The Pathology Of Innocence: White Guilt, Racism, And Intersectionality
“Innocence is ignorance.” ~ Kierkegaard
While watching Alan Parker’s classic film “Mississippi Burning”, a cast led by acting legends Willem Dafoe and Gene Hackman, I was struck with a weird feeling that I’ve been grappling with for the past few months now. For those who might not share my zeal for 80’s blockbusters, the movie is loosely based on the murder of three young civil rights workers by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964 and the corresponding FBI investigation that subsequently followed. In the film, an unlikely tag-team of noble federal agents, having come to terms with the natural wickedness of racism along with the rest of the civilized world, valiantly trek down to Mississippi to condemn the unwashed southern masses who were still clasping onto racism like it were an ancient heirloom — to clean up their desperately backwards ways. What disturbed me was not simply the egregious acts of racism so abhorrently displayed in the film, nor of the system of racial power in the south that allowed for such acts to remain ubiquitous for far too long. There was nothing novel in these images to me, considering how regularly we’re inundated with the grim history of American racial terror growing up in the States (virtually every high school student has a mental highlight reel of segregation and civil rights protest images spring ready to activate). What really disturbed me was how good the movie made me feel. As a liberal myself from the rolling hills of the great Northeast, a Yankee in my own right, I was glowing with indignant joy as I watched our sophisticated Northern statesmen overthrowing the heinous power of these depraved backcountry simpletons — the belligerent droves of good old boys who still enjoyed themselves a good lynching with their sweet tea — blowing the lid off this long-hidden malevolence with all of their vociferous Yankee glory and the full breadth of the state at their disposal. It was beyond satisfying.
Of course, films of this magnitude do not arise in a symbolic vacuum, as we unconsciously project our deepest longings onto the screen with little discretion, save that of our dreams. The underlying motif of a film of this nature can be uncovered upon minimal investigation, given that investigation takes oneself into account: We watch it to feel innocent. To feel blameless. To feel that we are on the right side of history, readily able to derive an irreproachable moral entitlement simply by mentally identifying with a historical moment that we personally had nothing to do with. The pictures on the screen confirm our sense of innocence, embellish a misplaced feeling of moral authority, and effectively dissociate us from the shrill ugliness of our history. We can be free from the sins of the past, if only for a couple hours, by transferring our latent feelings of guilt over to a parasitic group of detestable “Others”, those mindlessly racist country bumpkins that just can’t seem to let go of the good ol’ days. This makes me think of Solzhenitsyn’s oft repeated though rarely digested quote from The Gulag Archipelago speaking on the dual nature of good and evil: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” Indeed, there is a likewise connection between guilt and innocence, as the dividing line between these two forces cut through the human heart with the same penetrating depth.
The Dark Side Of Innocence
As I’ve been studying the issue of race in America, the role of guilt and innocence has reared its head more often than I ever would’ve guessed. It seems obvious to me now that white racism, from the beginning, was founded on a pathology of innocence stemming from a deeply held belief in the purity of the white race, though I would not have derived that from old segregation era footage (those mobs didn’t look very innocent to me). Whites saw in Blacks their own intractable vulnerability, the dark side of the human condition, their own inner animal crawling out of the slimy membrane of nature in all of its fleshly repulsiveness that reminds us of our own carnal mortality. Out of the image of Black inferiority, Whites carved out a superior angelic image of themselves to rationalize their worldly status — and herein lies the pathology of innocence. Whites needed to believe in their own innocence to justify their use of power over Blacks, who thus became guilty by default. When Blacks sought to rise up in American life, whether to grab a sandwich at a Whites Only deli or buy a housing loan during the Red Lining period, the presumed innocence of Whites justified deferring Blacks from their natural rights. It was considered an impropriety for Blacks to impose upon the shining immaculacy of White Society. The danger in believing in our own innocence lies in the relationship between innocence and power, in that a feeling of innocence always precedes the acquisition of power. Human beings will not pursue power unless we first believe in our own innocence, while intense feelings of guilt make us question our entitlement to power. Innocence equals power, and guilt equals powerlessness. Shelby Steele, a black author who has received far more criticism than he rightly deserves, encapsulates the union between innocence and power in his renowned work The Content Of Our Character: “The racial struggle in America has always been primarily a struggle for innocence. White Racism from the beginning has been a claim of white innocence and therefore of white entitlement to subjugate blacks.. Both races instinctively understand that to lose innocence is to lose power. To be innocent someone else must be guilty, a natural law that leads the races to forge their innocence on each other’s backs.. You cannot feel guilty toward anyone without giving away power to them.”
