For many American Spectator readers, an especially troubling aspect of the recent racial eruptions likely has been the elevation of books like Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be An Antiracist, and Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want To Talk About Race into the national consciousness. Following the protests and riots in May and Jund, each of these previously published titles zoomed up Amazon’s bestsellers list, entrenching them further, no doubt, in college humanities syllabi across the country.
If any book on “the other side” deserves a similar resurgence, it is Shelby Steele’s White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era (2006). Although published roughly a decade before the twin phenomena of Black Lives Matter and today’s white wokeness, the book perfectly captures the social and political conditions that have given rise to both. Steele sets out expertly the sociological mechanics of the relationship between black and white liberals since the 1960s, exploring how interdependent and abusive their relationship has become. The book is essentially a road map to where we are today, and it absolutely deserves revisiting.
White Guilt Politics
Steele, a Hoover Institute senior fellow and a former professor of literature, begins White Guilt by recounting, as he sees it, black leaders’ popularization of structural racism theory in the late 1960s. Black and a former civil-rights activist himself, Steele describes a rally in Chicago in 1967 where he heard for the first time a black leader (activist and television comedian Dick Gregory) state that oppression didn’t actually end with the civil rights acts, but simply went “underground.” For him, this was a whole new approach to the race issue and one steeped in Marxism with its emphasis on invisible forces and an oppressor-versus-oppressed dialectic. This pivot, Steele writes, was a self-serving one for the new cohort of post-civil rights black leaders:
The point was that ugly human prejudices like racism did not just remain isolated in the hearts of racists…. The Marxian emphasis on structures and substructures gave the new militant leaders of the time an infinitely larger racism to work with, a systemic and sociological racism that was far more “determinative” than the simpler immoral racism of the MLK era.
“Logic would have argued the other way,” Steele further writes. In other words, the new civil rights legislation at the time meant that blacks were facing a far less deterministic racism. And surely black leaders would have agreed with this logic “if they were responding to actual racial oppression.” But they weren’t, Steele says. What they were really responding to was white guilt.
For white liberals, seeking disassociation from a racist past and regaining one’s moral authority isn’t actually about minority uplift, but rather shielding oneself from accusations of racism.
As defined by Steele, white guilt is “the vacuum of moral authority that comes from simply knowing that one’s race is associated with racism.” Such a vacuum cannot persist, however, since moral authority is needed for those in power to maintain legitimacy. So regaining and maintaining it is essential.
Achieving this, however, presents a double-edged sword. What whites in the late ’60s had to do was first “acknowledge historical racism to show themselves redeemed of it.” But once they did this, whites stepped into “a void of vulnerability” in which the authority they lost transferred “to the ‘victims’ of historical racism.” Only blacks could restore white legitimacy, in other words.
Blacks, therefore, gained a great power. Steele recounts how he personally wielded this new power over white liberals while still an activist in the ’60s. Specifically, he had obtained the “power to shame, silence, and muscle concessions from the larger society on the basis of past victimization” — ironically, a power that could be abused just like the abusive power wielded against him as a younger man in the pre-civil rights era.
Fast forward to today, with the viral images of white liberals washing the feet of blacks, engaging in literal self-flagellation, and more, and we can see the poignancy of Steele’s thesis.
While he doesn’t bore down into the psychology behind white guilt, he does describe a particular kind of neediness on the part of white liberals, one satisfied by helping, or trying to help, members of a victimized group. Elsewhere, he says “white terror,” or the psychological terror certain whites have of being perceived as racist, goes just as far in capturing the condition. It is a terror, he says, that’s caused whites to act in a similar way or “to act guiltily toward minorities even when they feel no actual guilt.”
