White guilt

White guilt, victimhood and the quest for a radical centre

Back in those days the Boss had been blundering and groping his unwitting way toward the discovery of himself, of his great gift…nursing some blind and undefined compulsion within him like fate or a disease.

– Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men (New English Classics, 1946)

THE AUDACIOUS IDEA of a Barack Obama presidency emerged when the first-term black Senator from Illinois was invited by John Kerry to deliver the keynote to the 2004 Democratic Convention. From a gatecrasher without a pass at the previous convention in Los Angeles four years earlier, Obama’s exceptional charisma navigated by a (politically) precise moral compass led to the fortuitous invitation from Team Kerry. Good for Obama, maybe not so good for Kerry. It must have been akin to asking a before-he-was-famous Bill Clinton to introduce the paler, less gifted candidate. Like sending Jesus before John the Baptist.

From his star turn in Boston, Obama stirred the American imagination with the prospect of a first black presidency, and in a flash his 1995 biography Dreams from My Father (Three Rivers Press) was reprinted and in the bookstores. The beautiful writing promised to live up to the blurb, and with anticipation I read of Obama’s work as an organiser in the projects of Chicago, hoping it would reveal deep insights into how extreme social dysfunction and deprivation might be tackled. Alas, the insights were lean and the rhetorical wind soon failed to sustain its ambitious sails. It took an effort to finish the book.

I well understand Joe Klein’s assessment in his Newsweek cover piece: Obama is a bit thin on the ideas, a fact which charisma and mesmerising oratory cannot completely disguise. He is no wonk in the Bill, Hillary, Tony (and Kevin) class, but policy paucity is no disqualification for the world’s highest office. It is his native lack of proximity to power: a dummy born to power can rule, but outsiders need more than extraordinary talents – they must, amongst other things, be capable of extreme ruthlessness when the time requires. Will Obama be prepared to do the equivalent of refusing clemency to a (black) mentally retarded ‘death rower’ on the eve of the primaries? Hillary and Bill were outsiders with cold steel veins; it remains to be seen whether Obama is prepared to have blood on his hands when called for. Hillary’s blood in a bowl, courtesy of the (nice) tall, dark, handsome man, is probably what America will need if the Rubicon to a black presidency is to be crossed.

Obama’s application for his 2008 candidature is set out in last year’s bestseller The Audacity of Hope (Crown)where he does nothing less than boldly set out his ‘thoughts on reclaiming the American dream’. It is an impressive statement of beliefs, characterised by its intelligent analysis, a candour that may not be completely calculated and a carefully calibrated self-deprecation. It is counter-weighed by an understandable, but nevertheless disturbing, absence of doubt about whether the contradictions of America can really be resolved: the over-promise of leadership. Obama attributes the audacity of hope to the salt-of-the-earth characters he parades throughout his book (he uses this device with almost toast-masterish sincerity), but there is no doubt – it is really the audacity of his own ambitions that he has in mind.

Obama’s great talent is that of Bill Clinton: a keen public moral compass that can provide persuasive direction through the dialectical thickets of modern conundrums, and a near-peerless capacity for summoning ‘the better angels of our natures’ even as the GOP’s Lee Atwater and Karl Rove brought American (and therefore the world that follows) electoral politics to new pitiless nadirs, where devils are casually conjured from the body politic in pursuit of power. I am reminded of Robert Hughes’ early rebuke of what would become the neo-conservative versus (by then old) New Left culture wars of the 1990s when he wrote in Culture of Complaint (Harvill, 1992): ‘Against this ghastly background, so remote from American experience since the Civil War, we now have our own conservatives promising a “culture war”, while ignorant radicals orate about “separatism”. They cannot know what demons they are frivolously invoking. If they did, they would fall silent in shame.’ But alas, the mutating lexicon of American political campaigning since Pat Buchanan first gave expression to wedge politics by advising Richard Nixon, ‘If we tear the country in half, we can pick up the bigger half’ has not paused for shame. America is riven.

