Racism is in vogue again. Practically de rigueur, in fact. The media celebrates it, academia embraces it, and the woke sanctify it — but only a specific type of racism, best described as “White People Bad, People of Color Good.”
I immigrated to the United States from India only 15 years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. My two daughters, born of my marriage with an Iowa farm boy-turned-Silicon Valley engineer, were brought up with no sense of racial difference, no focus at all on the fact that half their family was white and the other half was not. We lived MLK’s dream, and our country was, by many measures, well on its way. But now we face a new brand of racism.
How in the world did we get to where we are today — where only white people can be racist, white children are harangued and humiliated in their schools for being born white, and the media gleefully and relentlessly excoriates white people with headlines such as “Dear Fellow White People: What to do when you are called a Racist”? How can the media proffer gems such as this one: “If you are white, and you are reading this letter, I ask that you don’t run to seek shelter from your own racism,” while defining down outright racism by nonwhite people to merely “prejudice,” if that?
The answer comprehends two mutually-reinforcing components: “white guilt,” to use the phrase coined by Shelby Steele, and a highly selective reading of the histories of both white and nonwhite people.
What is White Guilt?
When America passed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, says Steele, “inherent in this legislation was the acknowledgement on the part of America that it had done something very wrong.” Steele argues that, by acknowledging this wrong, the price white Americans paid is losing their claim to moral authority.
Further, “the moral authority that whites lost shifted to minorities. … It became an important source of power for minorities.” Just as all Germans carry the stigma of Germany’s Nazi history, so do all white people in America carry the stigma of America’s racist past — and many will do almost anything to disassociate themselves from it. This, says Steele, is “white guilt.” That desire for disassociation is a source of power for minorities.
But, he adds, too often, minority leaders use this power solely for the “manipulation of white guilt,” rather than to improve the lot of the people they represent. There is every indication that the latest incarnation of that manipulation — and capitulation to it — is the leftist zeitgeist that all white people are intrinsically racist.
But that is only one part of the story. There is an essential second component: “People of Color Good.” Without that addition, if nonwhite people bear an equal weight of historical guilt, how could this supposed moral superiority over white people be sustained?
New Racists Pass Off an Airbrushed Version of History
So a revisionist, airbrushed view of the histories of non-white peoples has taken hold. It takes the form of strategic amnesia regarding the untidy reality of the histories of non-European peoples. “Western imperialism” and “Western colonialism” are invariably vilified as the primary source of injustice and oppression in the world. According to this narrative, paradise was lost only with the arrival of the white man.
Even the most cursory reading of pre-colonial history in major geographies would puncture this conceit. In my own native India, the voices most eager to excoriate the legacy of British rule are silent on the horrors of the caste system, particularly the classification of an estimated 25 percent of the population as sub-human, and literally “untouchable.”
This group was denied the most elementary human rights, even forbidden access to public wells. They had to beg for water, that most basic human necessity, from their higher-caste neighbors. Even today, this group endures horrific oppression of a sort unknown in the United States.
Here in the United States, the broken treaties, land appropriations, and ethnic cleansings involved in the Indian removal are a matter of shameful historic record. But honesty requires we be equally clear-eyed about what went before. Brutal wars of aggression, massacres of one tribe by another, territorial expansion by conquest, and enslavement of the vanquished were all recurrent features of the Native American tribal landscape.
Turning to America’s original sin, the horror and inhumanity of slavery in the United States rightly lives in infamy. However, the claim that white Americans are uniquely stained by the sin of chattel slavery does not withstand even cursory scrutiny.
Chattel slavery within Africa itself — of Africans, by Africans — was widespread throughout African history. It even intensified when the trans-Atlantic slave trade ended, ending only in the 20th century. A considerable slave trade existed from Africa into the Middle East as well, also persisting well into the 20th century. There are few innocents in the history of slavery, and few peoples free of its reproach.
This is not to minimize the horrors and injustices of the past. But the historical record does not support the conceit that non-Europeans bear a lesser burden of historical guilt than do their white counterparts. For it is not white flaws and white sins, but human flaws and human sins, that stain the pages of history.
The New Racism Also Has Evil Consequences
By defying this reality, leftists have allowed the twin fictions — White People Bad, People of Color Good — to gain traction. Nonwhites have thereby been elevated to a position of unearned moral superiority over their white counterparts. It is on this unsound foundation that the new racism rests.
Beyond inciting racial hatred, this ideology ushers in other consequences: Its acolytes exempt nonwhite people from culpability for oppression and divisiveness in the present as well.
Examples are easy to find. The subjugation of women in many Islamic countries goes unchallenged by the most prominent progressive feminist voices. The clear causal thread connecting corrupt governments, drug cartels, and the chaos at our southern border is dismissed. The United States, we are instructed, is to blame. The media provides frenzied, wall-to-wall coverage of any sensational, unverified, hate crime claim, no matter how improbable the story — until it is exposed as a hoax, at which point the media invariably drops the story.
The standard-bearers of this movement are not just nonwhite radicals. Even more prominent are the white leftist thick on the ground in academia, media, and politics, who have convinced themselves that their participation earns them not just personal redemption, but also moral ascendancy over their less enlightened brethren. Immersed in this bubble, presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg could proclaim, with absolutely no sense of his own condescending offensiveness, that white Americans needed to “come to terms with what whiteness is” and that “not everybody is ready for this conversation.”
New Racism Is Still Racism
But the new racism is not better than the old racism. Two wrongs don’t make a right. All racism is an offense against all of humanity. Should only white people care? Emphatically not, any more than only minorities should care about racism against minorities.
Yes, white racism is still with us. It was America’s original sin, and will never be fully eradicated. But that is no excuse for this shameful new doctrine. Honesty requires we admit that black racism, Hispanic racism, and the many forms of Asian racism will also never be fully eradicated. Those forms, too, are very much with us.
Racism is part of the human condition, and some segment of humanity will always choose that path. But over the past 50 years, that much-cited arc of history has bent strongly toward justice and brotherhood, and racism has largely been pushed outside the boundaries of acceptable public discourse.
Until now. Until this inexplicable adoption of a new racial divisiveness by so many who should know better. Thomas Sowell got it exactly right: “Racism does not have a good track record. It’s been tried out for a long time and you’d think by now we’d want to put an end to it instead of putting it under new management.”