"profound desire not to be judged"

It's not every day that I open the Philadelphia Inquirer to an editorial page debate between Andrew Sullivan and a leftie activist. And when on top of that the topic involves collective responsibility, it's the sort of thing I cannot not write a blog post about.

Sullivan and Clarence B. Jones ("former draft speechwriter for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and currently a scholar in residence/visiting professor at the Martin Luther King Jr. Research & Education Institute at Stanford University") are on opposite sides on the merits of Jeremiah Wright's denunciations of white America.

Sullivan's Op-Ed consists of excerpts from his blog posts, including some of what I quoted the other day (that Wright's performance was "a calculated, ugly, repulsive, vile display of arrogance, egotism and self-regard") as well as more:

Wright himself, it seems to me, has become part of what Obama is fighting against: the boomer obsessions with red/blue, white/black, pro-/anti-Americanism. Those need not dominate this election, and Wright's racially divisive and, yes, bitter provocation requires a proportionate response.

This is no longer about cynics trying to associate one man's politics with another's. It is now about Wright attempting to associate himself and some of his noxious views with the likely Democratic nominee. He has given Obama no choice - but he has given him an opportunity. Yesterday, Obama went a long way toward seizing it. But making that repudiation stick will take more work.

Long before the Wright-Obama flap, guilt by association has been a topic of great ongoing interest to me, not only because I abhor holding A responsible for the conduct (and statements) of B, but because similar logic leads people to make massive communitarian judgments -- not of individuals, but of entire groups. This is of course even more unfair than holding A responsible for the conduct of B on the basis of some association, and I think that even if there is such a thing as guilt by association, collective guilt carries things way too far.

Like the Jeremiah Wright he defends, Clarence B. Jones would disagree with me, as he thinks that "white America" (meaning all white people living in America, down to the most recent arrivals from Eastern Europe) is collectively responsible for the bad things which other white people have done. Jones begins by citing with approval a quote from James Baldwin:

A vast amount of energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man's profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white, not to be seen as he is, and at the same time, a vast amount of the white anguish is rooted in the white man's equally profound need to be seen as he is, to be released from the tyranny of his mirror.
Baldwin wrote that in 1962, when the forces of Jim Crow were defending the segregationist system while many Americans looked on in abject horror. (If I remember correctly, I'm pretty sure that there was a profound desire on the part of some white people not to be judged even by those who were white, but never mind. It's "white America" we're talking about.)

Next comes Cornel West:

Cornel West writes that in this essay, Baldwin "spoke the deep truth that democratic individuality demands that white Americans give up their deliberate ignorance and willful blindness about the weight of white supremacy in America. Only then can a genuine democratic community emerge in America."
OK, wait.

What does "democratic individuality" mean? It sounds like the type of indefinable code language used by people who want to win arguments without really having to say what they think. Like the left-wing communitarian term "social justice," which, although indefinable, clearly implies that the legal system should be involved in things like property redistribution and "human rights commissions."

I don't like it when people juxtapose unrelated concepts together and then repeat them until they sound like truisms. ("Structural violence." "Poverty is violence." "Pornography is violence." And of course "Jobs Not Guns!")

And if there is such a thing as "democratic individuality," then what stands in opposition to it? "Undemocratic individuality"? Does that mean the undemocratic individual should not be allowed to vote? (Or is it just code language for Republicans?)

Anyway, whatever "democratic individuality" is, I find it a bit insulting to read that "it" demands that "white Americans" (including, I guess, my white-ass self)give up "their" (meaning my) "deliberate ignorance" and "willful blindness" about the "weight" of "white supremacy in America."

How many mouthfuls (or mouthsful) of this do I need in one morning? Do I have to spend all day? If I am to be scolded for being ignorant, don't I get to hear what I'm ignorant about? I've studied American history in detail, and I think I'm at least as aware of slavery, racism, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Klan, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement as most college graduates -- maybe more. I continue to read and I try to keep an open mind about these and other things. So what am I ignorant and willfully blind about? The weight of white supremacy? How can he be so sure that I'm ignorant and blind about that because I am white?

Or am I only ignorant and blind if I disagree over how the "weight"? Whose scale is to be used in its measurement, and who decides?

