Snyder Lecture

‘White guilt’ has stifled advances for black Americans, scholar says

White guilt about racism has resulted in policies and programs that have done little to improve the lives of black Americans, according to author and scholar Shelby Steele.

Shelby Steele © MELODY KO

Steele gave the fifth Richard E. Snyder President’s Lecture at Tufts on September 26. President Lawrence S. Bacow noted that Snyder, A55, the former chairman and CEO of Simon and Schuster, published authors “from all dimensions of the political spectrum.” Snyder’s idea in endowing the lecture series, Bacow said, was to bring thinkers to the campus “from across all realms” and to push the Tufts community outside of its comfort zone.

“Dr. Steele’s work represents exactly the kind of inquiry that we embrace at Tufts,” Bacow said, “where students are encouraged to think broadly, to accept and incorporate the discomfort that results from studying and living outside of familiar boundaries, from talking and working with those who are different than you …”

Steele, who is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, specializes in the study of race relations, multiculturalism and affirmative action. He has written widely on race in American society and on the consequences of contemporary social programs on race relations. His latest book, White Guilt: How Blacks & Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era, published this year, describes how a half-century of misguided efforts to reverse the transgressions of race have created a widening gap between the races and stripped American society of the moral authority it once enjoyed.

He covered similar ground in his lecture, “Why We Can’t Solve the Race Problem or Win Wars.” Steele argued that “white guilt is the large, significant, powerful and amazingly unexamined force in the United States and all the western world.” Much of public policy since the 1960s, he said, has been a result of white guilt. Such policies have not been designed to solve problems minorities live with, he said. Instead, they are a way for institutions to demonstrate that they are not racist.

White guilt, said Steele, developed because of white supremacy, which at one time “defined the entire world; created the nation states systems; gave whites the authority to go into lands around the world and seize resources and use them as they wished and often subjugated the peoples in those lands.” Revolutions in India, Algeria, Indonesia, Kenya and other countries, as well as the American civil rights movement, “brought to the human condition an amazing moral evolution, the idea that no race can have authority over another race simply based on the color of one’s skin.”

A moral vacuum
But while the civil rights movement was “possibly America’s greatest moment,” Steele said, the result was white guilt, which Steele called “a vacuum of moral authority.”

Steele said that because whites had acknowledged they had practiced racism, “any minority could walk up to them and say, ‘Of course you are racist.’ Whites were put into a position where they always had to prove the negative. Are most whites in America racist? I don’t think so. But they can easily be stigmatized as racist and then have to do something to prove they are not racist.”

Steele argued that whites continue to try to dissociate themselves from the stigma of racism, and the result has been social programs that have been damaging to blacks. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, formulated right after the civil rights movement, “was a complete failure,” he said. The Great Society ostensibly was to end poverty and inequality, he said, but the real purpose was to restore moral authority and legitimacy to the United States government.

Steele cited other examples in which white guilt has prevailed. The concept of diversity, he said, came into existence to fend off stigmatization from institutions; former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott lost his position “about six seconds after he made a remark that was determined to be racist. That’s how powerful that stigma is. No white wants to be labeled a racist. It is life-altering, career-ending. White guilt is that powerful a force.”

Incentive for inertia
Steele said that welfare programs of the early 1970s told blacks, “We will give you a little better than subsistence living, and for that, you will have to do absolutely nothing. Nothing. And you will get this subsistence living for the rest of your life. And if you have children, they too will get it for doing absolutely nothing. You don’t have to see to the education of your children, develop skills for yourself or become competitive in a free society. You must not be married, because if you are, we’ll kick you off.”

Such “an incentive system for inertia created an underclass,” Steele said, something that even slavery and segregation had not accomplished.

Affirmative action, Steele said, is another result of white guilt, one that allows institutions to dissociate themselves from racism and “kicks minorities to levels they’re not qualified for. They stigmatize minorities as second rate. Because you are inferior, we have to give you racial preference. You can’t compete on your own; you would not make it.”

He asked the Tufts audience to imagine what if—after the civil rights victories of the 1960s—that blacks had left the United States to form their own nation, one where their fate was put into their own hands? If that had happened, he said, blacks would have had to become very good at many things to become competitive and survive as a nation.

The big buy-in
Instead, he said, “we came into freedom in a society that did not encourage us to become competitive but encouraged us to trade on our race. As blacks, the biggest mistake we made was that we bought into this … Instead of following a competitive model of advancement, we followed a racial protest model of advancement. Black leadership today is still mired in the idea that the most important idea is to protest injustice all the time.”

Steele noted that blacks are successful in sports, entertainment and music because there is no affirmative action in those areas. “Black self-esteem has to be tied to achievement in every other walk of life. In the name of black pride, we ought to fight against affirmative action and diversity. They demean us and make us trade on inferiority instead of making advances.”

Marjorie Howard is a senior writer in Tufts’ Office of Publications. She can be reached at