Human evil is rooted in an unquestioned and unquestionable belief in our own innocence, as we remain willfully blind to what reality is telling us to the contrary. In the pursuit of innocence, we start to notice guilt all around us — for the innocence of one implies the guilt of another. It’s worth noting how the Germans of the 1930s Nazi era, contrary to popular belief, saw themselves as an “oppressed” group — the innocent victims of an unjust history. The collective feeling of being wrongfully marginalized, which was not an unreasonable feeling to have after their defeat in World War 1 and the consequent recession that engulfed Germany in despair, ultimately led them to indicting the entire Jewish people for their alleged role in corrupting the nation. The Jews were considered the oppressors by virtue of their economic status and were stereotyped as a whole despite what individual interactions might have conveyed about them — not dissimilar to broad stroke claims we might see about “white privilege” or something of that likeness. The moral power that comes from the proclamation of innocence needs a guilty party to assert that power over. For instance, when we call someone a “racist” we are implicitly declaring that we are not a racist, we are clean, we are innocent, and can assert power over you on a whim. Shelby Steele calls this Seeing For Innocence — “The use of others as a means to our own goodness and superiority”- where we derive a feeling of innocence through outward projection, pointing our finger at those we deem morally inferior. This also happened to be the underlying psychology that perpetuated white racism. Of course, this conveys an incredibly naive view of what evil actually looks like. When we think of American racism the image aroused in the mind is that of an unbounded hatred towards Blacks seemingly for the pure cathartic thrill of it, a mob of Whites standing around gleefully while the body of a young Black boy hangs from a tree above. But what we don’t see is the assumption of innocence that preceded their hideous actions and inwardly justified such consummate malevolence. Across the spectrum of human evil, a declaration of innocence ubiquitously appears.
Innocence Comes In All Shapes And Sizes
In what way does the pathology innocence play itself out in modern culture?
Consider, for example, the lurking ethic of intersectionality — a staple of modern feminism that has steadily percolated out from progressive academia into mainstream culture. Intersectionality is defined as follows: “An analytic framework that attempts to identify how interlocking systems of power impact those who are most marginalized in society”. This could be crudely paraphrased like so: break people down into various groups — whether by race, gender, ethnicity, etc. — measure their level of oppression according to the intersections of their various group identities (i.e. Black/Female, Gay/Female, White/Male, etc.) and add them up to determine their level of victimhood in relation to their level of privilege. Moral merit is then allocated based on our presumed victimization in contrast to our presumed privilege — privilege being bad and victimization being good. Through this lens, victimology is power. The more victimized we are, the more innocent we must be. The more privileged, the less innocent.
Could this spectrum of intersecting victim identities be incisively looked upon as anything other than a hierarchy of innocence — with the postulation that our particular degree of marginalization designates a corresponding degree of moral authority? When we are calling out someone’s white male privilege are we not simply diminishing their purported innocence and moderating their entitlement to power, with the underlying implication that we ourselves must harbor a greater innocence and bear a deeper entitlement to power? This is not to say people are not victimized, only that the ideological filter that illuminates victimization above all else is driven by a need to claim innocence — and in effect claim power. If we are under the impression that this attitude is confined to the outlying credulity of university sociology departments, consider the recent tweet sent out by potential 2020 presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand who emphatically stated that “Our Future Is Female” and “Intersectional” — an obvious indicator of where she beckons her electoral power. The intersectional framework ultimately produces a cultural hierarchy of innocence, solely predicated on group identity, that scorns privilege and rewards victimology — formulating a rather hapless incentive structure that exchanges fragility for power. It’s safe to assume, given the power-seeking nature of human beings, that any ideology which sanctifies innocence must draw on a deeper motivation in the hearts of its disciples — namely the acquisition of power. Whether such power is righteous or destructive is a question of practical application, but the results would seem to speak for themselves. The pathology of innocence transmutes victimization into power.
