The age of white guilt — and the disappearance of the black individual
By Shelby Steele
Harper’s Magazine, November 30, 2002
One day back in the late fifties, when I was ten or eleven years old, there was a moment when I experienced myself as an individual–as a separate consciousness–for the first time. I was walking home from the YMCA, which meant that I was passing out of the white Chicago suburb where the Y was located and crossing Halsted Street back into Phoenix, the tiny black suburb where I grew up. It was a languid summer afternoon, thick with the industrial-scented humidity of south Chicago that I can still smell and feel on my skin, though I sit today only blocks from the cool Pacific and more than forty years removed.
Into Phoenix no more than a block and I was struck by a thought that seemed beyond me. I have tried for years to remember it, but all my effort only pushes it further away. I do remember that it came to me with the completeness of an aphorism, as if the subconscious had already done the labor of crafting it into a fine phrase. What scared me a little at the time was its implication of a separate self with independent thoughts–a distinct self that might distill experience into all sorts of ideas for which I would then be responsible. That feeling of responsibility was my first real experience of myself as an individual–as someone who would have to navigate a separate and unpredictable consciousness through a world I already knew to be often unfair and always tense.
Of course I already knew that I was black, or “Negro,” as we said back then. No secret there. The world had made this fact quite clear by imposing on my life all the elaborate circumscriptions of Chicago-style segregation. Although my mother was white, the logic of segregation meant that I was born in the hospital’s black maternity ward. I grew up in a black neighborhood and walked to a segregated black school as white children in the same district walked to a white school. Kindness in whites always came as a mild surprise and was accepted with a gratitude that I later understood to be a bit humiliating. And there were many racist rejections for which I was only partly consoled by the knowledge that racism is impersonal.
Back then I thought of being black as a fate, as a condition I shared with people as various as Duke Ellington and the odd-job man who plowed the neighborhood gardens with a mule and signed his name with an X. And it is worth noting here that never in my life have I met a true Uncle Tom, a black who identifies with white racism as a truth. The Negro world of that era believed that whites used our race against our individuality and, thus, our humanity. There was no embrace of a Negro identity, because that would have weakened the argument for our humanity. “Negroness” or “blackness” would have collaborated with the racist lie that we were different and, thus, would have been true Uncle Tomism. To the contrary, there was an embrace of the individual and assimilation.
My little experience of myself as an individual confirmed the message of the civil-rights movement itself, in which a favorite picket sign read, simply, “I am a man.” The idea of the individual resonated with Negro freedom–a freedom not for the group but for the individuals who made up the group. And assimilation was not a self-hating mimicry of things white but a mastery by Negro individuals of the modern and cosmopolitan world, a mastery that showed us to be natural members of that world. So my experience of myself as an individual made me one with the group.
Not long ago C-SPAN carried a Harvard debate on affirmative action between conservative reformer Ward Connerly and liberal law professor Christopher Edley. During the Q and A a black undergraduate rose from a snickering clump of black students to challenge Mr. Connerly, who had argued that the time for racial preferences was past. Once standing, this young man smiled unctuously, as if victory were so assured that he must already offer consolation. But his own pose seemed to distract him, and soon he was sinking into incoherence. There was impatience in the room, but it was suppressed. Black students play a role in campus debates like this and they are indulged.
The campus forum of racial confrontation is a ritual that has changed since the sixties in only one way. Whereas blacks and whites confronted one another back then, now black liberals and black conservatives do the confronting while whites look on–relieved, I’m sure–from the bleachers. I used to feel empathy for students like this young man, because they reminded me of myself at that age. Now I see them as figures of pathos. More than thirty years have passed since I did that sort of challenging, and even then it was a waste of time. Today it is perseveration to the point of tragedy.
Here is a brief litany of obvious truths that have been resisted in the public discourse of black America over the last thirty years: a group is no stronger than its individuals; when individuals transform themselves they transform the group; the freer the individual, the stronger the group; social responsibility begins in individual responsibility. Add to this an indisputable fact that has also been unmentionable: that American greatness has a lot to do with a culturally ingrained individualism, with the respect and freedom historically granted individuals to pursue their happiness–this despite many egregious lapses and an outright commitment to the oppression of black individuals for centuries. And there is one last obvious but unassimilated fact: ethnic groups that have asked a lot from their individuals have done exceptionally well in America even while enduring discrimination.