Jones argues that the reactions to Wright result from the "24/7 persistence of white racism":

Everyone seems quick to blame or condemn Wright for the possible impact or "political" consequences of his remarks on Obama's candidacy. My view is that whatever those consequences may be, they are fundamentally a result of the pernicious 24/7 persistence of white racism. Most white people (and, perhaps, some African Americans) are uncomfortable with a public discourse about or a reminder of this reality.
OK, I publicly disagreed with Wright's assessments, and frankly, I found his personality extremely unpleasant. But doesn't the fact that I (and countless other bloggers, pundits, and members of the general public) discussed him indicate something other than being "uncomfortable" with "public discourse"? I'd say it indicates quite the opposite. Or might Jones believe that disagreement with Jeremiah Wright indicates an aversion to discourse?

At the risk of sounding like a hopelessly ignorant cracker, let me just venture that people who disagree are not the ones with an aversion to discourse. Those who are uncomfortable with discourse are the ones who simply do not engage in discourse. As to why these silent hordes might be uncomfortable, I don't know. I can't speak for them. Maybe some of them just hate politics and political arguments. It seems like a major stretch to claim that they are all driven by 24/7 racism, but then, Jones is not so much attributing racism to the silent; he's attributing it to those who disagree with Wright.

To Jones, Wright is not the real issue. It's race:

Democratic primary voters have to decide whether Obama can address their concerns with high gas prices, rising foreclosures, absence of affordable health insurance, and the Iraq war. But the underlying issue, uncomfortably presented by Wright, is the reality of race relations in America.

That issue is the 800-pound gorilla in our national living room, which most politicians have been unwilling or too afraid to acknowledge or discuss.

The reactions of the media and political pundits to Wright's remarks are unambiguous reminders that white America remains seriously afflicted with amnesia with respect to its treatment of African Americans throughout most of our history.

There's another mouthful. "The media and political pundits" are "white America" and they suffer from amnesia.

Jones' argument is more illogical than guilt by association. It's collective guilt.

Guilt by birth. Guilt by skin color. Guilt imputed over generations. White America is collectively guilty, which means every white person is guilty. I am not merely responsible for the crimes of my ancestors; I am responsible for the crimes of other people's ancestors. (Unless, of course, I could show that I had been born with a black father, mother or other black ancestor; if so then the hereditary guilt of my white mother or father would be erased.)

This goes beyond guilt by DNA (although it may cross over to an emerging new area called "cultural DNA.")

It is deeply illogical, but to disagree with it is to be against dialogue, and to be in denial. More specifically, to be a state of "deliberate ignorance," "willful blindness" and collective amnesia. And, of course, to be motivated by a "profound desire not to be judged."

I don't want to dimiss Jones's argument out of hand, though. The reason I wrote this post is that I think that maybe the country could use some dialogue on the notion of collective guilt.

For what it's worth, I disagree profoundly with the idea of collective guilt, and I have condemned it in forgotten post after forgotten post after forgotten post. (No, it's not necessarily about race, nor is the idea limited to the left.)

Bear in mind that those forgotten blog posts do not represent any attempt at discourse or dialogue. Rather, they reflect the deliberate ignorance and willful blindness of my amnesia, and spring from my stubbornly profound desire not to be judged.

Which is a long way of saying that they simply reflect my whiteness.

UPDATE: My profound thanks to Glenn Reynolds for linking this post, and a warm welcome to all.

I appreciate the comments.

posted by Eric on 04.30.08 at 10:49 AM


I can see a way to make every one happy at least in one small segment mentioned in your essay.

Jobs making guns. That ought to work.

M. Simon   ·  April 30, 2008 11:09 AM

My ... disaffection with Wright has nothing to do with his race, but with two general areas of his game: he imputes individual characteristics based on group identity, and he's a conspiracy theorist.

The first area violates logic, as you point out: white people committed evil, you am white, therefore you are guilty of evil. He also attributes white financial success to race, while at once encouraging his flock not to chase after financial success.

The second area, his conspiracy theorization, is full of outright lies. He says things he can't know or prove in order to get people to give him money.

Socrates   ·  April 30, 2008 12:06 PM

"you am white" was a typo, not an intended slur, and should have been "you are white".

Socrates   ·  April 30, 2008 12:08 PM

I could comfortably vote for a Colin Powell, a Condoleezza Rice, a Thomas Sowell,...someone who can articulate that they stand for that which is good in this country and understand the damage that the welfare state has wrought on the black family and community...there's no race- or gender- based hatred to be discerned in their writings, speeches or backgrounds...just principled leadership. They would be worthy to be judged on the basis of the content of their character. I couldn't possibly vote for a first-term senator of any race or gender, with no real executive or leadership experience, whose background and inner circle of advisors/mentors/friends also happens to be riddled with race- and gender-based haters and those who feel that they deserve respect, victory at the polls, and reparations in their pockets because of the color of their skin or the contents of their underpants or because they bombed the Pentagon.

doug in colorado   ·  April 30, 2008 3:42 PM

Our protests of non-racism are not believed, folks. Don't bother. This is because the generic accusation against white people by Jones, Wright, and even Baldwin hides the same individual pathology in themselves. (Hmm, that was a little clumsy. Be blunt)

What Jones means is that no non-black person should judge him or AA's in general. He doesn't realise he means that, he doesn't want to mean that, and most black people don't think like that. His claim, quoting Baldwin, that whites don't want to be judged by nonwhites, is true of any group, but much truer of himself than of those he accuses.

