Not long ago I was the lone conservative at a panel discussion on race and politics at the famous Aspen Institute in Colorado. The day before the panel was to take place, some of us were asked—as a way of opening what was to be a weeklong conference—to say a few words about what we wanted most for America. This was surely a summons to grandiosity, but it did trigger a thought. When my turn came I said that what I wanted most for America was an end to white guilt, or at least an ebbing of this guilt into insignificance. I then used my allotted few minutes to define white guilt as the terror of being seen as racist—a terror that has caused whites to act guiltily toward minorities even when they feel no actual guilt. My point was that this terror—and the lust it has inspired in whites to show themselves innocent of racism—has spawned a new white paternalism toward minorities since the 1960s that, among other things, has damaged the black family more profoundly than segregation ever did.
I also pleaded especially for an end to the condescension of affirmative action, only to realize halfway through my remarks that the slightly slumping woman in the front row was none other than retired Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor—the justice whose 2003 opinion in Grutter v. Michigan has effectively extended the life of affirmative action for another twenty-five years. But it was too late by then to take her feelings into account, so I finished on theme: the benevolent paternalism of white guilt, I said, had injured the self-esteem, if not the souls, of minorities in ways that the malevolent paternalism of white racism never had.
Post-1960s welfare policies, the proliferation of “identity politics” and group preferences, and all the grandiose social interventions of the War on Poverty and the Great Society—all this was meant to redeem the nation from its bigoted past, but paradoxically, it also invited minorities to make an identity and a politics out of grievance and inferiority. Its seductive whisper to them was that their collective grievance was their entitlement and that protest politics was the best way to cash in on that entitlement—this at the precise moment when America was at last beginning to free up minorities as individual citizens who could pursue their own happiness to the limits of their abilities. Thus, white guilt was a smothering and distracting kindness that enmeshed minorities more in the struggle for white redemption than in their own struggle to develop as individuals capable of competing with all others.
Of course, this was a mouthful, and something close to sacrilege at the liberal-leaning Aspen Institute. I had set out only to say what I truly meant, not to be provocative or to discomfit a retired Supreme Court justice. Yet I had been provocative all the same, and I may have also discomfited Justice O’Connor—not because I intended either outcome, but simply because I had offered up what was considered to be a “conservative” analysis of race in America.
The real provocation was in the very idea of looking at race in America through a lens of “classic” Jeffersonian liberalism—that liberalism which sought freedom for the individual above all else. This was the liberalism that had actually given us the civil rights movement of the 1950s and early 1960s. In that era, Martin Luther King Jr. was already recognizable as an American archetype precisely because he was so aligned with the central principle of this liberalism: individual freedom. I wanted to celebrate this liberalism and argue that a free society—not necessarily free of all bigotry, but certainly free of all illegal discrimination—was what America owed minorities. After that we minorities should simply be left alone. We should not be smothered, as we have been, by the new paternalistic liberalism that emerged in the mid-1960s—a guilt-driven liberalism that has imposed itself through a series of ineffective and even destructive government programs and policies. We should be left to find our own way as free men and women in this fast-paced and highly competitive society.
In many ways the minority struggle for freedom—just like white America’s long-ago struggle for freedom from British rule—has been a battle to have no oppressive or capricious power intervene between the individual and his pursuit of happiness. How, then, does it constitute progress for minorities to overcome bigotry as a limit on their freedom only to subjugate themselves to a paternalistic interventionism inspired by white guilt? There is no true freedom either way.
This was the impropriety, the lapse of good manners that made for provocation. A freedom that could not guarantee a positive outcome for blacks (America’s classic victims) was perceived as unfair. So whether I was right or wrong was irrelevant next to the unseemliness of speaking about black Americans in the light of self-help and individual responsibility—two entirely conventional values that came to be labeled “conservative” only after the 1960s, and then primarily in relation to minorities.