Now consider what this Harvard student is called upon by his racial identity to argue in the year 2002. All that is creative and imaginative in him must be rallied to argue the essential weakness of his own people. Only their weakness justifies the racial preferences they receive decades after any trace of anti-black racism in college admissions. The young man must not show faith in the power of his people to overcome against any odds; he must show faith in their inability to overcome without help. As Mr. Connerly points to far less racism and far more freedom and opportunity for blacks, the young man must find a way, against all the mounting facts, to argue that black Americans simply cannot compete without preferences. If his own forebears seized freedom in a long and arduous struggle for civil rights, he must argue that his own generation is unable to compete on paper-and-pencil standardized tests.
It doesn’t help that he locates the cause of black weakness in things like “structural racism” and “uneven playing fields,” because there has been so little correlation between the remedies for such problems and actual black improvement. Blacks from families that make $100,000 a year or more perform worse on the SAT than whites from families that make $10,000 a year or less. After decades of racial preferences blacks remain the lowest performing student group in American higher education. And once they are out of college and in professions, their own children also underperform in relation to their white and Asian peers. Thus, this young man must also nurture the idea of a black psychological woundedness that is baroque in its capacity to stifle black aspiration. And all his faith, his proud belief, must be in the truth of this woundedness and the injustice that caused it, because this is his only avenue to racial pride. He is a figure of pathos because his faith in racial victimization is his only release from racial shame.
Right after the sixties’ civil-rights victories came what I believe to be the greatest miscalculation in black American history. Others had oppressed us, but this was to be the first “fall” to come by our own hand. We allowed ourselves to see a greater power in America’s liability for our oppression than we saw in ourselves. Thus, we were faithless with ourselves just when we had given ourselves reason to have such faith. We couldn’t have made a worse mistake. We have not been the same since.
To go after America’s liability we had to locate real transformative power outside ourselves. Worse, we had to see our fate as contingent on America’s paying off that liability. We have been a contingent people ever since, arguing our weakness and white racism in order to ignite the engine of white liability. And this has mired us in a protest-group identity that mistrusts individualism because free individuals might jeopardize the group’s effort to activate this liability.
Today I would be encouraged to squeeze my little childhood experience of individuality into a narrow group framework that would not endanger the group’s bid for white intervention. I would be urged to embrace a pattern of reform that represses our best hope for advancement–our individuals–simply to keep whites “on the hook.”
Mr. Connerly was outnumbered and outgunned at that Harvard debate. The consensus finally was that preferences would be necessary for a while longer. Whites would remain “on the hook.” The black student prevailed, but it was a victory against himself. In all that his identity required him to believe, there was no place for him.
In 1961, when I was fifteen years old, my imagination was taken over for some months by the movie Paris Blues, starring Sidney Poitier, Diahann Carroll, Paul Newman, and Joanne Woodward. For me this film was first of all an articulation of adult sophistication and deserved to be studied on these grounds alone. The music was by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, and the film was set in the jazz world of early-sixties Paris–a city that represented, in the folklore of American Negroes, a nirvana of complete racial freedom. To establish this freedom at the outset, Paul Newman (Ram) makes a pass at Diahann Carroll (Connie) as ffher race means no more to him than the color of her coat. Of course the protocols of segregation return soon enough, and the four stars are paired off by race. But I could not hold this against a film that gave me a chance to watch the beautiful, if prim, Diahann Carroll against a backdrop of Montmartre and the Seine, Paris a little dim for being next to her.
Sidney Poitier’s character (Eddie) has by far the most interesting internal conflict. He has come to Paris–like almost the entire postwar generation of black American artists, musicians, and intellectuals–to develop his talents and live as an individual free of American racism. Eddie finds this in Paris as a jazz musician in Ram’s band, and when he and Connie begin their romance, he is an unapologetic advocate of expatriation for blacks. Paris is freedom; America, interminable humiliation. “I’ll never forget the first time I walked down the Champs-Elysees…. I knew I was here to stay.”
