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.”
Q: Where did the civil rights movement go wrong?
A: The civil rights movement went wrong when it began to use white guilt as black power. Our power as blacks is the fact we could make the president of the United States give us the Great Society, welfare, affirmative action. We were slaves; now we can make the government give us these things. We went for that fool’s gold. Since that time, black power or black leadership is totally devoted to the manipulation of white guilt as the way forward for blacks. They should have been saying manipulating white guilt is a waste of time. The only time we’ll ever become competitive with other races, other people, is through our own development: educational development, economic development, cultural development.
Q: Are affirmative action and diversity effective tools to give blacks equal opportunities?
A: They’re effective tools to help white people disassociate from racism. No one knows if affirmative action works; no one studied it. It’s not about blacks, it’s about whites.
Q: Why are the arts and sports untouched by the notion of white responsibility toward blacks?
A: If there are no facilities in the inner cities, whites don’t care. We take responsibility ourselves. We apply all the usual standards of excellence. If you can’t dribble, we don’t say, “We have to understand him; he may come from a single-parent family.” There are no excuses; you just learn to dribble. When white guilt intervenes, there is nothing but excuses. Inside the school, inside the classroom, when he can’t do his multiplication tables, we excuse him for that. On the basketball court, where there is no white guilt. You’d better learn to dribble, or we’ll have no respect for you.
Q: What is the real underlying problem of blacks?
A: The underlying problem is we became dependent on white guilt. It made us slaves again. It made us inferior again.
Q: When you were in college, how were you an “exhibit” on a largely white campus?
A: Back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, up to that point, there hadn’t been many blacks on university campuses. Those of us who were there were objects of white guilt. You’re just a kid in college or graduate school, and you’re called on to represent your whole race. I don’t know about my whole race. I’m just me. … My point is all these group identities really squash, really repress the individual. That’s the kind of silliness white guilt gets us into.
Q: What is your vision for a new approach to issues of race and equality?
A: I think that we still have a big mountain to climb here in America, and that mountain is, we have to understand race is a very minor feature in the human condition. And our challenge is not to acknowledge or be tolerant of racial difference; our challenge is to know each other as human beings.
Q: What is your advice?
A: Stop believing so much in group identities. Stop rewarding group identities. Leave it as a private matter for individuals. Stop having double standards. Have single standards for everyone. Start expecting the same thing of minorities that we expect of everyone else. Reject all public policy that rewards group identity: affirmative action, “diversity,” racial preferences.