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January 30, 2001

The Double Bind of Race and Guilt

It was not joblessness that bred the black underclass—it was 35 years of counterproductive government programs. By Hoover fellow Shelby Steele.


I have a white friend who has told me many times that he feels no racial guilt despite the fact that he was raised in the Deep South before the end of segregation. Although he grew up amid the inequality and moral duplicity of segregation, and inevitably benefited from it as a white, he says simply that he did not invent the institution. He experienced it as a fate he was born into. When segregation was finally challenged in the civil rights era, any solidarity that he felt with other southern whites was grounded more in a sense of pathos than in any resistance to change. So, he says, there is no “objective basis” for racial guilt on his part.

Recently I was surprised to hear the novelist William Styron, a southerner by birth and upbringing, say on television that he, too, felt “no [white] guilt,” despite the fact that his grandmother had owned slaves as a girl. There was something emphatic, even challenging, in his pronouncement that discouraged questioning. For as long as I can remember, I have heard white Americans of every background make this pronouncement.

This is certainly understandable. White guilt threatens the credibility of everything whites say and do regarding race. Specifically it threatens them with what I have called ulteriorality—the suspicion that their racial stands come not from their announced motivations but from ulterior ones driven by guilt. We can say, for example, that the white liberal bends over backward because he is motivated by guilt even though he says he is motivated by true concern. Or we can say the anger of the “angry white male” is simply his way of denying guilt. We can use guilt to discredit every position whites take on racial matters. So it is not surprising to hear so many reflexive denials. When people like my friend or Styron do this, they are disclaiming ulterior motives. They want us to accept that they mean exactly what they say.

The Reagan administration, famous for its disbelief in racial preferences, refused to challenge affirmative action policies because even this extremely popular president lacked the moral authority as a white to enforce the nation’s very best principles—advancement by merit, a single standard of excellence, and individual rather than group rights.

But I, for one, rarely do accept this, at least not without a glimpse past their words to the matter of ulterior motive. This is because there simply is no social issue in American life more driven by ulterior forces than race. One reason for this is that white American motivation in racial matters has gone largely unexamined, except to attribute support for policies like affirmative action to white goodwill and nonsupport to white racism. “White guilt” is almost a generic term referring to any ulterior white motivation. But the degree of ulteriorality in American race relations is far too great to be explained entirely by guilt. I think the great unacknowledged event of the civil rights era was that white Americans became a stigmatized group. I also believe that our entire national culture of racial and social reform—the policies, programs, norms, and protocols by which we address race-related problems—has been shaped more by the stigmatization of whites than by any other factor, including the actual needs of blacks.

The Stigmatization of White America

Perhaps a book called White Like Me is now called for—a book that looks into the world behind the white stigma and reports back to us. One point such a book would no doubt make is that stigmas are often double binds. The stigma of whites as racists mandates that they redeem the nation from its racist history but then weakens their authority to enforce the very democratic principles that true redemption would require. This is no small problem because the United States is no better than its principles. It may be the first country in the world to have principles and ideas for an identity.

The promise of American democracy was that freedom, and the discipline of principles that supports it, would be the salvation of humanity. This discipline would replace the atavistic power of divine kings and feudalism with a power grounded in reason. Principle would be not only the soul of America but the basis of its very legitimacy as a nation among nations. The principles of freedom were the case for a new nation.

And yet race is always an atavistic source of power, going back to a primordial source, back to the natural order. Like a divine or natural right, it comes from God or nature and presumes that one’s race is free to dominate other races by an authority beyond reason. The white racist believes that God made whites superior, so that even a democracy grounded in principle and reason is not obligated to include blacks and other races. Atavistic power always oppresses because it is immune to reason and principle. The great ambition of democracy was precisely to free people from atavistic power through a discipline of principles that would forbid it.

I say all this to make the point that white racism was no small thing. It was a primitivism, a return to atavistic power, and, most important, a flaunting of the precept that America was founded on: that human freedom depended on a discipline of fragile and abstract ideas and principles. White racism made America illegitimate by its own terms, not a new nation after all but an “old world” nation that used God as an excuse for its oppression and exploitation, a pretender to reason and civilization.

So what happens today when a white American leader, even of the stature and popular appeal of a Ronald Reagan, questions affirmative action on grounds of principle? The Reagan administration, famous for its disbelief in racial preferences, refused to challenge these policies because even this extremely popular president lacked the moral authority as a white to enforce the nation’s very best principles—advancement by merit, a single standard of excellence, individual rather than group rights, and the rest. Not only have white Americans been stigmatized as betrayers of principle, but those principles themselves have been stigmatized by their association with white duplicity.

Our entire national culture of racial and social reform has been shaped more by the stigmatization of whites than by any other factor, including the actual needs of blacks.

Here were whites proclaiming the sacredness of individual rights while they used the atavism of race to deny those rights to blacks. They celebrated merit as the most egalitarian form of advancement, yet made sure that no amount of merit would enable blacks to advance. Therefore these principles themselves came to be seen as part of the machinery of white supremacy, as instruments of duplicity that whites could use to exclude blacks. The terrible effect of this was the demonization of America’s best principles as they applied to racial reform.

This situation, I believe, has given postsixties racial reform its most stunning irony: because difficult principles are themselves stigmatized as the demonic instruments of racism, white Americans and American institutions have had to betray the nation’s best principles in racial reform in order to win back their own moral authority. For some 30 years now, white redemption has required setting aside the very discipline of principles that has elsewhere made America great.