But there is a ghost on his trail. And Connie, the new and true love of his life, embodies that ghost. A teacher on vacation in Paris, she brings him news of the civil-rights movement building momentum back home, and, as their love deepens, she makes it clear that their future together will require his coming home and playing some part in the struggle of his people. She brings him precisely what he has escaped: the priority of group identity over individual freedom. The best acting in the film is Eddie’s impassioned rejection of this priority. He hates America with good reason, and it is impossible to see him as simply selfish. He has already found in Paris the freedom blacks are fighting for back home. And he has found this freedom precisely by thinking of himself as an individual who is free to choose. For him individualism is freedom. And even if blacks won the civil-rights struggle, true freedom would still require individuals to choose for themselves. So by what ethic should he leave the freedom of Paris for the indignities of America?
Clearly no ethic would be enough. But love, on the other hand, is the tie that binds. And when the object of that love is Connie, Eddie begins to see a point in responsibility to the group. But at the very end Eddie does not get on the train out of Paris with Connie. He promises to follow her home as soon as he can arrange his affairs, and it looks like he will be good to his word. But the movie ends on his promise rather than on his action. It is a long time now since 1961, so we can know that Eddie will never have the same degree of individual freedom if he goes back home. If whites don’t use his race against him, they will use it for him. And there are always the pressures of his own group identity. As an individual he will have a hard swim. Thinking of the lovely Connie, some days I root for him to leave. Other days, even thinking of her, I root for him to stay.
The greatest problem in coming from an oppressed group is the power the oppressor has over your group. The second greatest problem is the power your group has over you. Group identity in oppressed groups is always very strategic, always a calculation of advantage. The humble black identity of the Booker T. Washington era–“a little education spoiled many a good plow hand”–allowed blacks to function as tradesmen, laborers, and farmers during the rise of Jim Crow, when hundreds of blacks were being lynched yearly. Likewise, the black militancy of the late sixties strategically aimed for advantage in an America suddenly contrite over its long indulgence in racism.
One’s group identity is always a mask–a mask replete with a politics. When a teenager in East Los Angeles says he is Hispanic, he is thinking of himself within a group strategy pitched at larger America. His identity is related far more to America than to Mexico or Guatemala, where he would not often think of himself as Hispanic. In fact, “Hispanic” is much more a political concept than a cultural one, and its first purpose is to win power within the fray of American identity politics. So this teenager must wear the mask that serves his group’s ambitions in these politics.
With the civil-rights victories, black identity became more carefully calculated around the pursuit of power, because black power was finally possible in America. So, as the repressions of racism receded, the repressions of group identity grew more intense for blacks. Even in Paris, Connie uses the censoring voice of the group: “Things are much better than they were five years ago … not because Negroes come to Paris but because Negroes stay home.” Here the collective identity is the true identity, and individual autonomy a mere affectation.
If Paris Blues ends without Eddie’s actual return to America, we can witness such a return in the life of a real-life counterpart to Eddie, the black American writer James Baldwin. In the late forties, Baldwin went to Paris, like his friend and mentor Richard Wright, to escape America’s smothering racism and to find himself as a writer and as an individual. He succeeded dramatically and quickly on both counts. His first novel, the minor masterpiece Go Tell It on the Mountain, appeared in 1953 and was quickly followed by another novel and two important essay collections.
It was clearly the remove of Europe that gave Baldwin the room to find his first important theme: self-acceptance. In a Swiss mountain village in winter, against an “absolutely alabaster landscape” and listening to Bessie Smith records, he accepts that he is black, gay, talented, despised by his father, and haunted by a difficult childhood. From this self-acceptance emerges an individual voice and one of the most unmistakable styles in American writing.
Then, in 1957, Baldwin did something that changed him–and his writing–forever. He came home to America. He gave up the psychological remove of Europe and allowed himself to become once again fully accountable as a black American. And soon, in blatant contradiction of his own powerful arguments against protest writing, he became a protest writer. There is little doubt that this new accountability weakened him greatly as an artist. Nothing he wrote after the early sixties had the human complexity, depth, or literary mastery of what he wrote in those remote European locales where children gawked at him for his color.
The South African writer Nadine Gordimer saw the black writer in her own country as conflicted between “a deep, intense, private view” on the one hand and the call to be a spokesman for his people on the other. This classic conflict–common to writers from oppressed groups around the world–is really a conflict of authority. In Europe, Baldwin enjoyed exclusive authority over his own identity. When he came back to America, he did what in Western culture is anathema to the artist: he submitted his artistic vision–his “private view”–to the authority of his group. From The Fire Next Time to the end of his writing life, he allowed protest to be the framing authority of his work.