Perhaps no media event in recent memory has spurred more controversy than the Christine Blasey Ford/ Brett Kavanagh debacle, where the former accused the latter during a congressional hearing of a sexual assault case stretching back 36 years in response to Kavanaugh’s supreme court nomination. However we may feel about the efficacy of the accusation, certain elements of the media frenzy ought to be examined more closely. Kavanaugh’s nomination was clearly symbolic, and symbols play a major role in the construction of human perception. His rise to power animated the trauma of millions of women across the country, who witnessed his judicial ascendance as a culmination and symbolic representation of male dominance over women — likely seeing this event through the lens of their own painful experiences. This is not necessarily an unhealthy or abnormal reaction to have, especially if we have experienced some form of trauma in our lives from a sexual encounter, but it’s important to recognize this hearing was not meant to morally condemn Judge Kavanaugh but to politically condemn him. This was not a legal hearing or a matter of criminal justice, where Kavanaugh’s actions could be legally penalized based on Ford’s testimony and the evidence at hand. No, this was a congressional hearing to determine the reach of Kavanaugh’s political power based on the symbolic representation of his hastily alleged transgression. In other words, the personal was arrantly infused with the political. The personal experience of millions, which bears little conjunction to the man’s quality of jurisdiction or professional record, was used to vindicate a political power move — notwithstanding the slew of ethical violations involved in trial by public opinion.
From an outside perspective, this looked like a collective clamoring for innocence in the pursuit of some form of political leverage. Again, there might not be anything wrong with that if our innocence is genuine, but history has shown us the fine line between proclaimed innocence and genuine innocence. Christine Blasey Ford was the archetypal victim, and Judge Brett Kavanaugh was the archetypal victimizer. It didn’t seem to matter greatly whether these accusations were true or could be proven true, considering in hindsight that one of the accusers admitted to outright lying about their allegation. What mattered was the bigger feeling we experienced under the spell of this narrative, this symbolic gesture of innocence. ‘if we are a victim, or claim to be defending a victim, then we must surely be innocent’ — was the reasoning that carried this event. But such reasoning is patently naive, and denies our own hidden need for power. It would also deny the harsh reality of sexual assault, putting women in still more dange. Consent itself is not a salient defense against sexual harm. Even with the best of intentions, we can still do harm to each other in those secluded sexual encounters so heedlessly pervasive in modern hook-up culture.
Let’s look at another example. In response to the UN’s recently released Special Report on the impending dangers of Climate Change, I’ve been seeing a number of hyperbolic articles being posted on social media entitled to the effect of “Climate Genocide Is Coming. It’s Actually Worse Than That” — writings which offer almost nothing in terms of tenable solutions. Emily Atkins of The New Republic has proclaimed that “There is no logical reason to be optimistic of the planet’s survival”, a claim which would contend that any and all efforts to ensure our planet’s survival would be futile. Putting all concern for Climate Change aside for a moment, there are two things I wonder when I see such sensationalist drivel: What is happening in the mind of the writer who espouses this kind of climate fatalism, and what do people really get out of showing off these articles on social media?
Imagine for a moment, a New York Times columnist writing a piece which would proliferate the impression that there is no hope for humanity — while sitting in their warm Manhattan office moments before walking their kids home from school or taking their partner out for lunch or grabbing a beer with friends. Does such a person really believe in what they are saying, as though it were an active reality felt in the body, or is it merely a theoretical syllogism to vent their frustrations and further carve out their career? It’s hard to say with any certainty, but it’s suffice to suggest that climate fatalism is not a very conducive attitude to wholeheartedly embrace while facing very real and specific problems that need to be solved in order to continue the life of our species. Even more perplexing is the question of what people have to gain from sharing these fruitless apocalyptic declarations in their online communities, which invariably comes across as a kind of scare mongering in furtherance of social and political clout. “The world is ending, so vote Blue!”. Even on exceptionally pressing issues like Climate Change, the pathology of innocence looms large.
I believe that we share this kind of melodramatic climate change commentary because it signals to the people around us just how righteous and interminable our concern for the environment really is — whether or not we take steps to confront these issues in our daily life. In essence, it signals our innocence in the face of a supposedly brutal capitalist system that doesn’t give mother nature a fair shake. This could be an honest concern, but I can’t help but wonder why such moral outrage is not put to better use than unmitigated virtue signaling expressed valiantly through a computer screen. This exemplifies yet another circumstance where claiming an unearned innocence has us walking a sketchy path, for there is an opportunity cost in climate fatalism that deters responsive action and elicits unnecessary political strife — making it steadily more difficult to achieve bipartisan agreement on important policies around climate action. It happens to be the case that 70% of the country believe that climate change is real and should be met with some form of action, according to a recent Yale study, and a full 85% support funding research for renewable energy. The obsession with achieving innocence creates a ripple effect, where our strident proclamation of innocence indirectly imposes a stamp of guilt on other people who may very well be our allies. The innocence of one must coincide with the guilt of another, as a natural law, and if it is an unearned innocence that is being claimed for oneself then it will be an undeserved guilt that is projected onto the masses.
