White guilt : how blacks and whites together destroyed the promise of the civil rights era /
Shelby Steele.
1st ed.
New York : HarperCollins Publishers, c2006.
viii, 181 p. ; 22 cm.
0060578629 (acid-free paper), 9780060578626 (acid-free paper)
More Details
New York : HarperCollins Publishers, c2006.
0060578629 (acid-free paper)
9780060578626 (acid-free paper)
catalogue key
A Look Inside
First Chapter
White Guilt
How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era

Chapter One

A Dilemma

Sometimes it is a banality -- something a little sad and laughable -- that makes you aware of a deep cultural change. On some level you already knew it, so that when the awareness comes, there is more recognition than surprise. Yes, of course, things have changed.

So it was not long after the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal began that it occurred to me that race had dramatically changed the terms by which political power is won and held in America. When I woke on that January morning to the sight of President Clinton wagging his finger on the morning news and saying "I never had sex with that woman," I thought two things: that he was lying and that he would be out of office within two weeks. It was a month later that I realized not only that he might survive his entire term but also that his survival, even for a month, already spoke volumes about the moral criterion for holding power in the United States.

I came to this realization on a drive back to northern California from Los Angeles with the scandal keeping me company on the car radio. A commentator said that President Eisenhower would not have survived a single day had he been caught in circumstances similar to President Clinton's. Having grown up in the fifties, I thought this was probably true, and this is when the deep cultural shift became clear.

I seemed to remember -- in the way that one vaguely remembers gossip about the famous -- someone once telling me that Eisenhower occasionally used the word "nigger" on the golf course. Maybe he did; maybe he didn't. In that era we blacks fully assumed that whites in all stations of life used this word at least in private. However, I cannot imagine that a reporter in that era, overhearing Eisenhower speak in this way, would have seen it as anything more than jocular bad taste. Certainly no one would have questioned his fitness to hold office. Yet, if an affair with a young female intern had exploded in the national media, with details of secret retreats off the Oval Office, thongs, cigars, etc., there is little doubt that 1950s America would have judged him morally unfit to hold power. It was taken for granted in that gray-flannel era that public trust had to be reciprocated by a rigorous decorum around sexual matters, even if that decorum was the very face of hypocrisy.

Yet, on that long drive talk-show callers passionately argued that private indiscretions were no bar to public trust, that what Clinton did in his private life had no bearing on his ability to run the country. It was unapologetic moral relativism -- the idea that sexual morality is relative only to the consent of the individuals involved, and that there is no other authority or moral code larger than their choice. In the voices of many callers you could hear this expressed as a kind of pride. Relativism spares us from far worse sins, they seemed to be saying, those greatest of all sins for my baby-boomer generation -- judgmentalism and hypocrisy.

All this drew me back to my college days in the sixties when we would sit around in the student union, smoking French cigarettes and arguing that monogamy was a passé bourgeois convention. Of course it was an adolescent argument of perfectly transparent wishful thinking, since beneath all the big ideas -- at least for us boys -- was the fervent hope that the girls would actually believe it. There was a lot of lust in this kind of thinking -- lust everywhere in baby-boomer thinking -- and over time it became part of the generational license that opened the way for a sexual revolution. But it was jarring these many decades later -- so deep now into adult life -- to hear such thinking hauled out in defense of the president of the United States.

But then something occurred to me. I wondered if President Clinton would be defended with relativism if he had done what, according to gossip, Eisenhower was said to have done. Suppose that in a light moment he had slipped into a parody of an old Arkansas buddy from childhood and, to get the voice right, used the word "nigger" a few times. Suppose further that a tape of this came to light so that all day long in the media -- from the unctuous morning shows to the freewheeling late-night shows to the news every half hour on radio -- we would hear the unmistakable presidential voice saying, "Take your average nigger . . . "

Today in America there is no moral relativism around racism, no sophisticated public sentiment that recasts racism as a mere quirk of character. Today America is puritanical rather than relativistic around racism, and if Clinton had been caught in this way, it is very likely that nothing would have saved him. The very legitimacy of the American democracy in this post–civil rights era now requires a rigid, if not repressive, morality of racial equality. A contribution of the civil rights movement was to establish the point that a multiracial society cannot be truly democratic unless social equality itself becomes a matter of personal morality. So a president's "immorality" in this area would pretty much cancel his legitimacy as a democratic leader.

