Raise the issue of race in America and the topic will likely lead to a heated discussion. The same will happen if you read Shelby Steele’s “White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era.” Steele, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, was invited on “Today” to discuss his book. Read an exerpt:
Sometimes it is a banality — something a little sad and laughable — that makes you aware of a deep cultural change. On some level you already knew it, so that when the awareness comes, there is more recognition than surprise. Yes, of course, things have changed.
So it was not long after the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal began that it occurred to me that race had dramatically changed the terms by which political power is won and held in America. When I woke on that January morning to the sight of President Clinton wagging his finger on the morning news and saying "I never had sex with that woman," I thought two things: that he was lying and that he would be out of office within two weeks. It was a month later that I realized not only that he might survive his entire term but also that his survival, even for a month, already spoke volumes about the moral criterion for holding power in the United States.
I came to this realization on a drive back to northern California from Los Angeles with the scandal keeping me company on the car radio. A commentator said that President Eisenhower would not have survived a single day had he been caught in circumstances similar to President Clinton's. Having grown up in the fifties, I thought this was probably true, and this is when the deep cultural shift became clear.
I seemed to remember — in the way that one vaguely remembers gossip about the famous —someone once telling me that Eisenhower occasionally used the word "nigger" on the golf course. Maybe he did; maybe he didn't. In that era we blacks fully assumed that whites in all stations of life used this word at least in private. However, I cannot imagine that a reporter in that era, overhearing Eisenhower speak in this way, would have seen it as anything more than jocular bad taste. Certainly no one would have questioned his fitness to hold office. Yet, if an affair with a young female intern had exploded in the national media, with details of secret retreats off the Oval Office, thongs, cigars, etc., there is little doubt that 1950s America would have judged him morally unfit to hold power. It was taken for granted in that gray-flannel era that public trust had to be reciprocated by a rigorous decorum around sexual matters, even if that decorum was the very face of hypocrisy.
Yet, on that long drive talk-show callers passionately argued that private indiscretions were no bar to public trust, that what Clinton did in his private life had no bearing on his ability to run the country. It was unapologetic moral relativism — the idea that sexual morality is relative only to the consent of the individuals involved, and that there is no other authority or moral code larger than their choice. In the voices of many callers you could hear this expressed as a kind of pride. Relativism spares us from far worse sins, they seemed to be saying, those greatest of all sins for my baby-boomer generation — judgmentalism and hypocrisy.
All this drew me back to my college days in the sixties when we would sit around in the student union, smoking French cigarettes and arguing that monogamy was a passé bourgeois convention. Of course it was an adolescent argument of perfectly transparent wishful thinking, since beneath all the big ideas — at least for us boys — was the fervent hope that the girls would actually believe it. There was a lot of lust in this kind of thinking — lust everywhere in baby-boomer thinking — and over time it became part of the generational license that opened the way for a sexual revolution. But it was jarring these many decades later — so deep now into adult life — to hear such thinking hauled out in defense of the president of the United States.
But then something occurred to me. I wondered if President Clinton would be defended with relativism if he had done what, according to gossip, Eisenhower was said to have done. Suppose that in a light moment he had slipped into a parody of an old Arkansas buddy from childhood and, to get the voice right, used the word "nigger" a few times. Suppose further that a tape of this came to light so that all day long in the media — from the unctuous morning shows to the freewheeling late-night shows to the news every half hour on radio — we would hear the unmistakable presidential voice saying, "Take your average nigger ... "
Today in America there is no moral relativism around racism, no sophisticated public sentiment that recasts racism as a mere quirk of character. Today America is puritanical rather than relativistic around racism, and if Clinton had been caught in this way, it is very likely that nothing would have saved him. The very legitimacy of the American democracy in this post–civil rights era now requires a rigid, if not repressive, morality of racial equality. A contribution of the civil rights movement was to establish the point that a multiracial society cannot be truly democratic unless social equality itself becomes a matter of personal morality. So a president's "immorality" in this area would pretty much cancel his legitimacy as a democratic leader.
The point is that President Clinton survived what would certainly have destroyed President Eisenhower, and Eisenhower could easily have survived what would almost certainly have destroyed Clinton. Each man, finally, was no more than indiscreet within the moral landscape of his era (again, Eisenhower's indiscretion is hypothetical here for purposes of discussion). Neither racism in the fifties nor womanizing in the nineties was a profound enough sin to undermine completely the moral authority of a president. So it was the good luck of each president to sin into the moral relativism of his era rather than into its puritanism. And, interestingly, the moral relativism of one era was the puritanism of the other. Race simply replaced sex as the primary focus of America's moral seriousness.
Excerpted from "White Guilt," by Shelby Steele. Copyright 2006, Shelby Steele. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.
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