Steele on White Guilt

Well I’m on the ground in Aspen now at the Atlantic Ideas Festival that Just Happens to be Taking Place in Aspen (it’s been renamed...) and it’s really beautiful though I kind of wish there was more oxygen in the air. But they didn’t bring me out here just to enjoy the view, I’m supposed to write about the ideas in play at the festival. So here goes.

Shelby Steele offered some interesting thoughts on the subject of “white guilt” observing that in post-white supremacist America it can be very damaging to a person or institution’s reputation to be labeled as a racist. Consequently, people and institutions put a lot of emphasis on avoiding having that happen. This, according to Steele, often crowds out pragmatic consideration of issues like “is this actually helping people.” He gives vintage AFDC and affirmative action as practiced at most institutions of higher education as examples -- practices aimed at shoring up the legitimacy of elite institutions rather than aimed at actually solving problems of poverty and structural inequities in education.

That all seemed pretty plausible to me, actually. Then I thought he went awry by alleging that we’ve been overly “sensitive” in our conduct of war recently for reasons of white guilt and that this is why we’re bogged down in Iraq -- too much focus on the legitimacy of our efforts, and not enough focus on “winning.” I think this mostly shows that Steele has a lot more background in social policy than in military policy. I’d say, as the counterinsurgency manual says that legitimacy is absolutely vital in a modern war-fighting situation.