Shelby Steele argues that the combination of a black power ideology and white guilt (or more accurately white fear of the stigma of racism) has thwarted the promise of the civil rights era to create a post-racial world.
In October 2017, I took part in a Battle of Ideas debate where I ended with the following comment:
“Rather than draw attention to and examine history, all that is happening is a middle-class charade where ethnic minorities mine their ancestors’ suffering to barter with manufactured white guilt, which their middle-class white allies are only too happy to provide.”
After the event, I met @MrCDHamilton who pointed out the work of Shelby Steele who had reached this same conclusion over a decade previously in his book “White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era”.
Steele, like Thomas Sowell, makes the case against the standard left-wing argument that racism is structural in the US. While Sowell places the experience of black Americans in the context of the US and the world, Steele highlights clearly who is holding back black advancement and how.
He argues that the combination of a black power ideology and white guilt (or more accurately white fear of the stigma of racism) has thwarted the promise of the civil rights era to create a post-racial world.
His main arguments can be summarised as:
The US was a white supremacist state during the era of Slavery and Jim Crow but the Civil Rights legislation ended this.
The principles on which the US and its institutions were founded were not wrong even with the existence of racism in society.
Racism meant that fidelity to those principles was not possible.
Civil rights should have legitimised the principles by ensuring fidelity to them from all.
Blacks became free but freedom is an experience that brought losses as well as gains because throwing off the yoke of oppression doesn’t change one’s conditions.
Civil rights reforms acknowledged the historic wrong of racism but led to a loss of moral authority among whites and US institutions.
This loss led to white guilt.
Death of MLK led to the loss of moral leadership which fell to black militancy movements whose leaders seized the opportunity to gain power by trading on white guilt.
This is possible because the exchange enables whites in US institutions to regain moral authority by meeting the demands of black leaders in order to right historic racism.
What they are actually doing is disassociating themselves from the stigma of racism.
This has led to the enrichment of black leaders, activists and academics but little or no gain for ordinary black people in the US, as demands relate to what the former want not what the latter need.
Racism exists as an individual misfortune, not as a group level phenomenon although continued separation will give a sense of that experience.
Steele distinguishes the key features of different types of leadership that emerged during the 1960s (with some added commentary from me):
Civil Rights Movement
Martin Luther King
Nation of Islam
Black Militancy/Black Power
Myriad and all turn out to be “small men – bargainers, bluffers and haranguers” according to Steele (White Guilt, p.34)
Definition of Racism used
No race only humans.
A confused mixture of humanism and scientific racism. Sometimes conflate race and ethnicity (whatever suits).
Confusion due to use of stipulative definitions (definitions created for the sake of academic argument) by academics – e.g. power plus prejudice is racism (technically speaking this is a process not a definition – an unexplained one – this is part of the “bluffing” Steele describes. Too often whites accept such definitions without question due to fear of being labelled racist.)
Racism in society
Racial bigotry is immoral and the source of racial oppression and discrimination.
Ultimately change required in personal moral attitudes.
Racism can only be reduced but not eliminated as one can’t force everyone to change.
Accepts race realism but turns it on its head with whites as morally inferior and blacks superior due to historic racism.
Racism can’t be eliminated, segregation is required to thrive.
Marxist influence – racism inflated into a deterministic, structural and systemic power.
“Globalised racism” – it’s everywhere. Just as there is the “invisible hand” of the market so too there is an “invisible hand” of racism and it works to stifle black people even when there is no racism occurring.
Elimination of racism is possible. Solutions range from extreme rhetoric regarding race war, segregation and reparation (black militancy leaders) to the more common demands made for money for programmes, power, privilege and position (by black leaders and academics). Social Justice Activists straddle the divide using extreme rhetoric to gain power and privilege.
Outcomes Movement Wanted/Wants
Legal changes required to ensure individual freedom and integration between different groups.
Restore dignity through self-help. Segregation – Blacks have own state or move back to Africa.
Claims made to improve the lot of the whole group but this is a ruse by individuals to gain power, privilege and position. More recently it has involved consolidating and maintaining these in institutions where it has been attained.
*Malcolm X did move to a more humanist stance at the end of his life and believed all humans could be united as Muslims.
So how did the moral leadership of MLK give way to that of that of the charlatans and hustlers we see in politics and academia?
It is only as individuals that we can seize freedom and opportunity. Yet a change in daily life cannot occur by the stroke of a pen alone. The poorly paid shop worker was one the day before and the day after the civil rights legislation was enacted. Freedom was thus experienced as a humiliation not liberation.
This, combined with the general revolutionary air of the 1960s in all manner of different societal areas, meant a loss of adult moral authority in general.
This vacuum of leadership and moral authority created an opportunity for the Marxist-leaning black activist type to seize the narrative. Those who built their careers and political power bases on the idea that black people are victims of racism neither examine, nor are able to examine, the reality of black America outside of the context of their ideological stance. They promoted a belief that racism exists in structures thus negating the need to prove it in terms of individual behaviours and actions.
When racist incidents do occur they can then be treated as a tip of the “globalised racism” iceberg rather than understood in their own right.
More racism than exists is always assumed because without this idea it would not be possible to maintain their positions at a time when incidents of racism were declining.
