White Guilt: How Blacks & Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era
by Shelby Steele
192 pages | HarperCollins |  ISBN 0060578629 | US$24.99

From the slave trade to Jim Crow, racism stained the historical fabric of America. Its relics are everywhere, from affirmative action programs to the coverage of Hurricane Katrina. Racial undercurrents underpin the prominence of personalities like Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, or Louis Farrakhan and provide ample fodder to departments of sociology in the academy. This is the situation analysed by Shelby Steele in his book White Guilt: How Blacks & Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era.

Steele, a research fellow at the right-leaning Hoover Institution at Stanford University in California, is the author of the best selling The Content of Our Character (1990). That popular book argued that social policies have intensified rather than lessened racial differences, that both blacks and whites saw colour before character, and that blacks have been more disadvantaged by self-doubt than by white racism. He has a graceful style which mixes personal reminiscence with contrarian analysis.

In White Guilt Steele once again asks why American blacks are so disadvantaged. He blames whites — but not in the way we are accustomed to. The theme of this book is that white-dominated governments and universities have been so eager to avoid being called racist that they made a show of solving the problems of black Americans. Lamentably, this entails viewing blacks always as victims and never as equals. Thus “white guilt” enables whites to feel self-righteous — but without feeling personal remorse and without addressing the desperate problems that many African Americans face.

The legitimacy of American government, argues Steele, is founded on fidelity to its democratic principles. But racism is, of course, a stark example of infidelity to those noble ideas. This was the achievement of the first wave of the Civil Rights movement: it forced white America to acknowledge its guilt. As a starting point, then, white guilt was constructive But the Civil Rights Era ended up destroying its potential for positive change by exploiting it. From a way of acknowledging past wrongs, it became a litany of public policy programs. Together, the white establishment and newly-powerful black civil rights leaders created a new social morality based on race. Personal morality came a poor second.

To illustrate this, Steele asks why President Eisenhower’s occasional use of negative racial epithets in the 1950s and President Clinton’s sexual peccadillos in the 1990s failed to end their presidencies, although committing the other’s sins would have wrecked their careers. The answer is that in the Eisenhower era, social morality had a personal focus; in the Clinton era, it had a racial focus. On balance, says Steele, this was a negative development. This new morality undermined blacks’ personal responsibility and their desire for personal achievement. In the end minority groups were the real losers.

The upshot of all this was that  racism actually became “a valuable currency” for blacks, according to Steele. This has a ring of truth to it. Anyone who has been shuffled through the labyrinths of political correctness in higher education, corporate life, or politics is familiar with the racial absurdities of everyday life in America institutions. Crusaders for diversity and affirmative action ensure that everyone scurries to adopt the correct position on the racial policy of the day. Genuine or not, American society is rife with white guilt.

Steele chronicles how whites lost the moral authority to counter allegations of racism simply because of the colour of their skin. It was blacks who conferred moral authority upon whites, and they were thus empowered to demand whatever social program they desired from the white establishment. This insidious trade-off has allowed whites to be absolved of guilt without having to engage issues of race thoughtfully. Blacks are worse off because they were absolved of the struggle to achieve personal responsibility.

White guilt has also worsened race relations by fostering “blindness”, a mentality that treats a member of another race as “black” or “Latino” and so on, instead of as individuals. Steele recounts two stories illustrating this blindness. In one, a government official demanded that he praise President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs simply because he was black. In another, someone demanded that he support an “ethnic literature” class for his university, simply because of his race. The racism implicit in these expectations was constructing a new kind of white supremacy, one not born out of bigotry, but out of a misinformed paternalism that assumed that whites knew what was best for blacks and that a few government programs would legitimise white society. Support for affirmative action became a litmus test for progress and modernity in government, business — and especially higher education.

In Steele’s view, whites and blacks must dissociate themselves from a racist past, in accordance with the ideas of the Civil Rights Era, but the approach must change. In this regard, he admires President George W. Bush, and calls for a new dissociation, “dissociation from the racist past through principle and individual responsibility rather than at the expense of these things”. Despite the eloquent, ever-tempered tone of this book, his calls to action make Steele the most powerful and provocative contemporary analyst of American race relations. His inquiry deserves consideration from all those who realise something is awry and that the time for change is now.

Michael O’Brien is a student at the University of Michigan and executive editor of The Michigan Review, a student newspaper.

Margaret Somerville is Professor of Bioethics at the University of Notre Dame Australia School of Medicine (Sydney campus). She is also Samuel Gale Professor of Law Emerita, Professor Emerita in the Faculty...