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“A fact that has escaped notice in the decades since the civil rights victories is that, after those victories, racism became a bifurcated phenomenon in America, so that we have been left with two kinds of racism. The first is the garden-variety racial bigotry that America has, sadly, always known—the source of racial oppression and discrimination. But the new and second kind of racism is what might be called globalized racism. This is racism inflated into a deterministic, structural, and systemic power. Global racism seeks to make every racist event the tip of an iceberg so that redress will be to the measure of the iceberg rather than to the measure of its tip. It is a reconceptualization of racism designed to capture the fruit of the new and vast need in white America for moral authority in racial matters. True or not, global racism can have no political viability without white guilt. What makes it viable is not its truth but the profound moral need that emerged in mid-sixties white America.”
– Shelby Steele, White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era, 2006
In 2020, the ubiquitous accusations of systemic American racism struck me as unfair because I had been taught the first definition of racism: bigotry in the service of racial oppression and discrimination. I thought that racism could be identified objectively in speech, behavior, or barriers that limited opportunity based on race. Since I was born after the major victories of the civil rights era, I was neither a witness nor a participant in the systemic oppression of anyone. What would I have to feel guilty about?
In the past year, I have learned just how popular the second, often subjective, definition of racism has become. Now it seems clear that the speech or behavior of individual white people does not matter. This view leads to the conclusion that the guilt for past sins attaches to groups based on the immutable characteristic of skin color. How are individuals supposed to alleviate this burden or find any path to redemption? It’s the same way that anyone manages to demonstrate her moral superiority: the virtue signal.
But the virtue signal is limited, by definition, since it is a sign without substance. Worse, the people who proclaim their own virtue end up revealing their sense of superiority. Isn’t it so condescending to presume that black Americans always require apologies and assistance from complete strangers just because they are white Americans? And yet so many Americans keep playing this game. Fifteen years ago, Shelby Steele explained how the structural view of racism was used to justify more outrage and ever greater demands:
“The disproportion between an isolated racist incident and days of chaotic violence that took lives and destroyed vast stretches of property was meant to suggest the disproportion between mere racist events and the much broader structural determinism that kept blacks down. The scale of violence was the true scale of racism, and these sixties riots taught white America—by illustrating this proportion—the scale of its obligation to blacks. Systemic racism would have to be answered with systemic redress.”
Apparently, no number of riots will ever solve the problem of systemic racism. Since I can’t quote the whole book, I’ll simply recommend it to any of you who have not yet read White Guilt.Published in