|Birmingham, Alabama, 1963|
Friday, March 28, 2014
The Whitest Guilt
Who is to blame for the ongoing social dysfunction – poverty, illegitimacy, drug abuse, violence – in much of the African-American community? More reliably than almost any other issue, your answer reveals you as a liberal or a conservative. The standard liberal understanding is that the persistence of white racism traps blacks in bad jobs, terrible neighborhoods, constricted lives. There are more sophisticated liberal explanations that involve the loss in recent decades of urban industrial jobs as well as the legacy of centuries of slavery, deliberate segregation and debilitating social and economic oppression. Conservatives, on the other hand, attribute black social dysfunction to black cultural pathology, that is, to attitudes and norms prevalent in the black community that discourage behavior broadly associated with success, e.g. family stability, educational attainment, steady work, self-control. The sophisticated liberal explanations lay some blame at the feet of African-American culture, but what characterizes the conservative explanations is the focus on cultural explanations to the exclusion of anything else. To conservatives, blacks alone are to blame for their plight.
Paul Ryan, conservative Republican congressman from Wisconsin and the 2012 GOP Vice Presidential nominee, recently got in trouble for expressing just that view. Here’s what he said on March 12th on conservative Bill Bennett’s “Morning in America” radio show:
We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.
The immediate, forceful reaction from many quarters on the left was that Ryan was trafficking in surreptitious racism. That is, he was referring in coded language to the black community particularly, characterizing African-Americans as work-averse and attributing that aversion to moral failure. That is, blacks are poor because they’re lazy. The very next day Ryan shifted into full politician damage-control mode, labeling his comments “inarticulate”, meeting with African-American political leaders, denying he had meant blacks in particular, and (sounding suspiciously like a liberal) blaming the troubles of the poor on “society as a whole.”
Seriously? Can anyone doubt he was criticizing African-American culture? Ryan’s radio comments are the sort of thing conservatives always say when addressing the troubles of poor blacks. Some have pointed out Newt Gingrich’s similar remarks made while running for president in 2012:
Really poor children, in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works. So they literally have no habit of showing up on Monday. They have no habit of staying all day; they have no habit of “I do this and you give me cash,” unless it's illegal.
Is it possible Gingrich wasn’t talking about blacks? No, that’s exactly who he was talking about! Ryan’s remarks may not have been as artless as Gingrich’s, but his point was the same: African-American culture does not sufficiently inculcate an ethic of work and self-sufficiency. It’s not exactly calling them lazy, but it comes dangerously close to that ancient and appalling racist libel.
But it’s not the same. There’s nothing necessarily racist about assessing a culture as deficient in some particular. Some cultures are clearly better at some things – consider the Italian attitude of slowing down and enjoying life – and not so good at other things – consider the lax Italian attitude toward bribery. Each culture arises from a unique, complex and contingent set of circumstances and each has its strengths and weaknesses. Cultures are like unhappy families, each imperfect in its own way. To be racist one has to believe an ethnic group is inherently inferior, that it has some genetically-determined quality that unavoidably causes it to fall behind. If Ryan meant to imply this about African-Americans then he was indeed expressing racism, and if he meant to subtly signal such notions to receptive whites he was indeed employing racist dog whistles. But is there any reason to think so? Ryan did himself no favor by citing, in his original comments, Charles Murray of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, a writer infamous for claiming that African-American social problems result from their genetically-determined inferior intelligence. Yes, that’s right. Ryan says he meant nothing racist – that he wasn’t even referring to blacks particularly! – while citing an explicitly racist writer. This is inarticulateness of the highest order!
But even though all conservatives attribute black troubles to black culture, not all conservatives attribute black cultural dysfunction to black genes. Indeed, even Ryan probably didn’t mean that. And, as noted, many liberals believe black culture does play an important part in black troubles. Here’s Jonathan Chait:
The argument is that structural conditions shape culture, and culture, in turn, can take on a life of its own independent of the forces that created it. It would be bizarre to imagine that centuries of slavery, followed by systematic terrorism, segregation, discrimination, a legacy wealth gap, and so on did not leave a cultural residue that itself became an impediment to success.
