“In the ’60s–the first instance of open mutual witness between blacks and whites in American history–a balance of power was struck between the races. The broad white acknowledgment of racism meant that whites would be responsible both for overcoming their racism and for ending black poverty because, after all, their racism had so obviously caused that poverty. For whites to suggest that blacks might be in some way responsible for their own poverty would be to relinquish this responsibility and, thus, to return to racism. So, from its start in the ’60s, this balance of power (offering redemption to whites and justice to blacks) involved a skewed distribution of responsibility: Whites, and not blacks, would be responsible for achieving racial equality in America, for overcoming the shames of both races–black inferiority and white racism. And the very idea of black responsibility would be stigmatized as racism in whites and Uncle Tomism in blacks.”
I found this quote in an essay written by Shelby Steele soon after the Katrina disaster. It is a helpful introduction to the thesis of Steele’s outstanding book, White Guilt: How Blacks & Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era.
I don’t think I’ve ever commented on issues pertaining to race on this blog. I realize this topic is emotionally charged and highly controversial. Sincere Christians disagree on how to best pursue Jesus’ command that we love our neighbor as ourselves with regard to matters of racial injustice (perceived or actual). Does love involve the majority culture taking responsibility to actively lift up minority culture (i.e., race-based affirmative action)? Or does love involve simply the removal of race-based discrimination, such that jobs/honors are awarded purely on the basis of merit? Wherever you are on this continuum, White Guilt is a worthy read. Steele builds an articulate and persuasive argument against some commonly accepted notions. Agree or not, you are guaranteed to find him provocative and engaging — an articulate spokesman for his position.
So here’s a brief primer on the book: Steele argues that as the civil rights victories of the 1960s dealt a blow to racial discrimination, white Americans began to lose their moral authority. After all, they admitted to centuries of wrong doing. Both the government and academic institutions put affirmative action and other programs in place, ostensibly to help blacks, but the upshot has been a different form of exploitation — one that views blacks as victims rather than equals. “White Guilt” then becomes a way for whites to give the appearance of concern without addressing the real underlying problems of African Americans. Steel notes:
“The corruption of ‘results’-oriented racial reform is that it separates racial reform from all accountability to the actual development of excellence and merit in black Americans. The inferiority imposed on blacks by four centuries of oppression is ignored as institutions shoehorn minorities into their midst (by lowering standards) simply to get the ‘result’ that shows the institution is beyond racism.” (page 61)
Steele argues that many black leaders today, in turn, seek to exploit white guilt as a means of putting pressure on white America to take more responsibility for black advancement. “Together and separately their goal is always to redistribute responsibility for black uplift from blacks themselves to American institutions.” (Steele, p. 59)
Steele draws on personal experiences of racism and segregation from his childhood (not being allowed to be the batboy for a semipro baseball team, because he was black), as well as his own college years when he, too, sought concessions from institutions (once presenting a list of demands to his college President, while leaving cigarette ashes on the carpet of his office). He later walks us through his transformation into a “black conservative” (a term often employed in a derogatory fashion).
Steele shows himself to be a refreshingly independent thinker, constantly engaging the reader with thought-provoking sentences and vivid illustrations. While highly readable, White Guilt also exhibits a great deal of intellectual depth and analytical insight. There were many pages I found myself reading 2-3 times to try to understand all that he was saying. Nevertheless, I could barely put the 181 page book down, reading it in three sittings. I found it convincing. I highly recommend it.