image above: Michael Morris
WN: The writer makes a compelling case . . .
I can see how someone arrives at that perspective, because white guilt can seem so central to what Black progress needs to be about — emphasis on “seem.” We’re increasingly encouraged to dwell on “white privilege” and “systemic racism” as key impediments, if not the key impediments, to Black progress. But we must ask just what purpose fostering white guilt serves.
Of course, there is a visceral sense of power in fostering white guilt: One has made people realize something and made them see you as deserving of recompense, as harmed and therefore owed. There can be a sense of accomplishment in just demanding that white Americans sit with past wrongs.
But presumably, the goal is to make America “a more perfect union,” as the Constitution has it. And if that’s the goal, our collective efforts to reach it presumably would be about addressing societal conditions rather than these more soul-focused endeavors. One might argue that a realer, not to mention healthier, manifestation of Black affirmation would come from more concrete markers of progress than the dutiful hand-wringing of well-meaning white people about their forebears’ sins.
A compelling reason for fostering white guilt would be that if doing so led white Americans to go out and foster change in society. And sometimes it can — but is white guilt necessary to or the best way to effect societal change?
For the civil rights victories of the 1960s, it wasn’t. We tend to forget how seismic the changes were during that one decade: The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 were undeniably huge advances, even if they did not (and they did not) end racism or completely level the societal playing field. In any case, all of this did not happen because white people became guilty nationwide.
America’s white majority, and with them America’s political leaders, got behind tangible change because segregation as policy, and the violence required to maintain it, was pragmatically inconvenient on the world stage during the Cold War standoff. Technology was the accelerant, in that television illustrated the civil rights movement in a way that radio and newspapers could not.
Certainly, the televised struggle, and the sympathy of a white countercultural movement that rapidly grew in the ’60s, created a sense of guilt among a certain contingent of, especially, younger white Americans questioning the establishment. But these white kids, for all the fascination they elicit in hindsight as preludes to us moderns, were a relatively fringe element at the time. The mid-20th-century American (white) Everyman tended to lack the visceral sense of revulsion at racism that we now take for granted as at least a courtesy norm.a: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy,” Gunnar Myrdal observed that “even the white man who defends discrimination frequently describes his motive as ‘prejudice’ and says that it is ‘irrational.’” In other words, the Everyman acknowledged racism but felt no need to disavow it. For example, Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson harbored no special guilt about the challenges faced by Black America but eventually saw it as politically prudent to court the Black electorate.
Thus, in the 1960s, civil rights leaders were able to take advantage of chance configurations. We might take a page from them. The gradual legalization of marijuana could be the start of a general reanalysis of the war on drugs that ravages Black communities. Beyond the current fight over President Biden’s legislative agenda, a new and more targeted demand on infrastructure could and should undergird a focus on training or retraining underserved working-class Black Americans for solid, well-paying vocational jobs. White guilt would be of little relevance amid such on-the-ground developments.
Please click on: White Guilt?