I am used to being in situations where mention of such “conservative” values amounts to an impropriety. On today’s political landscape, there are few people more inherently provocative, more unforeseen and unsettling, than people like myself who are designated “black conservative.” All the other permutations of racial and political identity are expected—white liberal or white conservative, Hispanic liberal or Hispanic conservative, black liberal. We know their cultural profiles: the Hispanic who is hard working, Catholic, and conservative; the upscale Connecticut white liberal; the black of almost any background who is presumed liberal simply for being black. Black conservatives confound expectation. Worse, we seem to put the moral authority that comes from our race’s great suffering into the service of an ideology (conservatism) that many see as a source of that suffering. By this logic, the black conservative can only be opportunistic or, worse, self-hating and sycophantic. So in a setting like the Aspen Institute, where liberalism is simple etiquette and where criticism of minorities is verboten, the black conservative inevitably gives offense.
* * *
And I saw that my little “end-of-white-guilt” speech had done just that when I arrived the next day for my panel discussion on race and politics. As I stepped onto the stage, the moderator of my panel—a solicitous young black writer who kept reassuring me that he would be fair to me despite the obvious gulf between us—immediately called me into a huddle. And there I was confronted with a very agitated young white man, someone not on the panel, who implored me to give him a few minutes with the audience before the panel began so that he could respond to my remarks of the previous day. It was my call to make, and simple common sense told me to say no. Clearly this was someone who had spent the previous twenty-four hours stewing in outrage over my call for an end to white guilt. Why give a platform to such an openly declared enemy? But then I heard myself say, “Go right ahead.”
He looked startled, and then rushed to the podium as if afraid that I might change my mind. But I wouldn’t have. I try to follow that ethic by which one gives wide berth to one’s opposition. So I took my designated chair on the panel and listened as this jumpy young man beseeched the audience not to believe what I had said the day before. He was slight and blond, likely a graduate student, and he spoke with a kind of mimed passion that made him seem theatrical. For effect, he would occasionally look over his shoulder at me as if to shudder at an unspeakable menace. He wanted this nice and unsuspecting Aspen audience to know that I was selling false consolation by seducing them into the fiction that white guilt was now a greater problem for minorities than white racism. He wanted to reassure them that blacks were still suffering in America and that racism, discrimination, and inequality were still alive—still great barriers to black advancement.
My first reaction to people like this young man is always the same: Where were you when I needed you? I had grown up in the rigid segregation of 1950s Chicago, where my life had been entirely circumscribed by white racism. Residential segregation was nearly absolute. My elementary school triggered the first desegregation lawsuit in the North. My family was afraid to cross the threshold of any restaurant until I was almost twenty years old. The only jobs open to me in high school were as a field hand or as a yard boy. My high-school guidance counselor said flatly that manual labor would be my employment horizon. My life had to always be negotiated around my failure to be white. I knew decent white people, but these “good whites”—people who would defy the strictures of segregation—were the exception. Even the Kennedy brothers, Jack and Bobby, came only reluctantly—grudgingly at first, in Bobby’s case—to the cause of civil rights.
So there had been a time when blacks needed people like this young man. But on that afternoon in Aspen we were almost fifty years removed from that time, and this young man was only pretending to the heroism of those “good whites” who, back in the civil rights era, had actually “spoken truth to power”—whites who had risked their careers, their families, their standing in their communities, and even their lives. But there was no such risk for this young man in Aspen, no jeopardy against which he might show himself heroic. Here he was a redundancy: a man pro- testing racism to people for whom it was already anathema.
Still, I suspected that most people in that auditorium broadly agreed with him, even if they thought him a gate-crasher and a poseur. In fact his appearance had the feel of a ritual, as if it were somehow an expected and necessary event. And when I heard the alarm in his voice at what I’d said the day before, something occurred to me: by coming to a place like Aspen and saying the things I had said, I had—so to speak—thrown the conference slightly out of alignment. The Aspen Conference had a certain idea of itself, an identity: it wanted quality intellectual dialogue within a progressive to liberal-centrist political orientation. My remarks had pushed me off this political continuum altogether and solidly into conservative territory. After all, I had implied that post-1960s liberalism was the new enemy—and not the friend—of minorities at a conference where conventional wisdom held the opposite to be true.
