Very cordial greetings. I write to urge you to read a very small book that now sits on my desk. It was written this year for persons in just our circumstances. It’s honest and respectful and very eloquent, too. The author, Shelby Steele, criticizes some policies widespread among universities in ways that may cause us to bite our lips, but his criticism is embedded in sympathetic understanding. Long a university professor, Steele’s reflections on the life and spirit of our universities are the meat of this very penetrating book.

Angela Cesere
Angela Cesere
Angela Cesere

He begins with a vivid account of the day on which, riding a wave of “militancy and outrage,” he led a group of black students into the office of the president of the university at which he was then a senior. Racial oppression had not angered him directly, he reports, but it did give him the opportunity to choose to be angry. Steele and his fellows acted out in that president’s office – with non-negotiable demands and all the rest – the black rage that was excused as an understandable response to historic injustice.

He nurtured that anger for a decade. It became an exceedingly useful tool for the advancement of policy objectives. Black anger was nearly invincible. Why? Because, Steele explains, by the end of the century America “had moved out of its long age of white racism and into a new age of white guilt.” Guilt about race had become so widespread, so enervating, that it cleared the path to power for blacks.

The college presidents who bore the brunt of those angry protests were certainly not racists. That old college president of his, Steele observes, was a man of considerable integrity; he had not once denied or minimized the injustice of racism. Confronted by non-negotiable demands from a band of black accusers he had become plainly angry – but he was powerless to respond. He was rendered powerless by an amorphous sense of guilt, the thought (or feeling) that the offensiveness of the conduct of the protesters was outweighed by the oppression that had led to it. The protesters knew this, and with this knowledge they were secure. Black awareness of the powerlessness of those in authority became the key to subsequent strategy and tactics. Whites who were confronted felt their own guilt; they could not deny it. They were stranded in a moral vacuum. That president who had been Steele’s target, like many others, “found himself without the moral authority to reprimand us for our disruptive behavior.”

White guilt thus became, and still remains, the central nerve of relations between blacks and whites. No one has understood it more deeply, or traced its ramifications more wisely, than Shelby Steele. With him we come to apprehend the ways in which whites in authority are often trumped by their own consciousness of guilt. They hunger to show themselves redeemed. But redemption does not come easily.

Once having acknowledged guilt, subconsciously if not explicitly, college presidents, Steele writes, “lose moral authority over everything having to do with race, equality, social justice . . . The authority they lose transfers to the victims of historical racism and becomes their great power in society. This is why white guilt is literally the same thing as black power.”

The subtitle of this book is “How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era.” Its title I hardly need to tell you. The use and abuse of white guilt we find almost impossible to reprove. The obsequious behavior of some university presidents – and some university faculties, too – can be understood in this light. White guilt is not a transitory phenomenon of a generation past; it is the moral tone that has come to pervade our universities.

At the University much that happens is explained by guilt. Consider two recent examples, one anecdotal and one statistical:

1) A member of our faculty, who is white, sent me a letter, now in my files, in which the following events are recounted. Finding the work of one of his students in a large course to be entirely unsatisfactory, he gave that student a failing grade. The student, who was black, complained vociferously, scorning the grade as the product of blatant racism. The faculty member brought the matter to the chairman of his department seeking advice. They examined together the indisputable evidence of failure. His chairman then said, in effect, “You have two alternatives. You may leave the failing grade unchanged, which is plainly justifiable. I will stand behind you if you do. The result is likely to be very messy; we – you and I and our department – will in that case become the focus of a nasty public controversy. The allegations, although unjustified of course, will be widely believed, in and out of the University. Or, if you choose, you may change the grade, a very simple matter that I will also support, and the ugly problem will go away. The choice is entirely yours.”

This professor’s choice, as his letter reported with self-conscious shame, was to change the grade. Of course this anecdote proves nothing. How many cases like it there have been on our campus we cannot know. White guilt is indeed sometimes transformed into black power.

