Race and Responsibility

Friday, April 30, 1999

Because he was called on to give so many speeches—sometimes several in a single day—Martin Luther King came to rely on certain rhetorical touchstones from which he could launch his remarks in whatever direction the occasion called for. One of his favorites was a Victor Hugo quotation that he used to prophesy the end of segregation and the coming of black freedom: “There is nothing more powerful in all the world than an idea whose time has come.” Thus, projecting his cause as an inevitability and himself as nothing less than the voice of destiny, he was ready to meet the occasion.

But from the hindsight of today, more than three decades removed from those great speeches, it is not clear that Dr. King’s idea was altogether inevitable or even if its time had come. It was on one level a simple idea—complete freedom and equality for blacks—that brought to life an American drama of guilt and innocence, shame and redemption, that I believe has confused the very nature of freedom for blacks (and now many others). So my answer when people ask what progress blacks have made since the watershed civil rights era would be a middling “about as much as we could considering the distorted view of freedom we’ve had to work with.”


To establish black freedom and equality as legitimate goals, the civil rights movement had to use moral shame as its primary weapon. What Dr. King and the other civil rights leaders could not have foreseen (not that it would have made a difference) was that white America’s acceptance of its shame would trigger a preoccupation with the redemption of its own lost moral authority that would far outstrip its interest in full freedom and equality for blacks. Maybe the most overlooked effect of the great civil rights victories of the 1960s is that they transformed America into a self-consciously shamed society where race is concerned.

It is clear to me that this white self-preoccupation has turned out to be a major obstacle to the freedom we blacks won for ourselves in the civil rights era. Because whites now live under a demand to prove a negative—that they are not racist—they have tended to portray black freedom as essentially a white responsibility. The peculiar redemptive liberalism that came out of this era put black freedom and advancement largely in white hands. In this liberalism, whites can support welfare without work, racial preferences, and diversity programs not because they work but because they are grants to former victims of racism and thus redemptive for whites.

What proves the corruption of this liberalism is that its most sacred taboo is against whites asking blacks to be responsible for their own uplift. White redemption is achieved by a bizarre feat of the imagination in which blacks are thought of as aresponsible people—people for whom responsibility has no relevance. As California universities struggle to find ways to bring in more black and Hispanic students now that racial preferences are banned in the state, no white officials have even suggested that minorities might contribute to this process by becoming more academically competitive. It is precisely the rejection of the very idea of black responsibility that protects whites from the charge of racism.

And this is the society in which we blacks have had to learn to live in greater freedom—a society that truly needs to feel largely responsible for our advancement in order to win its own redemption. So, as we entered broader freedom in which responsibility is the very catalyst of opportunity, those who claimed to care most about our uplift began to compete with us for responsibility over that uplift. First the Great Society would lift us by “ending poverty in our time.” Then the many varieties of affirmative action would engineer our “inclusion” into a “diverse” mainstream. Whatever one might think of these programs, the deeper problem is their preemption of black responsibility, their implication that black progress is contingent on interventions from on high that will somehow do the work of black uplift.

Black America is saddled with a leadership that constantly argues the helplessness and weakness of its own people in order “to keep whites on the hook.”

The civil rights victories delivered blacks into a new enmeshment with the larger society that encouraged what might be called contingent thinking—the certainty that one’s own efforts will never be enough, that one’s progress will always be contingent on the agency of society. In this thinking, will is more effective in society than in the self, and the best strategy is to pressure society to exert its will so that it might, in turn, facilitate one’s progress. Of course contingent thinking is precisely the kind of thinking that was forced on us by slavery and segregation, which gave blacks little option but to see real power outside themselves. Thus, masking—wearing the face that best manipulates whites—is probably the oldest survival mechanism in black life. The irony of this new enmeshment with redemptive liberalism is that it has returned blacks to the crucible of contingent thinking that our civil rights victories won us the freedom to be done with.

And nowhere are the ironies of this thinking more evident than in today’s black “establishment” of civil rights leaders, politicians, academics, and government operatives. The very militancy of this leadership is not for the freedom blacks need to make their own progress but for the contingency of black progress on interventions from the larger society. Black America is saddled with a leadership that constantly argues the helplessness and weakness of its own people in order “to keep whites on the hook”—a leadership that promotes and benefits from the very contingency it ought to be trying to break.

I believe this is what explains the black leadership’s ferocious, over-the-top support of President Clinton in his recent travails. If President Clinton has largely ignored their actual agenda, his instinct for patronage has led him to keep the idea of black contingency alive in an era when it might have otherwise faded. (More than 80 percent of Americans commonly poll against affirmative action.) When he says “mend it, don’t end it,” makes his cabinet “look like America,” and testifies to black grievances in black churches, he is at least symbolically casting himself as the master of black contingency. If the black leadership is not fanatic about Mr. Clinton as a person, it is fanatic about the idea of contingency that he embodies.

But in those areas of black life—entertainment, sports, music, literature—where contingent thinking is never allowed, where full responsibility for progress is assumed whether or not racism persists, blacks not only thrive but often outperform others.

The greatness of Martin Luther King was simply that he made black freedom first of all a black responsibility. Of course he also longed for an integrated America, and he felt that white involvement in the civil rights movement was essential. Moreover, he demanded that white America morally transform itself where race was concerned. But in the end it was abundantly clear that this was a fearless man who asked his people to seize their freedom whether or not others supported them—to make their freedom contingent on their own will. This great assumption of responsibility by blacks transformed larger America and should be celebrated as a vision of literal possibility, a demonstration of how, for example, inner-city education should be approached.

But this raises a question that has no doubt been lurking in the reader’s mind throughout this essay: If blacks take responsibility for becoming fully competitive with others (the last test of true equality), what will be the white responsibility?


Two things stand out. The first is that whites are responsible, more as citizens than as whites, for supporting black advancement as a way of healing the national community of its deepest wound. But to avoid the enmeshment of the past, this support should never take responsibility for a problem away from those who suffer the problem. Except for the physically incapacitated, support should follow the assumption of responsibility and disappear when it wanes.

The second responsibility is for whites truly to give up in themselves, and to combat in the larger world, the odious idea of white supremacy. This is the subtle and ever-beckoning evil that peeks out from the racial paternalism of both the left and the right. It is just as surely present in those who support affirmative action because they believe blacks will never compete as it is in those who take the race-and-IQ debate seriously. It survives today not as an open certainty but as a secret suspicion that consoles by chalking up at least some of the race problem to biological determinism. But this simple suspicion, which is as easy to feel as it is impossible to confirm, functions as it always did: as an occasion to end our human regard for another group.

These responsibilities are also a part of the King legacy. What a radical man he was. Even in memory he asks so much of people. But if his dream of full black equality is finally going to be an idea whose time has come, he has asked nothing that isn’t absolutely necessary.