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Guilty Whites By: Lawrence Auster
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, September 30, 2005


                  The worst guilt is to accept an undeserved guilt—and that is what
                  you have been doing all your life. (Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged)

In the aftermath of the worst natural disaster in American history, we have seen a spectacular resurgence of the indictment against white America that has been an organizing theme of our national discourse since the 1960s. Starting from the liberal assumption that any undesirable outcome for black people is the result of white racism, black leaders and spokesmen—supported, according to one poll, by 66 percent of all blacks—have charged in the most virulent terms that white indifference towards or outright hostility to blacks slowed the response to the disaster, leaving tens of thousands of poor blacks to suffer needlessly. As Rabbi Aryeh Spero writes, even as white men in helicopters were risking their lives to save black people stranded on rooftops, and even as whites were navigating their small, private boats in swirling, toxic floodwaters to rescue their black fellow citizens trapped in their houses, black leaders were crying white racism.

The accusation of racism is so transparently false in this case that conservatives (and even some liberals, such as the editors of the New York Daily News) have been far more willing than usual to refute it. For the most part, however, the attitude of whites and responsible mainstream opinion makers has not been to condemn the racism charge as the corrosive lie that it is, but simply to ignore it or point out that it's not helpful in the midst of this crisis. As a result, even as many blacks and liberal whites were outrageously charging racism, other whites were uncomplainingly organizing the biggest disaster relief in American history, including bringing hundreds of thousands of black evacuees into their communities all across America.

To the extent that most whites think about the issue at all, they seem to imagine that acting decently is a sufficient response to being called a racist. But if past experience is any guide, such a passive and uncomplaining attitude on the part of whites, far from clearing them of the racism charge in the eyes of blacks, leaves them looking guiltier than ever. Why else—as blacks see it—would whites not defend themselves against such a damning accusation? Why else—unless whites really are racists—would they not indignantly strike back at people who are saying such terrible things about them? Thus whites' unprecedented outpouring of generosity, far from acquitting them of racism, merely continues the familiar psychodrama of white liberal guilt, in which whites are forever trying through conspicuous demonstrations of compassion and good will to shield themselves from a racism charge against which they appear to have no real defense.

The charge of white racism remains, as it has been for the past 40 years, a sword hanging over our society, paralyzing rational discourse and obstructing sensible action in areas ranging from crime prevention to education to anti-terrorism measures to immigration control. For example, the Center for Immigration Studies, a very moderate immigration reform organization that takes no interest in the cultural or ethnic aspects of immigration, has been smeared as "repugnant" by the Wall Street Journal, based on the conventional belief—conventional even among many mainstream conservatives—that any serious concern about the scale and social effects of immigration is motivated by racial bigotry and must be avoided. Similarly, despite Islam's manifest nature as a warrior religion devoted to the spread of totalitarian sharia over the whole earth, respectable society shies away from frank discussion of this extremely important fact, out of fear of being called racist.

However, of all the factors that serve as a pretext for the racism charge and make intelligent discussion of race- and culture-related problems impossible, the most important is the black differential in academic achievement and socioeconomic outcomes. While the liberal media have routinely published articles since the early 1990s showing that black students score below whites on basic skills tests, and that even upper middle class black students score lower than poor white students, the explanations offered for this phenomenon always come down to some sin or failure on the part of whites. Thus in a September 28 New York Times story about the black achievement gap among middle-class black students at Princeton High School in Princeton, New Jersey, a gap that has caused the elite school to be declared as "failing" under the No Child Left Behind Act, Times reporter Samuel G. Freedman presents the following theories to account for the problem: Princeton schools were segregated until 1947; teachers have "low expectations" of black pupils; and there are unspecified "inadequacies in the system." This is a completely typical treatment by the Times. Any suggestion that the causes of blacks' low scores lie in blacks themselves is never considered, and anyone who raises that possibility is attacked as a racist. If rational discussion of the possible causes of the problem is forbidden, how can rational responses be found?

