What Role Will White Guilt Play in the 2012 Election?
The unintended consequence of the white guilt vote for Obama in '08 is in the impact it's had on those most hurt by the president's economic policies: poor urban blacks.
In his book White Guilt: How Blacks & Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era, Shelby Steele called white guilt "perhaps the greatest source of political, social and cultural power in the late twentieth century" (p. 96, Harper Collins, 2006).
[I] know it [white guilt] to be something very specific: the vacuum of moral authority that comes from simply knowing that one's race is associated with racism. Whites (and American institutions) must acknowledge historical racism to show themselves redeemed of it, but once they acknowledge it they lose moral authority over everything having to do with race, equality, social justice, poverty, and so on. They step into a void of vulnerability. The authority they lose transfers to the 'victims' of historical racism and becomes their great power in society. This is why white guilt is quite literally the same thing as black power. (p. 24, italics in original)
We can't measure the level of white guilt in the '08 vote count, but its presence was undeniable. Many of us encountered some expression of it among friends and relatives. For example:
Just before November 2008, I asked a friend whom he supported for President. He said, "Obama." I asked, "Why?" "Because I just think it would be cool to have a black president," he said.
I posited this hypothetical situation: "Okay, let's suppose your only choice is between two candidates absolutely equal in every way -- intelligence, experience, leadership -- equal in all the many and varied qualities that make for an effective president. Their only difference is that one is black, and the other white. And, let's also assume, you're required to vote. For which one do you vote?"
"The black candidate," he answered, quickly.
"So, you're racially biased?" I asked.
"No, of course not," he said.
"Well you must be," I said, "because if they're equal in every way, except skin color, then your only unbiased vote is to flip a coin."
In the '08 election, Barack Obama clearly benefited from the white guilt vote.
As Shelby Steele wrote:
The most striking irony of the age of white guilt is that racism suddenly became valuable to the people who had suffered it. Racism, in the age of racism, had only brought every variety of inhuman treatment, which is why the King generation felt that extinguishing it would bring equality. But in the age of white guilt, racism was also evidence of white wrongdoing and, therefore, evidence of white obligation to blacks. (p. 34)
Good intentions can lead to unintended consequences that are not so good. Such is the legacy of the white guilt vote for Obama in '08.
A booming economy has been likened to a rising tide that lifts all boats. In short, growing prosperity benefits all economic classes.
A falling tide, though, has the most immediate and greatest impact on those boats left stranded high and dry in the shallowest of water. Translation: recessions hit the poorest first, hardest, and longest.
Every week's news brings a new report detailing the climb in the national poverty level, an increased reliance on food stamps, and growing unemployment statistics particularly among urban blacks, as the recession's negative impact on them mounts -- with no end in sight.
When, in 2008, Colin Powell predicted that Obama would be a "transformational figure who could institute generational change," he probably didn't anticipate the generational impact on black communities due to Obama's failed economic policies.
And there lies the rub -- in the unanticipated consequences of casting a vote for president either to allay one's white guilt, or to support a candidate of one's own race -- white or black.
If we've learned anything in the last three years, it's that today, racial bias cuts both ways.
Does anyone think that Powell, who has yet to endorse a candidate for president this time, would have come out so decisively for Obama if Obama had run with the same qualifications but grown up in a Polish neighborhood of Chicago, with a name ending in "ski"?
As the campaign heats up in the next three months, the liberal media -- with a general population that wears its deep-seated feelings of white guilt as a badge of elite intellectualism -- will make circuitous appeals to white guilt by subtly reminding viewers that Governor Romney's religious preference is expressed through an organization where blacks were, in the past, not so welcome.
The "correspondent" will add, as an afterthought, that things have changed since that time, of course. But the subtle appeal to white guilt will have been made.
It's inevitable. They know it's worked in the past, on more than a few.