Interestingly, studies since his book was published show that such terror, guilt, and similar emotions can to some extent be taught or imposed. Studies from Germany, Australia, and the U.S., all find that white racial guilt can be invoked in certain settings and used to induce greater support for minority causes. Another study in the U.S. disturbingly found that when a group of white, self-described liberals were “taught” about white privilege, their sympathy for poor, lower-class whites decreased. If happening today, this would seem to counter DiAngelo’s thesis that whites are “[s]ocialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority” in America today and therefore can’t discuss racial realities honestly. Steele’s thesis, of course, would be the opposite: that it’s inferiority (in the moral sense) that is being imposed on whites today and at the core of today’s disjointed racial relations. In this respect, each author’s books are diametrically opposed.
How White Guilt Induces Black Underachievement
The way white guilt actually manifests itself shows the full picture of the abusive relationship between black and white liberals. Whites make attempts to regain moral authority (apart from today’s “taking of the knee”) through gestures of, what Steele calls, “disassociation.” These are attempts by individuals (as well as U.S. institutions, which, of course, also require legitimacy) to remove themselves from their race’s persecutorial past and inoculate themselves from accusations of racism. When structural racism allegations began in earnest in the mid-60s, white liberals responded promptly with a coterie of “paternalistic interventions,” as Steele calls them: the Great Society programs, the Philadelphia Plan (affirmative action), the Supreme Court’s creation of disparate impact theory in Griggs v. Duke, race-based university quotas — programs that, decades on, have not ended and now look primed for a big new expansion.
Unsurprisingly, Steele’s position on affirmative action and related policies is resoundingly negative, and he contends they do the opposite of what they intend. On top of airing the criticisms made before and since the book was published — that university quotas produce dropouts and serial bar-exam failures, stigmatize meritorious blacks and tell them they can’t otherwise compete, and give a boost to privileged blacks who don’t need it — he points to measures of black legitimacy, educational attainment, and criminality, all of which have fared terribly in the face of white paternalism.
But this isn’t exactly ironic, says Steele. Again, seeking disassociation from a racist past and regaining one’s moral authority isn’t actually about minority uplift, but rather shielding oneself from accusations of racism. It’s only the appearance of virtuousness and proactivity that’s important. The daily barrage of empty institutional gestures perhaps shows this well, including the painting of “End racism” on end zones in the 70 percent black NFL or NASA’s head-scratching promise to end “harmful terminology for cosmic objects.”
Indeed, this is most important for U.S. institutions, says Steele. For instance, in the 2003 Supreme Court case of Grutter v. Bollinger, among the 50-plus friend-of-the-court briefs urging the court to decide in favor of university racial preferences (I worked for a law firm that produced one in support of the white plaintiffs), Steele notes that not a single one actually bothered to answer why certain minorities weren’t competitive enough to gain entry without preferences (a point I failed to make at the time).
“If we can’t specifically name the problems that make so many minorities noncompetitive, how can we argue that racial preferences are a remedy?” Steele asks, and then offers plenty of nameable problems, including illegitimacy rates hovering at around 90 percent in urban black settings. Again, it’s because remedies are not what’s important.
Paternalism v. Principles
Both black and white liberals should have reacted at the dawn of the new civil rights era, Steele says, not with paternalistic interventions, but by instilling in black communities certain social and moral principles, such as those Martin Luther King Jr. was committed to: nuclear families, advancement through hard work, and individual responsibility and accountability. But, as he says, in the face of structural racism theory, demanding as much from blacks is inevitably attacked as just another example of anti-black racism. Moreover, blacks have been made to feel (again, at the urging of black leaders) that such principles are somehow tainted by having existed in the pre-civil rights era. Steele asks rhetorically, “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?”
This was certainly evident in last month’s stunning revelation that the Smithsonian’s new black history museum had created an online education series that claimed principles like individualism, respect for authority, delayed gratification, and even “emphasis on the scientific method,” were “white attributes,” implying in the process that blacks who exhibited them were “internalizing” white supremacy or white “colonization.” That this could come from such a voice of officialdom (and not just the elite media), again, shows how far things have gone since Steele’s book was published.
