- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 29, 2006


By Shelby Steele

HarperCollins, $24.95, 181 pages


“Just what the blue blazes goes on here anyway?” may be the largest of all the questions swirling in our cultural downdraft. To this query Shelby Steele gives as piercing and personal an answer as I can imagine.

It is a clever and paradoxical answer and, ultimately, a grandly tragic one: In the context of the civil rights revolution, whites, to expiate their guilt for “centuries of oppression,” vacated their moral authority, their power to differentiate right from wrong and act upon the distinction. When it came to race, whites weren’t to “judge” any longer. Black “leaders,” supported and egged on by the white cultural rebels of the 1960s and ‘70s, saw their chance and took it. All they had to do to get money, preferment or both was open their mouths and rub in the guilt.

“White guilt,” says Shelby Steele, “had inadvertently opened up racism as the single greatest opportunity available to blacks from the mid-sixties on — this for a people with no other ready source of capital with which to launch itself into greater freedom.” It has come about that “We blacks always experience white guilt as an incentive, almost a command, to somehow exhibit racial woundedness and animus.”

Mr. Steele, currently a fellow at the Hoover Institution, worked all this out on a drive from Los Angeles to northern California in 1998. He wanted to know how it had happened that Americans had so sharply shifted their moral priorities — of which shift Bill Clinton was the beamish beneficiary. Not many years earlier, a Monica Lewinsky-like escapade would have ruined a sitting president. There was now, it turned out, a sin deadlier than sexual immorality, and that was racism — the sin above which our “first black president,” as Mr. Clinton was jocularly known, had risen easily.

Mr. Steele thought as he drove and drove as he thought. From this spiritual journey (why the exercise was not sooner put to paper the author doesn’t say) comes a mind-clearing post-mortem that can be read in a couple of hours and studied, as it should be, for much longer. “White Guilt” is a brilliant little essay, deserving of a large and appreciative audience.

I have said of Mr. Steele’s answer to his own question — what happened? — that it partakes of tragedy. I speak as a white Southerner who notes what a great moral triumph there was for all in the inevitable overthrow of racial segregation. For the first time ever, white and black had the chance to get on with the business of life, persuaded to look for the best (e.g., Condi Rice) rather than the worst (e.g., Byron de la Beckwith) in each other. The subsequent tragedy was that we found ourselves caught up in a new dance, the old one having stopped abruptly.

It happened that the civil rights revolution preceded and in some degree inspired the counterculture, which had vast contempt for the old culture anyway and hesitated not at all to heap additional guilt on the oppressors. When the left seized control of the racial debate, the game was up. Racial puritanism replaced the Puritanism (such as it was) of male-female interaction.

The left wasn’t going to let the oppressors off lightly, oh, no. Victims it needed; victims it got. Blacks were “to be ‘Sambo-ized,’ to be merchandised to whites as inferiors and victims.” Even blacks like Shelby Steele, smart as a whip, had to fight exemption from victimhood, an estate imputed to him by academic colleagues solely on the basis of skin color.

The effect on whites was electric. Scared out of their wits lest some liberal impute racism to them, whites began to seek absolution through “‘diversity,’ politically correct language, political liberalism itself.” None of these provide incentive “to understand blacks as human beings” who face social disasters — illiteracy, illegitimacy, sub-mediocre educational institutions — better treatable in a moral hospital than a courtroom.

In the more broadly humane policies of the Bush administration, Mr. Steele sees some expiation for the idiocies of the past. Yes, Mr. Bush engages in dissociation. He talks the talk, appoints the blacks. But he gets it.

“His ‘bigotry of low expectations’ statement was the first and most far-reaching enunication of social policy” since the Great Society, writes Mr. Steele. “It offered a new direction for social reform and, especially, a new theory: dissociation from the racist past through principle and individual responsibility rather than at the expense of those things. Mr. Bush is the first conservative president to openly compete with the left in the arena of ideas around poverty, education, and race. He has attempted to establish conservatism as a philosophy of social reform.”

On goes the battle. At least maybe — thanks to Shelby Steele — we understand better the terrain, not to mention the awful stakes.

William Murchison is Radford Distinguished Professor of Journalism at Baylor University and a syndicated columnist.

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