If not principles, then what? The answer in a word is deference. Stigmatized as racist, whites and American institutions have no moral authority over the problems they try to solve through race-related reform. They cannot address a problem like inner-city poverty by saying that government assistance will only follow a show of such timeless American principles as self-reliance, hard work, moral responsibility, sacrifice, and initiative—all now stigmatized as demonic principles that “blame the victims” and cruelly deny the helplessness imposed on them by a heritage of oppression. Instead their racial reform must replace principle with deference. It must show white American authority deferring to the nation’s racial tragedy out of remorse. And this remorse must be seen to supersede commitment to principles. In fact, any preoccupation with principles can only be read as a failure of remorse. “Caring,” “compassion,” “feeling,” and “empathy” must be seen to displace principles in public policy around race.

Deference versus Development

But deference should not be read as an abdication of white American authority to black American authority. American institutions do not let blacks, in the name of their oppressive history, walk in the front door and set policy. It is important to remember that these institutions are trying to redeem their authority, not abdicate it. Their motivation is to fend off the stigma that weakens their moral authority. So deference is first of all in the interest of white moral authority, not black uplift. Certainly there may be genuine remorse behind it, but the deference itself serves only the moral authority of American institutions.

And this deference is always a grant of license—relief from the sacrifice, struggle, responsibility, and morality of those demanding principles that healthy communities entirely depend on. Virtually all race-related reform since the sixties has been defined by deference. This reform never raises expectations for blacks with true accountability, never requires that they actually develop as Americans, and absolutely never blames blacks when they don’t develop. It always asks less of blacks and exempts them from the expectations, standards, principles, and challenges that are considered demanding but necessary for the development of competence and character in others. Deferential reform—everything from welfare to affirmative action to multiculturalism—is the license to be spared the rigors of development. And at its heart is a faith in an odd sort of magic—that the license that excuses people from development is the best thing for their development.

Nowhere in the ancient or modern world—except in the most banal utopian writing—is there the idea that people will become self-sufficient if they are given a lifetime income that is slightly better than subsistence with no requirement either to work or to educate themselves. Nowhere is there the idea that young girls should be subsidized for having children out of wedlock, with more money for more children. And yet this is precisely the form of welfare that came out of the sixties—welfare as a license not to develop. Out of deference this policy literally set up incentives that all but mandated inner-city inertia, that destroyed the normal human relationship to work and family, and that turned the values of hard work, sacrifice, and delayed gratification into a fool’s game.

Because principled opposition to racial preferences has been wrongly demonized as racist, many whites are hesitant to express their opposition to these programs, despite their belief that such programs are ultimately harmful.

Deferential policies transform black difficulties into excuses for license. The deferential policymaker looks at the black teen pregnancy problem with remorse because this is what puts him on the path to redemption. But this same remorse leads him to be satisfied by his own capacity to feel empathy, rather than by the teenage girl’s achievement of a higher moral standard. So he sets up a nice center for new mothers at her high school, thereby advertising to other girls that they too will be supported—and therefore licensed—in having babies of their own. Soon this center is full, and in the continuing spirit of remorse, he solicits funds to expand the facility. It was not joblessness that bred the black underclass; it was 35 years of deference.

Deferential policies have also injured the most privileged generation of black Americans in history. Black students from families with incomes above $70,000 a year score lower on the SAT than white students from families with incomes of less than $10,000 a year. When the University of California was forced to drop race-based affirmative action, a study was done to see if a needs-based policy would bring in a similar number of blacks. What they quickly discovered is that the needs-based approach only brought in more high-achieving but poor whites and Asians. In other words, the top quartile of black American students—often from two-parent families with six-figure incomes and private school educations—is frequently not competitive with whites and Asians even from lower quartiles. But it is precisely this top quartile of black students that has been most aggressively pursued for the last 30 years with affirmative action preferences. Infusing the atmosphere of their education from early childhood is not the idea that they will have to steel themselves to face stiff competition but that they will receive a racial preference, that mediocrity will win for them what only excellence wins for others.

Out of deference, elite universities have offered the license not to compete to the most privileged segment of black youth, precisely the segment that has no excuse for not competing. Affirmative action is protectionism for the best and brightest from black America. And because blacks are given spaces they have not won by competition, whites and especially Asians have had to compete all the harder for their spots. So we end up with the effect we always get with deferential reforms: an incentive to black weakness relative to others. Educators who adamantly support affirmative action—the very institutionalization of low expectations—profess confusion about the performance gap between privileged blacks and others. And they profess this confusion even as they make a moral mission of handing out the rewards of excellence for mediocre black performance.

A welfare of license for the poor and an affirmative action of license for the best and brightest—the perfect incentives for inertia in the poor and mediocrity in the best and brightest. But this should not be surprising. Because “racial problems” have been a pretext for looking at blacks rather than at whites, we have missed the fact that most racial reforms were conceived as deferential opportunities for whites rather than as developmental opportunities for blacks. That these reforms have failed is entirely predictable.


Shelby Steele is the Robert J. and Marion E. Oster Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and a member of the Working Group on Islamism and the International Order. He is a prominent voice on the subject of affirmative action, race relations, and multiculturalism. In 2006, Steele received the Bradley Prize for his contributions to the study of race in America. In 2004, he was awarded the National Humanities Medal. In 1991, his work on the documentary Seven Days in Bensonhurst was recognized with an Emmy Award and two awards for television documentary writing-the Writer's Guild Award and the San Francisco Film Festival Award. Other books by Steele include A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited about Obama and Why He Can't Win (2007), White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era (2006) and A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America.


Available from the Hoover Press is Race, Culture, and Equality, by Thomas Sowell, and Affirmative Action in Higher Education: A Dilemma of Conflicting Principles, by John H. Bunzel, both part of the Hoover Essays in Public Policy series. To order, call 800-935-2882.