A handful of conservative black thinkers, such as John McWhorter, have argued that it is up to blacks to help open up a more honest discussion about race. This approach harks back to Booker T. Washington's idea—roundly rejected by the modern civil rights movement—that blacks' condition in America can only be improved by blacks themselves, through the effort of building up their own capacities as individuals and communities; and, further, that it is folly to expect whites, or government, or the society as a whole, to do for blacks what only blacks can do for themselves. As Frederick Douglass said in 1865:

What I ask for the negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice. The American people have always been anxious to know what they shall do with us... . I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm-eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! ... And if the negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! ... [Y]our interference is doing him positive injury. [1]

The thought that today's blacks, following in the tradition of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, might liberate whites from the strictures of racial correctness, including the deadly notion that whites are responsible for the well-being and progress of blacks and are guilty of racism if blacks do not succeed, is appealing for a number of reasons. But given the vested interest that most blacks and virtually all black organizations have in the existing racial preference system, it is highly unlikely that such a transformation in racial discourse will be initiated by blacks. Further, since it was the white majority that actually created the current system of black racial spoils and white racial guilt, it is the white psychology about race, not the black psychology, that holds the key to turning this problem around.

White guilt

The most likely reason for whites' intellectual paralysis regarding racial issues in general and the charge of racism in particular is that whites do indeed experience sincere guilt—and a sense of their own moral illegitimacy as a group—as a result of America's history of discrimination against blacks. Whites therefore feel that they have no right to assert themselves as the historic majority people of America, either in promoting moral and educational standards for the whole society, or in defending the majority culture and national identity from the forces of mass immigration and multiculturalism. As an example of the latter attitude, a prominent neoconservative journalist and author wrote to me some years ago that "America's harsh history of racial discrimination" required America to keep its borders open to non-European immigrants. In other words, America's historic guilt toward blacks makes it guilty toward all non-white peoples in the world, a guilt it can try to palliate, but can never eliminate, by allowing itself to be transformed by non-European immigration.

One problem with the notion of a historic white guilt is that many other nations have oppressed their ethnic or religious minorities in the past, yet did not ever afterward feel that they were deprived of the right to preserve their majority culture or to exist as a distinct society. This suggests that white America's susceptibility to the charge of racism does not derive from its past treatment of blacks, but from blacks' current condition, namely their lagging intellectual and economic performance relative to the rest of the population, and the backwardness, incompetence, and moral disorder that characterize so many inner city black communities. Yet because of the egalitarian, oppressor/oppressed model that has informed the civil rights movement at least since 1966 when the black left pushed liberal integrationists like Martin Luther King aside, it has been totally unacceptable to the white left as well as to blacks to believe that the cause of persistent black deficiencies lies in the black community itself.

Instead, black achievement deficits in education, income, family formation, law-abidingness and so on must be due to some artificial factor, which in the end always boils down to white racism, or, alternatively, to a white indifference that is tantamount to white racism. Among these explanations is the liberal theory that whites are unconsciously sending demoralizing messages to blacks about blacks' intellectual capacities. Ironically, if anyone is doing this to blacks, it is the liberals themselves, since they constantly insist that without racial preferences blacks will be unable to achieve at an acceptable level and will be forever relegated to second class status as a group. Conservatives reinforce this perverse view when they speak of the black achievement gap as America's number one "civil rights" issue. The implication is that if blacks, despite ever-renewed efforts at amelioration, still remain behind whites in any respect, they are being deprived of their civil rights. But by whom are they being deprived? The answer can only be—by whites.

In all cases, whites avoid the sinful thought that the responsibility for black inequality lies with blacks as a group, by placing the responsibility on whites as a group.

Interracial relations

Just as whites accept the ultimate blame for inadequate black achievement, they accept the blame for the universal phenomena of ethnocentrism, ethnic separatism, and ethnic conflict. In fact, these behaviors and phenomena are not unique to whites and can reasonably be characterized as normal human responses to inter-group relations:

 - It is a fact of life that people of all races feel more socially comfortable with people of their own race than with people of other races, and so tend to gravitate to the company of people like themselves. This natural behavior doesn't mean that people are hostile to those of other races, only that they feel more at ease and cooperate better with people like themselves, and so tend to form communities and social networks with people of the same racial and ethnic background. This is true of blacks and Asians and other ethnic groups as well as whites.

 - But only whites—partly because it is whites who pioneered the very idea of human rights and also because their civilizational achievements are historically so great—suffer from guilt and exaggerated moral qualms that make it impossible for them to admit, even to themselves, these normal and unobjectionable facts of life.

