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White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era
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White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era

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by Shelby Steele

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In 1955 the killers of Emmett Till, a black Mississippi youth, were acquitted because they were white. Forty years later, despite the strong DNA evidence against him, accused murderer O. J. Simpson went free after his attorney portrayed him as a victim of racism. The age of white supremacy has given way to an age of white guilt—and neither has been good for


In 1955 the killers of Emmett Till, a black Mississippi youth, were acquitted because they were white. Forty years later, despite the strong DNA evidence against him, accused murderer O. J. Simpson went free after his attorney portrayed him as a victim of racism. The age of white supremacy has given way to an age of white guilt—and neither has been good for African Americans.

Through articulate analysis and engrossing recollections, acclaimed race relations scholar Shelby Steele sounds a powerful call for a new culture of personal responsibility.

Editorial Reviews

In the past half century, says, Shelby Steele, America has moved from the age of white supremacy to the age of white guilt. The National Book Critics Circle Award winner argues that this sea change still leaves blacks and whites in unenviable positions. He asserts that such demoralizing guilt must be replaced by a new culture of personal responsibility and a commitment to moral principles. An eloquent view of contemporary race relations.
Publishers Weekly
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) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
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 Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
African-American conservative Steele (A Dream Deferred, 1998, etc.) charges guilty white liberals and their black enablers with unleashing a moral relativism that is corrupting America. The author frames his book around a drive up the California coast during which he pondered the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair. Why is it, he asks himself, that President Eisenhower would have been drummed out of office for a sex scandal like Clinton's, while Clinton would certainly have been impeached if he had used the racial slur Eisenhower allegedly employed on the golf course? The answer, Steele asserts, is a fundamental change in American culture. The success of the civil-rights movement in the 1960s showed that America's power structure lacked moral authority. For white Americans, the only way to regain that authority has been to "disassociate" from racism, which Steele says is now more frowned upon than adultery. The result has whites straining to appear benevolent toward blacks, while African-American leaders take advantage of "white guilt" to gain handouts such as affirmative action. Steele, who made the same points in his National Book Critics Circle award-winner The Content of Our Character (1990), contends that white liberals see blacks for their skin color instead of their individuality. ("Most of today's conservatives," he contends, "sound like Martin Luther King in 1963.") Black leaders, on the other hand, fail to call upon African-Americans to exercise personal responsibility. Steele has some noteworthy insights into the ways blacks and whites relate, but his arguments suffer from his tendency to establish and then gleefully demolish straw men and from his sweeping generalizationsbased on personal experiences. Steele claims, for example, that the racial discrimination he encountered as a child did little to harm his self-image and then applies his experience to all blacks. This is the same form of argument he finds offensive in others. Aims to provoke, but will appeal mainly to those already in the choir.
John McWhorter
“There is no writer who deserves black America’s allegiance more than Shelby Steele... Steele’s writing is a marvel.”
Washington Times
“Piercing and personal... WHITE GUILT is a brilliant little essay, deserving of a large and appreciative audience.”
Charles Johnson
“Powerful, lucid and elegant...On questions of race in America—white guilt, black opportunism—[Steele] is our 21st century Socrates.”
George F. Will
“ Shelby Steele is America’s clearest thinker about America’s most difficult problem.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Prophet or polemicist, Steele is a graceful and often compelling literary stylist... [and] deserves a wide readership.”
New York Post
“As delightful a read as one can find on a book devoted to America’s historically most contentious topic.”

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
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8.48(w) x 10.62(h) x 0.80(d)

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White Guilt

How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era
By Shelby Steele

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Shelby Steele
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060578629

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 hebeen 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 passe 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.


Excerpted from White Guilt by Shelby Steele Copyright © 2006 by Shelby Steele. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Shelby Steele is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and Stanford University, and is a contributing editor at Harper's magazine. His many prizes and honors include the National Book Critics Circle Award, an Emmy Award, a Writers Guild Award, and the National Humanities Medal.

