I've recently finished reading Shelby Steele's White Guilt, and I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in race relations in America. Steele uses his recollections of a long drive along the California coast during the height of the Clinton/Lewinsky contretemps together with his reactions to a speech he heard Dick Gregory give back when he was a senior in college as springboards for some very insightful meditations on the loss of moral authority among whites and the benefits and harm that have accrued to blacks as a consequence.
Steele finds much for which to fault both whites and blacks in the way each tends to handle issues involving race, but one of the sins he doesn't think has been a major factor in racial matters since the 1960s is racism. Racism has been replaced by what he calls white guilt, and its consequence, white blindness.
With the revolution in civil rights of the fifties and sixties, Steele argues, it became very unfashionable for whites, even among themselves, to express racist sentiments. In fact, whites, particularly liberal whites, were overcome with a sense that they had lost the moral authority they formerly enjoyed by virtue of their whiteness. In an attempt to regain that authority whites have been desperate to demonstrate to blacks that they are not racists. This obsessive need to prove their racial bona fides is what Steele means by white guilt and it has been calamitous for blacks, not just because it has led to preference programs, quotas, affirmative action, and many lesser manifestations of the phenomenon which actually harm blacks but also because of the message of black inferiority it proclaims to both whites and blacks.
Nor, as Steele points out, are these measures actually taken on behalf of blacks. On the contrary, they're in fact attempts by whites to expiate their own guilt. As a result, blacks as individual persons become almost invisible. They are reduced to a means by which white administrators and employers can show the world that they support racial diversity and are not ignorant bigots.
To reinforce the point, whites, who still have power but not moral authority, tolerate from blacks what would not be tolerated from other whites. Indeed, white guilt causes whites to acquiesce to the nonsensical view that it's racist to fault blacks for educational failure, criminality, family dysfunction, and sexual libertinism. To blame blacks for these dysgenic flaws, it is said, is to blame the victim. The black man or woman can't help his failure because he/she's not playing on a level field. Thus whites, out of guilt, tacitly acknowledge that blacks can't be expected to live by the same standards as other people. Out of guilt they throw money at black problems and hold no one accountable for where the money goes or how it is spent, and out of blindness whites refuse to see the harmful effects this has had on blacks.
Blacks, of course, have been quick to capitalize on white guilt and the more guilty whites can be made to feel the more their guilt is exploited. Black power, according to Steele is the flip side of white guilt. There never would have been a black power movement had there not been the need for whites to purge themselves of the stain of racism.
Steele is not saying that racism wasn't real. He grew up with it and understands its perniciousness. What he's saying is that racism as an impediment to black well-being in this country is largely spent and irrelevant, but because of white guilt blacks are able to milk its residue in hundreds of ways, often to their own detriment.
As I read Steele's book I thought of the too-numerous-to-count occasions when I found myself shaking my head at some witless white person who, eager to demonstrate his or her racial good-heartedness, remarked about a black that "he's a good-looking black man," or noted that this particular black, usually an athlete, is "articulate" or "intelligent."
People rarely remark about these qualities in quite the same way when they're talking about whites. How often have you heard someone described as "a good looking white man"? How often is a white athlete described as "articulate" or "intelligent." Not often, and the reason is because whites are simply expected to be articulate, etc. By remarking on the black person's looks, articulateness or intelligence the patronizing commentator was inadvertantly implying that it's noteworthy to find a black who is good-looking or articulate or intelligent. In other words, the people who try hardest to show they're not racist are often the very ones who still have a problem, not only with race but with sounding stupid.
Another example of white guilt most of us have witnessed is the willingness of many whites to abjectly concede the high ground to any black when the discussion turns to racial matters. It's as if white guilt precludes a white person from having anything worth saying on the subject unless it is to agree with the black interlocutor. Whites, out of guilt, willingly and gladly yield to blacks a kind of authority and infallibility that blacks then use to beat whites over their collective heads with. In these situations, blacks often wind up lecturing, and hectoring, their supine white listeners who feel that any expression beyond nodding in agreement is to somehow overstep their bounds and any objection to what the black authority is saying just proves that the whites are oblivious to their own racism.
If, for instance, a black man tells a white man that he's a racist many whites will meekly acknowledge the truth of the indictment even though they honestly can't find anything inside them that justifies the claim. Yet they believe they must be racist because the racial authority has declared them to be such.
Anyway, read White Guilt. The book is eloquent and every page contains a nugget of pure gold. It's a powerful argument against the last thirty years of racial attitudes and practices in this country and it shines a bright light on the foolishness and servility of liberal solutions to the problem of race over the last four or five decades.