Off the Cuff: March 2007

When the New York Times uses the word “dysfunction” in a front-page headline about the horrendous state of an American inner city, there is hope. Maybe we are, after all this time and failure and waste, beginning to understand that we have to think and talk about race in a new way.

In fact, there have been hints lately that we are beginning to do just that, from Bill Cosby raging at irresponsible behavior of drug-addled and violent blacks, to commentators like Juan Williams agreeing with him, to District Attorney Lynne Abraham openly lamenting the state of inner-city family life, to the way the Times wrote, last month, about the “cycle of killing” in post-Katrina New Orleans. (The Times at least acknowledged a culture of violence among poor blacks as part of the problem; that’s a big step for the paper.) All of this gives me a measure of hope that we are beginning to understand race in this country in a new — and more fruitful — way.

It really does require a wholly different approach, and I think a recent book by Shelby Steele, a research fellow at Stanford University, pinpoints exactly where the discussion needs to go. Steele cut his teeth as a leftist during the civil rights battles of the ’60s, but over the past four decades, his thinking has shifted dramatically. In White Guilt: How Blacks & Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era, he captures how the races are now entangled in a dangerous dance that most of us aren’t even willing to recognize.

White guilt, Shelby writes, is “something very specific: the vacuum of moral authority that comes from simply knowing that one’s race is associated with racism. … The authority [whites] lose transfers to the ‘victims’ of historical ­racism and becomes their great power in society. This is why white guilt is quite literally the same thing as black power.”

In other words, whites are so desperate to divest themselves of the stigma of racism that they’re willing to cave in to absurd black demands; blacks are only too willing to play on that guilt and keep right on avoiding responsibility for their own well-being, all because that ugly word — racism — hangs over every discussion or program. Shelby believes that white guilt “inadvertently opened up racism as the single greatest opportunity available to blacks from the mid ’60s on.”

That is pretty toxic stuff, but I think Steele is right. It boils down to a weird and deadly collusion of interests: Whites avoid the ugly stink of racism, blacks get something for nothing. But it’s a no-win game.

Look, for example, at education. Steele writes: “We got remedies pitched at injustices rather than at black academic excellence — school busing, black role models as teachers, black history courses, ‘diverse’ reading lists, ‘Ebonics,’ ­multiculturalism, culturally ‘inclusive’ classes, standardized tests corrected for racial bias, and so on.” We know how all of that is working out, in terms of black academic achievement.

We’ve been on this path for four decades now; Steele correctly cites Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society as the harbinger of what would come. In 1965, Johnson said: “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line in a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others.’”

There is a horrible irony in that paternalistic, guilt-ridden plea: The unlevel playing field we’ve created in the name of making up for this country’s racist past has ensured both black failure and increasing tension between races. It is clear to me, at any rate, that both whites and blacks have a responsibility in changing the 40-year free fall away from the promise of the civil rights movement; all of us must stop this deadly Whites are guilty, blacks are victims dance. Reading Shelby Steele’s brilliant argument on how confused we are about race will convince anyone of that.