Reprinted, with permission, from The Eighteenth Century Club, October 30, 2021.
John McWhorter, “I’m With Condoleezza Rice About White Guilt,” New York Times, October 29, 2021.
As someone who was a strong supporter of Martin Luther King, Jr. and racial equality when that was not a popular position to take, and as an educated person who knows something about other countries and about history, I believe that the whole “white guilt” trap is a false path for African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, or anyone else to pursue.
The “white guilt” trap places the emphasis on victimhood, not the triumph of individual self-achievement. It tries to make white people feel personally guilty for the “sins” of their ancestors, who may have been people who in many ways were good people but who lived in an age in which social injustices—and not only those related to race—were commonplace, a part of the social structure of the times.
The Greeks and the Romans lived in ages in which slavery was common. The inhabitants of other states, even Greek city-states, which had been defeated on the battlefield, were enslaved by others of the same ethnicity in Athens, Rome, and many other places. By current standards, great injustices were committed. Yet should current-day Greeks and Romans feel guilt over the crimes of their ancestors?
More recently, the Germans who lived during the Third Reich under Hitler (1933-1945) committed abominable crimes, including the extermination of the Jews. Are Germans who were children or not yet born during those years guilty of the sins of their fathers and mothers, or ancestors?
The Question of German Guilt* throws a bright light on the Question of White Guilt in America. Should a child or a descendent of a war criminal or someone guilty of crimes against humanity ever be considered to be guilty of the crimes of their parents or ancestors? Or to bear guilt for those crimes?
Is a German today to be viewed as guilty, as responsible, for the sins of Germans who are dead, when they themselves did not take part in the commission of any crimes?
Do we believe in ethnic guilt? That one may be guilty because of the genes one bears? Of genetic guilt?
Any arguments in favor of such propositions would be preposterous, and also lay the basis for endless ethnic conflict and war.
Those who seek to make whites in America feel guilty for the actions of their forebears, in which they themselves took no part, are prophets of a false path. Following that path, while it may benefit some in the short run (e.g., academic proponents of such theories), will in the end only foster ethnic conflict, and persuade individuals they are victims, instead of focusing on their enormous potential for self-achievement.
Institutions and practices that express current racism should be opposed, and reformed. Programs aimed at helping those particularly disadvantaged by past racism, including racism against Native Americans, should be supported.
But this should be done within a broader framework which does not rely on white guilt for its motivational force.
Social programs to help disadvantaged members of society, including white individuals, should be based on empathy and our shared sense of humanity. In a democracy, they should also be based on the ultimate power of individuals to vote.
Spirit of Voltaire
*See Karl Jaspers, The Question of German Guilt (1947), a translation from Die Schuldfrage, originally published in German in 1946.