What Baldwin did was perhaps understandable, because his group was in a pitched battle for its freedom. The group had enormous moral authority, and he had a splendid rhetorical gift the group needed. Baldwin was transformed in the sixties into an embodiment of black protest, an archetypal David–frail, effeminate, brilliant–against a brutish and stupid American racism. He became a celebrity writer on the American scene, a charismatic presence with huge, penetrating eyes that were fierce and vulnerable at the same time. People who had never read him had strong opinions about him. His fame was out of proportion to his work, and if all this had been limited to Baldwin himself, it might be called the Baldwin phenomenon. But, in fact, his ascendancy established a pattern that would broadly define, and in many ways corrupt, an entire generation of black intellectuals, writers, and academics. And so it must be called the Baldwin model.
The goal of the Baldwin model is to link one’s intellectual reputation to the moral authority–the moral glamour–of an oppressed group’s liberation struggle. In this way one ceases to be a mere individual with a mere point of view and becomes, in effect, the embodiment of a moral imperative. This is rarely done consciously, as a Faustian bargain in which the intellectual knowingly sells his individual soul to the group. Rather the group identity is already a protest-focused identity, and the intellectual simply goes along with it. Adherence to the Baldwin model is usually more a sin of thoughtlessness and convenience than of conscious avarice, though it is always an appropriation of moral power, a stealing of thunder.
The protest intellectual positions himself in the pathway of the larger society’s march toward racial redemption. By allowing his work to be framed by the protest identity, he articulates the larger society’s moral liability. He seems, therefore, to hold the key to how society must redeem itself. Baldwin was called in to advise Bobby Kennedy on the Negro situation. It is doubtful that the Baldwin of Go Tell It on the Mountain would have gotten such a call. But the Baldwin of The Fire Next Time probably expected it. Ralph Ellison, a contemporary of Baldwin’s who rejected the black protest identity but whose work showed a far deeper understanding of black culture than Baldwin’s, never had this sort of access to high places. By insisting on his individual autonomy as an artist, Ellison was neither inflated with the moral authority of his group’s freedom struggle nor positioned in the pathway of America’s redemption.
Today the protest identity is a career advantage for an entire generation of black intellectuals, particularly academics who have been virtually forced to position themselves in the path of their university’s obsession with “diversity.” Inflation from the moral authority of protest, added to the racial preference policies in so many American institutions, provides an irresistible incentive for black America’s best minds to continue defining themselves by protest. Professors who resist the Baldwin model risk the Ellisonian fate of invisibility.
What happened in America to make the Baldwin model possible?
The broad answer is this: America moved from its long dark age of racism into an age of white guilt. I saw this shift play out in my own family.
I grew up watching my parents live out an almost perpetual protest against racial injustice. When I was five or six we drove out of our segregated neighborhood every Sunday morning to carry out the grimly disciplined business of integrating a lily-white church in the next town. Our family was a little off-color island of quiet protest amidst rows of pinched white faces. And when that battle was lost there was a long and successful struggle to create Chicago’s first fully integrated church. And from there it was on to the segregated local school system, where my parents organized a boycott against the elementary school that later incurred the first desegregation lawsuit in the North.
Amidst all this protest, I could see only the price people were paying. I saw my mother’s health start to weaken. I saw the white minister who encouraged us to integrate his church lose his job. There was a time when I was sent away to stay with family friends until things “cooled down.” Black protest had no legitimacy in broader America in the 1950s. It was subversive, something to be repressed, and people who indulged in it were made to pay.
And then there came the sunny day in the very late sixties when I leaned into the window of my parents’ old powder-blue Rambler and, inches from my mother’s face, said wasn’t it amazing that I was making $13,500 a year. They had come to visit me on my first job out of college, and had just gotten into the car for their return trip. I saw my mistake even as the words tumbled out. My son’s pride had blinded me to my parents’ feelings. This was four or five thousand dollars more than either of them had ever made in a single year. I had learned the year before that my favorite professor–a full professor with two books to his credit–had fought hard for a raise to $10,000 a year. Thirteen five implied a different social class, a different life than we had known as a family.
“Congratulations,” they said. “That’s very nice.”
