Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The White Guilt Trilogy

The Content of Our CharacterA New Vision of Race in America - 1988
White Guilt –
How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era - 2006 A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win - 2007
by Shelby Steele

Review by QiN-Hombre

I knew nothing but pureness, and innocence, and righteousness; being renewed into the image of God by Christ Jesus, to the state of Adam, which he was in before he fell
- George Fox, Quaker - 1648

Innocent people are seldom perfect. And some get angry when they’d like to see others be better, more innocent, more quickly. But as William Penn said, “They have a right to censure, who have a heart to help.”
I experienced an angry style of convincement in the mid-1990s while on assignment to photograph Bill Cosby for a corporate promotion. I felt immediately thankful that he tried to 'help' me by making an important point to me that day – speak directly to him - not to the entourage.
Before his outburst - my reaction was to tremble in his tall, god-like presence and instead address the lesser people in the circle holding the clipboards – “Has anyone told Mr. Cosby what we’re doing today?” He was (and I assume still is) human enough to realize that he had torn me out a new one for a small, but meaningful infraction. At the end of the shoot, he invited me to have our picture taken together by my assistant. When I heard his ‘Pound Cake’ speech at the NAACP in 2004, I thought to myself – “I know that guy.”
The Bill Cosby of 2008 is no longer what Shelby Steele, author of the ‘White Guilt Trilogy’ calls a ‘bargainer’ in modern race relations. Cosby was a bargainer in his earlier years through the Cosby Show years when , like other African-American icons - Louis Armstrong, Sidney Portier, and more recently Oprah Winfrey, and Barack Obama – he first gave whites the benefit of the doubt with the expectation of being treated fairly in return. As an icon, Cosby could sell things to all people (Pudding Pops, etc) and I suspect, and according to Steele’s latest book ‘A Bound Man’, Cosby was turning into his present non-iconic non-bargaining true self when he chewed me out that day in the 1990s.
Cosby is no longer an icon and can no longer sell anything commercially. He now preaches vehemently to blacks (similar to how he let go on me, and how he let go on the NAACP in the Pound Cake speech). His message is similar to the that of Malcolm X : take individual responsibility for one’s own life. This is the only real way out of the African-American living nightmare of crime, (mostly black on black) shattered families, poor education from poor local schools, drug addiction and extramarital pregnancy. In essence, Cosby’s message is to ask blacks to stop being perennial victims, stop blaming others, and create their own opportunity.
And then there are what Steele calls ‘challengers’ are the likes of Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson – those who utilize the emotional rhetoric in maintaining the collective “black victim identity”, periodically granting whites their ‘innocence’. Challengers do this in return for money – for white support of corporate ‘diversity’ programs, preferential government programs, non-reform of welfare, and other systemic fixes. Quakers at FGC (Friends General Conference, a Philadelphia-based group) and various FGC member Quaker Yearly Meetings (regional organizations) are trying to decide if shaming sessions and the destined permanent jobs for blacks and reparations funds would finally exonerate Friends? Have these wider corporate, civil and religious government programs worked? Are whites off the hook by simply expressing a belief in these programs, and writing a check for reparations for past sins (or more likely getting someone else to pay for it)? Can whites continue to keep up innocent appearances and wash their hands of the issue of true black socio-economic parity with whites, when these systemic fixes simply haven’t worked?
For decades, we’ve cynically tossed around the cliché - political correctness - without really concentrating too hard on what it means. We want to go along to get along, mostly. So, why risk being ‘incorrect’ or called a ‘racist’ if one is white or an 'Uncle Tom' if one is black, if one doesn't accept the perennial ‘victim’ as the true African-American identity?
But Shelby Steele, a Hoover* Institute fellow and author of “A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win,” has more specifically called this age of political ‘correctness’ – the age of White Guilt.
Mr. Steele was quoted in the New York Times recently by saying that racism no longer remotely accounts for the difficulties in black America.”
‘White Guilt’ began in in the late 1960s in the vacuum where the societal norm of white privilege and white moral authority had suddenly fallen away. White Guilt began when the message of Christian unity of Martin Luther King, Jr. became self-evident, the Viet Nam war began to go badly and when black power rose up to demand systemic government and corporate solutions for the past sins of whites. Mr. Steele acknowledges fully that Dr. King and those civil rights leaders who came before him used persuasion as the only means possible to try to achieve respect for what was under the skin in all of us. But, the period of White Guilt, which began after 1967 enabled angry demands to become an effective method for money to change hands. The solutions came in the form of government programs, corporate diversity programs, and ‘systemic change’ such as in President Johnson's Great Society, to redeem whites for their past sins. This disassociation with blacks (by paying them off from a distance) , according to Steele, began the modern era when blacks and whites together destroyed the promise of civil rights.
Steele, like some other African-American scholars has come down on the side of personal responsibility, and fidelity to principles of individual self-improvement and hard work as the only way blacks will truly respect themselves and be respected by themselves and others. Otherwise, the glass ceiling will remain, and the ‘system’ will continue, broken.
Steele says that ‘racism’ as a systemic evil is simply a code word periodically invoked by blacks to shame whites and for guilty whites to shame other whites. Money changing hands in the period of White Guilt keeps up appearances for those (black and white) who want to feel morally righteous. The payments from corporations like Toyota, for example, to Sharpton’s National Action Network (now under federal tax investigation), Steele feels, continuously disallows the real discussion of allowing blacks to achieve parity with whites. More importantly, Steele says that these ‘appearances’ by whites and ‘demands’ by blacks like Sharpton also prevent the implementation of real solutions to the problems African Americans continue to face.
Steele says that the only reason that people such as Sharpton continue to have influence on the mainstream is that White Guilt has allowed it (and the media cover him). Sharpton’s style would not have had any affect on whites before 1967.
Steele is an eloquent writer entwining his own personal experience as a black (his mother was white and his father was black, but he always felt growing up under white racism before 1967, that he was a member of the ‘black’ community) a college protester, and ultimately a college professor. Although he has had his angry “Cosby moments” at whites who feel he should be ‘down’ with the ‘black' [victim] identity - his writing style is sparsely descriptive, measured and reasonable. His writing comes from a self that can feel compassion for both ‘sides’ because in fact he is of both. In Steele’s writing, he has no ‘us’ and ‘them’ Steele writes only of self-respect, humanity and truth, which is sometimes hard for financially interested and or emotionally needy (depressed) people to hear.
The theme of this non-fiction trilogy can be summed up as ‘the search for innocence lost’. It could be the story of Adam and Eve, where whites - whether they feel personally responsible for their ancestors or not - still ate the apple taking advantage of slave labor, and feel some guilt or some ‘original sin’ at the inhumanity was done to a whole class of slaves by some of their ancestors. Some Friends today might feel that individual Quakers did the best they could at the time - because some owning slaves then was like some today driving motor vehicles, polluting the environment. It was (and is) simply the way the economic system worked (works).
After the modern developments in DNA technology, some feel the guilt of having ever once believed in the now ridiculous notion of ‘race’. Period. If one doesn’t believe in race, then how can one then imply ‘inferiority’ or ‘superiority’ from one ‘race’ to another?
These three books are not afraid to expose in a calm and well-crafted manner, the need for honest solutions, which will truly help blacks help themselves and achieve parity with whites. These solutions would surely require hard work by both individual blacks and individual whites in our daily lives. Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day – teach or inspire someone who doesn’t always want to work harder and learn how to fish, and hopefully he’ll get over his painful victim identity and he’ll eat forever.

