By Shelby Steele.
January 15, 2002
The Wall Street Journal - January 8, 2002

THERE SHOULD BE many more imbroglios like the one currently playing out at Harvard University, enough for America to finally understand that white guilt is exactly the same thing as black power. But it is testament to the daunting power of white guilt that confrontations like this one happen so rarely.

Harvard's new president, Lawrence Summers, is reported to have rebuked arguably the most famous professor in the university's well known, if undistinguished, Afro-American Studies Department - Cornel West. Even on their face, the reported charges behind this rebuke seem screamingly true - that Mr. West is an academic lightweight, that his service to Al Sharpton's presidential campaign and his recording of a rap CD embarrass his professorship, and that his uncritical grading practices have contributed to Harvard's serious grade inflation problem.


With this sensible rebuke, there has begun an elaborate, if predictable, choreography of black indignation and white guilt. Mr. West took great umbrage at Mr. Summers' charges, as did Henry Louis Gates, the chairman of the Afro-Am department, Anthony Appiah, and other black faculty. The Afro-Am triumvirate, Messrs. West, Gates and Appiah, are said to have huffed off to Princeton to scare up the offers that would show Mr. Summers just how black power works in a world of white guilt.

All reports are that Princeton is better versed in the interplay of guilt and power than Mr. Summers, and might happily offer Harvard's "stars" a New Jersey residence. Princeton's president has referred to the rapping professor as "eminent."

Meanwhile, back on Harvard Square, Mr. Summers has been made to feel the heat of black power. Blacks across the campus have accused him of insufficient support for affirmative action. And then, moving all this to full-scale cultural warfare, came two men who practice a virtual statecraft of guilt manipulation that leaves whites no option beyond honorable capitulation - Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

From his Harvard bunker, Mr. Summers was no longer peering at just the gangly Prof. West in his trademark three-piece suit and 1974 Afro. He was looking at men who threatened to mark out Harvard in the culture as the racist Ivy - a deadly reputation in the academic world. In rebuking a well-known black professor, Mr. Summers had also rejected white guilt as a guide to administrative affairs. Good move. But it overlooked the ugly fact that institutions today lose their mainstream legitimacy unless white guilt defines their approach to racial matters. It also overlooked the fact that white guilt is black power and that the reprimand of a single black professor would call out the biggest guns in the black establishment.

White guilt is best understood as a vacuum of moral authority. Whites live with this vacuum despite the fact that they may not feel a trace of personal guilt over past oppression of blacks. Whites simply come to a place with blacks where they feel no authority to speak or judge and where they sense a great risk of being seen as racist. It is a simple thing, this lack of authority, but it has changed everything.

One terrible feature is that it means whites lack the authority to say what they see when looking at blacks and black problems. Political correctness is what whites have the authority to say about blacks, no matter what they see. It is a language of severely limited authority, of euphemisms that steer whites around associations with racism. The black power brokers have told Mr. Summers that he does not have authority to say what he sees when he looks at Mr. West. He must put clothes on the naked emperor, or shame himself and his institution. After all, Princeton's president dressed the often incomprehensible Mr. West in a suit of eminence.

The muteness that white guilt imposes on whites undergirds black power. It lets blacks live inside the silence of whites, and have our weaknesses be unutterable by whites even as they are plainly visible. Messrs. Jackson and Sharpton are enforcers of white silence. And when whites are silent, black mediocrity is no deterrent to black advancement. So it is not surprising that the Jacksons, Sharptons, Wests, Gateses et. al. demanded that Mr. Summers make a strong endorsement of affirmative action - which formalizes white silence on black mediocrity into policy. In this realm of guilt and power, a white man's endorsement of affirmative action is nothing less than a vow of silence.

What is admirable in all this is that Mr. Summers seems to have actually wanted excellence from Mr. West. His rebuke for failing to deliver excellence was an act of social responsibility. It was also an opportunity for Mr. West and the Afro-Am department to move from celebrity academia to serious achievement. How many of us ever get near our full potential without at least the threat of rebuke?

But Mr. Summers does not have the authority over his Afro-Am department that he has over the rest of Harvard. And his story is important because it shows how severely white guilt limits the authority of institutions to enforce their own best standards uniformly. Everywhere that minorities press institutions today as groups, there is an erosion of excellence. The reason for this is that white guilt allows institutions to respond only with deference - deferring to the greater moral authority of minorities by lowering standards, and remaining mute to minority mediocrity, to save the institution from the racist label.

So whites have made it socially virtuous to defer and stand aside as institutions erode. The public schools are all but devastated, universities are stunted by ideology, corporations are more unctuous than churches, the media are more unctuous yet, and American politicians - of left and right - speak in barren clich‚s about all of this when they speak at all.

The value system that controls our institutions is an adaptation to white guilt. This system will make Mr. Summers the bad guy a thousand times before it ever holds Mr. West accountable. It isn't Mr. Jackson and Mr. Sharpton who are breaking Harvard's president; it is his own faculty and administrators who are standing aside. They think he made an "ego" mistake, a faux pas. It doesn't matter that he was right. University presidents who correctly read the tea leaves (the limits of white authority) know that deference is your only play with minorities.

And Mr. Summers, sad to say, has proven himself a quick study. He gave Mr. Jackson the endorsement of affirmative action that he demanded, and he "mended fences" in a meeting with Mr. West - two powerful endorsements of black mediocrity, two compromises of institutional integrity. And now that his capitulation has spilled blood into the water, Harvard's Latino faculty has rushed to demand their own "full-fledged Latino studies center."

Double Message

This is how the vacuum in white authority becomes cancerous. Deference makes so much administrative sense that it becomes procedural, an utterly neutral business practice. Institutions send a double message to blacks: develop excellence, but it's OK if you only live off the largesse of white guilt. The mediocrity of Mr. West is visible everywhere across the landscape of black academia, where so much deference corrupts black talent. Nearly every campus has at least one black professor whose special talent is the racial indignation that white guilt loves to reward. Yet in a field like jazz, where white guilt does not intercede, black excellence is the norm.

But deference will never redeem white authority. There is something that will. When practiced with discipline, a commitment to fairness for the individual delivers a moral authority that neutralizes white guilt. Maybe this is what Mr. Summers was after when he reprimanded Mr. West, along with other white professors. But to get moral authority from this exercise in fairness, he had to stand his ground. Then all those around him, so practiced in deference, might have seen the road out of white guilt.

Everyone would win - Harvard, Mr. Summers, and especially Cornel West. Messrs. Jackson and Sharpton would have been exposed as the paper tigers they are. But as it now stands, Mr. Summers himself should be rebuked for skirting the moderate act of courage that would have given all this a chance.

Mr. Steele, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of "A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America" (HarperCollins, 1998).