2) Our faculty as a whole has knuckled under the pressure of guilt. Consider: From careful studies of the attitudes of university faculties around the country we know that preferences given to racial minorities in admission – like the preferences we give – are strongly disapproved by most academics. Here at the University, where the defense of such preferences is the conventional wisdom, it is probable that those who strongly disapprove of preferences are a smaller-than-average percentage of the whole. But ours is a faculty of thousands. Among these thousands there are indubitably at least scores, probably many hundreds who disapprove of the race preferences we give. How many dissenters register their disapproval publicly? Two persons? Three?

Why is it so difficult for members of our faculty to speak out in support of The Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, which, if adopted this November, will forbid such preferences and all discrimination by national origin, sex, or race? (It certainly will not forbid affirmative action. The Initiative does not mention affirmative action, many forms of which are clearly worthy and not at all preferential. The MCRI bears only upon discrimination and preferences given by the state.) Our president and others in her administration have spoken strongly in opposition to the MCRI, because they wish to retain some ethnic preferences. Supporters of the initiative among our faculty are numerous but for the most part silent. Why? Ours is a faculty of strong and self-confident intellects. We do not fear that we will be penalized if we disagree with the president. There would be no such penalty, and we know that. What then can explain this remarkable silence? Shelby Steele explains it very well.

The preferences we give to minorities in admission (and in other contexts) were initiated as a form of compensation for injuries earlier inflicted; they were efforts to make retributive payment. In reality those preferences impose great burdens on minorities, burdens that outweigh any benefits they appear to offer; nevertheless the preferences are commonly viewed as instruments of redress. This compensatory intention was for many years explicit. But equal treatment under the law is plainly inconsistent with compensation by ethnicity; one is entitled to redress for injury without regard to skin color. So the compensatory justification of preference was thrown out by the courts, even though it remains for most ordinary folks the only ground on which preferences might make any sense at all. Our University, defending preferences in the courts, renounced that compensatory justification explicitly, resorting instead to the one justification that had some hope of winning the legal battle: diversity.

Justice Powell, alone among the nine justices of the Supreme Court, had suggested (in Regents v. Bakke, 1978) that diversity in enrollment might serve as constitutional support for race preference. A Supreme Court majority of five (in Grutter v. Bollinger, 2003) followed him, registering its acceptance of some race preferences because they met an alleged “compelling need” for a “critical mass” of students in each of three ethnic minorities.

As a defense of race preference, the alleged compelling need for racial diversity is entirely without merit. That defense has been advanced and accepted only because there is no other way, under the U. S. Constitution, to rescue the drive to expiate white guilt. We are told repeatedly, by people who seem not to fear embarrassing themselves, that diversity is the very heart of educational excellence. The compensatory payments by race that cannot otherwise be defended are saved by a dreadful argument.

That the diversity defense is no more than a stratagem is made manifest by the history of this controversy. Diversity was hardly ever mentioned until the compensatory justification was thrown out by the courts. The evidence in the Michigan cases (Grutter and Gratz) exposes and highlights the ruse. If a “critical mass” of minority students (what was claimed to be a compelling need) in the black minority requires, let us say, 50 blacks among the incoming law school class, how can it be that only 25 are needed for a critical mass of Hispanics? And only five for a critical mass of Native Americans! Candor compels the admission that all our talk about using preference to achieve a “critical mass” of students in each minority for the sake of educational excellence is – in the words of four members of our Supreme Court – a “sham.” It is a device, the only device available with which we can continue to satisfy the inner compulsions of white guilt.

I ask you to reflect. Can an increase in the number of certain racial minorities in the Law School entering class be a truly “compelling” need for the state of Michigan? Think about that claim. It is nothing short of preposterous. Some states in our country, Massachusetts and others, do not even have a state-supported law school. Can the racial makeup of the entering law school class at the University be compelling while in other healthy states such a class does not even exist?

There are, moreover, many educational contexts in which racial or ethnic diversity is absent while the intellectual level maintained is very high. Diversity is indeed a good thing – but the claim that the need for diversity is so compelling that it overrides the Constitutional guarantee of civic equality is one we swallow only because, by holding our nose and gulping it down, we can go on doing what our feeling of guilt demands.

