I conducted my analytical reading of Steele on a flight from Portland, Oregon to Knoxville, Tennessee. His words were a primer for reentry into my hometown and back to the narratives and ideology I rarely hear first hand. I appreciate Steele’s historical perspective and the clarity and sarcasm he employs to make his case. I too have experienced the peer-pressured leaning toward groupthink within my neo-liberal environments; of course this potential pressure exists in all social systems where there are shared values and views. This is made evident by the ultra conservatism found in deregulation of gun ownership in Texas and attempted mask-abolition in Florida public schools.
Ultimately the author is aiming to create a persuasive narrative arch that explains America’s past, present and hopeful future. I agree with his view of slavery being America’s original sin, and need for atonement, but I don’t believe this atonement has been satisfied as he asserts throughout.
The entire book sits on a shaky premise of the evils of white guilt, which Steele defines as “the terror of being seen as racist” (Steele, 1). Though I agree that white guilt alone leads toward unconscious paternalism and upholds a white-savior complex, Steele’s words do not take into account institutional inequity or implicit bias. If white guilt only serves to form an inferiority complex among people of color (POC), the remedy is not to pretend equality exists. He asserts that blacks are now afforded the same opportunity as whites and, if anything, blacks may benefit from racial preference (17). What Steele does not consider in this assertion is that racial preference can be a tactic for maintaining white supremacy. Though racial representation is the first step toward racial justice, it is often a marketable aesthetic unconsciously implemented by historically white institutions to uphold white supremacist ideals and interests.
How does America move forward as one toward healing the divide? Steele argues it is not primarily about policy changes but character evolution or what he calls the pursuit of “The Good” (126-127). This is an idealistic view that assumes racism can be overcome simply by moral effort. It assumes humans are governed primarily by morality, which is also assumed to be aimed in an inclusive direction. Though racism may be lodged in the human heart, it’s generative energy originates in systems. Policies are made by those in power, and those policies tend to disadvantage those not in power. Racist ideals and attitudes constellate to give collective rational and legitimacy to racist policies. The coagulation of policy and attitudes order economies and political structures, which are assumed to be morally “good”. When they go unquestioned, (and are not continually reflected upon) this is how a “Christian” nation can enslave millions of Africans; this is where hypocrisy takes root. Further suggested reading:
- Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery by Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah
- The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race by Willie James Jennings
I argue with Steele that the civil rights movement was not a culmination of atonement, but its genesis. From a Jungian perspective, post 1960s America has engaged in the process of “eating its shadow” or seeing the extent to which the American mythology of freedom is built on the backs of slavery. I don’t believe we are more divided than pre-1960s, but the division is now located within the dominant white culture whereas before it was projected on the “other”: Great Britain, Native American, African Americans, the Soviet Union. Rather than projecting our shadow externally, white America is having to own our personal and collective shadows around race and our upholding of racists systems. Further suggested reading:
- Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature
- Article: Eating the Shadow by Robert Bly
- Article: The U.S.-Soviet Mirror by Jerome S. Bernstein
As we approach the 20th anniversary of September 11th, 2001, I reflect on a time of incredible national unity, unity which drew solid lines between outsider and insider. On September 11th, 2021, white America could not be more dis-integrated, but I see our division as a developmental stage in the collective shadow-eating process moving America toward greater integrity, inclusivity and equity.