Their stock response to criticism or counter-arguments is to dismiss them as Black Conservative, Uncle Tom or “false consciousness” to avoid the debate.
How has such a one-sided analysis of black America been allowed to thrive? Well, it would not have been allowed to in the same way if it had not been for white guilt.
The Moral Cowardice of White Guilt:
The US admitting the moral wrong of racism in its system and passing civil rights legislation led to a loss of moral authority in whites and US institutions (which had been built up during the era of white supremacy).
Guilt was understandable for that generation but instead of fidelity to the principles of the US constitution and institutions, a shift occurred in US society from white racism to white guilt – which he directly attributes to LBJ’s Howard University Speech.
This heralded not freedom for black Americans but redistributed responsibility for black advancement from black to white America.
Black militancy leaders stepped in and used this guilt as an opportunity to extract power from white institutions for themselves (without having to improve the lot of black people in general). Their version of black identity revolves around themes that most effectively manipulate whites.
White guilt, according to Steele worked (and works still) as a system of patronage as follows:
Whites no longer have the moral authority and can only gain it by taking responsibility for problems of black people.
This absolves black Americans of responsibility for their own advancement.
White guilt means a form of patronage where individuals as part of US institutions give into demands, even unreasonable ones, in order to disassociate themselves from the stigma of racism and to regain their moral authority (trying to disprove a negative default that they are racist).
The more responsibility whites take, the more moral authority they have, the less responsible black people are for their uplift.
In reality, all the benefits go to black leaders and academics who play this game which means that lower levels of racism at an individual or societal level would remove their source of power. Anyone who makes an argument for black self-advancement through agency rather than waiting for structures or society to change is seen as either a racist (if white) or labelled a black Conservative at best and an Uncle Tom at worst (if black).
This encourages those who would benefit to exaggerate the scope of the racism to create ever-expansive definitions of racism. The greater the racism, the more that can be demanded, and the greater moral authority acquired by whites and US institutions that acceded to the exaggerated demands that ensue.
Whites and US institutions are so heavily invested in the structural racism narrative that their response is to double-down as programmes and solutions aimed at reducing or eliminating this fail (and they have done for the over 50 years now).
The moral cowardice that lies behind this doubling down behaviour is the product of a fear of losing the moral authority bestowed onto whites and US institutions from acceding to demands from black militancy leaders (which only benefit them).
This is nothing more than the soft bigotry of low expectations. Instead of insisting on fidelity to the principles of the US from all, progressive whites absolve them from it, denying the reality of agency. Where this does not occur – for example in sports and music, black Americans are able to excel. Where it does occur – for example in academic, they don’t on the whole.
Thus anti-racist whites are now invested in arguments relating to structural racism to such a degree that they have been unwilling to investigate the failure of affirmative action and a myriad of black identity education programmes where the outcomes that were hoped for never materialised.
Ultimately the moral cowardice is a form of indifference to the reality of black Americans and means that white progressives lack the moral courage to demand evaluations of failed solutions and encourage agency and fidelity to US principles from black Americans and have become a barrier to the promise of the civil rights movement being realised.
Lessons for the UK
The fictional ethnopolitical identity referred to as “people of colour” is a teacher-activist led, top-down academic expansion of the black power ideology to a greater number of ethnic groups. This explains the use of the US-centric model and obsession with the period of colonialism and slavery. The social justice warrior activist model is based on and follows the same pattern as the earlier black power: though applied to all areas of privilege, white privilege is still a particular obsession.
This model has been embraced by middle and upper-class BAME in this country in order to claim victimhood while downplaying class. Afua Hirsch is the most prominent example of this phenomenon. While existing in privileged enclaves such people are able to engage in group think and believe their minor (and often not even clearly racist) experiences represent those of their ethnic group in history or now. Or they exaggerate the nature or character of the problems they face in order to make such experiences appear on par with past suffering.
It is social media that has brought such ideas to the attention of a much wider audience than before, thus exposing the academic Marxian structural racism theories to challenge which they have not received in the echo chamber departments created in universities.
This challenge comes in the many forms, mostly non-academic. From those who have studied periods of history or our modern society in depth (as opposed to engaging in cherry picking events to suit their narrative). From BAME who have been brought up with an authentic ethnic identity, who are more likely to be religious, conservative or born (if not still) working class. From white British people for whom their skin colour is less important than their local, regional, national identities and for whom race simply isn’t an issue.
It is in engaging with BAME who think differently that class differences come to the fore. The SJWs demonstrate their own paternalism by making exclusive claims to speak on behalf of groups they only nominally belong to. They patronise those with experiences different to their own and instead of adjusting their ideas in light of varying experiences, erase the experiences of others by pushing the idea that those who disagree with them suffer from false consciousness. They engage in tokenism by finding someone from one of the types of people who disagree with them – say BAME working class – who will support their arguments through the lens of their anecdotal experience.
The work-shy left-wing middle class will always be among us. The “people of colour” activism is simply a ruse to obtain celebrity, privilege, power and positions. In future, we need to use Steele’s model to judge between those who are genuinely attempting to deal with race issues and those who are simply race hustling.