Shelby Steele, White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Right Era, Harper Collins, 2006, 181 pp., $24.95.
This is a short book — just 181 paperback-sized pages — but it has more good sense packed into it than books five times longer. Shelby Steele, who was a black radical in the 1960s, has since acquired a view of both blacks and whites that is almost completely unclouded by dogma. Dr. Steele, who has been a fellow at the Hoover Institution since 1994, is perhaps the first mainstream author to analyze white guilt and describe the tremendous damage it does. Dr. Steele does not get everything right, but his elegant dissection of white self-absorption and black opportunism is one of the best antidotes now available to the shelves of nonsense that pass for wisdom on race.
Dr. Steele begins by musing on what the William Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal told us about how moral standards change. He writes that he recalls reading that President Eisenhower used to use the word “nigger” when he was on the golf course. That posed no threat to his presidency, just as Mr. Clinton’s debauching an intern posed no threat to his. However, suggests Dr. Steele, had each man done what the other did, they would have been hounded out of office. “Race simply replaced sex as the primary focus of America’s moral seriousness,” Dr. Steele writes and, as we shall see later, he finds a connection between the two.
The central insight of White Guilt is that “racism” is now America’s most despised crime. Dr. Steele is silent on how this came to be, but he is right to see it as the fundamental psychological transformation of our time. This transformation meant that far from being able to face other races with confidence and even a sense of superiority, “the idea of evil had begun to attach to America and to whites.” Anyone who could be accused of “racism” immediately lost authority, and not just on social questions. “Racists” lost all standing as respectable human beings. As Dr. Steele points out, the rigid new structure of taboos thus “makes the moral authority of whites and legitimacy of American institutions contingent on proving a negative: that they are not racist.” (Dr. Steele’s emphasis here and throughout)
One of Dr. Steele’s keenest observations, and the one that has earned him the most liberal wrath, is that the rituals by which whites avoid the taint of “racism” — protestations of love for blacks, denunciations of “bigotry” — have little to do with wanting to help blacks and everything to do with demonstrating innocence. As he explains:
“Surely genuine goodwill may also be a part in such efforts. But the larger reality is that white guilt leaves no room for moral choice; it does not depend on the goodwill or the genuine decency of people. It depends on their fear of stigmatization, their fear of being called racist.”
Whites submit to just about any humiliation if that is what it takes to demonstrate that they are untainted — what Dr. Steele calls “dissociation from racism at almost any cost” — and he emphasizes “the classic liberal mistake of trying to pass off mere dissociation from racism as selfless virtue and real human empathy.” Liberals preen themselves on their compassion, but, as Dr. Steele writes, “in the age of white guilt, whites support all manner of silly racial policies without seeing that their true motivation is simply to show themselves innocent of racism.” Blind to his real motives the liberal genuinely believes he is “a better man than the world has seen before.”
One of the best recognized ways to demonstrate guiltlessness is to practice racial preferences, to join the scramble to lure indifferently qualified blacks onto college campuses. “And what is enough minorities?” asks Dr. Steele. “Enough is just enough to clearly dissociate the institution from America’s old racist patterns. Without preferences it would be utterly impossible to admit enough minorities for a convincing dissociation. Dissociation requires evidence of a proactive effort, a self-conscious and highly visible display of minority recruitment.”
Dr. Steele points out that all American institutions do this. The army angers its white soldiers and stigmatizes its blacks and browns with racial preferences — not because this improves the army but because the white officer corps that merit would produce would not meet today’s standards for moral authority.
White self-absorption goes further. As Dr. Steele points out, since it would be “racist” to say blacks have any responsibility for their failings, white liberals ride forth to smite racism, promising uplift that does not require blacks to move a muscle. Dr. Steele puts it this way:
“If a young black boy cannot dribble well when he comes out to play basketball, no one will cast his problem as an injustice … But if the boy’s problem is reading or writing … [c]areer-hungry academics will appear in his little world, and they will argue that his weaknesses reflect the circuitous workings of racism. … The boy will not be asked to truly work harder.”
Low black test scores cannot be due to laziness, stupidity, or brutish parents. Instead, whites lather black students with Afrocentric math, black history, Negro role models, and multi-culti voodoo of every kind. Blacks can never save themselves, “so the very structure of the liberal faith — that whites and ‘society’ must facilitate black uplift — locks white liberals into an unexamined white supremacy.” Dr. Steele notes that all this anti-racist posing gives liberals a moral glow, but their inability to treat blacks like real men with control over their lives makes it impossible for them to accomplish anything.
Merit, excellence and ability, writes Dr. Steele, are “unforgivingly exclusionary.” “Inclusion” requires that excellence be ignored, that mediocre Third-Worlders be treated like great artists, that black tinkerers be hailed as geniuses, and that every obscure Negro be put on a postage stamp. This racial climate creates a demand for snake-oil salesmen, black and white, who claim to confer authority on whites by teaching them how to genuflect.
