If ever there was a case against political meddling in the normal social discourse and interaction of races and groups in South Africa, this book and forty years of failed social engineering in the US demonstrates why.
In his book White Guilt, Shelby Steele tells us why, explains the sorry spectacle of over forty years of misguided government intervention in the lives of black people and the social devastation and erosion that “redemptive liberals,” white and black, have wreaked upon a people, undermining their earlier comparable independence and social cohesion.
Shelby Steele clearly states the real problem of the black community is one of underdevelopment. Poor leadership has failed for decades to teach that “black Americans are capable of being fully responsible for their own advancement” (60). Elsewhere, in his Bradley Lecture, Steele remarks, “Our great mistake was to begin to rely on white guilt instead of ourselves.” After the achievements of the 1960s civil rights leaders who wanted individual rights, the new generation of black militants resorted to anger, pressure, and intimidation to stigmatize white society into a debilitating sense of guilt for the wrongs of slavery and Jim Crow in order to win concessions of monetary and social compensation. It worked. Both sides got what they wanted. A paltry coin. Release from stigma.
But the Faustian bargain was at the expense, for many, of further self-development and self-reliance in the black community, leading to a worsening of the social problems that all peoples are prone to when they begin to blame others for their problems. Breaking out of this pernicious system is the challenge before us all.
Nowhere has the mutually destructive relationship been more blatant than in the policies of affirmative action:
“Preferential affirmative action, the classic ‘results’-oriented racial reform, tells minorities quite explicitly that they will not have to compete on the same standards as whites precisely so they can be included in American institutions without in fact achieving the same level of excellence as whites. The true concern of ‘results’ reform is the moral authority of the institution. Minority development is sacrificed to the magnanimity of the institution” (61).
As with the University of Michigan, so with all American institutions desperately seeking to distance and disassociate themselves from the racist white supremacy of the past. Steele’s critique of such practices is utterly scathing, peeling back layer upon layer of corruption, duplicity, deceit, all carried out at the expense of young people, black, white, Asian, and so on. The institution is more interested in social engineering and proving to the world that it is not implicated in racism. Sacrificial lambs on all sides.
In his dissent to the decision of the other Supreme Court members in Grutter versus Bollinger, Justice Clarence Thomas quotes a passage from the abolitionist Frederick Douglass:
“What I ask for the negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice. The American people have always been anxious to know what they shall do with us…. I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! …And if the negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! … [Y]our interference is doing him positive injury” (“What the Black Man Wants,” 1865).
Steele writes that the dissent of Justice Thomas, like that of Frederick Douglass, is a “fiery and indignant demand that blacks be seen and understood first of all as human beings” (144). Paternalism, by whatever American institution, the Supreme Court or the University of Michigan, constitutes a flagrant and intolerable injustice that sends waves of disruption down through the decades and generations, overwhelming and disrupting the development and dignity of a people, all people.
Shelby Steele’s great book helps us to understand what has happened to us all and sets a new course away from the interfering good intentions that have led to extremely bad results. It is difficult to take the advice of Frederick Douglass. To do nothing. To trust in the innate capacities of human beings. To look to the individual to work out the meaning of his or her own destiny. To resist making ourselves feel good at the demeaning expense of others. Somehow we must learn a deeper meaning of justice, struggle together towards a deeper measure of understanding and life together as people, citizens, Americans, human beings. The wisdom of people like Shelby Steele and Justice Clarence Thomas will help us get there, tap into the deepest springs of human motivation and achievement.
Given Dr. Steele’s experience teaching in university English departments, I found his critique of race and gender studies in literature and education particularly striking and perceptive of the sophistries involved, having myself met on many occasions his reform-minded academic “Betty,” an educator full of misguided good intentions.
Shelby Steele’s White Guilt is a book of such penetrating insight into the dynamics of black and white misfortune and lost opportunity that no person remotely interested in the racial issues of our time should fail to read it.
White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era. Shelby Steele . HarperCollins, 2006.