PALO ALTO, Calif. - Shelby Steele, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, recalls his childhood epiphany, the exhilarating and terrifying moment when he first recognized himself as "a separate self," with independent thoughts. It was his first sense of personal responsibility.
His telling of it, in an essay in Harper's magazine titled "The Age of White Guilt: And the Disappearance of the Black Individual," ought to be required reading by the justices of the Supreme Court as they ponder the issues of race-based college admissions.
His personal and painful journey into independent thinking as a black man demonstrates how the good intentions behind affirmative action has crippled the development of black individuality, requiring the measurement of accomplishment and failure in the statistics of group quotas and preferences. The individual, "the separate self," doesn't count.
It's one of the unintended consequences of good intentions and goes directly to the case the Supreme Court has taken for this term of court. At the University of Michigan, black, Hispanic and Native American applicants to the college get 20 bonus points just for the accident of their birth. A similar mechanism is in place for admission to the law school, too. Other applicants are held to a higher standard. Whites bringing the suit contend they were turned down not for the content of their achievements - or lack thereof - but solely on account of the color of their skin.
For Shelby Steele, the profound message of civil rights after the legislation of 1965 should have been freedom for all individuals (begin ital) in the group, not freedom as measured by the group. His favorite picket-sign message in the '60s read simply, "I am a man."
When blacks armed themselves with white guilt instead of the power of individual black accomplishment, public discourse resisted obvious truths: "A group is no stronger than its individuals; when individuals transform themselves they transform the group; the freer the individual, the stronger the group; social responsibility begins in individual responsibility."
Such perceptions in 2002 are fraught with challenges of misinterpretation because they run against the arrogant intellectual trends of diversity politics and blackness as group identity. Nevertheless, they go to the heart of the problem of raced-based quotas. Civil rights, which originally aimed toward liberation of the black individual, was linked with goals of assimilation.
Assimilation held out the opportunity for every black person (like every white person) to enjoy personal mastery in the modern world, dependent only on personal abilities and aspirations. Later this rhetoric morphed into groupthink as individual goals were sacrificed to group statistics.
Black leadership (think Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton) exploit white guilt, which instead of liberating blacks locks them in an attitudinal gulag of victimhood, a self-imposed Orwellian blackthink, a psychological woundedness that perpetuates a faith in past oppression as the root of present failure. There is no appeal to individual effort and responsibility.
Even black college students who are admitted without preferences for color and who succeed on their own merit must argue against their personal abilities in defense of group weakness, or they risk being perceived as traitors to their people.
"The greatest problem in coming from an oppressed group is the power the oppressor has over your group," writes Mr. Steele. "The second greatest problem is the power your group has over you."
Mr. Steele and others of his intellectual persuasion, no surprise, have a hard time in the debate over racial politics. Once, when he was asked about the "loneliness of the black conservative," he replied that the worst part of it were attacks on his "inhumanity" and accusations that he doesn't love his own people.
White conservatives who oppose affirmative action, black studies and "diversity" politics suffer similar ignominious epithets, begetting a repressive political debate. That's why the Supreme Court decision to hear a case on affirmative action is especially welcome. Dissenters will be admitted to the mainstream debate in the media, too.
Social attitudes toward blacks by whites and blacks toward themselves have come a long way since the '60s, with still a long way to go. "The age of white guilt, with its myriad corruptions and its almost racist blindness to minority individuality, may someday go down like the age of racism went down," says Shelby Steele, " but only if people take the risk of standing up to it rather than congratulating themselves for doing things that have involved no real risk since 1965." The time to stand up is now.