Dr. Steele pushes his argument a bit too far, however, when he suggests that liberals may actually want blacks to stay degraded: “Whites needed responsibility for our problems in order to gain their own moral authority and legitimacy. So they set about — once again — to exploit us, to encourage and even nurture our illusions, to steal responsibility from us, to take advantage of our backwardness just as slave traders had once done on the west coast of Africa.”
People in the uplift business might worry for their jobs if they actually succeeded in helping anyone, but probably not even the most cutthroat liberals take real joy in black degeneracy.
The Souls of Black Folk
It did not take blacks long to discover the fun to be had in the brave new world of white guilt. “By the mid-sixties,” writes Dr. Steele, “white guilt was eliciting an entirely new kind of black leadership … bargainers, bluffers, haranguers … who could set up a trade with white guilt.” The militant Shelby Steele of 30 and 40 years ago “began to understand that my country was now repentant before me,” and that this brought a new power over whites: “This power to shame, silence, and muscle concessions from the larger society on the basis of past victimization became the new ‘black power.’”
Dr. Steele writes that the older generation of civil rights leaders believed their behavior had to be impeccable, that they had to act better than white people if their call for equal treatment was to be taken seriously. Things changed in the 1960s:
[B]lack power would no longer come from being better than whites; it would come from not being better … [I had] the feeling that being black released me from the usual obligation to common decency and decorum … I was licensed to live in a spirit of disregard toward my own country.
Even whites in positions of authority were cowed by black swagger. As Dr. Steele explains, black power grew in direct proportion to white guilt, and could not have been possible without it. Many people have noted that the black riots of the 1960s came after the passage of the major “civil rights” laws, not before, and it is likely that those concessions to black grievance encouraged the very violence they were supposed to prevent. As Dr. Steele explains in this particularly acute passage:
Anger is acted out by the oppressed only when real weakness is perceived in the oppressor. So anger is never automatic or even inevitable for the oppressed; it is chosen when weakness in the oppressor means it will be effective in winning freedom or justice or spoils of some kind. Anger in the oppressed is a response to perceived opportunity, not to injustice. And expressions of anger escalate not with more injustice but with less injustice.
The last three decades of the 20th century were therefore the golden age of the racial shakedown. The whole point of black militancy was to make whites responsible for black progress. Instead of feeling shamed by the failures of their own people, blacks could parade them as an accusation. And, of course, any hint of “racism” was — and still is — a trophy to be cherished, to be waved in the face of abashed whites as often as possible.
The most profitable pose a black could strike was therefore that of victim, and “when victimization is identity, then the victim’s passionate anger can be called out even when there is no actual victimization.” As Michael Levin has pointed out, the angrier blacks got, the more they were able to convince whites there was something to be angry about, and the more likely whites were to do as they were told.
The old left had been trying to make race an irrelevance; the new left discovered the tremendous advantages in being as black as possible. Dazzled by the rewards, not many realized that the victim pose came with a price. “[I]t quickly became the most totalitarian and repressive identity that black America has ever known. All dissent became heresy, punishable by excommunication …”
At the same time, “if you were black and thus a victim of racial oppression, this new morality of social justice meant you could not be expected to carry the same responsibilities as others.” This, writes Dr. Steele, was the worst possible trick to play on blacks. Just when unprecedented opportunities were open to them white liberals and black hustlers told them success would never come until whites transformed themselves and their society.
But once again, Dr. Steele pushes his argument too far: “It is always the black who pays the price for white self-delusion.” He writes that even when whites run elaborate programs of racial preference, they “will never suffer from the systems they devise, but will be forever celebrated for their good intentions, their courage in confronting such an intractable problem…[E]ven the most gifted and affluent blacks — many of whom can compete on their own — must pull on the Sambo mask and reinvent themselves as the sort of inferiors that will trade well with white guilt.”
Wrong on both counts. There are countless whites who have been denied promotions, recognition, or admission to university so that some black or Hispanic could be pushed forward. And we hardly need feel sorry for the unqualified black who gets a full scholarship to the Ivy League. He pulls on no Sambo mask. If he puts on a mask at all, it is the far more profitable one of aggrieved victimhood.
Dr. Steele recognizes that hardly anyone in America has the slightest desire to oppress blacks, and that it is nearly impossible to point to anyone with any power who is a “racist.” That is what gives rise to “the now common argument that racism is ‘systemic,’ ‘structural,’ and ‘institutional,’” or “global,” as he calls it. When no people can be found who are “racist,” then institutional racism has to be invented to explain black failure. Dr. Steele puts it neatly: “ ‘impersonal’ and ‘structural’ forces … worked by the ‘invisible hand’ to stifle black aspiration even when real racists were nowhere to be seen.”
This fiction solved an important problem: “For black leaders in the age of white guilt the problem was how to seize all they could get from white guilt without having to show actual events of racism. Global racism was the answer.” As Dr. Steele explains, “global racism enables blacks to frame racism to the scale of white guilt rather than to the scale of white racism — too weak these days to count for much.”
