The race issue in America never seems to go away. We were reminded again last week when celebrity Southern chef Paula Deen was raked over the coals for using a racial epithet sometime in her past. Her tearful plea for those of us without sin to “cast the first stone” may have resonated with average folks (sales of her books have skyrocketed), but TV’s talking heads can’t keep from wagging their fingers.
At the same time, the Supreme Court struck down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, ruling 5-4 that the provision is unconstitutional. Section 5 requires that certain jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination (Southern states) submit any changes to their election systems to the Department of Justice Department for “pre-clearance.” The DOJ could block changes that it believed would reduce minority voting power.
“Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts for the majority. Yes, the world has changed. Would Paula Deen be getting such grief from her business sponsors in 1964? Not hardly. But as Shelby Steele points out in White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era, the landmark legislation that was intended to level the playing field has created an environment that he calls “globalized racism” that has Paula Deen on TV tearfully trying to convince us she’s not a racist.
Mr. Steele starts his brave and powerful book comparing Dwight D. Eisenhower with Bill Clinton. Ike, by all accounts an honorable and respected Midwesterner, was rumored to have used the N-word on the golf course. There was no public outcry about such language in those days. At the same time, Clinton had a relationship with an intern and lied to the American people. He survived impeachment, stayed in office and continues to be loved to this day. As Steele points out, Clinton would never have survived in office saying what Eisenhower had said, and Ike would never have survived if he had hooked up with an intern.
Yes, the world has changed.
Steele himself experienced racism as a young boy. He tells the story of wanting, in the worst way, to be the unpaid batboy for the local all-white baseball team. The young Steele worked hard to earn the trust of the coach who tried to ignore him. In the end, the coach relented and allowed Steele to work for the team. That is until the team boarded the bus for its first road trip. After Steele put the team’s equipment in the bus, the team’s coach gave the young man the bad news: Blacks weren’t allowed on the fields where the team would be playing. He was no longer needed.
Steele’s father, a hardworking truck driver, was excluded by the Teamsters, who wanted his job for its white members. He was relegated to working for low wages. But the elder Steele never gave up or felt sorry for himself, continually generating ideas for new businesses. He improved houses to rent out using only spare materials.
With that background, Steele is quick to praise Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement. But the movement changed. For him, the change occurred on a hot, steamy night in Chicago. The college-aged Steele and a friend went to hear Dick Gregory, the comedian turned black activist.
Gregory tapped into black anger and held up men like Steele’s father for derision, calling them the “good Negro.” Gregory in so many words told the crowd that racism manifested as white guilt was an asset to be exploited. It was time to deal the race card. “I began to understand that my country was now repentant before me,” writes Steele. “I now possessed a separate power that it could only appeal to, appease, or placate. Now America had to prove itself to me.” Globalized racism meant America had to prove to Steele and all blacks that it wasn’t racist. America is now assumed racist until it proves the contrary. Therefore, any little slip, such as Paula Deen’s, proves the point and won’t be tolerated.
This is where the civil rights movement took a fateful turn, according to Steele, bringing political economist Franz Oppenheimer to mind. “There are two fundamentally opposed means whereby man, requiring sustenance, is impelled to obtain the necessary means for satisfying his desires,” wrote Oppenheimer. “These are work and robbery, one’s own labor and the forcible appropriation of the labor of others.” Civil rights victories paved the way for blacks to either benefit from education and entrepreneurship, or, Steele writes, “we could go after these things indirectly by pressuring the society that had wronged us into taking the lion’s share of responsibility in resurrecting us.”
So while Malcolm X represented a “hard-work” militancy, Dick Gregory and many who have followed him promote black militancy in the form of white guilt.
But of course, this absolving of responsibility via white guilt applies only to certain areas of life. There will be no pity for the young man or woman who can’t perform on the basketball court or soundstage. Practice, relentless competition, and sacrifice make great champions, and that takes personal responsibility. White guilt is nowhere to be found.
However, the author points out that if a boy or girl’s problem is “reading or writing, rather than basketball, white guilt will certainly prevent even a modified version of this natural human process from occurring. Career-hungry academics will appear in his little world, and they will argue that his weaknesses reflect the circuitous workings of racism.”
I remember a professor telling us once in an economics class, “Freedom is a liability for those that can’t govern themselves.” In a similar vein, Steele writes, “The greatest black problem in America today is freedom.” Steele’s bigger point is that the formerly oppressed aren’t ready for the responsibility. “Freedom seems to confirm all the ugly stereotypes about the group — especially the charge of inferiority — and yet the group no longer has the excuse of oppression.”
Ultimately, “freedom not only comes as a humiliation, but also as an overwhelming burden of responsibility.”
The sad result of all this is that race becomes more important than the individual. The Jeffersonian liberal has been replaced with the “dissociated man” or “new man.” Someone “so conspicuously cleansed of racism, sexism, and militarism that he would be a carrier of moral authority and legitimacy.”
As the author explains, the dissociated man is an elitist who claims superiority, generating a collective narcissism. Forget about logic and principle; authority and power come from dissociation. Steele reminds us that now-Secretary of State John Kerry ran for president in 2004 as a “new man.” Meanwhile, his opponent, George W. Bush, was unreconstructed. Bush’s win, in the author’s mind, makes the point that the larger public “feels less and less need for dissociation.”
Steele has won a number of writing awards and authored best-sellers. When you pick up White Guilt, you’ll see why. His clean prose and politically incorrect ideas will likely have you finishing this book in one sitting.
Whatever you think of Paula Deen, forget her books. It’s Shelby Steele that provides a critical look at the brave new world of globalized racism: a way of thinking that harms the very people it’s supposed to help.