The subtext of this role reversal was President Johnson’s Great Society, and beneath that an even more profound shift in the moral plates of society. The year was 1969, and I was already employed in my fourth Great Society program–three Upward Bound programs and now a junior college-level program called Experiment in Higher Education, in East St. Louis, Illinois. America was suddenly spending vast millions to end poverty “in our time,” and, as it was for James Baldwin on his return from Paris, the timing was perfect for me.
I was chosen for my first Upward Bound job because I was the leader of the campus civil-rights group. This engagement with black protest suddenly constituted a kind of aptitude, in my employers, minds, for teaching disadvantaged kids. It inflated me into a person who was gifted with young people. The protesting that had gotten me nowhere when I started college was serving me as well as an advanced degree by the time I was a senior.
Two great, immutable forces have driven America’s attitudes, customs, and public policies around race. The first has been white racism, and the second has been white guilt. The civil-rights movement was the dividing line between the two. Certainly there was some guilt before this movement, and no doubt some racism remains after it. But the great achievement of the civil-rights movement was that its relentless moral witness finally defeated the legitimacy of racism as propriety–a principle of social organization, manners, and customs that defines decency itself. An idea controls culture when it achieves the invisibility of propriety. And it must be remembered that racism was a propriety, a form of decency. When, as a boy, I was prohibited from entering the fine Christian home of the occasional white playmate, it was to save the household an indecency. Today, thanks to the civil-rights movement, white guilt is propriety–an utterly invisible code that defines decency in our culture with thousands of little protocols we no longer even think about. We have been living in an age of white guilt for four decades now.
What is white guilt? It is not a personal sense of remorse over past wrongs. White guilt is literally a vacuum of moral authority in matters of race, equality, and opportunity that comes from the association of mere white skin with America’s historical racism. It is the stigmatization of whites and, more importantly, American institutions with the sin of racism. Under this stigma white individuals and American institutions must perpetually prove a negative–that they are not racist–to gain enough authority to function in matters of race, equality, and opportunity. If they fail to prove the negative, they will be seen as racists. Political correctness, diversity policies, and multiculturalism are forms of deference that give whites and institutions a way to prove the negative and win reprieve from the racist stigma.
Institutions especially must be proactive in all this. They must engineer a demonstrable racial innocence to garner enough authority for simple legitimacy in the American democracy. No university today, private or public, could admit students by academic merit alone if that meant no black or brown faces on campus. Such a university would be seen as racist and shunned accordingly. White guilt has made social engineering for black and brown representation a condition of legitimacy.
People often deny white guilt by pointing to its irrationality–“I never owned a slave,” “My family got here eighty years after slavery was over.” But of course almost nothing having to do with race is rational. That whites are now stigmatized by their race is not poetic justice; it is simply another echo of racism’s power to contaminate by mere association.
The other common denial of white guilt has to do with motive: “I don’t support affirmative action because I’m guilty; I support it because I want to do what’s fair.” But the first test of sincere support is a demand that the policy be studied for effectiveness. Affirmative action went almost completely unexamined for thirty years and has only recently been briefly studied in a highly politicized manner now that it is under threat. The fact is that affirmative action has been a very effective racial policy in garnering moral authority and legitimacy for institutions, and it is now institutions–not individual whites or blacks–that are fighting to keep it alive.
The real difference between my parents and myself was that they protested in an age of white racism and I protested in an age of white guilt. They were punished; I was rewarded. By my time, moral authority around race had become a great and consuming labor for America. Everything from social programs to the law, from the color of TV sitcom characters to the content of school curricula, from college admissions to profiling for terrorists–every aspect of our culture–now must show itself redeemed of the old national sin. Today you cannot credibly run for president without an iconography of white guilt: the backdrop of black children, the Spanish-language phrases, the word “compassion” to separate conservatism from its associations with racism.
So then here you are, a black American living amidst all this. Every institution you engage–the government, universities, corporations, public and private schools, philanthropies, churches–faces you out of a deficit of moral authority. Your race is needed everywhere. How could you avoid the aggressions, and even the bigotries, of white guilt? What institution could you walk into without having your color tallied up as a credit to the institution? For that matter, what political party or ideological direction could you pursue without your race being plundered by that party or ideology for moral authority?
Because blacks live amidst such hunger for the moral authority of their race, we embraced protest as a permanent identity in order to capture the fruits of white guilt on an ongoing basis. Again, this was our first fall by our own hand. Still, it is hard to imagine any group of individuals coming out of four centuries of oppression and not angling their identity toward whatever advantage seemed available. White guilt held out the promise of a preferential life in recompense for past injustice, and the protest identity seemed the best way to keep that promise alive.