 - Whites therefore compensate for their natural preference for whites by turning people of other races, particularly blacks, into abstractions, symbols, totems—sacred objects upon whom they can project their idealism and demonstrate their compassion. It is a modernized version of the romance of the "noble savage" that provided the well-spring of the modern left in the writings of Rousseau.

 - As a result, society's continuing failure to realize complete social integration of all races, particularly of blacks, is preposterously blamed on the idea of whites' supposed hateful resistance to blacks, or on whites' negative "stereotypes" about blacks, or on whites' unconscious enjoyment of white skin privilege, or on whites' failure to "try hard enough" to bridge the racial divide, or (a theme developed at great length in a ludicrous New York Times series on race relations several years ago) on whites' silent refusal to share their true feelings about race relations with their black co-workers—even though, as everyone knows but can't say, if whites did share their suppressed feelings about their black co-workers—e.g., their resentment at the unearned privileges routinely awarded to blacks—they would instantly become the subjects of an inquisition.

To sum up: the prohibition against acknowledging the racial facts of life—that only blacks can raise the aspirations and conditions of blacks, and that people naturally prefer the company of people who are racially similar to themselves—drives whites toward a systematic indictment of their own race, which leads to white silence and passivity in the face of vicious black and leftwing racial attacks. And this in turn leads to white submission to the tyranny of political correctness across the whole range of cultural issues touched on earlier.

The historical origin of white guilt

The crucial question then becomes, how did this false belief—that white racism is responsible for all distinctions and inqualities between races, and particularly for the ongoing black achievement gap—arise in the first place? From the Emancipation Proclamation to the mid-twentieth century, blacks lived under far worse conditions of inequality than exist now, without whites bending themselves out of shape over perceived racial differences. Both the race differences in performance and the naturalness of social separation between the races were taken for granted by most whites, including Northern liberal whites, until the mid 20th century (and were also accepted by black leaders like Booker T. Washington, who famously declared: "In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress"). But the war against Hitler, by pushing America to define itself in diametrical opposition to the Nazi race ideology, gave America an extremist ideological mandate of its own: the total elimination of all forms of white racial discrimination. This in turn implied the total elimination of all forms of white solidarity, since the normal preference of whites for other whites was now defined as bigoted discrimination. Further, if white solidarity or identity was discriminatory and wrong, then so were the cultures and nations that had been historically created by whites and that were still completely or overwhelmingly white in their ethnic composition.

Initially, this ideological re-casting of America and the West was an elite phenomenon, and did not transform the American psyche and culture generally. It was not until America attempted to put this radical liberal ideology into practice, through the historically unprecedented attempt to raise black Americans to full legal and substantive equality with whites, that the neurosis of white guilt was born. The transformations of the 1960s lie at the root of our current racial neurosis, and we have no hope of untangling ourselves from it without understanding what transpired in those years.

In Losing Ground, Charles Murray's landmark account of the 1960s poverty programs, the author describes several changes in the thinking on blacks and urban poverty. [2] From 1961 to 1964, the announced purpose of welfare was to get people off the dole by getting them to change their behavior. This "give a hand, not a hand out" approach was abandoned when it was realized that both the jobs programs and the community development programs were not having the desired effect. For example, a $23 million community development program for Oakland, California, which received much favorable national coverage, ended by creating a total of 20 jobs. This was representative, not exceptional, according to Murray. In 1967 the Johnson administration announced that only one percent of the 7.3 million people on welfare were capable of acquiring the skills and training they needed to become self-sufficient. While there may have been a certain amount of liberal exaggeration in this statement designed to keep welfare spending flowing (we should also note that the qualified success of welfare reform since 1996 throws the dire implications of the 1967 announcement into doubt), the problem was nevertheless real and substantial. It was concluded that the only thing left to do about the poor was to provide them with permanent income transfers. As Tom Wicker wrote:

[L]arge numbers of the poor are always going to have to be helped. Whether for physical or mental reasons, because of environmental factors, or whatever, they cannot keep pace.... Thus the aim of getting everyone off welfare and into 'participation in our affluent society' is unreal and a pipe dream.... a decent standard of living ought to be made available not just to an eligible few but to everyone, and without degrading restrictions and policelike investigations.