My concern with Barack Obama is to ask whether he represents ‘the radical centre’ of the great dialectical tension in black leadership philosophy in the United States, between the omnipresent legacies of black American leaders Booker T Washington (1856–1915) and William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868–1963). Washington exhorted black Americans to work their way up from the bottom of society. He argued that moral self-improvement, vocational training, and securing the trust and co-operation of white Americans and government were necessary first steps, not confronting discriminatory laws. Washington fought discrimination behind the scenes, but Du Bois emerged as the public face of black protest. Du Bois argued that higher education and removal of discrimination should be more aggressively pursued, and he offered structural and social explanations for black crime, arguing that crime diminished as blacks’ social status improved.

The history of the Washington-Du Bois dialectic continues to be the prism through which policies for the alleviation of oppression (what we are given to calling in this country – perhaps euphemistically – ‘disadvantage’) might best be understood. If Rev Jesse Jackson is Du Bois’s heir, and Condoleeza Rice heir to the Washingtonian tradition, then Obama may be the closest thing there is to a synthesis: the radical centre. Black Americans have been mostly subscribers to the Du Boisian tradition, the tradition in which Dr Martin Luther King Jr stood and Rosa Parks sat: it is the predominant model of black advocacy for uplift. Booker T Washington’s disciples, on the other hand, have been mostly silent, living ordered and industrious lives, valuing education and enterprise, bringing up strong families who desire to take their share of a country much-built on the enslavement of their ancestors. When the doors of citizenship opened and Jim Crow was outlawed, these families quickly emerged as the nascent black middle class, using their sober sense of individual and family responsibility (and yes, a keening sense of class) to lower their buckets into the deep opportunities of America. Today they are a minority, but they are not small and their achievements are far from mean: five chief executives of Fortune 500 companies, two successive secretaries of state of the world’s only superpower attest to this.

If Obama (‘I’ve never had the option of restricting my loyalties on the basis of race, or measuring my worth on the basis of tribe’) does transcend the Du Bois-Washington paradigms, then his capacity to defy the enormous gravitational pull of the Du Bois orthodoxy probably stems from his unique biography: the son of a white American mother (‘to the end of her life [she] would proudly proclaim herself an unreconstructed liberal’) and an absent Kenyan father (now both deceased), with an Indonesian sister from her mother’s second marriage. Obama is an African-American, but not part of the long history that began with slavery. The stigma associated with the Washingtonian legacy – the allegedly Uncle Tomish belief that American opportunity will reward discipline and responsibility – does not shackle Obama.

MY ONLY RESERVATION ABOUT the capacity of Obama to transcend the Washington-Du Bois paradigm is that, while his rhetoric is capable of embracing the validity of the Washingtonian responsibility thesis, he is by background, education, work experience (a civil rights lawyer and ‘community organiser’) and temper, a liberal whose starting point is the Du Boisian rights thesis. He moves from Du Bois to Washington, and not the other way around. Are the economic power and individual responsibility (and the limits of government) parts of Obama’s philosophy just rhetorical genuflections and not innate conviction?

Let me explain my reservation with reference to Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd’s critique of what he describes as the neo-liberal fundamentalism of the Howard Government: ‘Modern Labor … argues that human beings are both “self-regarding” and “other-regarding”. By contrast, modern Liberals … argue that human beings are almost exclusively self-regarding.’ Rudd concedes that the self-regarding values of security, liberty and property are necessary for economic growth. He argues that the other-regarding values of equity, solidarity and sustainability must be added in order to make the market economy function effectively, and in order to protect human values such as family life from being crushed by unchecked market forces.

My reservation about this analysis is that it is mainly concerned with those who are not deeply disadvantaged in a cultural and intergenerational way. Kevin Rudd’s father was a sharefarmer, and his untimely death brought hardship to his widow and children. But hard work and appreciation of education were passed on to Rudd from his parents. Rudd’s ideological manifesto is concerned with the effects of neo-liberal policies on people who may have less bargaining power than the most sought-after professionals, but who are nonetheless firmly integrated into the real economy – not only because they have jobs, but because they are culturally and socially committed to a life of responsibility and work. I welcome the debate Kevin Rudd sought to revitalise about the long-term effects on most working people of neo-liberal policies: what will the effects be on family life, on people’s sense of security and purpose, on social cohesion? How great is the risk that families of the lower strata of the real economy will descend into the underclass?

