The classic chronicler of British colonialism, Rudyard Kipling, wrote of "the white man's burden" in the days of Pax Britannica. In his groundbreaking new book, Shelby Steele -- one of America's clearest-thinking intellectuals -- examines how that "burden" mutated, in America, into white guilt.
White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era is one of those rare books like Milton and Rose Friedman's Free to Choose, Thomas Sowell's Ethnic America and Race and Culture, and Christina Hoff Sommers' Who Stole Feminism that changes the debate. The phrase "white guilt" gets thrown around a lot in conversations both serious and superficial. Steele gives the term a weight and specificity that will define it once and for all. This work surpasses even Steele's The Content of Their Character in its original and fresh thinking about race.
In Content, Steele bemoaned the fact that the black power movement snatched center stage from the traditional civil rights coalition just as it was achieving its greatest success. Instead of building on their triumphs and forging a new unity in American society, the rights groups followed the black power advocates' march back into the swamps of racial discord. In White Guilt, Steele goes beyond the "what" of that time and into the "why" of today.
The revolutionary point of Steele's thesis is that black rage was not created by racism but by the white guilt that accompanied the end of the era of racism. Black rage would have been useless under a harsh racist regime, he argues, noting, "The slaves' rage meant nothing and brought only the lash." Furthermore, Steele contends, "Wounds and injustices only create the potential for anger, but weakness in the oppressor calls out for anger, even when there is no injustice. In both the best and worst sense of the word, black rage is always a kind of opportunism."
In other words, rage became politically and economically useful -- for some -- only when there was white guilt to exploit. Black rage had to lead to black power to be advantageous.
While he admits, "One has to be grateful to white guilt for bringing about possibly the greatest social transition in American history," Steele proves that its permanent place in our culture has had toxic effects on everything from welfare policy to politically correct campuses. Steele points to Lyndon Johnson's 1965 Howard University commencement address as the official declaration of America's new age of white guilt, when the President declared, "You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line in a race and say 'You are free to compete with all the others.'"
For those who wonder how we got from fighting specific racist laws and barriers to the notion of vague institutional racism and collective guilt, Steele explains that a rising Marxist tendency among black intellectuals came just as white guilt became the federal government's official position. This gave the new breed of so-called civil rights leaders the chance to benefit from keeping the fight going, he writes, noting, "The Marxian emphasis on structures gave the new militant leaders of the time an infinitely larger racism to work with. Systematic racism would have to be answered with systematic redress."
Steele recalls his own first real encounter with the new movement when he attended an angry speech by comedian-turned-activist Dick Gregory. As a youth, Steele had been exhilarated by this rhetoric, but now, as someone plotting out his life, he understood the consequences: "White racism had made my race the limit of my individuality. But now the new black consciousness I was learning from people like Gregory wanted me to voluntarily, even proudly, do the same thing that racism had done: make my race more important than my individuality….This meant that Dick Gregory and George Wallace ('segregation forever') were saying the same thing: that race was destiny - the same axiomatic truth that the civil rights movement had just won a great victory against."
But white guilt is not just a racket for those who declared themselves heirs of the legitimate civil rights movement, Steele points out; white liberals make careers of it, too. From college professors to heads of charitable foundation, dissociating themselves and their institutions from America's racist authoritarian past is an imperative that trumps all others. Steele points to affirmative action as the ultimate in dissociation, as a program that helps whites feel better more than it helps blacks to achieve progress in their lives. In fact, he notes, it stigmatizes black accomplishments at the same time it discourages them. Affirmative action effectively turns blacks into clones of Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" -- if society sees them at all, it registers only the color of their skin, not who they are.
Steele shows bursts of righteous scorn only in three instances in the book, and the targets are richly deserving. The first is when an empty-headed colleague at a university blithely assumes Steele will approve of a useless curriculum on the study of black authors solely because he is black, and the second is when he devastatingly compares Sandra Day O'Connor's writing in the University of Michigan affirmative action case to the infamous Dred Scott decision. The third episode is especially entertaining when Steele takes apart the pernicious and overweening Maureen Dowd: "In her column devoted to excoriating Thomas she blurts out a word that chills the souls of all blacks. She says that instead of 'complaining,' Clarence Thomas should be 'grateful' for affirmative action. Maureen Dowd, thinking herself quite incapable of racism effectively calls Justice Thomas a nigger, who - given his fundamental inferiority - should show 'gratitude' to his white betters."
White Guilt is one of those "Hey, listen to this!" books -- there's literally something on every page you'll want to read aloud to whoever happens to be in the room with you. As heavy as this review is on quotes from Steele's work, it's only half the number that I'd bookmarked to pass on.