Shelby Steele and White Guilt
I have been a little mystified by Shelby Steele’s analysis of “white guilt” for some years now. (Carl Cohen’s letter to the president of the University of Michigan on Steele’s new book White Guilt, is honest and evocative, and has been cited on our list.) Steele’s exposure and analysis of this phenomenon has been most perceptive and useful. He writes of the deleterious effects of this guilt, which results in holding blacks to lower standards than whites. Lately Steele has even applied the guilt analysis to our foreign policy, showing how it forces us to wage politically correct wars with one hand tied behind our backs instread of fighting to win.
But sometimes he seems to affirm the white guilt he otherwise exposes as so detrimental, making it seem as if this guilt is more than justified, given white America’s historical sins. Moreover, he makes it seem as if, due to that past, whites will never again be able to garner the moral force necessary to expunge that guilt and to insist upon a single moral standard for all races. At times he seems to suggest that historical sins result in an absolutely fatal, utterly irrevocable forfeiture of any moral stature whatsoever, that once such sins have been committed and acknowledged, there is simply no way to recover moral power ever again. This is just not true. What is needed is the appeal to moral principles that stand above whether or not people have always obeyed them. White guilt is an immature, personalistic indulgence, having nothing to do with moral principle, and is now totally unjustified. America and the West have much to be proud of in their history and no more to be guilty of than any other civilization. Guilt to the third and fourth and ninth and tenth generations is not justified, even according to the Bible. I feel Steele could make all this clearer. Otherwise his diagnosis of white guilt runs the risk of becoming simply the pronouncement of a fatal disease for which there is no cure.