But having instead gone the paternalistic route, says Steele, white liberals (and especially American institutions) have become “enmeshed … in obligation not to principles but to black people as a class,” rendering them, in effect, “blind to blacks as full human beings.” Giving way to yet another irony, Steele finds that whites have returned to their pre-civil rights condition of “white blindness” where they’re blind, not to racial injustice as in the pre-civil rights era, but to “their obsession with achieving the dissociation they need to restore their moral authority.” When whites, he says, are able to “find a way to dissociate from racism — ‘diversity,’ politically correct language, political liberalism itself — there is little incentive to understand blacks as human beings.” For instance, in the majority opinion Justice Sandra Day O’Connor authored in Grutter, she “showed no interest in actually seeing the real causes of racial inequality in college admissions,” he notes, failing in the process “to match a specific problem that minorities are experiencing as human beings [i.e. illegitimacy rates] with a concrete, tailored remedy.”
As a result of white blindness and disassociation, white liberals have set up for themselves certain “traps” or feedback loops, Steele writes. By de-emphasizing principles and giving in to huckstering black leaders, black underachievement will only persist, setting up new and greater demands (and tensions). Charges of racism will also increase as blacks have “an incentive, almost a command, to somehow exhibit racial woundedness and animus” whenever they can — what Steele might have called the “concept creep” of racism had the term then existed.
Meanwhile, the conditions needed for such traps are stronger than ever. University of London professor and wokeness expert Eric Kaufmann has found survey data showing that there’s been a dramatic surge over the last five to 10 years among white liberals on things like out-group versus in-group warmth, the acceptance of structural racism as an explanation for black underachievement, and support for mass immigration (which many economists say does the opposite of helping black workers). In other words, white guilt today is on a whole new level.
If Steele’s thesis is correct, this does not portend well for the immediate and near future. To the extent white guilt aids black failure, a cynic might say that white liberals actually do deserve the guilt they feel, albeit a kind of guilt that’s based not on their race, but on their failure to make the kinds of honorable and strong-minded decisions needed to break our post-civil rights impasse.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Steele is surprisingly quiet on proposed remedies in the book. It is clear, however, the course he’d take in counseling black and white liberals’ abusive relationship. As he observes, for instance, both sides need to hear that “no group in human history has ever been lifted into excellence or competitiveness by another group”; that blacks “are far more likely to receive racial preferences than to suffer racial discrimination”; that self-reliance has been achieved by other American non-whites; and that black leaders demanding nothing but protests, anger, and financial grants must always be challenged (and certainly not bought off).
As for white liberals specifically, Steele admonishes them for not demanding the kinds of principles MLK did and for failing “to stand proudly for the values and ideas that had made the West a great civilization despite its many evils.” One might perhaps supplement this with a history lesson, specifically noting that what’s special to white America isn’t its historical transgressions (it has nothing on the Turks, Mongols, Mughals, Tutsis, and Soviets, for instance), but its neurotic, self-absorbed response to them — its never-ending, empty gestures and uplift programs (the latter of which were only possible due to the nation’s staggering postwar wealth).
It’s likely the case that white guilt, and the paternalism it fuels, does not privately resonate with the large majority of people — of any race — and that politicians and the public only mistakenly believe that it does. After all, this was found to be true for white support for racial segregation in the pre-civil rights era and used to explain why it went on so long.
A play about Canadian politics is perhaps not an obvious point of reference here, but any U.S. politician too weak-willed to publicly support Steele’s tough-minded views would find value in Michael Healey’s 1979, in which a Canadian prime minister is told by an adviser (a future prime minister himself) to stop handwringing over cutting a clearly absurd, but politically expedient, subsidy program. The adviser tells him, “Believe in people, in their resilience and ability to adapt. The more you ask of people, the more they’ll respect you. The more you convince them that relying on the state for anything is wrong, the more they’ll respect you.”
Of course, political leaders from across the spectrum have enjoyed huge public support for attacking elite taboos in recent years. Collective white guilt and America’s application of institutional anti-racism are certainly two major ones. Moreover, any political or civic leader brave enough to convey Steele’s ideas might actually be pushing on an open door. They’d at least be treating black Americans as human beings. Finally.