The unbearable boredom occasioned by most of today's talk about race is alleviated by a slender, stunning new book. In "White Guilt," Shelby Steele, America's most discerning black writer, casts a cool eye on yet another soft bigotry of low expectations--the ruinous "compassion" of a theory of social determinism that reduces blacks to, in Steele's word, "non-individuated" creatures.
That reduction is the basis of identity politics--you are your (racial, ethnic, sexual) group. A pioneer of this politics, which is now considered "progressive," was, Steele says, George Wallace. He, too, insisted that race is destiny.
The dehumanizing denial that blacks have sovereignty over their lives became national policy in 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson said: "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 then say, 'You are free to compete with all the others'." This, Steele writes, enunciated a new social morality: No black problem could be defined as largely a black responsibility. If you were black, you could not be expected to carry responsibilities equal to others'.
So, being black conferred "an almost reckless moral authority," a "power of racial privilege." The "power to shame, silence and muscle concessions from the larger society" was black power. The demand for equal rights became a demand for "the redistribution of responsibility for black advancement from black to white America, from the 'victims' to the 'guilty'."
Hence the black militancy's proclaiming "black power" was really an exercise in the power of helplessness. It was an assertion of white power--white society's power to "take" (LBJ's telling word) blacks to social equality. Hence "black power" was actually a denial of the power of blacks to manage their own escape from an intractable inferiority.
"By the mid-sixties," Steele writes, "white guilt was eliciting an entirely new kind of black leadership, not selfless men like King who appealed to the nation's moral character but smaller men, bargainers, bluffers and haranguers--not moralists but specialists in moral indignation--who could set up a trade with white guilt." The big invention by these small men was what Steele calls "globalized racism." That idea presumes that "racism is not so much an event in black lives as a condition of black life," a product of "impersonal" and "structural" forces. The very invisibility of those forces proved their sinister pervasiveness.
The theory of "structural" or "institutional" racism postulates a social determinism that makes all whites and American institutions complicit in a vicious cultural pattern. The theory makes the absence of identifiable adverse events in the lives of individual blacks irrelevant to blacks' claims to victimhood. Victim status is a source of endless, sometimes lucrative and always guilt-free leverage over a guilt-ridden society.
Black students who have never suffered discrimination can, Steele says, enjoy affirmative action "with a new sense of entitlement." As a result, Steele says, "We blacks always experience white guilt as an incentive, almost a command, to somehow exhibit racial woundedness and animus." The result for blacks is "a political identity with no real purpose beyond the manipulation of white guilt."
Black "militants" are actually preaching militant dependency. They have defined justice as making whites feel so guilty that they will take responsibility for black advancement. One casualty of this, Steele says, has been education: "We got remedies pitched at injustices rather than at black academic excellence--school busing, black role models as teachers, black history courses, 'diverse' reading lists, 'Ebonics,' multiculturalism, culturally 'inclusive' classes, standardized tests corrected for racial bias, and so on." Reading, writing and arithmetic? Later. Maybe.
Maybe not. Not if classrooms are suffused with "a foggy academic relativism in which scholastic excellence is associated with elitism, and rote development with repression." Steele, a former professor of English, notes that "inner-city black English diverges more from standard English today than it did in the fifties."
White guilt, Steele says, is a form of self-congratulation, whereby whites devise "compassionate" policies, the real purpose of which is to show that whites are kind and innocent of racism. The "spiritually withering interventions of needy, morally selfish white people" comfortable with "the cliché of black inferiority" have a price. It is paid by blacks, who are "Sambo-ized."
Strong stuff from a fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford who last week received a Bradley Prize, for which this columnist voted. You can read "White Guilt" in two hours. For years it will be a clarifying lens through which to view the lonely struggle of clear sighted black intellectuals to rescue blacks from a degrading temptation. It is the temptation to profit from the condescension toward blacks that is the core of today's white guilt.