Opinion | I’m With Condoleezza Rice About White Guilt

In his classic “An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy,” Gunnar Myrdal observed that “even the white man who defends discrimination frequently describes his motive as ‘prejudice’ and says that it is ‘irrational.’” In other words, the Everyman acknowledged racism but felt no need to disavow it. For example, Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson harbored no special guilt about the challenges faced by Black America but eventually saw it as politically prudent to court the Black electorate.

Thus, in the 1960s, civil rights leaders were able to take advantage of chance configurations. We might take a page from them. The gradual legalization of marijuana could be the start of a general reanalysis of the war on drugs that ravages Black communities. Beyond the current fight over President Biden’s legislative agenda, a new and more targeted demand on infrastructure could and should undergird a focus on training or retraining underserved working-class Black Americans for solid, well-paying vocational jobs. White guilt would be of little relevance amid such on-the-ground developments.

In that light, it bears mentioning that over the decades since the 1960s, when the idea that white Americans need to be guilty settled in among a contingent of Black thinkers, it seems that somehow, no matter what we say or do, white people are never guilty enough and white guilt is supposed to go on in perpetuity. Might it be that the effort to make white people any guiltier than they are is a Sisyphean effort? The dream that white people will, en masse, shed their “fragility” and embrace feeling really, really guilty is about as likely as Schoenberg’s ever being brunch music for more than a rarefied few.

We seek for enlightened white people to acknowledge that they are complicit — to use a term especially popular in recent years — in a system constructed for the benefit of whites. Note that even that word is a strategy to shake white people by the collar, in that telling them they are complicit is a fresher way of saying that they should be guilty. Because many white Americans have a way of resisting feeling guilty about things racial that they know are bad but that they themselves didn’t do, using a euphemism such as “complicit” is a way of trying to make the case without eliciting those typical objections: “I’ve never discriminated against anyone”; “I didn’t own slaves.”

But even phrased as complicity, the charge requires not just the occasional acolyte but the white populace as a whole to feel guilty about things people did not individually do, that were often done in the deep past rather than by their parents and that were done within a vast societal system, the operations of which even experts disagree on. That’s a lot. Recall also that most human beings are not, and will never be, dedicatedly history-minded — we live in the present.

What’s more, I don’t completely trust white guilt. It lends itself too easily to virtue signaling, which overlaps only partially, and sometimes not at all, with helping people. I recall a brilliant, accomplished, kind white academic of a certain age who genially told me — after I published my first book on race, “Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America,” two decades ago — “John, I get what you mean, but I reserve my right to be guilty.” I got what he meant, too, and did not take it ill. But still, note that word “right.” Feeling guilty lent him something personally fulfilling and signaled that he was one of the good guys without obligating him further. The problem is that one can harbor that feeling while not actually doing anything to bring about change on the ground.

So, I’m with Secretary Rice. Especially because people can actively foster change without harboring (or performing?) a sense of personal guilt for America’s history. Black America likely will not overcome without some white assistance. But I’m not convinced that the way this happens is with white people’s cheeks burning in shame over their complicity. Maybe they can just help.

Have feedback? Send a note to McWhorter-newsletter@nytimes.com.

John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author, most recently, of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”

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