So, in effect, my young nemesis had spoken out in order to bring the conference back into alignment, to enforce the boundaries of the new liberal identity. He wanted this friendly, upscale, and overwhelmingly white crowd to see me as a snake in the garden of their liberal identity, enticing them with the “apple” of an escape from white guilt. He wanted them to understand that the price they might pay for listening to someone like me could be much higher than they thought: they could lose their liberal identity itself and, along with it, the good opinion of themselves as decent and socially concerned people. I wasn’t just a threat to their politics. I threatened them with a kind of moral disgrace—since their agreement with any part of my argument would open them to charges of racism. Of course, he never said it, but he wanted no serious discussion of ideas or of public policy. Arguing thoughtfully would only make me less a snake, and, above all else, he wanted to mark me as an outsider.
When he finally left the stage and took a seat in the audience, I was invited to respond. But I had no heart for it. He hadn’t made a real argument, but had essentially only tried to make me an untouchable—someone from a dark realm of ideas who was at once seductive and evil. To answer him would be to argue with the rhetorical equivalent of an impression, a blur of indistinct ideas—to punch at shadows. Finally the panel moderator moved us into our discussion format. I never saw this young interloper again.
* * *
The fact is that this young man and I come from two very different Americas. The shorthand for these two Americas might be “liberal” and “conservative,” but this would indeed be a shorthand. These labels once signified something much less incendiary than they do today; they were opposing political orientations, but they shared a common national identity. One was conservative or liberal but within a fairly non-contentious cultural understanding of what it meant to be American. But since the 1960s, “liberal” and “conservative” have come to function almost like national identities in their own right. To be one or the other is not merely to lean left or right—toward “labor” or toward “business”— within a common national identity; it is to belong to a different vision of America altogether, a vision that seeks to supersede the opposing vision and to establish itself as the nation’s common identity. Today the Left and the Right don’t work within a shared understanding of the national purpose; nor do they seek such an understanding. Rather, each seeks to win out over the other and to define the nation by its own terms.
It was all the turmoil of the 1960s—the civil rights and women’s movements, Vietnam, the sexual revolution, and so on—that triggered this change by making it clear that America could not go back to being the country it had been before. It would have to reinvent itself. It would have to become a better country. Thus, the reinvention of America as a country shorn of its past sins became an unspoken, though extremely powerful, mandate in our national politics. Liberals and conservatives could no longer think of themselves simply as political rivals competing within a common and settled American identity. That identity was no longer settled—or even legitimate—because it was stigmatized in the 1960s as racist, sexist, and imperialistic. The very legitimacy of our democratic society demanded that America be reimagined in the reverse of this stigmatization.
This sea change meant that American liberals and conservatives were called upon to fill a void, to articulate a new and legitimate American identity. It was no longer enough for the proponents of these perspectives merely to vie over the issues of the day. Both worldviews would now have to evolve into full-blown ideologies capable of projecting a new political and cultural vision of America. Both liberals and conservatives would have to revisit their first principles, seek philosophical coherence between their own view and contemporary events, enlist intellectuals, and engage in ongoing debate. In other words, people on both sides would have to conjure up an America unique to their own first principles and beliefs—an America that epitomized all they longed for. And it fell on both liberals and conservatives to fight for their own America, to demand that it prevail over the opposing vision of the nation—and to provide America with a new singular and unifying identity.
This is how the mandate of the 1960s to reinvent America launched the infamous “culture war” between liberalism and conservatism—a war that we Americans wage to this day with undiminished fervor. After the1960s, the American identity became a self-conscious mission in our politics, so that liberals and conservatives had to contend with each other over identity as well as public policy. When we argue over health care or immigration or Middle East policy, it is as if two distinct Americas were arguing, each with a different idea of what it means to be an American. And these arguments are intense and often uncivil, because each side feels that its American identity is at risk from the other side. So the conflict is very much a culture war, with each side longing for “victory” over the other, and each side seeing itself as America’s last and best hope.
