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“Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here at the dawning of the Twentieth Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line. I pray you, then, receive my little book in all charity, studying my words with me, forgiving mistake and foible for sake of the faith and passion that is in me, and seeking the grain of truth hidden there” (Du Bois, 1903, xxxi).
What Du Bois wrote a hundred years ago is relevant even to this day; the rhetorical question we keep asking ourselves: “when will we get over the problem of racism?” It was the problem of the twentieth century and will continue to be so for this century also. Enforcement of racial and ethnic inequalities and identities is prevalent throughout the world. The Civil Rights Act of 1990 passed by the U.S. Congress claims to “help create equal opportunities for blacks and other minorities and reduce the racism that persists in America”. Has it achieved the desired goal? Herein lies the paradox. Prof. David James, director of the Institute of Social Research at Indiana University, says “Today the process of assignment in the United States is predominantly non-political, but it is still powerful in other areas such as residential segregation, job discrimination, and educational inequalities.”
Shelby Steele on racial conflict
Shelby Steele opines that a black’s power is victim’s power and, in his articles, he portrays the “macro and micro perspectives of race relations”. Shelby Steele’s “theory of “structural” or “institutional” racism postulates a social determinism that makes all whites and American institutions complicit in a vicious cultural pattern. The theory makes the absence of identifiable adverse events in the lives of individual blacks irrelevant to blacks’ claims to victimhood. Victim status is a source of endless, sometimes lucrative and always guilt-free leverage over a guilt-ridden society”. This is what Steele wants to say and his writing is highly “knowledgeable” concerning the condition of the black. The very question “Who is innocent?” itself is proof enough that it is a rhetorical question. Upon this theoretical framework, Steele paints a canvas of black’s innocence and white’s guilt. His statement that innocence is power, leads to bargaining and challenges. It is on this edifice that Steele has built his entire argument.
Shelby Steele has constructed a seemingly logical argument replete with neat categories and definitions. He says, in a different article (Steele, 2002), that white racism and white guilt have been the two “immutable forces” that have “driven America’s attitudes, customs, and public policies around race”. In his new book, Shelby Steele argues that supremacy of the white and given rise to guilt and he says that neither the white supremacy nor the white guilt has done any good for the blacks (Steele, 2000; 2006).
Steele (1996) in his essay feels that the real trouble in America is that the races are not mere races but power groups competing with each other. He further elaborates that “Race is a separate reality in American society, an entity that carries its potential for power, a mark of fate that class can soften considerably but not eradicate.” So the conflicts that have undercurrents – are they forever? The racist “see-saw” that the power groups are used to stems from the fact that the black’s subjugation, in the white’s eye, is his innocence. He further says that it is this power that defines their relationship, with one another, and that the “power requires innocence” and it further leads to “racism and racial division”.
Black innocence he says is a way to deal with the whites in certain situations and he suggests that there are two strategies for dealing with this. Bargaining and challenging, he says are the other two strategies through which the blacks have come to terms with the whites. He says that “Historically, blacks have handled white society’s presumption of innocence in two ways: they have bargained with it, granting white society its innocence in exchange for an entry into the mainstream, or they have challenged it, holding that innocence hostage until their demand for entry (or other concessions) was met”.
“Innocents” as “bargainers and challengers”
He says that that the bargainer’s way of dealing with the whites is to make them understand their racial innocence if they accept the blacks. He refers to Bill Cosby as the “bargainer” and that he is the “most visible black bargainer n the American scene today”. Cosby’s shows portray the typical feeling the whites would want. The show portrays the feeling that whites innocence is enhanced “by implying that race is not the serious problem for blacks that it once was”. The Huxtable family – which is portrayed in his show, has been a perfect formula for white’s innocence on racism. The portrayal of the Huxtables as “doctor/lawyer parent combination, its drug-free, college-bound children, and its wise yet youthful grandparents – is a blackface version of the American dream” confirms Cosby’s subscription to the American identity. His opinion that a gratitude factor is generated when a black makes a bargain; on the contrary, a black’s challenge irritates the white.
But then not all blacks are bargainers and what if we have “challengers” in a “bargainers” cloak? It is here Steele gives us a glimpse of Jesse Jackson – the challenger. Steele states that Jackson is different from Cosby in that when “he hugs Arafat, smokes cigars with Castro, refuses to repudiate Farrakhan, threatens a boycott of major league baseball or, more recently, talks of “corporate barracudas,” “pension-fund socialism,” and “economic violence,” he looks like a challenger in bargainer’s clothing …”.
Eventually, he concludes, “… racial victimization is not our real problem”. When African Americans focus on racism and black victimization they fail to see that only individual initiative delivers anyone from poverty. “With our eyes on innocence, we see racism everywhere and miss an opportunity even as we stumble over it”. For example, he cites the 70% dropout rate of black students from the university as a flight from opportunity. In this perspective, he describes the engineer in his opening example as presenting a challenge that fails, and losing an opportunity to bargain.”
Then what is white guilt? Is it a sense of repentance for all that the whites have done to the blacks? “White guilt is a vacuum of moral authority in matters of race, equality, and opportunity that comes from the association of mere white skin with America’s historical racism. It is the stigmatization of whites and, more importantly, American institutions with the sin of racism”.
The article, I’m Black, You’re White, Who’s Innocent?, is an analysis of the black and white racist situation that America has been facing. It is a claim to the fact that both groups have created a racist situation. The whites accept that the racist attitude that enforced slavery caused was because the whites in ‘innocence’ felt that they were superior to the blacks. They pursued power-convincing themselves that they were entitled to it. Once convinced of this fact they believed in innocence. They were thus, morally secure in their actions and there came a century or so of subjugation. The power they took came from innocence, and so Steele states innocence is power.
Steele attributes “the differences between black rates of advance and those of other minority groups to white folks’ pampering. Most blacks, Steele claimed, could make it on their own – as voluntary immigrants have done – were they not held back by devitalizing programs that presented them, to themselves and others, as somehow dissimilar to and weaker than other Americans.”
- Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co, 1903.
- Steele, Shelby. “The Recoloring of Campus Life.” The Presence of Others. Ed. Andrea A. Lunsford and John J. Ruszkiewicz. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000. 72-89.
- Steele, Shelby. “I’m Black, You’re White, Who’s Innocent?” in Color, Class, Identity, ed. J. Arthur and A. Shapiro, Boulder: Westview Press, 1996: 411-420.
- Steele, Shelby. “The age of white guilt: and the disappearance of the black individual”. Harper’s Magazine, 2002: 33-42.
- Steele, Shelby. White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era. New York: Harper Collins, 2006.