To these more sophisticated liberals, the horrific historical treatment of African-Americans has left a terrible legacy which, through normal cultural transmission, continues even now to debilitate African-American attitudes and norms. That is, oppression by whites caused the problems of black culture, and once such pathologies took hold they became quite hard to mend. Non-racist conservative explanations for black social pathology ignore those hundreds of years of oppression and instead revolve around the liberal welfare state. To conservatives, excessive liberal condemnation of America’s real and imagined sins leads blacks to see themselves as victims deserving compensation in the form of government handouts. Thus liberals provide both the rationale and the funding for black dependency and sloth. So liberals blame the present-day troubles of blacks on their historical mistreatment at the hands of the dominant white power structure, as well as the persisting white racism that liberals find all too evident. That is, traditional American society – the society that liberals fought so hard to improve and that conservatives fought so hard to preserve – is at fault. Meanwhile, conservatives fault many of those same liberal improvements (while failing, of course, to credit liberalism’s clear successes, such as civil rights laws). When it comes to the problems of African-Americans, liberals and conservatives, unsurprisingly, blame each other.
But conservatives never seriously address the historical and traditional oppression – cruel, violent, horribly destructive – of blacks by whites. Conservative analysis of African-American dysfunction begins with the Great Society, as if nothing relevant happened before then. They seem embarrassed by discussions of slavery and Jim Crow, by the thought that America could have committed such momentous and monstrous crimes. And this reluctance, this touchiness, is of a piece with conservative hyper-sensitivity to charges of racism. When liberals accused Ryan of race-hustling, conservatives howled at the injustice. Every time conservatives talk about racial problems they blame blacks, and every time they’re accused of racism they blame liberals. They’re desperate to escape any accountability on race! No rational person believes all of conservatism is tainted by racism, but there is no denying the historical fact that modern American conservatism was founded upon implacable antipathy toward three huge threats to traditional society: international communism, the welfare state and racial integration. Liberal success in substantially actualizing that third threat has ironically given some cover to the conservative claim that whites no longer hold blacks back. Conservatives mock liberals for what they call “white guilt”, i.e. the desperate liberal shame over being part of the race that treated blacks so badly for so long. They believe white guilt enervates liberals by robbing them of the moral authority needed to place blame where it belongs: at the feet of blacks themselves. But consider the absurd conservative refusal to confront not only present-day racism but even historical racism, particularly conservative complicity in historical racism. We can only call this preposterous denial the conservative version of white guilt. While there is some truth to the notion that liberals too readily let African-Americans avoid their responsibilities, it’s conservatives who scramble like madmen to avoid their own.
And the notion of conservative white guilt helps explain another quite strange phenomenon: white fear of oppression by blacks. To be conservative is to believe that in present-day America whites are more mistreated by blacks than the reverse. This putative oppression takes many forms: black-on-white crime, liberal taxation to pay for plush welfare benefits for blacks, affirmative action programs that take jobs from deserving whites and give them to undeserving blacks, black intimidation of white voters, black calls for reparations for slavery. Rush Limbaugh famously referred to Obamacare as “reparations.” Indeed, it’s black self-pity and resentment that causes our racial troubles. Whites are now the true victims of racism, mostly at the hands of a “racial grievance industry” run by “race hustlers”, the most infamous being Al Sharpton. And the most vicious form such vile race hatred takes is the constant liberal accusation of conservative racism. In this view, Paul Ryan is more of a victim than the poor “inner city” denizens to whom he condescends. Conservatives are hyper-aware that racism of the old-fashioned kind is now so comprehensively and thoroughly delegitimized that any taint of it instantly undermines any position or policy. In this view no charges of white racism are ever valid; they’re all transparent attempts to silence or marginalize conservatives and conservative ideas, as bludgeons used to beat down whites fighting for fair treatment. In the 60’s it was Bull Connor spraying demonstrators with fire hoses, now it’s the Huffington Post spewing defamation of conservative whites.
But the worst white fear, going back at least as far as Reconstruction, is fear of blacks in power. When Obama first ran for president in 2008 he received more votes in almost every county than had his 2004 Democratic predecessor, John Kerry. But in a broad swath of the Upland South, stretching from West Virginia through Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Texas, Obama got a smaller percentage of the vote than Kerry. We need not wonder why this area bucked the national trend. When (in another context) voters in this area were asked why they didn’t vote for Obama they expressed fear of “minorities in positions over the white race”. This is the fear of black revenge. But revenge for what? Deep down conservative whites know blacks are right to be so profoundly aggrieved, and so profoundly aggrieved at them. This is conservative white guilt: if the Negroes get in charge they’ll screw us the way we’ve screwed them. To such people, all liberals are carpetbaggers and all liberalism is reparations.