This makes for a great irony in contemporary American life: although we have come very far in overcoming old sins, such as racism and sexism, we are in many ways more sharply divided than when those sins went largely unchallenged. The culture war drew us into a very polarizing progression in which liberalism and conservatism evolved into broad cultural identities that, in turn, sought to manifest themselves in actual territorial dominance—each hoping to ultimately become the nation’s singular identity. Since the 1960s, this war has divided up our culture into what might be called “identity territories.” America’s universities are now almost exclusively left-leaning; most public-policy think tanks are right-leaning. Talk radio is conservative; National Public Radio and the major television networks are liberal. On cable television, almost every news and commentary channel is a recognizable identity territory—Fox/ right; MSNBC/left; CNN/left. In the print media our two great national newspapers are the liberal New York Times and the conservative Wall Street Journal (especially in the editorial pages). The Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur Grants are left; the Bradley Prize is right. The blogosphere is notoriously divided by political stripe. And then there are “red” and “blue” states, cities, towns, and even neighborhoods. At election time, Americans can see on television a graphic of their culture war: those blue and red electoral maps that give us a virtual topography of political identity.
Today, a liberal or a conservative can proudly identify with the image of America projected by their chosen ideology in the same way that most Americans in the 1950s proudly identified with a victorious and prosperous postwar America. In the America envisioned by both ideologies, there is no racism or sexism or imperialism to be embarrassed by. After all, ideologies project idealized images of the near-perfect America that they promise to deliver. Thus, in one’s ideological identity, one can find the innocence that is no longer possible—since the 1960s—in America’s defamed national identity.
To announce oneself as a liberal or a conservative is like announcing oneself as a Frenchman or a Brit. It is virtually an announcement of tribal identity, and it means something much larger than ideology. To be a Brit is a God-given fate that is likely to stir far deeper passions than everyday political debates. Nationalism—the nationalist impulse—is passion itself; it is atavistic, beyond the reach of reason, a secular sacredness. The nationalist is expected to be intolerant of all opposition to his nation’s sovereignty, and is most often willing to defend that sovereignty with his life.
Well, when we let nationalism shape the form of our liberal or conservative identities—when we practice our ideological leaning as if it were a divine right, an atavism to be defended at all cost—then we put ourselves on a warlike footing. We feel an impunity toward our opposition, and we grant ourselves a scorched-earth license to fight back. They are not the other side of the same coin; they are a different coin altogether, a fundamentally illegitimate and alien force. And we are forgiven our bitterness and contempt for them.
* * *
This was the contempt that the young man at Aspen had flashed my way. He had crashed the event to defend a sovereignty, and he had felt the license to disrupt. Liberalism was his nationality, and who compromises their nationality? He had spoken from his commandeered podium like a patriot.
But, then, I had to wonder if my own ideological orientation had somehow taken the form of nationalistic fervor. Was I a blind patriot rather than a thinking man? Was my loyalty to conservatism grounded in experience and thought, or in blood fealty to an ideology that sees itself as a sovereign nation? For me, conservatism revolves around the principles and the disciplines of freedom, and through its lens I can see the America that I have always wanted. So, yes, like my young nemesis, I could experience my ideology as a nationalism. But unlike him I wanted to discipline that impulse, to subject my ideology—and all the policies it fostered—to every sort of test of truth and effectiveness. And I was ready to modify accordingly, to disabuse myself of even long-held beliefs that didn’t pan out in reality. It was exactly this loyalty to fact over ideology that had driven me away from liberalism in the 1970s and 1980s into an appreciation of conservatism’s commitment to individual freedom. In other words, for me, ideology does not precede truth. Rather, truth, as best as we can know it, is always the test of ideology. I want my fervor for conservatism to be disciplined by a deep and abiding humility. Passion is one thing, but “true belief ” is blindness.
Excerpted from "Shame: How America's Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country" by Shelby Steele. Published by Basic Books. Copyright 2015 by Shelby Steele. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.