Thursday, November 08, 2007

Shelby Steele on White Guilt

Among my many backlogged projects is a desire to show readers something of Shelby Steele's recent important essay in the Globe and Mail. Unfortunately, the Globe only makes it available online if you pay. So, I'll quote from my print copy, with some comments interspersed for fair use (see also Margaret Wente's interview of Steele.

Quoting now from "The age of white guilt" by Shelby Steele (Globe and Mail, Oct. 25, 2007, A15):

In America, our racial history broadly defines the terms of our politics.

We may think of "liberal" and "conservative" as ideological designations that refer, ultimately , to a classic battle of ideas - social engineering versus free markets; group entitlements versus individual freedom, and so on. But in the United States today, political ideas like these, and the political identities of liberalism and conservatism, have moral reputations that are often more important than the ideas themselves. And these reputations come almost entirely from the idea's association with, or disassociation from, America's long practice of white supremacy.

"Diversity," for example, is a golden word today because it disassociates those who embrace it from white supremacy. "Meritocracy," on the other hand, is verboten because it associates its advocates with racial inequality. It is an idea with a bad moral reputation. Political correctness is simply a language of dissociation, a manner of speaking that helps whites (and institutions) distance themselves from their reputation for racism. This is because we live today in an age of white guilt.

What is white guilt? It is certainly not guilt of conscience. Understandably, whites never tire of telling me that they "don't feel guilty" for the oppression of blacks have endured. Many point to the illogic of feeling guilty for a sin they played no part in. Not long ago, a woman told me she was descended from Yankee abolitionists. What did she have to feel guilty about?

But white guilt does not work by logic or truth; it works by stigma. It is the experience of being stigmatized as a racist simply because one is white. Blacks were stigmatized as inferior also without regard to reason or truth.


Today, whites have a reputation for being racist even if they are descended from abolitionists.

The age of white guilt began back in the 1960s, when the United States owned up to its long and virulent history of racial oppression. To admit a sin is to become stigmatized with it.... No white person can be seen as decent, and no American institution can be seen as legitimate, without openly dissociating form racism. I call this white guilt because when people are in flight from stigma, they behave guiltily - whether or not they are actually guilty.

[Truepeers: this, it seems to me, is one of the keys to understanding White Guilt: that it is a religion that turns on signs or stigmas of the sacred and sacrificial. Whites are now stigmatized because whiteness is seen as having been, historically, what Eric Gans calls an "unmarked" status. To be "white" is to have been among those not marked for victimization. (I put "white" in quotations because even middle-class blacks may now be seen as being or acting "white", in the sense of appearing unmarked, of having assimilated into the mainstream.) White Guilt, in turn, sacralizes, makes desirable - indeed it make almost essential - some kind of historical victim status by which, or on behalf of which, one can gain entry to the public stage, where politics almost requires its players to make righteous public claims on all those unmarked "white" institutions and individuals that are seen, simply by the logic of their normal, everyday, operations, to have been, historically, against the victim.

The alleged problem with all that is normal is that the normal is seen to be a way of whitewashing, or covering up, some inherent or "systemic" logic of our social system, a logic that requires victims. The normal, according to White Guilt, is really a hidden conspiracy against all those who don't have a successful place, for whatever reason, in the white male capitalist system. The "free" market is really a sham; it's only free for the privileged.

This mode of religious thought allows the advocates of White Guilt to disassociate themselves from responsibility for the virtues necessary to defend, reproduce, and represent the free market system and the system of independent nation states that are ultimately the free market's political guarantors. And, as Steele argues, below, this scapegoating of the whites thus comes back to haunt the blacks and other "victim" groups. The attack on the normal denies "victims" the freedom to find a way to succeed in the free market system. White Guilt offers instead a model of a world run by transnational bureaucratic elites setting about to rectify all the excesses of the normal. But by the very logic of the religion, these excesses and their rectifications are never ending. Any form of capitalism or freedom must create an eternal need for affirmative action. The liberal elites who take this affirmative task upon themselves become the new gods and idols on whom the "victims" depend for any success in this world.]

White guilt is a profound tension and force in American life that affects everything our society now does, from admitting young people to college to fighting wars. In whatever we do, we must first show ourselves redeemed of our bigoted past. So, in the first years of the Iraq war, we were more preoccupied with building roads and schools than with winning the war. We admonished our soldiers not to shoot rioters, not to torture, not to allow collateral damage - not to do any of the things that white Western societies used to do with impunity. Whatever one may think of this, it only makes the point that even war is now contained by white guilt. Moral legitimacy now rivals military victory, and may even supersede it, as the first goal of war.

White guilt has given the West a new international "redemptive" liberalism - not a classic liberalism of freedom but one that ties moral authority to dissociation from past sins. Today's left is after virtue more than freedom, and it is quite willing to use government as an instrument of "the good". Multiculturalism, diversity, tolerance, pacifism - these words have a good reputation today precisely because they seem to redeem the past. When Barack Obama says he would use diplomacy with Iran instead of rattling his sabre, he is practising liberalism's new blueprint for power: virtue as the means to power: Does he really believe that diplomacy sill contain Iran's nuclear ambitions? Hard to say... [white guilt] allows him to ask for power in the name of Western redemption.

All this has left the language of freedom to conservatives, who now sound a lot like Martin Luther King did in 1963. They stand simply for the freedom of the individual, without regard to race, class or gender.

They are informed by a more humble truth than liberals: that government can never redeem society of its past sins, that lost innocence is indeed lost- that it is better, in any case, to be chastened than innocent. The true conservative understands that "diversity" is only a dreamy projection of white innocence that threatens freedom in the same way racism did. In America today, we impose affirmative action on black students whether they want it or not. So, a society guilty of denying freedom to blacks for centuries once again denies it to them, and for the same underlying reason: white aggrandizement.

Race, this old culprit, thus pushes U.S. politics into something of a paradox. It leaves us with a liberalism that buys a good reputation for institutions with a willingness to sacrifice freedom and it leaves us with a conservatism that endures a bad reputation in order to encourage freedom... today's liberalism... fails to see blacks as free men and women; rather it exploits us as a means to an impossible national redemption...

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