These are real issues, but the important question from an African-American or Aboriginal Australian perspective is: what is the correct analysis of self-regard and other-regard in the context for those already disengaged from the real economy? Disengagement is the problem in Cape York Peninsula and in dysfunctional African-American communities.

The moderate left, as represented by Kevin Rudd, would probably argue that neo-liberal dominance increases the number of disengaged people and the difficulties of returning them to the working mainstream. This may well be true. However, disadvantage can develop and become self-perpetuating, even without neo-liberal government policy. In Australia, Aboriginal disadvantage has become entrenched during decades when social democrats, small-‘l’ liberals and conservatives influenced policy; many policies for Indigenous Australians have been liberal and progressive.

The insight which informs our work in Cape York Peninsula is that disengagement and disadvantage have self-perpetuating and cultural qualities – problems not covered by Rudd’s analysis. These are the problems of the underclass, people who are psychologically and culturally disadvantaged. (Rudd does not spend time thinking about the underclass. In the scramble for the political middle, who does?) His is an analysis of the prospects of the upper 80 or 90 or 95 per cent of society, and how they will fare under social democrat or neo-liberal regimes. If Rudd’s analysis were extended to the truly disengaged, his model would probably be interpreted like this: some people are successful and, as well as being self-regarding, they should be other-regarding. And then there are the disadvantaged.

The problem is that it is assumed that the life chances of the disadvantaged depend on the other-regard of the successful – either a precarious dependency in the absence of state institutions, or an institutionalised dependency which my people have come to know as passive welfare. In reality, what is needed is an increase of self-regard among the disadvantaged, rather than strengthening their belief that the foundation for their uplift is the welfare state and the other-regard of the successful. This, I think, is a deeply Washingtonian view.

Washington versus Du Bois

I remembered the legend of how he had come to the college, a barefoot boy who in his fervour for education had trudged with his bundle of ragged clothing across two states. And how he was given a job feeding slop to the hogs but had made himself the best slop dispenser in the history of the school; and how the Founder had been impressed and made him his office boy.

– Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (Penguin, 1952)

BORN A SLAVE in Virginia, Booker T Washington would ascend via an industrial education to be the first president of the famous Tuskegee Institute (now University) in Alabama. Washington became the most powerful black American in the post-bellum era, connected with philanthropists and industrialists: 5,000 common schools would be established as a result of his advocacy. He was consulted by politicians and presidents on black matters, and had a decisive say over appointments to government positions. The ‘Tuskegee Machine’ was renowned for its powerful influence in black politics.

Washington’s star rose with his Atlanta Compromise speech at the Cotton States and International Exposition on 18 September 1895. His thesis was that blacks should secure their constitutional rights through their own moral and economic advancement in the booming economy of the South rather than through legal or political channels (‘Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the productions of our hands.’). His central metaphor was both literary and instantly folkloric:

A ship lost at sea for many days suddenly sighted a friendly vessel. From the mast of the unfortunate vessel was seen a signal, ‘Water, water; we die of thirst!’ The answer from the friendly vessel at once came back, ‘Cast down your bucket where you are.’ … The captain of the distressed vessel, at last heeding the injunction, cast down his bucket, and it came up full of fresh, sparkling water from the mouth of the Amazon River. To those of my race who depend on bettering their condition in a foreign land or who underestimate the importance of cultivating friendly relations with the Southern white man, who is their next-door neighbor, I would say: ‘Cast down your bucket where you are’ … Cast it down in agriculture, mechanics, in commerce, in domestic service, and in the professions …

Although Washington’s approach angered some blacks, many approved, including WEB Du Bois, the man who would later became the other important protagonist in the policy conflict. Washington’s major achievement, however, was to win over diverse elements of the southern white population, without whose support the economic programs he envisioned and subsequently created would have been impossible. Washington’s depreciation of political activism, and his acceptance of social segregation, was the key to the compromise with southern whites.

