Review: White Guilt

Author: Shelby Steele

Publisher: Harper Perennial

I think I first heard about this book about two years ago when a talk show host had the author, Shelby Steele, on to talk about race, the culture, and his book. I remembered the basics of what the book was about – race and culture – and that it was written from a conservative perspective, but that was about it. When I had the chance to get an audio version of the book (something I had been trying to do ever since I’d heard about it. It’s amazing to me what books my library won’t get), I jumped on it. This was an enlightening book, one I look forward to getting a physical copy of and reading through again.

The title and subtitle of this book succinctly define the message of the book: White guilt – how blacks and whites destroyed the promise of the civil rights era. But how do you begin talking about such a history, and in one book to boot! Steele accomplishes that task both convincingly and engagingly. Steele weaves the cultural narrative of race, privilege, and culture around his own life story. Less than a decade older than my father, Steele grew up with parents engaged in the civil rights era, with close ancestors who knew slavery firsthand. But as with every young person who grew up in the civil rights era and the following periods of rebellion known to the Baby boomers, he experienced, embraced, and eventually rejected the many racial and cultural messages presented to him over those decades. All this, both the country’s story and his own narrative, Steele weaves into a cohesive history and message throughout his book.

I think that is what I loved most about Steele’s book, the timespan. This is not an academic book, though Steele himself has worked in academia, specializing not only in race relations and multiculturalism but the study of English. No, Steele framed this as a narrative, a look at his life but in reflection of all that happened in America around him as well. Steele takes an honest look at our country, both the bad and the good, and an honest look at himself and what he lived by and came to believe. Furthermore, though this book was written 15 years ago, it is still applicable today. In fact, I hadn’t even bothered to look at the date it was written and had assumed it was from just a couple of years ago. You’d hardly notice from the text what decade it was from other than the president he refers to.

This book left me much to ponder. I was forced to consider how I actually think about race as opposed to what the culture tells me I should think. In all honestly, I hardly thought about race at all until the 2008 election. But issues surrounding race have come to the forefront of my mind in recent years both because of the current climate of our country and because of my passion for the unity and salvation of all people, thus leading me to write my first book. But the temperature has risen in our culture to a point that something will boil over sooner or later. One cannot stand on the sidelines of this issue. A People should be well informed, not only on the current climate but also on how we got here.

As Steele points out in his book, we’re all to blame for our current state. We have guilt on one side and manipulators on the other. There is self-righteousness on one side, and self-victimized apathy on the other. None of this – not the hate, self-righteousness, guilt, or celebrated victimization – was what the leaders of the civil rights era had hoped for. We have disappointed the hopes and promises of those men and women, just as we disappointed the promises and hopes of the founding era.

So what are we to do? Well, I’d start by praying and paying attention, and reading this book. There is a harsh reality within its pages, but also a path to a better future, the future we had all been promised but refuse to realize, a future of personal responsibility and a culture of peace and unity.

Blessings to you and yours,

~Madelyn Rose Craig

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