Dr. Steele writes about pampered black college students: “Global racism allows these students to feel aggrieved by racism even as they live on campuses notorious for almost totalitarian regimes of political correctness — and to feel more aggrieved than black students did forty years ago, before the civil rights victories. This is because their feeling of racial aggrievement is calibrated to the degree of white guilt on university campuses and not to actual racism.”
He continues: “Global racism prevails precisely where whites and institutions most aggressively search for moral authority around race. Even announcements of a new commitment to ‘diversity’ within an institution will very likely increase feelings of racial aggrievement in minorities. We blacks always experience white guilt as an incentive, almost a command, to somehow exhibit racial woundedness and animus.”
Even the most hard-nosed businesses can be shaken down for millions in the name of global racism, because “even a hint of racism proves the rule of systemic racism. So these corporations never pay to the measure of any actual racism; they pay to the measure of racism’s hyped-up and bloated reputation in the age of white guilt.” The golden age of the race hustler may slowly be ending, but there are a great many campus officials and corporate executives who would do well to ponder Dr. Steele’s words.
White Guilt goes on to make a number of larger points, the most important of which is the following:
[W]hen white supremacy was delegitimized, whites did not simply lose the authority to practice racism. The loss of authority generalized well beyond that, so that whites also lost a degree of their authority to stand proudly for the values and ideas that had made the West a great civilization despite its many evils.
Some of the values that were discredited along with “racism” were: “personal responsibility, hard work, individual initiative, delayed gratification, commitment to excellence, competition by merit, the honor in achievement, and so on. How could these principles be important when they had coexisted so easily with racism? Weren’t they, in fact, a part of the machinery of white supremacy?”
With all traditional standards discredited, there was virtually no check on adolescent rebellion for the generation of the 1960s. For college students, the crassest self-indulgence could be passed off as fighting “the system,” and the Hippies found “a far greater collapse of adult moral authority than previous generations had experienced.”
The result? “The sixties generation of youth is very likely the first generation in American history to have actually won its adolescent rebellion against its elders. One of the reasons for this, if not the primary reason, is that this generation came of age during the age of white guilt, which meant that its rebellion ran into an increasingly uncertain adult authority.”
“The loss of moral authority,” explains Dr. Steele, “went too far the other way.… After America admitted what was worst about itself, there was not enough authority left to support what was best.” One prominent side effect was widespread acceptance of “the idea that a lack of sexual inhibition signified a deeper and more compassionate humanity.” Dr. Steele adds: “It was white guilt that powerfully stigmatized (with racism, militarism, etc.) precisely the traditional values that had always prevented a sexual revolution.”
There is much truth in all this. Once the ancient distinction between black and white was broken down, the 1960s made short work of virtually every other distinction whites had taken for granted: man and woman, heterosexual and homosexual, normal and perverted, diligence and sloth, health and sickness, good and bad. As Dr. Steele points out, the collapse of so many traditions abetted the ‘60s generation’s illusion that it had a mandate to remake the world.
Good as this book is, Dr. Steele cannot be expected to understand that what he calls “racism,” though it undoubtedly gave rise to ugly excesses, was an essential part of Western consciousness. It was at the same time the part most vulnerable to clever appeals to Western principles. But when whites lost the will to conserve that which was most urgently to be conserved — the biological integrity of the people who built our civilization — they lost the will to conserve much of anything else. That is why, as Dr. Steele writes, “baby boomer-counterculture consciousness is now the establishment consciousness, while traditional American values now constitute a kind of counterculture.” When the central redoubt of racial consciousness fell, no outer rampart could remain standing.
Something else Dr. Steele cannot be expected to understand is that one of his assertions — tossed off as if it goes without saying — is a death sentence to a race and civilization. “[B]eyond an identity that apologizes for white supremacy, absolutely no white identity is permissible,” he writes. “In fact, if there is a white racial identity today it would have to be white guilt — a shared, even unifying, lack of racial moral authority.”
Dr. Steele is surely too smart not to know that filling the country with Third-Worlders will not bring back the standards of excellence he says must be reasserted. Surely he must see that Hispanics and other non-whites have taken their cue from blacks — not from whites — and have slipped into the pose of victim as if they were to the plantation born. Whites show no more backbone in the face of non-white immigrants than they show in the face of blacks, and unless they resurrect healthy racial pride, they will disappear as a distinct people with a distinct culture. It may be giving him more credit than he deserves, but Dr. Steele shows signs that he might not entirely favor consigning the white man and his civilization to oblivion, but until he understands the implications of denying to whites any identity other than that of penitent, he is as much our undertaker as the black frauds and con artists he despises.
But let us not make too much of the shortcomings of this book. Dr. Steele comes closer than nearly all whites to understanding the meaning and implications of white guilt. If whites are to have a future, they will have to see the precipice for themselves. Dr. Steele has shown us more than we can reasonably ask.