'White Guilt' and the End of the Civil Rights Era

Author and race relations scholar Shelby Steele talks about his provocative new book, White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era. Steele says since the civil rights movement, the pendulum has swung all the way from white supremacy to white guilt — a condition he says has been just as harmful to black America.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Shelby Steele was born 60 years ago in Chicago, Illinois, to a black truck driver and white social worker. His parents were active in the civil rights movement. As a child, he accompanied his father to numerous marches and rallies. Today, Shelby Steele is an acclaimed author and scholar, and Steele says he considers his mixed heritage, quote, “an amazing gift that served to demystify race” for him. But Steele's provocative theories about race have been controversial, to say the least, and have often put the author at odds with many in the black community.

Steele is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, a conservative think-tank. His new book, 'White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era' takes a hard critical look at race, moral authority and black victimization.

Mr. SHELBY STEELE (Author, White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era; Professor of English, ): Well, the premise of the book is that one of the sort of, I suppose, unintended consequences of the civil rights victories in the mid-60's was what I call white guilt. By that, specifically, what I mean is that when America had to acknowledge the wrongs of the past--that for four centuries it had, in fact, oppressed black Americans, anytime you acknowledge a wrong, one of the prices you pay for that is a loss of moral authority.

So white guilt is not a guilt of conscience; it's not something that you get up in the morning and say, my God, I feel guilty about what happened to black Americans. Rather it is the fact that in relation to black Americans you lack moral authority. You are, in fact, stigmatized as a racist, because, after all, you have know acknowledged that your nation practiced racism explicitly for four centuries. And, now, since the '60s, white Americans have been grappling with the stigma, trying prove that they are not racist, to prove the negative.

A good example is when people say one of my best friends is black. Well, why do you say that? You say that because you're really trying to say I'm not a racist. I'm not what I'm stigmatized as. And the point of the book is that this pressure that comes to whites from this stigmatization has had a tremendous impact on our culture, our politics, our public policy in many, many ways.

GORDON: Do you believe that with the passing of decades, each generation feels less and less of that guilt?

Mr. STEELE: It's interesting. I think whites don't really feel guilty per se. But I think whites still are stigmatized. For example, we have never had a President of the United States since the civil rights victories, you know, Democrat or Republican, who has been able to look at black America and say we talk now about the responsibilities that white America has to make up for the past, but here are some things that black Americans have to do.

So we've never had a President of the United States ask anything of black citizens. And I think the reason for that is they've all felt that if they presume to do that, that they would be stigmatized as racist. They don't feel they have the moral authority to speak to us. And that's, I think, one instance where white guilt has worked against us, because it's important for a nation to speak freely and honestly with all of its citizens.

GORDON: You also believe that this has, in turn, created an interesting dance, if you will, between the races the idea, the idea that this guilt has allowed African-Americans and African-American leadership, in particular, to play, for instance, the race card.

Mr. STEELE: Exactly. I think one of the great mistakes black Americans have made in our long history here in America was to begin, in the mid-60s, to sort of rely on the manipulation of white guilt, the manipulation of this stigma; and our leadership has basically been a leadership that's applied this stigma. We call it different things, the race card and so forth.

But what were really saying is that if you want to not be seen as racist, you have to do thus and so. And so it's a kind of manipulation of the moral power that blacks have over whites.

GORDON: How do you go beyond human nature? Take the Duke scandal, for instance; you know, most whites will give the benefit of the doubt until, you know--blacks will automatically say, yep, it's a clear case of race here. That seems to be human nature just in general.

Mr. STEELE: It certainly is habit. You know, again, why are we, as blacks, so quick to see racism in so many places; and, again, as you rightly say, whites say, well, let's hold out and let's see what the evidence is. Obviously, whites are saying if it is racism, that's going to make their situations worse. Then they're going to be even more vulnerable to the stigma of being racist. And they're going to even have to work harder to prove the negative that they're not racist.

Blacks, on the other hand, are very quick to see racism in situations, even many where it's not there, because racism is our power over whites. And so we tend to embrace it and see it. And if you want to make many of our black leaders angry, just tell them that racism is not the number problem that black Americans face.

Because racism is the very essence of black power at this point; it's the power we have that comes to us from the moral capital of our history.

GORDON: Newly appointed White House spokesperson Tony Snow suggested not long ago that racism isn't the problem that it was in the 1960's and the like. And really that the country was pretty much devoid of racism, today. Do you buy that?

Mr. STEELE: I certainly buy that racism is no longer a barrier to anyone's life.

GORDON: You believe that fully?

Mr. STEELE: I absolutely, 100 percent believe that if you want to do something in American society, whatever it may be--I'm not saying you will not encounter any racism, but racism will not stop you. When I grew up in segregation, racism cruelly constricted our lives and our opportunities, and you could not do things that might want to do.