Du Bois was born free in 1868 in Massachusetts. Aided by family, friends and scholarships, he was able to attend university and ultimately received a doctorate from Harvard. The main feature of Du Bois’s academic work, after the completion of his university studies and a short period of teaching, was that he closely studied disadvantaged black neighbourhoods. He was a founder of modern social sciences in the United States, and developed structural explanations for inequality. As he recalled in his autobiography A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century (International Publishers, 1968), he advocated ‘ceaseless agitation and insistent demand for equality’ and the ‘use of force of every sort’ to remove racism and discrimination. In 1905, Du Bois solicited help from others for ‘organised determination and aggressive action on the part of men who believe in black freedom and growth’, and the Niagara Movement was launched from the meeting that took place on the Canadian side of the famous falls. This was subsequently superseded by an organisation formed in association with white liberals, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Du Bois’s eloquent and often vitriolic calls for action during his period as editor-in-chief of the NAACP’s Crisismagazine were politically influential, but he would be frustrated at the lack of progress in removing discrimination in America. He then embarked upon a pan-Africanist crusade against colonialism, believing that the freedom of blacks in America was contingent on freedom of blacks in Africa. He would die a citizen of Ghana in 1963. Du Bois’s biographer, David Levering Lewis, wrote in The Fight for Equality and the American Century 1919–1963 (Owl Books, 2001) that Du Bois ‘attempted virtually every possible solution to the problem of twentieth-century racism – scholarship, propaganda, integration, cultural and economic separatism, politics, international communism, expatriation, third world solidarity’.

The Washington-Du Bois conflict is well-known. But it is critical to understand how close they were, despite their fundamental differences. Du Bois had congratulated Washington on his Atlanta compromise speech, which set out the accommodationist framework. Early in Du Bois’s career, they were engaged in a courtship that included the possibility of him joining Washington at Tuskeegee. In the first cordial decade of their relationship they corresponded on legal strategies, planned conferences and sought ways to use each other to the advantage of each. The history of their relationship tells us that Du Bois understood and appreciated Washington’s strategy and did not wholly disapprove. He knew the context and the limitations of black advancement as much as Washington. It is also now much better known that Washington devoted significant time, money and effort to surreptitiously fighting the race system behind the scenes through back-door lobbying, law suits and editorials, including financial assistance to Du Bois who was well aware of Washington’s private opposition to the Jim Crow system, but also Washington’s unwillingness to risk his influence through public agitation. Du Bois was a much more balanced and generous commentator and critic of Washington than many others who shared his view that discrimination had to be confronted.

But already in the 1890s Du Bois’s relationship with Washington had begun to degenerate, and differences deepened in 1903 when Du Bois wrote The Souls of Black Folk (Dover, 1994), which contained a critical chapter entitled ‘Of Booker T Washington and Others’. When Washington died in November 1915, Du Bois’s judgement was harsh: ‘In stern justice, we must lay on the soul of this man a heavy responsibility for the consummation of Negro disfranchisement, the decline of the Negro college and public school, and the firmer establishment of colour caste in this land.’

Whether or not Du Bois was right in this judgement, the salient question is not what Washington intended his (necessarily) one-sided advocacy to achieve, but what effect it had in practice. If it had the effect Du Bois contended, then this was not just the result of Washington’s strategic folly but the inability of the advocates of the other side of the dialectic to produce a strong rights antithesis to Washington’s responsibility thesis.

Washington’s public conciliatory position brought him, especially in the latter part of his career, into direct conflict with black militants who sought to challenge white America. As the clash between these two approaches intensified, Washington and Du Bois found themselves on opposite sides of a polarised debate, which pitted militancy against conciliation, separatism against assimilation, and a ‘Talented Tenth’ focus on higher education against Washington’s preference for trade school training that would equip the other nine-tenths who he understood must needs work by their hands. It was an irreconcilable dichotomy that would shape the race debate in America for the next century.

I can make no judgement as to this history; there is much evidence to support the modern black despisers of Washington and his faith that the white America which welcomed his Atlanta Compromise would open the doors to participation. White America simply did not deliver on the bargain. There was little black progress until after the Second World War when government social redistribution efforts started registering progress amongst blacks. I only wish to posit some of my own convictions about those aspects of Washington’s philosophical conviction that were right at the time he expressed them, and I believe are still right today. In his famous address Washington had two compelling lines, the first of which was: ‘It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top.’

