Friday, November 02, 2007

Black Pride = White Guilt

Intrigued by an article in the paper, I recently read “White Guilt” by Shelby Steele, a respected black American intellectual and outspoken speaker on race relations. Its long and in-your-face sub-title is “How blacks and whites together destroyed the promise of the civil rights era”.
It certainly made for some interesting reading for a while, although his writing style is quite dense and self-consciously erudite. After a while, though, I realized that he was making his two or three points over and over again in (slightly) different words. And, from what he writes, he has obviously been plugging variations on those same points for thirty or forty years now.
Still, for what it is worth - and, don’t get me wrong, it IS worth hearing his unusual perspective - his argument proceeds as follows (apologies to Mr. Steele for any misinterpretations I make in this summary, but I think this is the gist of it):
Ever since the mid-sixties, with the de facto passing away of the white supremacist/segregation era of American society, black America has lost its way. Instead of building on what was then something much closer to a level playing field and asserting a black identity through hard work and fair competition, America’s blacks became bogged down in decades of radicalism, black nationalism and in-fighting.
This misguided effort and simmering rage has been predicated on something he calls “white guilt” - the idea that, in the aftermath of the civil rights struggle, white America has been so intent on proving to themselves and to the world that they are no longer racist that they would do anything, and agree to anything, so long as it showed them in a good light as regards race relations.
According to Mr. Steel, millions of dollars in aid and hours of public speaking have been wasted over the years in pursuance of this goal, and in salving the collective white conscience of centuries of slavery and discrimination.
Throughout it all, whites have completely missed the point that any help offered should be to individuals and to humans, and not to a race or an invisible representative of a race. Knee-jerk accommodations of black demands (in preference to being labelled racist) and affirmative action programs have actually hurt blacks in the long run, and made them lazy and over-reliant on that self-same white guilt.
Steele argues that a lot of pointless black anger and rage has been fuelled by white guilt over the years, as has a feeling of black inferiority (after all, he argues, why would affirmative action policies be needed if blacks were not in fact inferior?)
He even goes so far as to argue that this “vacuum of moral authority” (which is white guilt and the “dissociation” of liberals) has also led to a dilution of many of the good things about America as a whole, and that in some ways America as a nation was better in the days of segregation than since. Strong stuff indeed!
Furthermore, he suggests that the decline of America’s public education system from one of the world’s best to one of its worst (both debatable propositions at best, I would have thought) is all at the door of ... you guessed it, white guilt.
The book ends with a strong avowal of pride in his new-found black conservatism, and a blanket priase for President Bush’s policy on race (and on everything else for that matter). And by the time I got there, I wasn’t too surprised.

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