It was found in a recent study by the organization “More In Common” that the political subgroup which most values political correctness is the whitest, wealthiest, and most educated group of any other. This was not a surprise to me, as my experience has told a similar story. To put it bluntly, college students talk about privilege so much because they have the most of it. From this, my feeling is that the guilt which accompanies a higher concentration of privilege, stemming from the knowledge of our unearned advantages, elicits a more entrenched need to alleviate those guilty feelings. Hence all of the “privilege talk” we see on college campuses and within liberal circles. To be clear, this isn’t precisely the kind of guilt we feel towards something we have done wrong or can do something to ameliorate, rather it is more of a moral panic or a metaphysical terror that flows from the expanding awareness of the horrible conditions of life outside of our bubble. The obsession with calling out privilege is really an obsession with claiming innocence, for with more privilege comes more “guilt”, and with a deeper feeling of guilt comes a more burning desire to reclaim our innocence. For the record, this is all pretty normal and human, a misdirected reaction to the sorrows of the world in defiance of our own coddling. But privilege is nothing to be ashamed of, in light of the observation that suffering seems to be distributed quite equitably across the board — cutting through class, gender, and racial divisions right into the heart of the human experience. The problem with the Intersectional narrative — this way of looking at people through the lens of their group identity in accordance with the historical oppression of that group — is that it ignores the most obvious fact: everyone is suffering all around us, all of the time. We would have to be completely blinded by egotism not to recognize something so blatantly obvious, and this compulsion towards egotistical blindness lies at the very core of the pathology of innocence. Shelby Steele explains this with crucial precision:
“Such knowledge (of ill-gotten advantage) is a powerful pressure when it becomes conscious. And what makes it so powerful is the element of fear that guilt always carries, fear of what the guilty knowledge says about us. Guilt makes us afraid for ourselves and so generates as much self-preoccupation as concern for others. The nature of this preoccupation is always the redemption of innocence, the reestablishment of a good feeling about oneself. In this sense, the fear for the self that is buried in all guilt is a pressure towards selfishness. It can lead us to put our own need for innocence above our concern for the problem that made us feel guilt in the first place. But this fear for the self not only inspires selfishness; it also becomes a pressure to escape the guilt-inducing situation.”
“When selfishness and escapism are at work, we are no longer interested in the source of our guilt and, therefore, no longer concerned with an authentic redemption from it. Now we only want the look of redemption, the gesture of concern that will give us the appearance of innocence and escape from the situation. When selfishness and escapism are at work, we are no longer interested in the source of our guilt and, therefore, no longer concerned with an authentic redemption from it. Now we only want the look of redemption, the gesture of concern that will give us an appearance of innocence.”
The precarious state of racial politics throughout the second half of the 20th century and beyond could be most honestly characterized by the dynamic between white guilt and black power — a collective pursuit of innocence among Blacks and Whites alike. White guilt is black power, as Dr. Steele has observed. Since the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, which marked America’s archetypal fall from racial innocence and the ascendance of Black Americans to the full status of citizenship, public dialogue and social policy around the race issue have been dominated by the cumulative need in both races to reclaim a feeling of innocence. Whites (not all) sought to prove their innocence by adopting social policies that gave them the look of innocence, while failing to examine the deeper developmental problems that afflicted the black community. Blacks (not all) have gone after innocence through identifying exclusively with their victimization and denying individual responsibility for poverty (specifically Black leaders and media pundits), choosing rather to put vital energies towards demanding reparational policies that will hypothetically eradicate the racial gap. It was only after the civil rights movement that the liberal establishment obtained its monopoly over race issues, as no Democratic presidential nominee has received less than 82% of the black vote since 1960 despite the fact that 45% of Black Americans identify as being conservative according to a recent data analysis.
To boot, both White Guilt and Black Power converge on the insistence that racism is the fundamental cause of the racial divide, though on an individual level the data has shown that 60% of Blacks without college degrees say that race hasn’t affected their chances of success in life and that racism is not the root of the racial divide. From a pure social science perspective, it would seem the racial chasm in America today is more rooted in specific cultural pathologies that stem from historical racism rather than implicit or explicit racism at large — readily demonstrated by rates of violence and single parenthood in the inner city, poor financial habits and fiscal health in the black community regardless of educational attainment, and widespread taboos against educational development in black culture (the “acting white” phenomenon). As a further illustration, black immigrants from the West Indies, who are comparably segregated and poverty-stricken, out earn Black American families by 58% and even eclipse the national average income by 15% — lending itself to the premise that culture is a greater factor in the racial wealth gap than racism alone. Moreover, the black poverty rate dropped from 87% to 47% from 1940 to 1960 during the age of segregation and Jim Crow when racism was far more rampant than it is today.
