The harm in ‘White Guilt’

Shelby Steele, best-selling author of “The Content of Our Character,” analyzes the past half-century of American race relations in his latest book, “White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era.”

Mr. Steele, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, works on social, political and cultural themes in his Monterey, Calif., office. He and wife, Rita Steele, who have been married for 39 years, have two adult children.

The following are excerpts of an interview with Mr. Steele:

Question: How does the narrative form of a journey reflect the theme of your book?

Answer: It was a journey toward an insight, a journey toward an understanding where there were many digressions and side trips that help you build slowly toward a broad understanding. Most human insight is the result of a journey.

Q: What is your definition of white guilt and how and why does it replace white supremacy?

A: White supremacy was finally defeated in the mid-1960s, not just in America, but all around the world. Those movements flew under the flag of many different ideologies. Some were communistic, some were Gandhi pacifism, some were nationalistic, but all of them were a rebellion against the idea that whiteness constituted a moral authority in and of itself. And those revolutions, they were all victorious. …

The price that Americans and Europeans paid, the price the Western world has paid for that is to be forevermore stigmatized with the sense of the past, the racism, the imperialism, the colonialism of the past. Whites began to live under the cloud of suspicion that they really were, in their heart and soul, racist, imperialist, sexist and so on. So they had to prove the negative that they weren’t this way. … White guilt is not a guilt of conscience. It’s not a guilt of feeling. It is about fighting off a stigma that one is evil, that one is racist in some way, so that one acts guiltily even when one doesn’t feel guilty.

Q: Can you explain the white need to disassociate from racism?

A: We, as blacks, were stigmatized as being inferior. We worked hard to prove that we weren’t inferior. Now whites are stigmatized as racists, as imperialists. They have worked hard over the years to prove that they weren’t. Whites have been so desperate, and our institutions have been so desperate to prove that they’re not racist, and they must do this if they’re going to have legitimacy.

Q: How have whites lost moral authority on race, equality, social justice, poverty and so on?

A: White guilt is the same thing as black power. It gave us the first power we ever felt in American society. As blacks, before we had nothing, all of a sudden, we had white guilt. We could say, “Unless you disassociate from racism by giving us Great Society programs, welfare, affirmative action and diversity, you’re going to be stigmatized as racist and you will lose your moral authority and legitimacy.”

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