Sunday, October 7, 2012

Ally School VI: George Will and White Liberal Guilt

Conservative columnist George Will has figured out Obama's secret: white liberal guilt.  According to Will, the liberal media have been uncommonly gentle with America's first black president.  They put the kindest possible spin on his every blunder: they make excuses for his failings because they want so very much for him to succeed.  And all this well-meaning negrophilia may bring him back to the White House for a second term despite his numerous inadequacies.

(As an added bonus, he  combines his election handicapping with one of the most interesting takes I've yet seen on civil rights history. Who would have thought Jackie Robinson was less important than a black guy who established a business owner's right to fire at will?)
A significant date in the nation’s civil rights progress involved an African American baseball player named Robinson, but not Jackie. The date was Oct. 3, 1974, when Frank Robinson, one the greatest players in history, was hired by the Cleveland Indians as the major leagues’ first black manager. But an even more important milestone of progress occurred June 19, 1977, when the Indians fired him. That was colorblind equality. 
Managers get fired all the time. The fact that the Indians felt free to fire Robinson — who went on to have a distinguished career managing four other teams — showed that another racial barrier had fallen: Henceforth, African Americans, too, could enjoy the God-given right to be scapegoats for impatient team owners or incompetent team executives.
His beliefs on baseball may be his own, but Will's ideas on liberal self-loathing are shared by many white conservatives.  In their world white liberal guilt makes judges coddle black thugs and causes politicians to ignore the rampaging immigrant hordes.  White liberal guilt drives academics to label as "racist" anybody who dares speak truth about minority crimes and shortcomings.  And white liberal guilt led a well-meaning but naive America to elect an obviously unqualified black man.  But in my decades of experience as a white liberal, I've seen white guilt manifest quite differently.

What these critics are calling "liberal guilt" is more liberal etiquette.  It's not political correctness so much as politesse, standards of behavior and speech which mark one as properly enlightened.  One tries to avoid saying offensive things about minorities not because of some desire for redemption as because it is impolite.  (Overt racism is also a huge class delineator: there's a reason many jokes about white racists involve missing teeth and trailer parks). 

In my experience white guilt manifests not as slavish devotion to minority causes but as a bristling defensiveness. Liberal etiquette provides monologues for uncomfortable situations. You can recognize your privilege, acknowledge the benefits you receive from an oppressive society, and express sincere appreciation of the daily struggle your critic faces. White guilt goes way deeper than that. It's the nagging worry those rituals you perform to reaffirm your color-blind world aren't enough, that maybe you haven't escaped the sins of history.   It asserts "My family never owned any slaves!" when no one has mentioned reparations: it declares all critics to be anti-white bigots trying to stir up ancient history.  Far from groveling in the face of criticism, white guilt circles the wagons. 

I have no doubt that some white people voted for Obama because electing America's First Black President gave them a warm and fuzzy feeling.  It certainly was a draw for campaign volunteers: who doesn't want to be a part of history, after all?  I am equally sure that a fair number of people did not vote for Obama because he is black, whether they said so outright or found soothing excuses to tell themselves and others.  I have no idea of how many votes Obama gained from the first group or lost from the second group: neither, so far as I can tell, does Mr. Will. Yet he seems to believe that the latter group was insignificant while the former controls enormous chunks of the electorate and media.  For Will the real threat to America is not white racism but white self-loathing.