For a downtrodden people Washington’s preference for improvement was a policy relevant to every black person (‘No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem … ‘). I don’t think Washington disagreed that the black community would need its Talented Tenth to succeed. I think what he disagreed with was deprecation of the more humble learning and achievement. He declared: ‘Excellence is to do a common thing in an uncommon way’. The excellent pig slop dispenser would one day have a child in Harvard. His second compelling line was: ‘Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities.’ This is a psychological point about how a people might deal with grievances of the past and the present, including the injuries sustained from racism. The best insurance is to become socially and economically strong by capitalising on opportunities.

Destroying the civil rights promise

You’re investing in steam control. And you’re getting value for money … People own the boilers, but that don’t do ’em a bit of good unless they know how to control the steam.

– Tom Wolfe, Bonfire of the Vanities (Bantam, 1987)

SHELBY STEELE, ACCORDING to the shallow taxonomy of American political culture, is a black conservative. In his book White Guilt (HarperCollins, 2006), Steele tells how disconcerting it was for someone with his background – son of civil rights campaigners, young Afro-haired wannabe campus radical of the 1960s, fellow traveller with high hopes for Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society – to be tagged with this label. That he came to question the post-civil rights trajectory of black America, and to advance a compelling interpretation of the strange twist in the aftermath of the civil rights victories – how retching defeat came from the bowels of victory – earned him the most dreaded black classification: Uncle Tom.

But even as Harry Belafonte denounced Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice as ‘White House niggers’ in 2002, a critique was growing in black America that challenged the progressive consensus around race which has prevailed since the constitutional foundations of Dr Martin Luther King’s dream were finally secured in 1964-65. Shelby Steele is one of the intellectuals leading this critique of the progressive orthodoxy. He raises troubling issues for those who see themselves as the heirs of the radical side of the dichotomy I described above.

Steele opens his book with reflections on the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and President Clinton’s infamous denial: ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman.’ Steele was surprised when he realised ‘not only might [Clinton] survive his entire term but also that his survival … spoke volumes about the moral criterion for holding power in the United States’. If similar behaviour had been made public in the 1950s, it would almost certainly have resulted in the resignation or removal of a president. Steele then asked himself what would have happened if President Clinton had been accused of using the word ‘nigger’ – as President Eisenhower was rumoured to have done. Would the same relativism protect Clinton? No way. In America today, there is no moral relativism about race. No sophisticated public sentiment recasts racism as a ‘personal choice’ or a ‘quirk of character’. Instead, America is unwavering in its stance on racism – Eisenhower’s flippant use of the word ‘nigger’ would almost certainly have destroyed Clinton.

How is it, Steele asks, that the moral preoccupation of America shifted away from personal (sexual) virtue and came to focus on issues of social import? He answers this by drawing attention to the legitimacy of institutions and of government being earned and sustained through fidelity to democratic principles. These principles include freedom of the individual, equal rights under the law and equality of opportunity. Freedom, Steele asserts, is what follows from adherence to these principles. It is not a state-imposed vision of the social good, but the absence of an imposed vision, which allows individual choice.

Freedom is eroded or lost, he argues, when societies decide that some social good is so important that it justifies suspending the discipline of democratic principles. America’s imposition of white supremacy is the pertinent example: ‘White Americans presumed that white supremacy was a self-evident divine right, so freedom’s discipline of principles did not apply where non-whites were concerned.‘ Over time, however, the moral authority of American democracy and its institutions was undermined by this failure. The turning point for America, and what Steele refers to as the ‘disciplining’ of the country’s democratic principles, was the civil rights movement. This movement established that race could not undermine individual rights. Multi-racial democracies demand that race (along with gender, ethnicity, class and sexual orientation) cannot obstruct rights. This was, then, the ‘concept of social good that would make democracy truly democratic, and thus legitimate’.