This is not to say racism is not a factor in the racial disparity, only that it can’t logically be considered the largest factor, and whereas racism is near impossible to measure or eradicate, identifying cultural factors that exacerbate the racial divide opens the door to a whole new conversation along with updated policy solutions and other community initiatives that could breeds better outcomes. In reality, until both races are able to loosen their grip on innocence, and in turn loosen their grip on power, such a cultural transformation will remain a lofty pipe dream. In essence, White Guilt is not actual guilt, and Black Power is not actual power. White Guilt is simply the terror of being called a racist, and Black Power is the fear of being held responsible for your life in light of circumstances you yourself did not choose — the flagrant historical injustice that created the ghetto in the first place. Each compulsion acts in pursuit of unearned innocence and racial power, and in the wise words of Mr. Steele, “The power each race seeks in relation to the other is grounded in a double edged ignorance of the self as well as of the other.”
Later in the book Mr Steele argues: “Guilt has always been the lazy man’s way to innocence — I feel guilt because I am innocent, guilt confirms my innocence. It is the compulsion to always think of ourselves as innocent that binds us to self-preoccupied guilt.”
To the crux of this essay: innocence is overrated. Human beings don’t need to be innocent in order to be decent. We all have a certain in-group bias, flowing from our tribal origins, and that bias is built into the very fabric of our body. It would appear to be less a matter of denying our tribal nature in exchange for a phony self-image of impeccable innocence, and more a matter of acknowledging our darker impulses so that we can learn to harness them in service of ourselves, our family, our friends, and the broader human community. Studies have demonstrated how 3 month old infants react more positively to their own race than others, i.e. Ethiopian babies prefer to look at Ethiopian faces and so on. We naturally preference what is more familiar and identify with what we are more able to recognize. The flip side of this is we are inclined to disfavor what is less familiar and develop animosity towards the out-group. This is not a justification of racism or sexism, for at the end of the day we are defined most by our actions in the world and are born with the latent capacity to extend our in-group feeling well beyond the barriers of race, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality. Reality is not politically correct, and we whitewash our tribal makeup at our own peril as well as that of society.
It seems that we have exchanged old school racism for political tribalism, conveyed by the fact that interracial marriage approval soared from 5% to 87% from 1958 to 2010 while the approval rate for inter-party marriage has descended from 5% of Republicans and 4% of Democrats in 1960 to 30% of Republicans and 24% of Democrats in 2014. To make things worse, these in-group tribal tendencies are reflected and enhanced by the pathology of innocence, which requires a guilty “Other” to empower an innocent “Self”. In summary, the need for innocence, to see oneself as an innocent, is the inversion of tribalism rather than the reverse of it, a form of implicit tribalism — perpetuating the idea of an unholy Other that must be relentlessly fought against in order to uphold a feeling of inherent goodness about oneself, whether or not they are truly our enemy. That is what I felt when I was watching “Mississippi Burning”, like I was somehow special, morally righteous, innocent, until I realized swiftly and quite uncomfortably that I had done nothing to earn such pristine innocence. It is all too human to acquiesce to the effortless moral entitlement that grants us immediate power, denying the profound responsibility that ought to accompany such power, but it remains an ethical obligation to struggle against the desire for easy innocence.
So, I’ve laid out the damage — the dark side of innocence. The real question is ‘what can we do’ ? How do we curtail this unconscious impulse that has clearly caused so much harm in the world and may very well continue to do so? Well, Thankfully Mr. Steele has bestowed his readers, once again, with much needed insight into the practical nature of this resistance:
“An important difference between genuine and presumed innocence, I believe, is that the former must be earned through sacrifice while the latter is unearned. And there was much sacrifice in the civil rights movement. The Gandhian principle of nonviolent resistance that gave the movement a spiritual center as well as a method of protest demanded sacrifice, a passive offering of the self in the name of justice. A price was paid in terror and lost life, and from this sacrifice came a hard earned innocence and a credible moral power. Moral power precludes racial power by denouncing race as a means to power.. In the end, black power can claim no higher moral standing than white power.”
“What both Black and White Americans fear are the sacrifices and risks that true racial harmony demands. This fear is the measure of our racial chasm. And though fear always seeks a thousand justifications, none is ever good enough, and the problems we run from only remain to haunt us. It would be right to suggest courage as an antidote to fear, but the glory of the word might only intimidate us into more fear. I prefer the word effort — relentless effort, moral effort. What I like most about this word are its connotations of everydayness, earnestness, and practical sacrifice.”