When the telephone rang I looked up from my newspaper, which was awash with news of the Trent Lott fiasco. The call was from the daughter of a former housekeeper. I had known her from the day she was born. She was 34 now, the mother of a son, a daughter and a new granddaughter. She said she was calling to inquire about my family, whom she hadn't seen in years, and wanted to wish us a Merry Christmas. I waited to hear her ask for money. To my ultimate chagrin and embarrassment, she didn't.
She was working, and receiving child support from the children's father. Later that day, I wrote her a note and enclosed a check to buy a Christmas present for her granddaughter. Had she asked for money, I would have sent a similar check, but grudgingly. I was pleased to send a gift for the baby when I would have been mildly irritated to send a handout.
Our conversation was an exchange of information, commonplace during the holidays between people who have not seen each other in a long time. The conversation turned out to be a respectful exchange between equals.
I thought about this several days later upon reading an essay by Shelby Steele in the Wall Street Journal arguing that the furor over Trent Lott's infamous birthday toast to Strom Thurmond was embedded in a specific kind of racism that grows from a lack of imagination that afflicts both black and white.
"The great anxiety for minorities of color is that those in the majority cannot or will not achieve full human identification with them, and therefore will not bond with them as equals," wrote Shelby Steele, who is black, a conservative and a scholar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
I understood the personal embarrassment I felt when the young woman had not asked for money. If she had, and if I had sent a check, I would have been a patronizing white lady, the Lady Bountiful expressing pity for her plight, assuaging "white guilt." By responding to natural curiosity about one another's family, we engaged in a conversation of equals, structured by manners that had nothing to do with the color of our skins.
Trent Lott's "gaffe" grew out of his Southern upbringing, which in a shallow way he thought he had left behind. The old prejudices popped out because they had remained close to the surface. His apologies on black television and his conversion to "across the board" affirmative action were thrust upon him for political reasons, but without much difficulty because such affirmative action programs, however well intended, grow out of a spirit of guilty patronizing of blacks.
"A vacuum of white guilt as wide as the Grand Canyon has opened for (Trent Lott), and he will never again see civil rights, welfare, judgeships or education with a clear eye," argues Shelby Steele. "He will now live in a territory of irony where his redemption will be purchased through support for racialist social reforms that make a virtue of the same segregationist spirit that has brought him low."
Shelby Steele, like Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams and Ward Connerly, are black conservatives whose ideas are much maligned by the likes of the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who rail against opposition to affirmative action whether the opposition comes from black or white. These black conservatives seek a democracy of merit and responsibility as the way for blacks to prosper in America, so they're called Uncle Toms or Oreo cookies ("black on the outside, white on the inside"), or worse.
Quotas in the name of "diversity," these black conservatives argue, exchange one kind of prejudice for another, and hurt all blacks and whites because it tinges black accomplishments with white suspicion. ("We know how you got into the University of Michigan.") Black studies and black-theme dormitories are segregationist, albeit voluntary, because they condescend to appeal to racial and cultural differences, often stereotypical, and recreate a ghetto of ideology.
Trent Lott has become a diversion, who must go as the Republican leader in the Senate because punishing him means bending his rhetoric to the support of a liberal agenda that is destructive first of all to the interests of blacks, and thus destructive to the interests of all of us.
White liberals like throwing more money at bad inner city schools because it relieves their patronizing guilt; the fact that the money will be wasted and the schools will remain bad is of no personal consequence because they can flee with their children to suburban (and mostly white) schools, or pay for expensive private (and mostly white) schools.
The public schools in the nation's capital are dreadful, and some of the worst public schools in America. They're nearly altogether black, and the government spends more than $10,000 per child. Imagine what black families, who want their children to get an education just as good as the education that congressmen in the (mostly white) suburbs want for their children, could do with that $10,000 every year.
Racism is repugnant, and like the devil it wears many disguises. The Trent Lott fiasco emphasizes the racism of the past, which was real enough and bad enough, but has no power to harm in the present. The racism of white liberal guilt does, because it limits the opportunities for blacks in the here, the now, and in the future.