Today, that's over. One of the most remarkable things is how little we've appreciated the degree of freedom we have as blacks.

GORDON: Yet, in your book, Mr. Steele, you talk about a sense of entitlement; I believe you call it a divine right felt by white America. And its my contention that while that white guilt may, in fact, still be there, there are certain levels of power, I think, where the guilt is thrown out of the window and African-Americans have never been, as you put in the book, seen as a victim. So they've never been allowed in large numbers in this world. If you agree with that premise, how can race not be a problem in terms of it stopping you?

Mr. STEELE: I wouldn't agree with the premise. My feeling is, again, that the real fact is--and I think if you talk to many blacks, their experience would sort of verify this. What I've encountered in my life, most often in the white world, is good will, is people have who have wanted to help me. When I was younger and starting a career, people who mentored me, who really felt it was important to give me the best opportunity to pursue my dreams. And my sense is that that's really been an experience for most blacks who have tried to venture out and develop themselves.

GORDON: You're talking about the good will of whites at this point?

Mr. STEELE: The good will of whites, yes, absolutely.

GORDON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STEELE: One of the most remarkable things in all of human history is the degree of moral evolutions, of moral evolution, that white Americans have made from the mid-60s to this day. No group of people in history have morally evolved away from a social evil that quickly and to that degree in this sort of short span of time. And very often, in our calculations in thinking about race, we don't give whites credit for that.

We keep wanting to sort of keep them on the hook as racist. But the fact is that whites see racism as a disgrace and something that they would do almost anything not to be identified with.

GORDON: Here is the catch-22 though. In the book you talk about the idea of how African-Americans are viewed often with a sense of victimization, if you will. You talk about going from a master to slave, to oppressor to oppressed, to magnanimous patron and needy child. If, in fact, you look at that, are you ever seen as an equal at that point?

Mr. STEELE: Well, one of the reasons for that is that we have--there's this sort of symbiosis between white guilt and the black power is that we've just--we've demanded, we have looked to whites so much in the last 40 years, in terms of doing things to help us advance in American life, that we inadvertently put ourselves back in the position of being dependent on the very people who oppressed us in the first place. One of my arguments in the book is that's the dependency that we need to try very hard to break and, again, rely much more on our own abilities and talents, which I think are considerable.

GORDON: You said something interesting in an online interview. You said freedom has just terrorized African-Americans. We're just scared to death of it, and rather than admit it, we say we're still living in a racist society or that government isn't doing its job.

Mr. STEELE: Right. Well, if you think about it, as ingenious as we are as a people who were able to survive slavery and segregation and thrive, really, under circumstances that maybe others might not have been able to, the one thing oppression did not prepare us for was how to live in freedom. And if you don't know how to live in freedom, you don't have any history with that, then freedom becomes a humiliation. It embarrasses you. It makes you feel your inadequacy. So just because you become free, doesn't mean you know how to handle it.

GORDON: You use affirmative action as the model. There are those on the left who will say that you are either naïve or ignorant to the idea of how much racism still affects African-Americans, and they'll point to affirmative action. They'll say, without it, it won't be guilt or altruism that makes whites accept blacks in certain positions; it's simply that they have to comply legislatively.

Mr. STEELE: Again, the one thing about affirmative action is we don't have any control studies, because affirmative action has been imposed on black America. Just by virtue of your black skin, if you move ahead in American life, you're going to be tarred with affirmative action, even if it's something that you didn't need. The real goal ought to be to become competitive, personal development, education, development of skills and so forth, that are going to put you in a position to compete in that society. If we do that, you can't keep a people down like that.

GORDON: So here's what's interesting. Counter to your ideology, they are now touting the covenant with black America, and that is specifically what you're talking about, the idea of individuals taking control of their destiny, if one can do so.

Mr. STEELE: Mm-hmm. I'm all for it.

GORDON: So if there can be a meeting of the minds, if you will, at that, and the idea…

Mr. STEELE: Oh. Oh, yes.

GORDON: …that it is so very important to do that.

Mr. STEELE: Yes. I mean, one of the saddest things I experience is that, you know, there is so much common ground. One of the easiest groups for me to communicate with is blacks, because they do understand these things, and they do understand the importance of individual responsibility and that that really is going to be the force, the power that moves us into the future. And it's something that we certainly share in common.

GORDON: All right. Well, the book is White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era. The author is Shelby Steele, and we thank you.

Mr. STEELE: Well, thanks so much for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: Coming up, a federal investigation of a Louisiana Congressman intensifies. We'll discuss this topic and more on our roundtable.

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