White Guilt and the Presidency of the United States of America

This post was originally written on December 6, 2006

I was watching the talking heads last night as they pondered the possible Democratic and Republican tickets for 2008–one theme rang loud and strong: which black candidate goes where on which ticket. Sigh. No talk about foreign or domestic policy, politics, visions for the future of the country, even the war in Iraq. Nope. The sole criteria for consideration appears to be the color of their skin (and of course some degree of national recognition). Some of the configurations boggle the mind: a Obama/Clinton ticket, with Barack Obama running as President and Clinton as VP; the reverse, with Obama as VP and Hillary Clinton in the top spot; Condoleeza Rice in the VP slot with . . . . well, does it matter who runs for President? I mean really? So long as we have a black candidate on the ballot, who’s really going to notice or care who runs the country?

The picture above is of Shelby Steele, a prominent scholar of race relations and author of the book White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era (2006). His concept of white guilt makes sense to me and goes a good way toward explaining some otherwise inexplicable things (like why the presidential candidate doesn’t really matter so long as a black person is in the VP slot). In short, white guilt functions by virtue of white people’s angst over slavery, the guilt and remorse we feel for the enslavement and repression of black people in America. This guilt is fed and fueled by black and white leaders who use it to manipulate public policy that effectively makes black people perpetual victims and white people perpetual penance payers–sorry for the alliteration, couldn’t resist it here as its Seussical quality actually echoes the Seussical quality of what Steele argues and what I agree to be largely true.

In this post-Civil Rights Era atmosphere of perpetual entitlement for blacks and the enormity of a debt that whites can never adequately repay but must forever try, black people, according to Abigail Thernstrom’s article, “acquired an invaluable new race card: the status of aggrieved victims. And they used it ‘to shame, silence, and muscle concessions from the larger society.’ In the new age of white guilt, a repentant America had to prove its virtue to blacks.” This sounds pretty harsh, I agree, but there does seem to be a kernel of truth to all this; white people are embarrassed to say anything negative about a black person for fear of being seen as or even being (perhaps without their own knowledge or consent) racist; I’ve seen this time and again right here on my blog.

The idea that someone cannot critique a black person or suggest that there is something wrong with a black person’s character, decision making, or whatever else because that means the criticism is race-based and therefore both null and void AND potentially even “hate speech” is absolutely repugnant to me. Hiding behind white guilt is just as bad as perpetuating it; the division in this country, can indeed be attributed, at least to my mind and in part, to this moral silencing that we endure all the time. There are plenty of white people I disagree with and some that I even dislike. I guess that’s normal. What’s not normal is suggesting that I must or pressuring me to agree with and like (or just not vocalize my disagreement with and/or dislike for) every person of every race, color, or persuasion that is NOT white. It makes no sense. It’s not racist to dislike a person; it IS racist to dislike a person BECAUSE they are of a different race than you. So why the guilt? The self-censorship? The reassurances that we aren’t “white supremacists”? Why, indeed.

What does Steele’s concept of white guilt have to do with politics? With the 2008 election? Well, to my mind, what’s just happened in Massachusetts is going to happen nationwide unless we can come to some sort of understanding that it’s okay to disagree with or even dislike a black person and that doing so does not make one racist. In Massachusetts, we just elected a governor with no plan and no experience to govern, and we did so (I believe) because he is black. If he had a clue or if he hadn’t been such a rotten lawyer or if he was anything more than handsome and well-spoken, I’d have no problem with him (actually, anyone after Romney looks pretty good to me). The problem I have is with WHY he’s in that office (or will be next month) . . . no one knows a thing about him or his policies because he’s never said. His speeches were lovely and passionately delivered, but empty of content and devoid of vision (except for “change”). The local media lauded and supported him, but the night before the election and the whole day of the election, even they had to admit that they didn’t have any idea what he was about or what his plans are for the Commonwealth. White guilt? I think so. It explains the high black voter turn out and the virtual black and white voter landside by which he won the governorship. Nothing else really explains it to my mind.

Can this happen nationally? Can we elect someone because he (or she) is black? Can we elect that black someone who has no experience, has no plan for or vision for the future of this country? Yes. We can. And it looks very like we will. In the 2008 Presidential election, I’m voting for Condie for VP . . . or maybe Obama for VP? Oooh, let me get that coin and give it a quick flip, that’s surely the way to determine the future of our nation.

For an article by Shelby Steele that discusses the way that white guilt has shaped foreign policy and the way we approach war, see “White Guilt and the Western Past: Why is America so Delicate with the Enemy?”: http://www.opinionjournal.com/editorial/feature.html?id=110008318

NOTE: I had to stop myself from adding a whole paragraph about how qualified I think Colin Powell was to run for President in 1996, and I did stop myself because I realized that I wanted to write it only to demonstrate that I am not a racist and that I do believe that a black person can be both qualified and a good president (and I do believe that). But that impulse to explain, to defend, to qualify what I am saying so that no one thinks that I’m a racist or a white supremacist or whatever goes a long way to underscoring the main point of this post; that’s why I’m sharing it here. Maybe this white guilt is so well-ingrained in us that we are subconsciously “programmed” to feel guilty and defensive about anything we say that might be even remotely construed as racist.


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