Black Wisdom Matters: Shelby Steele on White Guilt’s Destruction of the Civil Rights Movement

Romans 5:12 Just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned.”

“There is an analogy made between ‘white guilt’ and the Christian definition of ‘original sin’ that is useful in helping us understand what is happening in America today. Original sin is a sin that can never be totally redeemed, everyone is born with it, and you can’t get rid of it. White guilt is similar. Once you are born white, you have that moral stain upon you from America’s past racist history, and you have it for life.”

This quote is from Coleman Hughes, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. He is one of several black intellectuals speaking out more frequently on the state of race relations in America today. To help us understand his analogy of between white guilt and “original sin”, let’s make sure we understand original sin.

Our verse this week is one of the defining verses in the Bible on original sin. It was through Adam’s distrust of God’s instructions, choosing instead to listen to Satan and do the opposite of what God told him, that he and all mankind have the “moral stain” of sin against God. As Adam’s descendants, we are all guilty.

But Hughes is wrong. Original sin can be totally redeemed, just not by us. We created the problem, but we are not the solution. And just in case one thinks it’s not fair to be guilty of what Adam did, this rebellion against God in the Garden is the same rebellion against God throughout history – we refuse to trust in Him.

It’s that prideful attitude of trusting in ourselves over trusting in God, that He alone knows what is best for us. As the prophet Jeremiah said, “Cursed is the man who trusts in man, who makes flesh his strength. Whose heart departs from the Lord” (Jeremiah 17:5). We reject God – our hearts depart from Him.

But Jesus Christ has redeemed us from the curse of original sin: “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). The moral stain of original sin can and has been redeemed – through the achievement of Jesus Christ on the Cross! There is a way for 100% redemption.

But can “white guilt” be redeemed? Hughes, and many others, see white American’s inbred sense of guilt over being associated with America’s racist past against black Americans as similar to original sin in the Bible.

Can this moral stain of ‘white guilt’ ever be redeemed? For the answer, let’s turn to another highly regarded black intellectual, Shelby Steele, for a clear definition of “white guilt”. In an NPR interview for his book ‘White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era’, he defined ‘white guilt’: “An unintended consequence of the civil rights victories in the mid-60’s was what I call white guilt. America acknowledged that for four centuries it had oppressed black Americans. Anytime you acknowledge a wrong, a price you pay for that is a LOSS OF MORAL AUTHORITY.

White guilt is not a guilt of conscience. It’s not something where you feel guilty about what happened to black Americans. Rather it is the fact that in relation to black Americans you LACK MORAL AUTHORITY.

You are stigmatized as a racist because you acknowledged your nation practiced racism explicitly for four centuries. And now, white Americans want to prove that they are not racist. A good example is when people say one of my best friends is black. Why do you say that? Because you’re really trying to say I’m not a racist. I’m not what I’m stigmatized as. This pressure that comes to whites from this stigmatization has had a tremendous impact on our culture, our politics, our public policy in many, many ways.”

Why does Steele feel whites continue to feel guilty over what happened centuries earlier?: “Racism is often used as the power we (Black Americans) have from the MORAL CAPITAL of our history. White America feels they have lost any moral authority, while many black leaders today know that the stigma of racism is their greatest weapon to maintain their moral capital won through the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  

We can never as a nation put the past sins of racism behind us until ‘white guilt” is eradicated. Only the gift of grace – a willingness to forgive – can do that: “By God’s grace you have been saved through faith in Him, and not by what you do. It is God’s gift to you” (Ephesians 2:8). That grace came to us because Christ was willing to redeem you and I, black and white, 100% from any guilt by trusting in what He did for you. It is a tragic thing, to live in a country founded on the very biblical principle of redemption through grace, to then forget or reject it when grace is needed most to heal our nation.

The Evidence of Faith’s Substance – Article #454

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