Paul Krugman, in a piece on the Ryan controversy, argues that “American conservatism is still, after all these years, largely driven by claims that liberals are taking away your hard-earned money and giving it to Those People. Indeed, race is the Rosetta Stone that makes sense of many otherwise incomprehensible aspects of U.S. politics,” such as conservative support for Medicare paired with opposition to Medicaid. Krugman is right to see white populism lurking behind many domestic conservative policies, particularly white opposition to the welfare state (of course, such opposition has perfectly legitimate non-racial motivations, as well). But there’s more going on in the racial churn than just white anger over paying taxes for Those People. There’s white fear of retribution and there’s the stubborn white refusal to face responsibility. And, importantly, there’s the boiling resentment at liberal attempts to force that responsibility upon them. No one likes to be reminded of the guilt they’re trying so hard to repress. This is less about income tax rates and more about the shackle and the poll tax and the lynching noose and the long shadow they cast over white American pride.
And that illuminates what liberal charges of racism are really after. Sure, sometimes liberals use those charges to bully, to intimidate, to silence. “Racist” is for liberals what “socialist” is for conservatives: a clumsy but powerful rhetorical weapon. And sometimes liberals honestly see racism where none exists; for some liberals it’s always 1965 on the march from Montgomery to Selma. But deeper down is the earnest liberal wish that conservatives face up to the persistent hard realities of race in America and undertake the hard work of racial expiation as liberals have tried to do. Before the Civil Rights era, liberalism largely ignored the problems of blacks; to maintain the partisan unity that made the New Deal possible the Democratic Party acquiesced to the demands of its southern conservative wing and denied government benefits to blacks. But, starting in the 1960’s, liberals atoned for their racial sins by trying substantively to address these issues. Indeed, the entire conservative critique of racial liberalism is that it has atoned all too well – and that the atonement is underwritten by those in strenuous dissent. But that dissident resentment helps perpetuate the antipathy toward African-Americans that keeps them in their collective place. Why does the party that espouses small government and individual freedom find it so necessary to justify even obvious and genuine expressions of white animosity? The issue of past and persistent African-American misery is not one issue among many, it is central to the acrimonious and hateful ideological divide that plagues us. The hard feelings of guilt, resentment and fear it elicits polarize and poison all of our politics. Liberals react to every remotely insensitive conservative remark as the second coming of Bull Connor. And conservatives react same way to every liberal accusation of racism (even those with clear merit) and thereby harden racial alienation and deepen our ideological polarization.
But let’s stand athwart that vicious cycle and yell Stop! There are few genuine Bull Connor’s still around. But there are some (don’t you know any?) and liberals are right to expose them. But how bleeding obvious is it that liberals must be more fair and circumspect in their accusations, but also that conservatives must respond with more open and honest self-examination. Even though there are the more sophisticated liberal explanations for African-American troubles, the liberal instinct is to blame only white racism and excuse almost any bad black behavior. That’s because liberals are so exquisitely aware of the terrible reality of white-on-black oppression – both historically and in its current subtler forms – that blaming black culture at all feels to them like blaming the victim. And conservatives are working so tirelessly to avoid that same awareness that they cannot blame anyone else. But liberals need to remember that victims can act badly too. And they need to understand that racial resentment and racial bigotry may be closely related, but they are not the same. It may be more gratifying to stomp the latter, but they’d do better to soothe the former.
But here is the crucial question: Can conservatives be made to acknowledge and appreciate the historical and continuing immiseration of African-Americans? They must, but they almost certainly won’t. There are so many obstacles that seem so insurmountable: a conservative communications complex invested in pushing racial hot-buttons, the social and economic separation of whites and blacks, the worsening of political polarization and mutual mistrust, and – most importantly – 60 years of smoldering resentment. But just as African-Americans must acknowledge their own cultural shortcomings and assume the responsibility and hard work needed to overcome them, so must conservatives take responsibility for how their own denial of racial reality contributes to our painful political polarization. Conservatives may comfort themselves with the thought that African-Americans vote for Democrats in overwhelming numbers because liberals enable their victimhood, but blacks easily perceive conservative racial irresponsibility and resentment. Thus, as the demographics slowly move America in a more racially diverse direction they also move it in an irrevocably liberal direction. But the conviction that whites owe blacks nothing – not transfer payments, not preferential treatment, not protection for voting rights, not even understanding – is so central to conservative ideology and psychology that they couldn’t give it up without a radical reworking of their worldview. Conservative white guilt is at the heart of our ongoing political dysfunction and unhappiness. Unable to come to terms with the enormity of the moral failure of traditional American culture, unable to concede the persistence of racial mistreatment, unable to accept their own complicity, they consign African-Americans to unequal treatment, themselves to resentful alienation, and all of us to bitter division and strife.