An obvious problem here is that we blacks fell into a group identity that has absolutely no other purpose than to collect the fruits of white guilt. And so the themes of protest–a sense of grievance and victimization–evolved into a sensibility, an attitude toward the larger world that enabled us always and easily to feel the grievance whether it was there or not. Protest became the mask of identity, because it defined us in a way that kept whites “on the hook.” Today the angry rap singer and Jesse Jackson and the black-studies professor are all joined by an unexamined devotion to white guilt.
To be black in my father’s generation, when racism was rampant, was to be a man who was very often victimized by racism. To be black in the age of white guilt is to be a victim who is very rarely victimized by racism. Today in black life there is what might be called “identity grievance”–a certainty of racial grievance that is entirely disconnected from actual grievance. And the fervor of this symbiosis with white guilt has all but killed off the idea of the individual as a source of group strength in black life. All is group and unity, even as those minority groups that ask much of their individuals thrive in America despite any discrimination they encounter.
I always thought that James Baldwin on some level knew that he had lost himself to protest. His work grew narrower and narrower when age and experience should have broadened it. And, significantly, he spent the better part of his last decades in France, where he died in 1987. Did he again need France in those years to be himself, to be out from under the impossible demands of a symbiotically defined black identity, to breathe on his own?
There is another final and terrible enemy of the black individual. I first saw it in that Great Society program in which my salary was so sweetened by white guilt. The program itself quickly slid into banana republic–style corruption, and I was happy to get away to graduate-student poverty. But on the way out certain things became clear. The program was not so much a program as it was an idea of the social “good,” around which there was an intoxicating enthusiasm. It was my first experience with the utter thrill of untested good intentions. On the way out I realized that thrill had been the point. That feeling is what we sent back to Washington, where it was received as an end in itself.
Now I know that white guilt is a moral imperative that can be satisfied by good intentions alone. In my own lifetime, racial reform in America changed from a struggle for freedom to a struggle for “the good.” A new metaphysics of the social good replaced the principles of freedom. Suddenly “diversity,” “inclusion,” “tolerance,” “pluralism,” and “multiculturalism” were all conjure words that aligned you with a social good so compelling that you couldn’t leave it to mere freedom. In certain circumstances freedom could be the outright enemy of “the good.” If you want a “diverse” student body at your university, for example, the individualistic principles of freedom might be a barrier. So usually “the good” has to be imposed from above out of a kind of moral imperialism by a well-meaning white elite.
In the sixties, black identity also shifted its focus from freedom to “the good” to better collect the fruits of white guilt. Thus it was a symbiosis of both white and black need that pushed racial reform into a totalitarian model where schemes of “the good” are imposed by coercion at the expense of freedom. The Franco-Czech writer Milan Kundera says that every totalitarianism is “also the dream of paradise.” And when people seem to stand in its way, the rulers “build a little gulag on the side of Eden.” In this good-driven age of white guilt, with all its paradises of diversity, a figurative gulag has replaced freedom’s tradition of a respected and loyal opposition. Conservatives are automatically relegated to this gulag because of their preference for freedom over ideas of “the good.”
But there is another “little gulag” for the black individual. He lives in a society that needs his race for the good it wants to do more than it needs his individual self. His race makes him popular with white institutions and unifies him with blacks. But he is unsupported everywhere as an individual. Nothing in his society asks for or even allows his flowering as a full, free, and responsible person. As is always the case when “the good” becomes ascendant over freedom, and coercion itself becomes a good thing, the individual finds himself in a gulag.
Something happened at Harvard last fall that provides a rare window into all of this. Harvard’s president, Lawrence H. Summers, rebuked the famous black-studies professor Cornel West for essentially being a lightweight on a campus of heavyweights. These were not his words, but there is little doubt that this was his meaning. West himself has said that he felt “devalued” and “disrespected” in the now famous meeting between the two.
The facts are all on Summers’s side. West’s achievements are simply not commensurate with his position as a University Professor, the very highest rank a member of an already esteemed faculty can ascend to–a rank normally reserved for Nobel-level accomplishment. West had spent the previous year on leave making a rap CD and chairing Al Sharpton’s presidential exploration committee. Privately–that is, behind the mask of the protest identity–few serious black academics saw West much differently than Summers did. Even publicly, where the mask is mandatory, he was never more than “officially” defended.
