How Conservatives Deal With White Guilt

In Tucker Carlson’s site The Daily Caller, back in 2012, a writer named Mark Judge wrote an op-ed, The End of My White Guilt. A few days before the article was published—the day he says his white guilt died—his bike had been stolen. The perpetrator was never caught, but because it happened in a poor neighborhood in DC, Judge “knew that the odds were very high that a black person had taken my bike.”

Later that day, he spoke with a liberal friend who he says annoyingly lectured him about the disadvantages that the bike thief probably suffered from. “That’s when I lost it,” he writes, and proceeds to complain for a few paragraphs about liberal perspectives on race, which concludes with him deciding to let go of the white guilt that had always felt burdened with.

The story of being victimized by crime quickly turns into a story of redemption, of the erasure of grievances. The sacrifice of a bicycle he loved had finally made him equal to blacks, who will never again have the “Absolute Moral Authority gained from centuries of suffering,” as he puts it. After an afternoon of grieving over the situation, he starts to seem almost glad to have lost his bike, relieved to have been given a novel experience of victim-hood that in his mind had confirmed an attitude about race that he perhaps always held but was prevented from articulating out in the open. Like a suburban punk-rock kid who secretly wants to participate in the experience of societal oppression, or the rich liberal arts student who recently discovered identity politics, a nominal amount of suffering can take on the quality of affectation. Whoever the bike thief was, it seems that they had unintentionally given this man a valuable gift. “It felt good to say it,” he says, triumphantly. “Black pain is no different than white pain.”

It is all too often said that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged, but the truth of this statement could be sliced in different ways. Is it that the victim of crime suddenly realizes that a more authoritarian, hierarchical, or carceral system is necessary to protect innocents from the individuals who abuse their freedom, or is it that being victimized just makes them feel less sympathy for the entire class of people that the criminals came from? This platitude about conservatism being a natural reaction to the experience of criminality carries an implication that liberal attitudes about society were never that sincere to begin with. Even though this is probably true at least some of the time, this platitude betrays that there is a cynical basis for much of conservative thought.

About a month before the current problems in Baltimore, and in the wake of an almost identical situation in Ferguson, Jack Hunter asked in The American Conservative why so many conservatives, who often seem eager to identify and condemn government abuse or aggression, didn’t seem to take interest in the Ferguson Report which detailed the rampant abuses by the police department against so many of the poorest constituents of Missouri. Apart from the ostensible reason of racism—which even the most generous analysis of conservative reactions would be unable to rule out completely—Hunter argued that the incredulity towards reports of the suffering of black Americans was also informed by a partisan desire to reject, prima facie, what is a characteristically liberal narrative about race in our society.

I think it’s fair to say that the fact that black folk are (still) having a pretty rough time in this country is a problem for many of the different brands of conservatism. The problem it poses is largely the same one that rising inequality poses for neoliberals, as the neolib magazine The Economist acknowledges every now and then. “Liberals, such as this newspaper,” they recently wrote, “believe in the importance of protecting private property and allowing entrepreneurs to enjoy the fruits of their talents. But at the same time they believe that people should be judged on their individual merits rather than their family connections or their brand name.”

There is a tension between these two notions. If we are supposed to accept the existing social arrangements as meritocratic, then we have to suppose that someone born in poverty is statistically unlikely to have as much “individual merit” as someone who was born into wealth and privilege, by virtue of the fact that people typically remain in the social class they were born into. This position seems strange, since it trivializes the concept of merit, but it persists in the attitudes of many people who are motivated to believe that they have earned everything they have and that as long as they behave in favorable ways, the misfortunes that they observe in others will never happen to themselves. This psychological attitude has been called the “just-world syndrome,” and it has often been the subject of satire, going at least as far back as the book of Job. Those who are presently struggling with hardships get the sense that the people who view suffering as self-imposed would think differently if their circumstances were exchanged.

It is in the US in particular that the racial and identity-based components of inequality seem to pose the biggest problems, because it is here that some of the more progressive views of race have originated. The United States’ version of nationalism is, at least for everyone who is up-to-date and has accepted the principal conclusion of the Civil War, a nationalism that isn’t essentially racial. Because of this, both the rhetorical and institutional framework of our society (going all the way back to Jefferson’s declaration that “all men are created equal”) is such that, ostensibly, we should be seeing very different dispersions of outcome than we are seeing today. This being not the case, we are forced to conclude that either our institutions are failing to achieve their basic purposes, or that the premises of our society are wrong, and there is no basic equality among the peoples.

One answer that conservatives give to this problem is to frame the issue as being about cultural differences. It isn’t that black Americans are innately less capable of succeeding in society, or that growing up in poverty or experiencing discrimination or state abuse creates meaningful barriers to success; the real issue is weaker family structures and a culture that permits or even encourages unlawful or immoral behavior. This argument allows conservatives to accept white supremacy as a societal outcome (even if they don’t necessarily desire it) while at least avoiding being categorically racist. To buttress this claim, they point out the higher rates of achievement of Asian-Americans, who do better scholastically than other groups, and earn more than the average income of other races as a whole (though they still earn less than non-Hispanic whites), and this certainly lends itself to the view that differences in culture can lead to differences in achievement levels. However, even if we accept the culture argument as valid, an understanding of how a group’s culture impacts their prosperity should be based on accurate descriptions of that culture. The just-so stories about black culture—that they don’t value education, that they admire criminality—don’t seem to reflect the actual values of most African Americans.

These kinds of questions deserve to be looked at seriously. Unfortunately, the finer points get absorbed into a climate that is intensely polarized. It seems like many conservatives who oppose racism in an abstract way, become incredulous or indifferent in response to the higher incarceration rates, police brutality, and concentrated levels of extreme poverty that black Americans face, simply because these problems don’t fit into the preconceived narratives of their ideology. As the problems become more and more visible, and as such become more of a challenge to right wing narratives, they are compelled to assume that black Americans are the source of the problem, and to see black issues as an extension of the liberal-left agenda.

Liberals, for their part, contribute to this polemical climate, to the degree that they accept the framing that treats racism as primarily a moral problem, the existence of which is defined as an aggregate of personal opinions and attitudes, instead of looking at race as an institution that corresponds with and is a reflection of existing social conditions. This frames the issue as being about how racist white people are, and to what degree they are aware of their privileges. Hence their responses to these problems are channeled into policing public opinion and nomenclature, and calling for more representational diversity in media and politics. It’s pretty clear that this cosmetic approach has almost no impact on the issues of poverty, education, and incarceration rates in black America. But what it does do is provide an outlet for the moral anxieties of white liberals. In this sense, both white liberals and conservatives seem to be ultimately concerned with feeling better about living with a racial legacy that began generations before we were born, yet still persists. It is certainly a positive step forward that most people seem to support the idea of equality in some way, unlike past generations. For the conservative, that equality exists in the negative freedoms of competition and individual responsibility; for the liberal, it is a function of a more pluralistic and tolerant culture. In both cases, however, the nature of the equality seems to be limited to the avenues of life that interfere with white people’s sense of well-being.

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