The 1950s may have seemed stifling to some, but to many they were happy days. In 1957, an astonishing 96 percent of Americans told Gallup that they were very or fairly happy. Then innocence quickly faded. What happened?
Intellectuals such as Shelby Steele and Joshua Mitchell have explored what the loss of the moral high ground represented to the white, Protestant, Eastern establishment in the 1960s (and in the 1960s, the establishment was all those things), and the related toll it took on all American institutions and traditions. The Vietnam War, in the eyes of many, became a bad enough indictment of the inner circle of men who designed our involvement in Indochina: a bright, intellectual set out of Massachusetts that committed the sin of hubris by allowing itself to be called “the best and the brightest” and their surroundings as “Camelot.” But the civil rights movement revealed a bigger blemish; it required an outright admission of guilt, one that impeached history. From that moment, the establishment has been on the defensive, seeing institutions, traditions, and mores crater. Fixing slavery had cost more than 600,000 lives. Fixing the problem of segregation meant accepting that white America had looked the other way while segregation, disenfranchisement, and lynchings took place. And that meant owning up to a sin.
The loss of moral authority could have been temporary, and that authority could have been regained by the inception, finally, of color-blind governance.
As Steele told NPR in a 2006 interview, one of the “unintended consequences of the civil rights victories in the mid-60’s was what I call white guilt. By that, specifically, what I mean is that when America had to acknowledge the wrongs of the past—that for four centuries it had, in fact, oppressed black Americans, anytime you acknowledge a wrong, one of the prices you pay for that is a loss of moral authority.” Steele added, in a 2019 op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, that from the 1960s flowed a conviction that “America’s magnificent founding principles were not enough to ensure a free and morally legitimate society.” He goes on in his 2015 book Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country: “In the 1960s, America underwent what can only be described as an archetypal ‘fall’—a descent from innocence into an excruciating and inescapable self-knowledge.”8 The Vanity Fair writer Bryan Burrough puts it this way: “Then, as if overnight, things changed. More than anything else, it was the pictures young Americans began seeing on those televisions in 1960—of stoic Southern blacks dragged away from all-white lunch counters, of black protesters being beaten bloody by redfaced Southern deputies.”
The loss of moral authority could have been temporary, and that authority could have been regained by the inception, finally, of color-blind governance; Americans of all colors could have left behind the segregationist past and shared moral authority not as a function of their race but as a function of their deeds and character. Black Americans, now free of legal discrimination, could begin the work of joining mainstream society. In fact, some historians of this period have remarked that, in the South, where blacks did perceive some progress, there was some reconciliation. The riots, looting, and destruction that continued after the Civil Rights Act was signed into law took place almost entirely in the North and West.
The promise of color-blind governance was extinguished just as instantly, when activists who wanted to transform the country in other ways seized the opportunity and began to manipulate the acknowledgment of past wrongs.
Many things thwarted resolution nationwide, however. The racist attitudes of many whites, especially (but not only) in the South, were not snuffed out overnight on June 2, 1964, when Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. The fact that the abject treatment of blacks by far too many whites continued must understandably have stung many blacks. But the promise was never that change would come overnight in people’s hearts; the promise had been that color consciousness would be taken out of public policy decision-making.
That had been the capstone of years, if not decades, of struggle. The core principle of the civil rights era was that discriminating on the basis of race was evil. But this was almost instantly reversed, and the promise of color-blind governance was extinguished just as instantly, when activists who wanted to transform the country in other ways seized the opportunity and began to manipulate the acknowledgment of past wrongs.
Several steps were taken while crossing this Rubicon in the late 1960s, but a significant stride that gave this demand expression came in sociologist Charles V. Hamilton’s 1968 essay for the New York Times, “An Advocate of Black Power Defines It.” Hamilton wrote:
It must be clear by now that any society which has been color conscious all its life to the detriment of a particular group cannot simply become color-blind and expect that group to compete on equal terms. Black Power clearly recognizes the need to perpetuate color consciousness, but in a positive way—to improve a group, not to subject it.
This became writ. Soon, the white elite, because of guilt or fear of societal breakdown, or a mixture of both, accepted Hamilton’s rejection of color-blind policy making. McGeorge Bundy, the head of the Ford Foundation, wrote in The Atlantic in 1977 that “To get past racism, we must here take account of race. There is no other present way.” The essay was so impactful that this line was repeated nearly verbatim by Justice Harry Blackmun in his concurring opinion in the landmark 1978 Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case, which first authorized the racial preferences of affirmative action. “In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race,” wrote Blackmun.
The white guilt born in the 1960s has metastasized in the 2020s into a self-flagellating “allyship” that has whites ritualistically denouncing their country, its history, and its institutions.
Sixties activists did something else audacious and succeeded again because of the manipulation of white guilt: they expanded the groups to which the law would now show favor, the new minorities. They did this by drawing a false analogy between blacks and all the other categories. The activists pushing this new view pretended that the members of the newly invented categories, such as Hispanics or Asian Americans, or all thirty two genders that were to come decades later in New York, had suffered as much as blacks in the South. People who wanted to draw the analogy to white women spoke of “Jane Crow.”
It was all false, but it worked. The white establishment bought it either because they panicked when they saw the riots, or out of white guilt. Either way, they gave in to the activists’ demands. The activists who promoted the identity categories and the feelings of victimization then purposely alienated people in these groups from America, whose history, institutions, traditions, and Founders were to be held in contempt.
The 1960s thus opened wounds that festered, and the infection spread to the whole national body. The patient is in intensive care half a century later, as the white guilt born in the 1960s has metastasized in the 2020s into a self-flagellating “allyship” that has whites ritualistically denouncing their country, its history, and its institutions, which they blame for a supposedly continued racism that lives no longer in the statutes but now in the unacknowledged subconscious of the nation.
To Mitchell, the guilt came forth on both sides of the Atlantic, as citizens of the 1960s were “haunted by the historical wounds their nations have authored—in America, the wound of slavery; and in Europe, the wounds of colonialism.”12 In an email to the author, Mitchell expands:
Guilt is no small part of the answer. Christianity no longer brought atonement, just happy talk. So, the left offered a deal: renounce your nations, your churches, and your heternormative [sic] families, and we will set you free of your guilt. That’s where we are today. In the early years of the civil rights movements, black students wanted to have the right to read Shakespeare in college along with white students. Today, identity politics wants to erase Shakespeare.
The admission of guilt extracted from the American body in the 1960s not only helped pave the way for the betrayal of the civil rights movement’s color-blind premises, but also gave justification for violence in the United States and in Europe and her colonies. Many of our 1960s radicals fed off the anti-colonial movement occurring at the time, taking inspiration from the work of many writers and revolutionaries, but especially that of the Martinican intellectual Frantz Fanon. His slogan “by any means necessary” would become a meme repeated again and again by men such Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and Noel Ignatiev. The individuals and movements that were formed toward this end have had a direct impact on Black Lives Matter.
Again, all of this was the inverse of the truth. The American individuals and institutions that admitted to past sins did so because they aspired to live by the nation’s loftiest founding values, demonstrating the vacuity of the charges that all of America is rotten. The promise of “all men are created equal” sustained men from Jefferson to Lincoln to King. But if we need to understand why we have BLM in the early twenty-first century, the 1960s and the manipulation of guilt is the right place to start looking.
Read more in BLM: The Making of a New Marxist Revolution.