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Of Race and Imagination By: Shelby Steele
The Wall Street Journal | Thursday, December 19, 2002


On the Tuesday after Trent Lott's racial gaffe, I was approached by people close to the senator for advice on an appropriate apology. There was real desperation in their voices as they spoke into a speakerphone, but I had already concluded that he deserved what he was getting. That such a thought -- segregation as a deliverance from "all these problems over all these years" -- was rambling around in his head under the category of humor was clearly chilling. But they were also asking a perfectly reasonable question: How does a white male Mississippian, who has made an amazingly ugly racial gaffe, apologize? Could he have a political redemption?

I offered nothing that wasn't obvious. He should talk about growing up in a segregated society and admit that he was affected by it. He should discuss in detail how he came to the realization that segregation and racism were wrong. Was there an epiphany, an incident, a process? They asked for language, so I gave them what I wanted to hear: "I loathe segregation and racism with everything in me. This loathing is, for me, the starting point of human decency." "He won't do all this," one of them said. "Then he should go down," I said.

The senator's many apologies -- perhaps more than his original gaffe -- have revealed him to be a man who has troubled himself very little with self-examination where race is concerned. And now, in racial crisis, he has no inner anchoring to call on. He is learning on the job.

This is all terrible for Republicans and conservatives because the best thinking on social problems and race in recent years has come from their ranks. Conservatism (or classic liberalism) has wanted to correct for the paternalistic and racialist social engineering of 1960s-style reform without seeming to be against reform itself. How do you say, I'm against policies designed to help you, but I'm not against you?

It has taken years of careful argument to even slightly convince minorities that "conservative" principles could be relevant to their problems. A literature of conservative social, educational and racial reform has had to emerge. And the struggle has been especially hard because the other side casts this new, socially engaged conservatism as a progressive mask over a face that longs to "set the clock back on civil rights." What made Sen. Lott's rebel yell so chilling was precisely that it seemed to break through a mask.

And this when history will likely congratulate the current Bush administration for bringing the modern Republican Party its first explicitly articulated social philosophy: compassionate conservatism. Today Americans trust Republicans more than Democrats on educational issues. And there is a growing understanding that social programs are usually destructive unless they engage individual responsibility.

But conservatism is not gaining ground because it is somehow truer today than before. Over the past 40 years it might have been a great bulwark against the decline in values and institutions it now bemoans. But this did not happen, because conservatism, for all its commitment to freedom, did not make itself the principled enemy of racism during the civil-rights era. Here was a movement grounded in the principles of classic liberalism and, rather than rush to its support, some conservatives bent the principle of states' rights into a tolerance of segregation while others simply sat it out. The gradual comeback of conservative principles in areas like welfare reform and educational accountability has much to do with the moral authority they gain in application to social problems.

It is quite true that Sen. Lott's gaffe was only a gaffe. And he is not, after all, the Beltway sniper. But the slow march of conservative principles back to mainstream respectability is still so fragile that conservatives themselves must be absolutely innocent of racism. Anything less than this will count as virulent racism and be held against the principles themselves. And if you have associated with Bob Jones University, despite its ban on interracial dating, your racial innocence is a long way from absolute.

But what specifically is Sen. Lott's sin? More broadly, what was the moral failing back in the civil rights era that still threatens the good name of conservatism?

In both cases it was a failure of what might be called a democratic imagination. The great anxiety for minorities of color is that those in the majority cannot or will not achieve full human identification with them, and therefore will not bond with them as equals. When Sen. Lott traffics with Bob Jones University, meets with the Council of Conservative Citizens, and makes bad jokes that seem to pine for segregation, he seems to be a man who has never imagined himself in the place of blacks. Without this imaginative effort he is only white and bereft of the common humanity that would connect him to blacks as true equals. Conservatives in the civil rights era failed to see themselves in the Negro, failed to imagine themselves into his plight. Had they imagined themselves there, they would have made themselves the measure of the rights blacks should receive. But conservative principles, entrepreneurial in so many ways, lost this opportunity to a lack of imagination.

Democracies expand individual rights past the barriers of race, class and gender precisely by encouraging imaginative identification with difference -- by asking men to put themselves in the shoes of women, whites in the shoes of blacks, and so on. And minorities are always asking others to put themselves in their place because they know this is how equality will be experienced and become undeniable. Minorities also know that racism and bigotry are always a failure of this kind of imagination. In the face of difference, imagination is the only way to common humanity. Thus minorities also know that racism and bigotry are the perfect collapse of imagination.

George Wallace, whose journey from racism to redemption was nothing less than Shakespearean, said it was suffering that finally expanded his imagination. Shot, paralyzed, and in constant pain for many years, he came to see himself in the black caretakers whom he had clearly grown to love. It is not conceivable that he would have stopped their children at the university door.

Still, even though many blacks including Jesse Jackson vetted his redemption, Wallace apparently did not like racial preferences. They required the same denial of human commonality that racism enforced, the same suppression of imagination. And this begs the question of whether there is much difference between the old Wallace who blocked the schoolhouse door and today's Ivy League admissions officers who say they have too many Asian applicants.

No doubt the abuses of racism once made the democratic imagination a centerpiece of black American culture. The rhetoric of Martin Luther King was about nothing else. But the race-focused reforms that became entrenched after the 1960s have made the black imagination more self-referential. Now we imagine ourselves more than others, although depressingly seldom as conservatives. Universities across the country provide "ethnic theme dorms" to spare the young the stresses of developing a democratic imagination. And how many million blacks have a fellow-traveling affection for Louis Farrakhan, who is as ardently opposed to interracial dating as anyone at Bob Jones University?

Today America supports a racialist value system for minorities while demanding a democratic expansion of the white imagination. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus can embrace "blackness" and demand government preferences exclusively for their race. Remove the double standard and Trent Lott looks perfectly innocent by comparison.

But in the end a man cannot be redeemed by a moral equivalence. That those who ask Sen. Lott to imagine beyond his race do not do so themselves is no consolation. The senator is probably a more moral man and thus a better conservative today than he was two weeks ago, but moral calculus is more forgiving than political calculus. He is now so politically compromised that in his Black Entertainment Television interview he declared "across the board" support for affirmative action, vowed to rethink his support for Judge Charles Pickering, and agreed to a "civil rights tour" with Rep. John Lewis.

A vacuum of white guilt as wide as the Grand Canyon has opened in him, and he will never again see civil rights, welfare, judgeships or education with a clear eye. He will now live in a territory of irony where his redemption will be purchased through support for racialist social reforms that make a virtue of the same segregationist spirit that has now brought him low.

Mr. Steele, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of "A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America" (HarperCollins, 1998).




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