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Shelby Steele on White Racial Guilt

“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 built and describe the tremendous damage it does ...

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 ...

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.’

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 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 ‘disassociation from racism at 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 h is 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.’

White 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 Afro-centric 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 ‘unfortunately 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...

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 for 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 built, and would 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 grievances encouraged the very violence they were supposed to prevent.

As Dr. Steel explains in this 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 their 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 go, 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)it 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...

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 - to 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 must 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.’ “


“To the Edge of the Precipice”, a review by Thomas Jackson of a new book by Shelby Steele, White Guilt: How Black and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era, Harper Collins, 2006. American Renaissance, May 2007, p. 8-10


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