That citizens must be treated equally, without regard to race or national origin and without discrimination or preference, is the fundament of the American experiment. That is the proposition, Lincoln rightly said, to which our nation is dedicated. Yes. And is that dedication now to be given up for the claimed (but very uncertain) advantages of classroom discussions in which more students of different colors are in the room? You cannot seriously believe that.

We try to be honest, of course; to retain our integrity we look away from what we are doing. We have been sacrificing fundamental beliefs because (although we hardly understand ourselves fully) we feel that such racial preference is an inescapable demand: righteous racial payment for indelible racial guilt. But every applicant who is admitted to the University in part because of his color displaces another applicant who was denied admission in part because of her color. You do see this inescapable consequence of preference, do you not? When we give by race it follows necessarily that in so doing we also take by race. That displaced applicant disadvantaged only by her color, whose name we cannot know, is real; she and all those similarly rejected are the persons who must pay for the guilt we feel and seek to expiate. Do you think that fair? The chief justice of the United States Supreme Court put it very aptly a few weeks ago. He wrote: “It is a sordid business, this divvying us up by race.”

But, you say (echoing our president), here at the University we consider race as only one factor among many. Of course! Race has always been only one factor among many. The skin color of those blacks cruelly discriminated against for generations was then only one of many factors weighed. In truth, there is no degree of racial discrimination that is benign. Honorably motivated, our current admission practices are one form, not very subtle, of outright racial discrimination. With our talk about the “holistic” evaluation of applicants we do our best to hide that reality. Our conduct, well meant, is shameful. We would not behave in this shameful way were we not driven by guilt.

Our president has exhibited, to her great credit, a continuing concern for the happiness and satisfaction of student life in our residence halls. My office is in one of those residence halls; I am there night and day, year in and year out. I invited her to come and stay with us for a while. During any prolonged period in one of our residence halls one will experience directly the humiliating truth of what Shelby Steele has written. Equality of status and treatment, confidence that all races and nationalities would be treated evenhandedly, none favored or disfavored because of grandparents’ birthplace or color of skin – these were the serious promises of the civil rights era. The logo we wore proudly in those years was a large white equal sign emblazoned on a solid black background – on an armband, a pin, wherever we could present the image. It is also the logo of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative. The leaders of the civil rights movement (and also we in the ACLU) said equal means equal. We meant what we said. Today, on our campus, that spirit has been forsaken. The symbolic equal sign will not be worn. On the one great issue, racial equality, which bound whites and blacks together as comrades, blacks and whites together have vitiated the promises of the civil rights era. Shelby Steele writes:

“When I visit university campuses today, black students often tell me that racism is everywhere around them, that the university is a racist institution . These students feel aggrieved by racism even as they live on campuses notorious for almost totalitarian regimes of political correctness . This is because their feeling of racial aggrievement is calibrated to the degree of white guilt on university campuses and not to actual racism . Even announcements of a new commitment to “diversity” within an institution will very likely increase feelings of racial aggrievement in minorities. We blacks always experience white guilt as an incentive, almost a command, to somehow exhibit racial woundedness and animus . .

“Threatened with a stigmatization that can gravely injure businesses and ruin careers, whites can be pressured into treating the merest accusation of racism as virtual proof . Texaco, Coca-Cola, and Toyota are only a few of the corporations that have paid hundreds of millions of dollars to the diversity industry to avoid stigmatization as ‘racist.’ ”

The race card always works in our country because, where the atmosphere is one of pervasive racial guilt, the accusation of racism leveled at a person or an institution sticks like glue, and needs no proof to do its damage. Universities, like corporations, do not pay to the measure of any actual racism; they pay to the measure of racism’s bloated reputation in the age of white guilt.

“White Guilt” is the name of the book, published by HarperCollins this year. As your University colleague, I urge that you read it.

Respectfully yours,
Carl Cohen
RC professor

This is a version of a letter Cohen send to University President Mary Sue Coleman, which will be published in the winter 2007 issue of Academic Questions at Princeton University.

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