The most likely reason for whites’ intellectual paralysis regarding racial issues in general and the charge of racism in particular is that whites do indeed experience sincere guilt—and a sense of their own moral illegitimacy as a group—as a result of America’s history of discrimination against blacks. Whites therefore feel that they have no right to assert themselves as the historic majority people of America, either in promoting moral and educational standards for the whole society, or in defending the majority culture and national identity from the forces of mass immigration and multiculturalism. As an example of the latter attitude, a prominent neoconservative journalist and author wrote to me some years ago that “America’s harsh history of racial discrimination” required America to keep its borders open to non-European immigrants. In other words, America’s historic guilt toward blacks makes it guilty toward all non-white peoples in the world, a guilt it can try to palliate, but can never eliminate, by allowing itself to be transformed by non-European immigration.