But Harvard itself had created the monster. Harvard did not promote Cornel West to a University Professorship because his academic work was seminal. Cornel West brought to campus the special charisma of the black protest identity–not, of course, in its unadorned street incarnation but dressed up in a three-piece suit and muted by an impenetrable academese that in the end said almost nothing and scared no one. This was not someone akin to the young Eldridge Cleaver, who had a real fire and could really write but who also might be rather difficult in and around Harvard Square. With Cornel you could sit the black protest identity down to dinner amidst the fine china and pretty girls from tony suburbs and everyone would be so thrilled.
Here, in the University Professorship, white guilt and black protest perfectly consummated their bargain. It was never Cornel West–the individual–that Harvard wanted; it was the defanged protest identity that he carried, which redounded to the university as racial innocence itself. How could anyone charge this university with racism when it promoted Cornel West to its upper reaches? His marginal accomplishments only made the gesture more grand. West was not at Harvard to do important work; he was there precisely to be promoted over his head. In the bold irrationality of the promotion was the daring display of racial innocence.
What Lawrence Summers did not understand, when he became Harvard’s new president, was that West was an important part of the institution’s iconography of racial innocence. Or maybe he did understand and wanted to challenge this way of doing things. In any case, he did the unthinkable: He saw West as an individual. Thus, he did not confuse the charisma of the protest identity with real achievement.
His rebuke of West caused an explosion, because it broke faith with the symbiotic enmeshment of white guilt and black protest. West has now left Harvard for Princeton, where this enmeshment prevails unthreatened by ham-fisted administrators who might inadvertently see their black moral-authority hires as individuals. Summers himself–as if fresh from re-education camp–has apologized to West and professed his support for affirmative action. The age of white guilt, with its myriad corruptions and its almost racist blindness to minority individuality, may someday go down like the age of racism went down–but only if people take the risk of standing up to it rather than congratulating themselves for doing things that have involved no real risk since 1965.
I know Cornel West to be a good man, whose grace and good manners even with people he disagrees with have been instructive to me. As contemporaries, we have both had to find our way in this age of white guilt. As educated blacks, we have both had to wrestle against the relentless moral neediness of American institutions, though I’m sure he wouldn’t see it that way. I saw the way race inflated people like us back in those Great Society programs I mentioned, and it was my good luck to enter them when the corruptions were so blatant that it was mere self-preservation to walk away.
One of my assignments in that last program was to help design some of the country’s very first black-studies programs, and by 1970 I already knew that they would always lack the most fundamental raison d’etre of any academic discipline: a research methodology of their own. This meant that black studies could never be more than an assemblage of courses cobbled together from “real” departments, and that it could never have more than a political mandate–a perfect formula for academic disrespect. But, as I say, it was luck to learn this early, before white guilt became infinitely more subtle and seductive.
In the age of racism there were more powerful black intellectuals, because nobody wanted them for their race. Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, and many others were fully developed, self-made individuals, no matter their various political and ideological bents. Race was not a “talent” that falsely inflated them or won them high position. Today no black intellectual in America, including this writer, is safe from this sort of inflation. The white world is simply too hungry for the moral authority our skins carry. And this is true on both the political left and right. Why did so many black churches have to be the backdrop for Clinton speeches, and why should Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell have to hear Bush crow about their high place among his advisers?
James Baldwin once wrote: “What Europe still gives an American is the sanction, if one can accept it, to become oneself.” If America now gives this sanction to most citizens, its institutions still fiercely deny it to blacks. And this society will never sanction blacks in this way until it drops all the mechanisms by which it tries to appease white guilt. Guilt can be a very civilizing force, but only when it is simply carried as a kind of knowledge. Efforts to appease or dispel it will only engage the society in new patterns of dehumanization against the same people who inspired guilt in the first place. This will always be true.
Restraint should be the watchword in racial matters. We should help people who need help. There are, in fact, no races that need help; only individuals, citizens. Over time maybe nothing in the society, not even white guilt, will reach out and play on my race, bind me to it for opportunity. I won’t ever find in America what Baldwin found in Europe, but someday maybe others will.
Shelby Steele is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His last book was A Dream Deferred (HarperCollins)