Poverty was to be ended by giving everyone a guaranteed income. As two social critics put it, "[I]n a nation as rich as the United States, it is an utter moral scandal that even the slightest remnant of poverty should remain."

The proposal to give poor people lifetime sustenance—no matter what the reason for their poverty, and with nothing expected from them in return—would never have gotten off the ground without a radically revised view of the causes of poverty. This was provided by the socialist writer Michael Harrington in his influential book, The Other America. Harrington argued that there were 50 million poor people in America, and that their poverty was not caused by laziness or vice or lack of ability. "It was produced by conditions that had nothing to do with individual virtue or effort," as Murray sums up Harrington. "Poverty was not the fault of the individual but of the system." Therefore the elimination of poverty required nothing less than radical surgery on society itself, namely the massive redistribution of income. In the aftermath of Harrington's book, these notions, formerly subscribed to only by the left, became the mainstream consensus virtually overnight.

Complementing the new understanding of poverty was the new attitude toward underclass violence that emerged in the aftermath of the 1960s race riots. The general response was not to condemn the riots but to condone them. Respectable white opinion, as reflected by the National Commission on Civil Disorders, agreed with Martin Luther King that rioting was not a violation of law that should be punished, but an understandable response to centuries of oppression—even though the nation had passed a revolutionary Civil Rights Act just 15 days before the first riot broke out in Harlem on July 18, 1964, followed by riots in several other cities that summer. Since blacks already enjoyed legal equality in the North where the riots occurred, it became part of the conventional wisdom that legal equality was not enough. "The moral agonizing among whites was strikingly white-centered," Murray observes. "Whites had created the problem, it was up to whites to fix it, and there was very little in the dialogue that treated blacks as responsible actors."

But why, the reader may wonder, was all the focus on poor blacks? What about poor whites, who, after all, made up a majority of welfare recipients? Several related factors accounted for the stress on black rather than white uplift: as President Johnson emphasized in his June 1965 Commencement speech at Howard University, poor blacks, unlike poor whites, were the victims of historic racial prejudice in this country and so required special help; the revolutionary Civil Rights Act had been passed for the sake of blacks, not whites; poor whites were not rioting in cities throughout America; various social pathologies (e.g. unwed motherhood, endemic violence, lack of useful skills) were not as profound and extensive among poor whites as among poor blacks; and, most importantly, the problem of poor whites was not seen as a threat to the social order itself. Reflecting the sense of urgency on the latter issue, the lead article in the January 1967 issue of The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, a sober academic journal, said:

[W]e are creating a monster within our midst, a people being alienated from the mainstream of American life .... [We must] cease thinking of racial relations as a nice and good thing, as one important national and local task—among many others—to do. American race relations today, like religion and basic ideologies historically, must have an absolute priority or we are as a nation lost!

To summarize the stages of this epochal transformation in America's attitudes on poverty and race:

(1) The early poverty programs were based on an appeal to American virtue and optimism.

(2) Social engineering to lead poor blacks out of poverty utterly failed.

(3) That failure engendered the idea of providing poor blacks with permanent income maintenance, regardless of individual deserts.

(4) The only way to justify this radical proposal on moral grounds was to claim that the system, not blacks' own behavior, was the cause of black poverty.

(5) Since the system (a.k.a. white America) was responsible for black poverty, it followed that the system, even in the absence of legal discrimination against blacks, was responsible for black violence.

Thus was born a theological belief in white guilt, which became the indispensable condition for the exaggerated solicitude toward blacks, as well as the poisonous alienation from pre-Sixties America, that has characterized post-Sixties America.

Murray's account, summarized and interpreted here, has helped us locate the precise historical and psychological moment that gave birth to whites' loss of confidence and even self-loathing. It was the moment when the incapacity of liberal social engineering to end the dysfunction of many poor and inner-city black communities first became manifest to the white liberal consciousness. Having embarked on an unprecedented attempt to raise the condition of blacks, white liberal America suddenly found itself faced with two horrifying realizations it had not contemplated before: that black poverty as a whole could not be cured by government efforts, and that, given the depth of black racial hostility as shown in the riots, racial integration along liberal, "I have a dream," lines was impossible.