How convenient to simply dismiss any potential criticism by 75% of your countrymen by just waving your hand, eh? Come to think of it, the Clarence B. Jones and Jeremiah T. Wrights of the world don't accept criticism from hispanics, asians, indiginous tribes, or other African-Americans, either. Must be nice to get to ignore any potential critics that way.

The diagnosto-meter is beginning to point toward narcissism.

Assistant Village Idiot   ·  April 30, 2008 5:11 PM

At bottom with Jones, as with almost every other person of the far left, is a truly profound and deep self loathing.

Donald Sensing   ·  April 30, 2008 7:18 PM

I hate to think what would happen to the Constitutional protection against "corruption of blood" if these people got their way. I mean, if crimes (by today's standards) committed by notional ancestors more than a hundred years ago can be held against you, who can claim protection against the actual crimes committed by their actual ancestors?

Jeff Medcalf   ·  April 30, 2008 7:33 PM

Can't everybody play this collective guilt game?

Fine, I'm responsible for slavery.

And Mr. Jones is responsible for black crime rates.

Oddly enough, Sen. Obama is responsible for both, due to his parentage. He best get busy.

Joe G.   ·  April 30, 2008 7:35 PM

If white people are guilty, is not Obama half guilty?

hoodie in teh south   ·  April 30, 2008 7:36 PM

It sure would be nice if they would just
speak their minds using plain talk instead
of the whirled peas speak.

Maggie   ·  April 30, 2008 7:44 PM

Let's start calling this what it is. Racism. Not "black racism," not "reverse racism." These people are out-and-out, plain and pure racists. Now, just who are "these people"? I didn't think it was all that many, but the recent voting has made me suspect otherwise. 90%+ voting for the candidate who happens to be black? I'd guess that's a good indicator of a vote along purely racist lines. The conclusion? A very high percentage of our fellow Americans who happen to be of black ancestry also happen to be racists. When they manage to get over that little character flaw, I'll be ready for any dialog they want. Until then, forget it - I'll have no truck with racists of any color or excuse.

tom swift   ·  April 30, 2008 7:45 PM

But Wright is not even black. No more than 30-40% of his ancestry is black, and thus more than half is white.

Foreigners see that in America, black leaders can become wealthy enough to travel in private jets while still claiming to be oppressed. That is remarkable enough. That someone who is not even black can also do this by pretending to be black is even more astounding.

So, the rest of the world asks, are white Americans truly this gullible?

Tum   ·  April 30, 2008 7:58 PM

At bottom with Jones, as with almost every other person of the far left, is a truly profound and deep self loathing.

Projected on others.

Kevin Baker   ·  April 30, 2008 8:02 PM

"Collective guilt" - we do have a use for such a concept and we've exercised it with violence - Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Hamburg. Killing enemy civilians in WWII was a strategy of war that assumed collective guilt although we further justified it with arguments about the targets working in their defense plants. Probably more appropriate was marching German citizens through liberated concentration camps and drafting them in cleanup efforts.

However, unless we are at war with our fellow citizens, I can't see much application in democratic elections.

But maybe that's the point - some commentators ARE at war with their fellow citizens - those white people who don't voluntarily assume adequate amounts of "white guilt."

Whitehall   ·  April 30, 2008 8:13 PM

Eric, I think you're far too tolerant of racism. The simple statement that whites are racist because they are white is as racist a statement as there is. We should not engage racists, we should simply condemn them.

Bo McIlvain   ·  April 30, 2008 8:31 PM

I'm a white guy, and I'd vote for Bill Cosby if I had the opportunity. That dude talks sense.

Ed Minchau   ·  April 30, 2008 10:04 PM

"...has become part of what Obama is fighting against: the boomer obsessions with red/blue, white/black, pro-/anti-Americanism."

Sully actually believes that Obama is fighting against those things? Good God.

CJ   ·  April 30, 2008 10:50 PM

Mr. Jones is right about one thing: I DO have a "profound desire not to be judged" - for things that I didn't do.

