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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

WHITE GUILT: An e-mailer suggests I devote a few words to Shelby Steele's important thinking about race in America — a timely request, as I've been spending the last few days reading landmark new book White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the promise of the Civil Rights Movement. It's taking me some time to get to the end, not because the book is long or difficult but because I find myself re-reading entire paragraphs for their sheer intellectual and moral force. Here's the essence of Steele's argument:
As the civil rights victories of the 1960s dealt a blow to racial discrimination, American institutions started acknowledging their injustices, and white Americans -- who held the power in those institutions — began to lose their moral authority. Since then, our governments and universities, eager to reclaim legitimacy and avoid charges of racism, have made a show of taking responsibility for the problems of black Americans. In doing so, Steele asserts, they have only further exploited blacks, viewing them always as victims, never as equals. This phenomenon, which he calls white guilt, is a way for whites to keep up appearances, to feel righteous, and to acquire an easy moral authority — all without addressing the real underlying problems of African Americans. Steele argues that calls for diversity and programs of affirmative action serve only to stigmatize minorities, portraying them not as capable individuals but as people defined by their membership in a group for which exceptions must be made. Through his articulate analysis and engrossing recollections of the last half-century of American race relations, Steele calls for a new culture of personal responsibility, a commitment to principles that can fill the moral void created by white guilt. White leaders must stop using minorities as a means to establish their moral authority — and black leaders must stop indulging them. As White Guilt eloquently concludes, the alternative is a dangerous ethical relativism that extends beyond race relations into all parts of American life.
Why do so many otherwise decent people refuse to identify Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton as the parasitic, self-enriching race-hustlers that they obviously are? White guilt. Why does the United States display such strange minimalism and restraint in wars we claim we want to win? White guilt. Why the bizarre lack of collective outrage at the sight of illegal aliens marching in American streets demanding the rights consistent with the citizenship they do not hold and have not earned, the citizenship toward which so many of them show obvious contempt? White guilt. Let's be clear. Slavery was evil, Jim Crow was horrific, racism is sickness. America's age of civil rights was all about America getting clear about those facts. Then we left the age of civil rights and entered the age of white guilt, when formerly oppressed people (emphasis on formerly) realized they "could use America's fully acknowledged history of racism just as whites had always used their race — as a racial authority and privilege that excused [them] from certain responsibilities, moral constraints, and even the law," as Steele puts it. Not the least tragedy of this turn of events is the way it "led blacks into a great mistake: to talk ourselves out of the individual freedom we had just won for no purpose whatsoever except to trigger white obligation." And now the great challenge of our time is to enter a new phase of thought and action, a post-White-Guilt stage of American life, where we find the courage and tenacity for all Americans of good will — Americans of all races — to reclaim true moral authority on America's most difficult issue. To be sure, white people who do so will be declared racist. This is a small price to pay for reclaiming the true higher ground that is waiting to be reclaimed now. It is time to stop yielding to white leaders — Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives — who have learned to use minorities to establish their moral authority in the wake of America's past sins (emphasis on past) toward black people. Here's what I mean. In his excellent book Creating Equal, Ward Connerly writes about how, in early 1996, he got in touch with Jack Kemp to ask Kemp to endorse California Proposition 209, which provided that "the state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting." Kemp hesitated, and so Connerly reminded him it was totally inconsistent for Kemp to stand for free markets and economic empowerment, while also believing that some people should get special consideration for their skin color." Kemp continued to hem and haw, and then got what Connerly remembers as "a chagrined look on his face." Then Kemp said to Connerly: "You've got to remember that I'm a bleeding-heart conservative." Then Kemp reminded Connerly that he, Kemp, was a member of Howard Univesity's board of trustees. That's when Connerly got it: Kemp had learned to leverage his support for affirmative action as a means of getting black leaders to give him their stamp of approval: He may be white but he's OK because he feels guilty about it; he's on our side in the ways that matter. That's the kind of thing that has to stop. Good and decent white people must give up the charade of trying to prove their innocence and their virtue by taking on the collective burden of past racial shame, in a way that empowers demagogues like Julian Bond and the whole self-enriching, self-important, morally posturing, cynically opportunistic civil rights establishment that betrays the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr., simply by existing. In addition to the importance of its message, White Guilt is a beautifully written, wonderfully personal memoir by one of our most sensitive writers. Steele returns to pivotal events in his childhood as he remembers them during a winding drive home from southern California in the late 1990s. I really cannot give this book too strong a recommendation. Even if you're way too busy busy — even if you've got several unfinished books at bedside — pick up this book today and let Shelby Steele take you on a powerful journey that begins with this passage:
Sometimes it is a banality — something a little sad and laughable — that makes you aware of a deep cultural chanbge. On some level you already knew it, so that when the awareness comes, there is more recognition than surprise. Yes, of course, things have changed.