Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

White Guilt, Black Rage

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

White Guilt, Black Rage

Article excerpt

In The Content of Our Character, Shelby Steele of Stanford University took on the stereotypes that continue to bedevil race relations in America. The book deservedly received a great deal of attention, much of it very critical. Now Steele is back again with White GuiltHow Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Movement (HarperCollins). You are right if you think he is being more than a bit provocative.

The book opens with the observation that President Eisenhower was rumored to have used the N-word from time to time. Steele compares that with President Clinton's marital infidelities.

President Clinton survived what would certainly have destroyed President Eisenhower, and Eisenhower could easily have survived what would almost certainly have destroyed Clinton. Each man, finally, was no more than indiscreet within the moral landscape of his era. Neither racism in the fifties nor womanizing in the nineties was a profound enough sin to undermine completely the moral authority of the president. So it was the good luck of each president to sin into the moral relativism of his era rather than into its puritanism. And, interestingly, the moral relativism of one era was the puritanism of the other. Race simply replaced sex as the primary focus of America's moral seriousness.

Steele describes colorfully (if one may be permitted the term) his own epiphany in discovering his black manhood and power in exploiting white guilt. He recognized that the simple recognition by whites of their race's association with racism created a vacuum of moral authority that opened opportunities for black rage. "Whites (and American institutions) must acknowledge historical racism to show themselves redeemed of it, but once they acknowledge it, they lose moral authority over everything having to do with race, equality, social justice, poverty, and so on. They step into a void of vulnerability. The authority they lose transfers to the 'victims' of historical racism and becomes their great power in society. This is why white guilt is quite literally the same thing as black power."

Personal morality has given way to social rectitude. The use of the N-word is a fatal indication that one does not have the requisite social attitude. Womanizing in the White House is not socially approved, but it is, after all, only a personal peccadillo. This, says Steele, is die "global racism" that has radically skewed our moral sensibilities and judgments. Racism is worse than murder. In the OJ. Simpson trial, he notes, the question of whether Detective Mark Fuhrman had ever used the N-word trumped the DNA evidence linking Simpson to the murderers. "And the court itself-like most American institutions in this age of white guilt-was so bereft of moral authority in racial matters that it could not restore proportionality to the proceedings.... Racism was allowed to become a kind of contaminating ether that wafted through and dispelled even the hardest evidence."

Every institution is in flight from being stigmatized as racist. Steele notes that Texaco paid out $750 million to the "corrupt diversity industry," even though a "racist" executive did nothing more than to repeat a nonracist term that he picked up, ironically enough, in a company-sponsored program on diversity training. Toyota has paid more than $7 billion, and other companies have paid hundreds of millions, to avoid being stigmatized as racist. Steele does not mention that Jesse Jackson each year holds a shakedown festival on Wall Street at which he extorts huge amounts of money in return for not publicly labeling corporations as racist. …

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