Jim Thomason   ·  April 30, 2008 11:15 PM

This is one of those subjects where I could believe in wide-spread conspiracies. Although I do believe racism exists, I do not believe it is as pervasive as one might be led to believe through publicity, writing, and public discussion.

I think the subject that occupies most peoples attention and to which they append the label 'racism' is actually what some of us recognize as 'culturalism'.

I don't know exactly what label to put on the dominant cultural influence in America but I'm sure that Anglo-European Judeo-Christian will do. I'm an old white American of mostly Scots-Irish and Scottish descent and I cannot ever recall believing that all 'cultures' are 'equal'. If one considers some of the major distinct cultures in the world, its obvious that the outcomes and results produced are of great variety and people within those cultures learn to and tend to place great value on their own culture.

Since the United States is composed of people from all over the world from many cultures, the combining of these cultures creates a lot of tension. A common measure of success for people in the world we live in today is wealth and the Anglo-European Judeo-Christian culture has been very successful at creating wealth. Groups who shift or change their cultural inclinations and adapt to the dominant culture (which in some ways can be defined as the most successful) have greater success within that culture than groups who resist such adaptation.

Over the course of the last hundred years, the Left Elite in this country has worked deliberately to try to eliminate the concept that all cultures are not equal and for the last quarter century there has been a major movement to instill in our young people multiculturalism as a core value where all cultures are valued equally.

But since power and wealth are determined in large measure by adapting to the dominant culture, those who do not adapt do not prosper at the same rate as those who do adapt. This has worked against the economic progress expected of African-Americans given the political advances they have made.

Over my lifetime, I have known African-Americans who have adapted perfectly to our culture (they pretty much behave the same as Anglos) and they are invariably successful at rates comparable to the Anglo-Europeans. Some other comments have mentioned public figures who would fit this description and no doubt Barack and Michelle Obama would as well.

Those who have chosen not to adapt but rather to choose actions and behaviors that somehow fit their cultural view that conflicts in some way with the dominant culture suffer the consequences of those decisions. The Left Elite has been successful in attributing these outcomes to 'racism' and, of course, the 'racists' are the Anglo-Europeans. The Left Elite maintains its power position by ensuring that these conditions continue.

I think Barack Obama's serious candidacy has created real threats to all kinds of power structures and who knows what kinds of conspiracies might be taking place right now.

Bob Thompson   ·  May 1, 2008 2:14 AM

Commenter Medcalf is on to something. I'm getting onto this "Collective Guilt" bandwagon. For many years, I lived in south eastern Michigan and faced many close calls with brutal black thugs. I'm going to start holding "Reverend" Wright, Barack Obama and Clarence B. Jones responsible for those brutal black thugs.

Jenn M   ·  May 1, 2008 4:50 AM

I'm not sure what a racist is any more. I used to think it had something to do with hatred and prejudice based on skin color - or worse, cross burning and lynching. Now it seems that racism is found in hot button "code words" like "articulate" or slurs like "lack of experience" and "young". I'm sooooo white I just can't see how devestating using the correct words in a sentence can be sometimes but still, I try to always watch what I say.

Incidently, I think Baldwin's quote would be more accurate if it read:
A vast amount of energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man's profound desire not to be judged a racist by those who are not white, not to be seen as he is assumed to be, and at the same time, a vast amount of the white anguish is rooted in the white man's equally profound need to be seen as he is which is not necessarily racist by virtue of his skin color, to be released from the tyranny of his paranoia of being misjudged.

Lloyd   ·  May 1, 2008 8:10 AM

sorry, the style tags got messed up. ^^

Lloyd   ·  May 1, 2008 8:12 AM

"Killing enemy civilians in WWII was a strategy of war that assumed collective guilt.."

Stop before "that."

One can argue about the particular targets, the effectiveness of the strategy, whether the collateral damage exceded the impact on production of war materiel, or even whether the bombings were crimes. I remain unconvinced that the bombings were solely an attempt to kill civilians.

MarkD   ·  May 1, 2008 10:32 AM

It sounds to me more like Wright and Jones suffer from a "profound desire not to be judged by those who are not [black]".

I've been told before that as a white dude I can't understand Baldwin, but I have always found him to be both unflinching in describing the circumstances of his time as well as deeply sympathetic, understanding and hopeful of the human conditions and motivations that had lead to those circumstances. It always sticks in my craw what I read the words of men such as Baldwin or King used to defend and support the corrosive claptrap put forth by the likes of Wright.

submandave   ·  May 1, 2008 11:02 AM

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