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White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era (P.S. Series) 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As an American citizen I can say that Shelby Steele¿s book `White Guilt¿ has stated what being American is all about. Mr. Steele has articulated in 181 pages what I try to say in semester of lectures, but he goes to right to the heart of the matter. America is built on individual responsibility, motivation and pride. Mr. Steele has said with eloquence and honesty what should have be said long ago in all sociology classes, `you are responsible¿ for your own destiny. As a professor of sociology this book will be a COMPULSORY READER for all my students this fall 2006 for Introduction to Sociology. Mr. Steele it was an honor to have read your book. Dr. Douglas O¿Neill South Dakota State University
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is an opinion piece written by an educated Black man on race relations in the US. Institutional segregation in the South was an effort to improve race relations after the Civil War. Whites and Blacks were killing each other, and some Whites had trouble accepting that slavery was over, so segregation was the best solution at that time. By the 1950's, it was no longer necessary and then we move into the civil rights era of the 1960's. For the most part, Blacks now have the same economic freedom as Whites, but they are held back. What is actually holding them back is not racism but White America's reaction to Blacks post civil rights era. White liberals still have the same view of Blacks as they did in pre-civil rights era. Liberal Whites view Blacks as children who are never capable of taking care of themselves or being responsible and can't be expected to do well in school. They don't expect them to do anything except live off the dole and try not to commit any crimes. Liberal Whites feel an obligation to take care of Blacks because they feel guilty about the past. Affirmative action was also implemented to improve race relations. I disagree with Steele because I think that Whites did need to do something to show Blacks they were sorry about the past and want to make amends. There were so many race riots in the 1960's that Whites had to do something just to keep the peace. I do agree with Steele that affirmative action is no longer necessary. Whites in my generation view affirmative action as Blacks wanting preferential treatment and want the same job and a nice house even though they didn't work for it. This actually makes race relations worse now. My prediction is that a lot these affirmative action programs will go away. Most people in my generation, don't feel the need to keep apologizing for racism. When Blacks apply for jobs they will be hired because of their ability not because a company needs to fill a quota. I predict that we will hear less about racism from Blacks on the news. Unsuccessful Blacks will no longer blame racism because Americans will just tell them to work harder. I would definately recommend this book because the author does have a unique view. Although it is dull in some parts it is worth a read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of the best books I have ever read and hands down the best at explaining the current state of racial politics and much of politics in general in the US. Very well written.
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thoughtful More than 1 year ago
Although 3 years from publication, this book remains especially timely in view of an African-American President and "progressive" Congress. It is concise, has an easily readable style (including an interesting comparison to the times and vices of Presidents Eisenhower and Clinton), and speaks with the combination of authority and perspective of one who has lived through changing times. White Guilt puts into words many of the vague feelings many whites (and presumably blacks) have -- for example, that a stand for morality and some of the foundations of American culture can be suppressed by charges of racism (and that a political-economic industry exists behind this). I look forward to more insights from this author.
Guest More than 1 year ago
That's all I can say. I can't begin to articulate the brilliant points Steele makes in this book. It's a quick read, only 180 pages. It will be well worth your time if you've ever been puzzled about the state of race relations 'white-black' in a post Civil Rights era USA.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It's always important to look at the not so well known outcomes of historical movements. Our care-free attitudes are definately one of the effects of the Civil Rights Era, but with every monumental movement, there are both positive and negative effects. Pinpointing this outcome was great on the author's part.
Matt Williams More than 1 year ago
I just finished and all I could think of was, is it even possible to hate white people more than Shelby Steele? This book is 180 pages of racist rantings. He comes up for air one time around page 100 to acknowledge that maybe white culture might have something noble to offer humanity. Then he dives right back into his bitter, whiny diatribe about how white people are responsible for every challenge black people face or have faced. I'm not gleaning this from the text. That's the theme, from beginning to end. For a guy who decries black victimhood peddlers, he sells it harder than the most shameless race hustler. He has some novel points about human nature and some decent prose but really, this book could have been written by any race baiter with a good vocabulary.