The point is that President Clinton survived what would certainly have destroyed President Eisenhower, and Eisenhower could easily have survived what would almost certainly have destroyed Clinton. Each man, finally, was no more than indiscreet within the moral landscape of his era (again, Eisenhower's indiscretion is hypothetical here for purposes of discussion). Neither racism in the fifties nor womanizing in the nineties was a profound enough sin to undermine completely the moral authority of a president. So it was the good luck of each president to sin into the moral relativism of his era rather than into its puritanism. And, interestingly, the moral relativism of one era was the puritanism of the other. Race simply replaced sex as the primary focus of America's moral seriousness.

White Guilt
How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era
. Copyright © by Shelby Steele. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Library Journal on 2006-04-15:
Prize-winning author Steele (research fellow, Hoover Inst., Stanford Univ.; A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America) mixes reminiscences with observations on race relations since the 1950s to argue that America has tragically veered from a quest for civil rights to the defining of blacks as victims, an approach that does not treat them as equals. The United States, he says, has abandoned the moral authority that had cast the faulty ideological truth of white supremacy with that of legal racial segregation as disgraceful conditions both at home and abroad. A failure to face redistributed responsibilities has reenslaved blacks and the nation in manipulated political identities lacking any authority, Steele argues. White guilt, white blindness, black self-destruction, and dissociation have eroded the moral authority at America's core. Consequently, minorities have fallen into a vacuum as social morality battles to reestablish its ascendancy in a deepening culture war. As a means of reimagining black-white relations, collections on contemporary U.S. society or race relations may find Steele's essay on personal and national moral evolution a thought-provoking contrast to Manning Marable's recommended Living Black History. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 1/06.]-Thomas J. Davis, Arizona State Univ., Tempe (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2006-03-06:
Speaking the language of moralism, individual freedom and responsibility, contrarian cultural critic Steele builds on ideas he earlier articulated in his National Book Critics Circle Award-winner The Content of Our Character (1990). Today's problem, Steele forcefully argues, is not black oppression, but white guilt, a loose term that encompasses both an attempt by whites to regain the moral authority they lost after the Civil Rights Movement, and black contempt toward "Uncle Tom" complicity with white hegemony, resulting in a shirking of personal accountability. Steele makes a passionate case against the "Faustian bargain" he perceives on the left: "we'll throw you a bone like affirmative action if you'll just let us reduce you to your race so we can take moral authority for `helping' you." But progressive readers will object to his assertion that systemic racism is a thing of the past-and to his praise of the Bush administration's philosophy on poverty, education and race. Though Steele takes a hard, critical look at affirmative action, self-serving white liberals and self-victimizing black leaders, he stops short of offering real-world solutions. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
This item was reviewed in:
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Library Journal, January 2006
Booklist, March 2006
Publishers Weekly, March 2006
Library Journal, April 2006
Reference & Research Book News, August 2006
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Table of Contents
Acknowledgmentsp. ix
The Story of White Guilt
A Dilemmap. 3
Fidelityp. 10
Infidelityp. 12
A Certain Knowledgep. 22
White Guiltp. 25
The New Consciousnessp. 29
Race as Destinyp. 43
Responsibility in the Age of Racismp. 46
Responsibility as a Tool of Oppressionp. 50
The Redistribution of Responsibilityp. 57
Quittingp. 70
An Expanding Guilt
White Rebelsp. 79
Adolescents Allp. 91
Stumbling into Powerp. 95
The End of White Supremacyp. 98
A Coherence Gone Out of the Worldp. 107
The Ways of Blindness
A Contingent Powerp. 113
Blameless Povertyp. 117
White Blindnessp. 123
White Blindness and Sambop. 131
The Rage of Invisibilityp. 135
Elitism as Virtuep. 143
"The New Man"p. 149
Self-destructionp. 154
Dissociation and Culture
The Counterculture Establishmentp. 167
A Culture Warp. 171
Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.

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