A central tenet of the multicultural movement is its deeply held belief that white people carry, in their hearts and minds, a uniquely malevolent and far-reaching blend of racism and intolerance aimed at nonwhites. This belief is rooted in the fact that prior to the late 20th century, the notion of white supremacy was axiomatic in much of the West, and it was used to justify the imposition of the nation-state system (as well as other policies that had a negative effect on nonwhite peoples) across the globe.
After World War II, however, the world at large began to reject white supremacy as a source of moral authority and political legitimacy. Revolutions from India to Algeria and from Indonesia to the American civil rights revolution, defeated the authority inherent in white supremacy. And this defeat exacted a price: the West was left stigmatized by its past sins. Today, the white West -- like Germany after the Nazi defeat -- lives in a kind of secular penitence in which the slightest echo of yesteryear's transgressions brings down withering condemnation.
Contemporary whites struggle, above all else, to dissociate themselves from the misdeeds of their forebears. When they behave in ways that invoke the memory of those sins, they labor to prove that they have not relapsed into their group's former wickedness.
Likewise, when America -- the greatest embodiment of Western power -- goes to war in Third World Iraq, it also labors to dissociate that action from the great Western sin of imperialism. Thus, in Iraq the United States found itself immersed in two wars -- one against an insurgency and another against the past. It fought as much for the legitimacy of its war effort as for victory in war. In fact, legitimacy may have been the more important goal.
Because dissociation from the racist and imperialist stigma is so tied to legitimacy in this age of white guilt, America's act of going to war can have legitimacy only if it seems to be an act of social work -- something that uplifts and transforms the poor brown nation (thus dissociating America from the white exploitations of old). Consequently, the U.S. war effort in Iraq was shrouded in a new language of social work in which democracy was cast as an instrument of social transformation bringing new institutions, new relations between men and women, new ideas of individual autonomy, new and more open forms of education, new ways of overcoming poverty -- war as the Great Society. It was not enough for the United States to go to war in the Third World simply to defeat a dangerous enemy.
White guilt makes America's Third World enemies into colored victims, people whose problems -- even the tyrannies they live under -- were created by the historical disruptions and injustices of the white West. Americans are expected to "understand" and pity their enemy even as they fight him. And, though Islamic extremism is one of the most pernicious forms of evil opportunism that has ever existed, Americans have felt compelled to fight it with an almost managerial minimalism to prove themselves beyond the passions of war -- and thus well dissociated from the avariciousness of the white supremacist past.
Anti-Americanism, whether in Europe or on the American left, works by the mechanism of white guilt. It stigmatizes America with all the imperialistic and racist ugliness of the white Western past so that America becomes a kind of straw man, a construct of Western sin. (The Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo prisons were the focus of such stigmatization campaigns.) Once the stigma is in place, one need only be anti-American in order to have an automatic moral legitimacy and power in relation to America. This formula is the most dependable source of power for today's international left: virtue and power by mere anti-Americanism.
Today words like "power" and "victory" are so stigmatized with Western sin that, in many quarters, it is politically incorrect even to utter them. For the West, "might" can never be right. And victory, when won by the West against a Third World enemy, is always oppression.
America and the broader West are now going through an era when Western societies have very little defense against the moral accusations that come from their own left wings and from vast stretches of nonwhite humanity.
Europeans are utterly confounded by the swelling Muslim populations in their midst. America has run from its own mounting immigration problem for decades, and even today, after finally taking up the issue, the U.S. government seems entirely flummoxed. White guilt is a vacuum of moral authority visited on the present by the shames of the past. As a result, a society as enormously powerful as America lacks the authority to ask its most brilliant, wealthy and superbly educated minority students to compete freely for college admission with poor whites who lack all these advantages.
Whether the problem is race relations, education, immigration or war, white guilt imposes so much minimalism and restraint that our worst problems tend to linger and deepen. Our leaders work within a double bind. If they do what is truly necessary to solve a problem -- win a war, fix immigration -- they lose legitimacy.
To maintain their legitimacy, they practice the minimalism that makes problems linger. What but minimalism is left when you are running [like President Bush] from stigmatization as a "unilateralist cowboy"? And where is the will to truly regulate the southern border when those who ask for this are slimed as bigots? This is how white guilt defines what is possible in America: You go at a problem until you meet stigmatization, then you retreat into minimalism.
Possibly white guilt's worst effect is that it does not permit whites -- and nonwhites -- to appreciate something extraordinary: the fact that whites in America, and even elsewhere in the West, have achieved a truly remarkable moral transformation. One is forbidden to speak thus, but it is simply true. There are no serious advocates of white supremacy in America today, because whites see this idea as morally repugnant. If there is still the odd white bigot out there surviving past his time, there are millions of whites who only feel goodwill toward minorities.
The multicultural worldview, however, refuses to acknowledge this plain reality.
Adapted from "White Guilt and the Western Past," by Shelby Steele (May 2, 2006).