Shocked to its core, white America lost its nerve. White America could not blame black poverty on the black community's own failures, since that would imply that whites were not responsible for blacks' problems. Nor could white America attribute black racial animus (as Thomas Jefferson had famously done in his Notes on the State of Virginia) to the co-existence of two such different races under the same government. To adopt either explanation would be to blame the very race whom whites now viewed as their own historic victims. For whites, the only psychologically acceptable response to the revelation of persistent black functional inadequacies and black racial anger was to place the onus for these problems on themselves.

Whites' belief in white America's inherent badness, their compulsion to abase themselves before "oppressed" and "disadvantaged" minorities of all kinds, became an organizing principle of American politics—a principle that was soon extended to every conceivable "victim" group. Hispanics, Asians, American Indians, women, homosexuals, the physically and mentally handicapped, the elderly, juveniles—all now became recipients of an ever-expanding system of official group recognition, government entitlements, and relief from normal societal standards. This relief included the license to attack whites and America for all possible social ills and even to side openly with America's enemies in time of war.

But, once again, where did this belief in white society's fundamental wickedness come from? It came (1) from whites' sickening realization that the grandest government projects and the best intended laws did not heal the dysfunction and racial animus that characterized many black communities; and (2) from whites' urgent moral need to attribute those black ills to some agent other than blacks themselves. White racial guilt was born of whites' inability to end black inequality, combined with whites' refusal to confront any causes of that inequality outside their own agency. This is the experiential and historical root of white America's self-condemnation and of the destructive attitudes and behaviors, so harmful to our country as a whole, that have resulted from it. These include the blatant or subtle anti-Americanism that now dominates much of our culture; the passive acceptance of this ubiquitous anti-Americanism even by those who don't actively support it; and the inverted morality of modern liberalism, which requires that the worse blacks and other designated minority groups behave, the more this non-white failure must be blamed on white racism.

Sadly, even President Bush has climbed on the blame-whitey bandwagon, declaring at the National Cathedral that the poverty that left so many New Orleans blacks vulnerable to the Katrina disaster "has roots in generations of segregation and discrimination that closed many doors of opportunity. As we clear away the debris of a hurricane, let us also clear away the legacy of inequality." As though it were 1962 all over again, as though Harrington's The Other America had just been published, as though we had not already lived through four decades of prodigiously expensive and wasteful efforts to alleviate poverty which had only encouraged the very behaviors that create poverty and the attendant social disorder, as though none of these lessons had already been so painfully learned, President Bush, to the applause of more than a few benighted conservatives, declares that he wants to start up the Great Society all over again. Such is the enduring power of white guilt, and the compulsion on the part of many whites to attempt to clear themselves personally of the racism charge by indicting white America as a whole.

While liberal guilt and leftist anti-Americanism have many causes, it was black inequality above all other factors that sparked the explosion in America's conscience that made America turn against itself. For the same reason, Americans, particularly whites, will be unable to turn back the forces that are weakening our nation unless they first uproot their false racial guilt, their undeserved sense of their moral illegitimacy as a people, that arises from their mistaken belief in their responsibility for black inequality. If whites finally dropped the liberal expectation that all groups be fully integrated and perform equally in all walks of life, if they accepted Booker T. Washington's sensible notion of encouraging each group to develop in its own way according to its own talents and qualities, they would stop attributing to their own imaginary racism every failure of blacks to achieve economic parity or social integration with themselves. The entire structure of thought by which whites and America have been demonized would collapse. But if whites continue to believe that there are no differences between groups in their abilities and qualities, and that the black achievement gap can only be explained by white racism or white indifference, then the blaming of white America, and the resulting diminishment of our culture and civilization, will continue. More than any other factor, facing the truth about race and race differences could help re-moralize our society.

Lawrence Auster is the author of Erasing America: The Politics of the Borderless Nation. He offers a traditionalist conservative perspective at his weblog, View from the Right. 

References:

 

1. Frederick Douglass, "What the Black Man Wants," address delivered in Boston, Massachusetts, January 26, 1865, reprinted in 4 The Frederick Douglass Papers 59, 68 (J. Blassingame & J. McKivigan eds. 1991) (emphasis in original).

 

2. Charles Murray, Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950‑1980 (New York: Basic Books, 1984), Chapters 2 and 3.

 

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