In what might draw the biggest interest for readers at this moment in time - when Barack Obama last week sealed the nomination by the Democratic Party for President of the United States - Steele wrote ominously in 'A Bound Man' published in December 2007 -
"His (Obama’s) supporters do not look to him to do something: they look to him primarily to be something, to represent something. He is a bound man because he cannot be two opposing worldviews at the same time – he cannot grant whites their racial innocence (as a bargainer) and simultaneously withhold it from them (as a challenger).
When he finally lurches away from this falseness (since both ‘bargainers’ and ‘challengers’ are mask-wearers), there is no self to guide him toward a meaningful life."
The ‘White Guilt’ trilogy describes the American ‘politics of difference’ – the racial tsunami that has flowed and ebbed over the American political landscape in the last 40 years from the point of view of Steele, a clearheaded person who has walked a difficult path through it. And like Moses, Steele parts the roiling waters for those who are not afraid, for those who seek truth and will follow. Like George Fox, the original gatherer of the Quakers or the ‘Friends in the Truth’, Steele leads us to the mountaintop out of the political morass - for those who will do the hard work of walking uphill to get there. Yet some will be afraid (of the hard work and the inevevitable shaming) to walk with Steele toward true renewal, true innocence and true honesty. What can Friends do to alleviate that fear?
* Herbert Hoover was a fine Quaker, humanitarian and progressive politician.
Read about modern-day Bill Cosby: The Atlantic Monthly – May 2008 - This Is How We Lost To The White Man