Complaints about racism dominate the media discussion of the disparity between black and white success in America. Comedian Chris Rock captures the prevailing sentiment between both races when he tells white audiences, "None of ya would change places with me and I’m rich! That’s how good it is to be white!"
A white author, Tim Wise, gets applause from students on American campuses for talking about "white privilege." Wise’s message is in huge demand — he does 80 speaking engagements a year. When we taped an appearance at Skidmore College, students of all races praised him as "eloquent," "phenomenal," and "so on point."
But among some black intellectuals a new perspective has emerged, one that puts racism and "white privilege" low on the list of problems plaguing black Americans. Shelby Steele’s latest book, "White Guilt," argues that whites do blacks no favors wringing their hands about white privilege.
"I grew up in segregation," Steele said during my interview with him. "So I really know what racism is. I went to segregated school. I bow to no one in my knowledge of racism, which is one of the reasons why I say white privilege is not a problem."
Steele claims, "the real problem is black irresponsibility," which has produced high illegitimacy and high-school dropout rates that limit black progress. "Racism is about 18th on a list of problems that black America faces," he says.
Steele says too many blacks and whites are stuck in the old conversation, as though it was 1950. And he thinks there are questionable motives for this on both sides: "If we can get a big discussion going about what white privilege is, we never have to look at what blacks themselves are doing. And black responsibility. How are we contributing to our own problems? How are we holding ourselves back? Why don’t our children do better in school than they do?"
Whites’ preoccupation with guilt and compensation such as affirmative action is actually a subtle form of racism, Steele says. "One of the things that is clear about white privilege, and so many of the arguments for diversity that pretend to be compensatory, is that they advantage whites. They make the argument that whites can solve [black people’s] problems. … The problem with that is … you reinforce white supremacy all over again. And black dependency."
Steele says that when blacks make racism their central focus, they mire themselves in destructive victimization — and sabotage their own chances for advancement.
"White privilege is a disingenuous idea," he says. In fact, now "there is "minority privilege."
"If I’m a black high school student today, there are white American institutions, universities, hovering over me to offer me opportunities. Almost every institution has a diversity committee. Every country club now has a diversity committee. I’ve been asked to join so many clubs, I can’t tell you. There is a hunger in this society to do right racially, to not be racist. … And I feel rather privileged by it. I don’t have to even look for opportunities, in many cases, they come right to me," he adds.
But there is still racism in America. At ABC News I’ve aired hidden-camera video that showed salesclerks spying on black customers, cab drivers passing blacks to pick up whites, landlords lying to blacks about vacancies, and employers favoring white-sounding names. So don’t whites owe blacks compensation for that and for past injustices?
Steele answers, "You owe us a fair society. There’s not much you can do beyond that. There isn’t anything you can do to lift my life up. I have to do that."
"The fact is," he adds, "we got a raw deal in America. We got a much better deal now. But we can’t access it unless we take … responsibility for getting there ourselves."
He makes good points. White privilege exists, but it’s not the whole story.