The crux of Steele’s thesis comes from looking at the effects of the civil rights movement on institutions and figures of authority in mainstream America. By the mid-1960s, he argues, following acknowledgement of racial hypocrisy, institutions across America suffered a moral authority deficit. He recounts an occasion in his youth when he and a gang of black students burst into the office of his college president with a list of demands. Expecting to face resistance, even disciplinary action, Steele describes the experience as revelatory: he realised the college president ‘knew that we had a point, [and] that our behaviour was in some way connected to centuries of indisputable injustice. The result was that our outrage at racism simply had far greater moral authority than his outrage over our breach of decorum.’ This was one of Steele’s first encounters with white guilt – the notion that past injustices perpetrated on a group of people absolve subsequent generations of that group of standard responsibilities.

For Steele, white guilt is a product of the vacuum of moral authority that comes from knowing that one’s people are associated with racism. Whites – and, he asserts, American institutions – must acknowledge historical racism to atone for it. In acknowledging it, however, they lose moral authority over matters of social justice and become morally – and, one could argue, politically – vulnerable. To overcome this vulnerability, white Americans have embraced a social morality, designed to rebuild moral authority by simultaneously acknowledging past racial injustices while separating themselves from those injustices. Steele calls this dissociation.

Where white guilt forces white Americans to acknowledge historical injustices, social morality may absolve them of it, restoring authority and democratic bona fides. With authority restored, power relations may continue as before. Critically, Steele argues, ‘social morality is not a dissident point of view urged … by reformers; it is the establishment morality in America. It defines propriety … so that even those who harbour racist views must conform to a code of decency that defines those views as shameful.’

But Steele does not limit his analysis to white America. He expands his argument to assess the effects of white guilt on the freedoms – tangible or otherwise – of black Americans. In a critique of the ‘black consciousness’ which challenged traditional American authority, Steele draws a connection between increasingly militant messages of black power and burgeoning manifestationof white guilt. For a generation of black leaders, racism existed within this context – in a society suffering a lack of moral authority. The new black leaders (adopting a neo-Marxian structural analysis) redefined racism as systemic and sociological. Racism was larger than individual acts, and defined social and political events and decisions.

Because racism, as it was interpreted by militant black leaders, did not manifest on an individual level, the mere absence of an overtly racist act – using the word ‘nigger’, for example – was not enough to prove that racism was not in operation. Even a hint of racism proved the rule, and the only way to address it was a systemic solution. So, Steele notes, despite the fact that current generations of black students across America have not suffered the oppression or subjugation of their forefathers, ‘much less been beaten by white policemen’, they enjoy affirmative action (the systemic redress) with a clear sense of entitlement. Black entitlement and white obligation have become interlocked.

Steele’s thesis contends that racism became valuable to the people who had suffered it because it ‘makes the moral authority of whites and the legitimacy of American institutions contingent on proving a negative: that they are not racist’. The power of white guilt is that it functions in the same way as racism – as a stigma. White Americans and American institutions are stigmatised as racist until they prove otherwise. What began as ‘an almost petulant alienation from traditional authority’, Steele asserts, has now evolved into a sophisticated manipulation to elicit an increasing sense of obligation. In a perversion of civil rights-era aspirations, racism is no longer a barrier to individual black Americans, but one of the factors contributing to the assurance of their rights.

Pushing the argument one step further, Steele unpacks the effects of the interplay between black consciousness and white guilt. Black consciousness, he argues, led many black Americans to talk themselves out of the personal freedom won by civil rights activism, for the sole (and unworthy) purpose of triggering white obligation. In a reactionary drift, race became seen as more important than individuality, the primary determinant of a person’s ability to advance. One’s identity became primarily that of the group (race) rather than that of an individual, one of whose characteristics was colour. In this way, identity played a destructive role in the advancement of black Americans.

Few who live in liberal democracies today would contest the idea that freedom is crucial to a decent life. A related – although perhaps more frequently debated – assertion is that only by being responsible for one’s life can one assume agency for it. Agency, Steele believes, is what makes us fully human. With the rise and rise of black consciousness, however, the idea that black Americans must take personal responsibility to get ahead was subverted by the idea that responsibility was a tool of oppression and white America was responsible for black American advancement.

The first step in that argument – that responsibility was a tool of oppression in the age of racism – is not without historical justification. Steele’s father, born in the American South in 1900, had ‘plenty of responsibility’ – the same responsibilities as whites – ‘but not much possibility’. He could not join the un


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