I’ve generally tried to steer clear of discussing politics with friends. While it can serve as a bond when two parties agree, it can also be one of the surest ways to strain a friendship when points of view misalign. My aversion to politics also happens to mirror my personal philosophy of generally maintaining a centrist or middle of the road position. There are times however when sitting on the fence becomes uncomfortable, and 2020 has paradoxically become a year in which clarity is often lacking on a variety of issues. At such times we are more inclined to vacate fence-sitting positions and seek higher ground. In this instance I find that it has become increasingly more difficult to remain silent about matters close to my heart that are shared in the media, social and otherwise.
With that background, permit me to share two images from the current bastion of liberalism in print, the New York Times. The image on your left is from yesterday’s front page, and its caption reads: “In July, protesters in Omaha tried to block park workers from washing away the names of Black people who had been killed”. You’ll notice something striking about this photo: Five of the six people pictured are White; nor is that a coincidence. Caucasians are now represented during BLM rallies in unprecedented proportion. It is not uncommon for marches such as this one along the Seaside Heights boardwalk to consist largely of young White people following the lead of much smaller numbers of BLM catalysts. This is indicative of what I have termed “Mea Culpa White Apologia”, a movement sweeping across the nation (largely among Caucasians with a liberal bent) to atone for perceived sins toward minorities (principally Black people) rooted in “White Privilege”. This is done either through joining marches or lending voices on social media encouraging increased sensitivity on the part of White people to the plight of racism, its apotheosis resulting in the murder of Black males, and the rallying cry that black lives matter.
In juxtaposition stands the image in the lower half of the page on your right. It is a prominent ad on page three of the New York Times Sunday Review section for a book authored by Shelby Steele, and it has now appeared for several weeks running. I was intrigued that the liberally-minded New York Time would run an ad with the following print copy: “A prominent conservative scholar traces the post-1960s divisions between the Right and the Left, taking aim at liberals’ victimization of African Americans and their failure to offer a viable way forward for American society”.
Before ordering the book, I wanted to gain a greater sense of who Shelby Steele was and what he might have to say. His biography notes: “Political commentator and essayist Shelby Steele was born on January 1, 1946, in Chicago, Illinois. His father, Shelby, Sr., a black truck driver, met his mother, Ruth, a white social worker, while working for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Steele considers his mixed heritage an amazing gift, which served to demystify race for him.” As an aside, I’m not sure if Ruth was Jewish, but in his latest book Shelby mentions that his wife, Rita is Jewish.
Dr. Steele, who earned his Ph.D. in English, has written before about “White Guilt”, the title of a book originally published in 2006. At the time, NPR noted: “Steele’s provocative theories about race have been controversial, to say the least, and have often put the author at odds with many in the black community.” As I watched the YouTube video of his presentation at The Independent Institute in Oakland CA in 2006, I came to realize that many of the principles inherent in my notion of Mea Culpa White Apologia had previously been articulated by Dr. Steele.
Armed with that knowledge, I took the plunge and purchased a copy of Shame, which is essentially an updated version of White Guilt, published in 2015. It did not disappoint. Before giving you some insights from the book, a few more words about the impetus for my getting off the fence. It stems in part from an uncomfortable exchange that I had with a relative on Facebook several months ago, who posted that she was sorry for the pain of black people. Searching for the right words to express her sorrow, she noted that although she didn’t know the “right” thing to say to other white people and to herself, she would begin by acknowledging her own learned “white supremacy”. She added that her white privilege put her in a bubble away from the world that she must work to break out of. Both in talk and action she pledged to be more actively anti-racist in self-awareness, as well as through interactions with her children and with her community. This struck me as the quintessence of mea culpa white apologia, and I firmly believed that Black conservative intellectuals had good reason for rejecting this well-intentioned attempt at empathy as counter-productive.
Looking back at what I wrote in reply, I felt that I needed better sources to make the argument that breast-beating white guilt was not going to be helpful. In fact, it seemed to be an open endorsement and empowering of BLM messaging that too often culminated in destructive rather than constructive change. It was disruptive, to be sure, but it was not particularly innovative. The idea that Whites could speak to what was best for Blacks was presumptive, and a type of hypocrisy encapsulated in Joe Biden’s recent self-admitted gaffe: “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump then you ain’t black”.
In Shelby Steele I discovered an authority figure who is as well-reasoned as he is Black, and has no problem identifying the faulty logic underpinning the breast-beating engaged in by my relative and by Joe Biden. I’m going to need a decent amount of space to quote and paraphrase Dr. Steele so to be fair to your eyes, I’ll save that for Part 2. Stay tuned!